Aitutaki: the South Pacific as you want it to be
The Cook Islands' crown jewel is the lagoon of Aitutaki
What’s your mental picture of the South Pacific?
Mine was a lagoon. Clear, blue, waveless; a slow drift across its surface on a canoe, a cold beer or a cocktail waiting at the shore, serenaded by a couple of cheerful Polynesians with ukuleles.
Mental pictures are always wrong, aren’t they? Always a disappointment. But not in Aitutaki in the Cook Islands. Here, my mental picture is alive and well.
Aitutaki might be the world’s finest lagoon. There is just no way it could look any better than it does. Here is what I can see from the bar at the front of my hotel: a thin ribbon of soft sand meets lapping turquoise water, with a modest tide but barely any discernable waves, as if rolling up the beach would be too much effort. The water deepens to about head height off our shore but then rises again to a broad flat sandbank a hundred metres across, and on it, I can see people walking, apparently in the middle of the lagoon, a third of the way to the forested land on the other side.
They shimmer, these distant walking people, and they seem a mirage, as if strolling on the surface, unhurried and peaceful. It looks serene out there so I take to the water in a kayak, skirting the sandbanks and aiming for deeper blue, amid an infinite range of shades that vary with the water depth. The handful of humans in view, whether on lounges or drinking in bar shacks or walking on sandbanks, have little to say – why would you ruin all this by talking? – so the only sound is the oar dipping in to the water. Even that seems extravagant so I drift for a while, lie back in the kayak and look at the sun and the clear sky.
I make a circuit of one of the islands, looking at the palms along the shores, above whose height no structures are allowed to rise here by law, and glance out at the breakers beyond the reef that encircles and protect the islands that make up Aitutaki and flank that lustrous lagoon. Then it is time to head back. There’s a special on mai tais, and swordfish is the dish of the day at the Boatyard restaurant this evening. Oh, and the locals with the ukuleles? They’ll be there, and the harmonies will be close and sweet, if a little repetitive (if there’s a fourth chord on the ukulele nobody round here seems to have discovered it yet).
You need to make a bit of effort to get to a place like this, which is part of the reason it hasn’t yet been ruined. The Cook Islands itself is among the more accessible Pacific island nations, with non-stops from Auckland (four hours), Sydney (six) and Los Angeles (about 10), but that only gets you to the main island of Rarotonga. From there, you need to take another flight, a propeller-driven Saab on local Air Rarotonga, for 40 minutes north to Aitutaki, where the airstrip is about a third of the length of the entire island. But oh, it’s worth it.
The other reason it hasn’t been ruined is something distinct to the Cook Islands. People tend to own their own land here, with it passing from family to family, which is one reason it is so common to see elaborate tombstones, sometimes pretty much mausoleums, in people’s front gardens, with relatives buried right there on the family land. The government, by contrast, doesn’t own much land at all, and it is perhaps for this reason that major hotel chains have not sprung up either on Aitutaki or on the main island of Rarotonga. (The corpse of one attempt, the Sheraton, which was half built and then abandoned amid a sea of controversy in the 1990s, has become an offbeat travel destination in its own right, sometimes visited on quad bike tours. Read more about that extraordinary story and the supposed curse around the whole thing here.)
One local tells me that his family owns one of the valleys on Rarotonga, leading up into the hills towards the island’s distinctive rock formation, The Needle. They have often been offered money by developers, but have felt a sense of duty to keep the land open for anyone to use, and have thus far refused. It is said that at least six major hotel chains, among them the Hilton, have taken a look at Rarotonga and specifically the old Sheraton site, and have ended up abandoning plans to develop it, chiefly over land use and access rights.
In fairness, this is a double-edged sword. Accommodation on the Cook Islands is expensive and not that great. On Rarotonga, I stayed at the Pacific Resort, a perfectly decent hotel in the Muri Beach area, where a series of offshore islands with reef around them creates another fine lagoon. But the rack rate for a family room there – just one room, mind – is NZ$1,000 a night. In practice most people going through agencies will pay much less, but that warrants a lot more than “perfectly decent.”
In Aitutaki, things are still more rustic: we stay at the Aitutaki Village, a set of a dozen wooden bungalows, which go for about NZ$370 per night and sleep two (meaning you need two of them in order to sleep a family). With a look of 1970s interiors – and not in a retro way – and numerous broken fittings, it would ordinarily be a scandal to pay that much for this accommodation.
But it’s not the room you’re paying for. It’s the 20-foot walk to that lagoon and beach. And it’s the friendliness of local staff, one of whom twice takes off on a motorbike to the other side of the island to retrieve a swimming costume my wife had left in Rarotonga, after arranging for it to be flown up on the scheduled flight.
A few more quirks about the Cook Islands. They are as close as it is possible to be to being a nation without being considered one by the United Nations. The Cook Islands is, to be precise, a self-governing state in free association with New Zealand: it has a Cook Islands dollar but it’s mainly the New Zealand dollar that is used, New Zealand handles its external affairs, and Cook Island nationals are also New Zealand citizens. For these reasons, the UN doesn’t consider it a truly independent member state. But try telling that to any Cook Islander during the country’s colourful independence day celebrations each August.
Also, while you picture beaches and lagoons, Rarotonga is surprisingly rugged. There is a track from north to south called the Cross Island Trek which takes you for four hours over the hills, in and out of streams, slipping and sliding in the mud before emerging back on the country’s circular main road, where two bus services operate: clockwise and anticlockwise. (The bus has a timetable. It is a work of rare fiction. One visitor tells us that the last time they visited it wasn’t running at all because the entire island had run out of diesel.)
It's striking how religion, specifically Christianity, holds strong sway here. There are churches everywhere, generally by far the finest buildings in the communities they serve, and there are signs all over Aitutaki exhorting people to resist inter-island flights being permitted on Sundays.
In fact, the churches are listed as a tourist attraction in their own right: often made of limestone or coral, they fill with people, hats and song on Sundays, and appear to welcome outsiders.
On our last day we do the signature Cook Islands thing and take a tour of the lagoon. There are several operators – ours is called Bishop’s Cruises – but they follow a similar pattern. They drop in on Motu Akaiami, an island that once served as a flying boat stopover during the days when the island was part of the luxurious Coral Route across the Pacific. They take you snorkeling in the south of the atoll, where you can see giant clams on the seafloor, and swim with huge trevally fish, which swim up to you with apparently scant understanding of how good they taste when barbecued.
They take you to the Heaven Sand Bar, from which you can walk across a shallow channel to Onefoot Island, where a post office continues to be maintained despite the fact that the island is uninhabited overnight, and where you can have your passport stamped. Local guides barbecue tasty wahoo fish and you take more photos of palm trees and azure skies over a turquoise lagoon than you know what to do with.
And then your boat zips you back to the main island, and you know sooner or later you’re going to have to leave, but when you do, you’ll be glad that a place like this exists at all, and that you’ve seen it. As Rogers and Hammerstein had it in South Pacific: “If you try, you’ll find me where the sky meets the sea. Here am I, your special island! Come to me, come to me!”