They had no idea just how special – and how long! – it would be.
"Our highlight was definitely having a candlelit dinner in Aitutaki, to celebrate reuniting after three months apart," said Gardner, 20.
"Our lowlight was heading to the airport on March 27 to be told we would not be allowed to board, and having no idea where would be staying for the foreseeable future."
Tomorrow, they hope, they may finally be able to fly out on a long and convoluted route home to London.
New Zealand today opened a transit window for foreign nationals to pass through Auckland International Airport – as long as they're not on the ground in Auckland more than 10 hours.
If Paton and Gardner play their cards right, this week's one flight from Rarotonga will land late in the afternoon in Auckland; seven hours later, they'll board another Air New Zealand flight to Los Angeles.
There aren't many planes left in the air on the international routes, but tomorrow, all the flights come together serendipitously.
"When we first realised that we would not be leaving," said Paton, 25, "we asked Andrew Logan, the owner of Little Oneroa in Muri Beach, if we could reside here while we were in talks with Immigration. He was extremely accommodating and made sure we felt comfortable.
"We next moved to Edgewater Resort, who offered us discounted rates which allowed us to find somewhere to live for our remaining time. They were very friendly, and we appreciate the room they provided for us.
"We hope that when we leave it will be a smooth ride back to the UK, despite having a 25-hour connecting flight in LA," he said.
"We are staying positive that we will get back with no worries.
"We have seen that the UK is in lockdown so we are preparing to live in our houses for a number of weeks."
Tonight, the Cook Islands Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Immigration called on foreign visitors still in Cook Islands with confirmed bookings on the Air New Zealand Rarotonga-Auckland flights tomorrow and next Friday to make themselves known to the Ministry urgently.
New Zealand recently announced the opening of a transit window that will allow foreign nationals in the Cook Islands to transit New Zealand, as long as the connecting onward flight is within 10 hours of the flight from Rarotonga landing in New Zealand.
Travellers must remain air-side, the Ministry said.
This transit window will remain in place until at least the end of April – but given the significant reduction in flight frequency from Cook Islands, it was important travellers ensured their onward flights met the transit requirements.
“The Ministry welcomes this most recent announcement by New Zealand to provide an opening for foreign visitors stranded in the Cook Islands to return home, however the 10 hour transit window will require elevated levels of coordination between the traveller, Air New Zealand and connecting airline carriers to ensure travellers are able to satisfy the narrow transit window requirements for Auckland,” said Foreign Secretary Tepaeru Herrmann.
For the past three weeks, she said, the Ministry had worked closely with foreign visitors and multiple domestic and international partners including airlines, agencies and foreign governments to support return travel to home destination for just under 200 foreign visitors whose return travel plans had been up-ended by widespread international border closures, even barring transit.
Most of those still stranded in Cook Islands were from Europe and the Americas, she said.
“To ensure the check-in process at Rarotonga Airport goes as smoothly as possible, we strongly encourage our visitors to contact their travel agents and/or Air New Zealand directly to seek initial advice on what connections may be available."
Despite all that has happened in the last couple weeks, Ryan Paton and Katie Gardner said they had thoroughly enjoyed their trip to Cook Islands, especially to Aitutaki Lagoon Resort where the staff were "incredible and 10/10 customer service".
"We have amazing memories of Cook Islands," said Paton, "and we are so glad that we had the opportunity to visit this amazing country."