Cook Islands: Aitutaki
When I was planning this trip back in March, I had a look on Google Maps and found Aitutaki, an island about 45 minutes by plane north of Rarotonga. The thing that immediately arrested my attention was the incredible turquoise of its lagoon, as seen from space. I knew that I should definitely look into going there when I arrived in Rarotonga:
In my first couple of days wrapping my head around Rarotonga itself, I met Jill and Mata, over at the Mooring Fish Cafe. They told me that Rarotongans go to Aitutaki when they want to go somewhere even more beautiful. When I heard that, I knew I had to go and look for myself.
Flights to Aitutaki with Air Rarotonga are obscenely priced. I have to confess that, despite all my righteous thinking that I wouldn’t obsess over money and let it get in the way of my once-in-a-lifetime adventure, I did in this case. A single flight to Aitutaki from Rarotonga is NZ$264! That’s £124 or US$197! Locals don’t get a discount either, and so I have no idea how they afford to travel there. I was able to get some heavily discounted tickets by buying last minute and picking unpopular times.
Jose, with whom I’d spent time since my arrival in Rarotonga, had already decided to go for a few days and had cleverly booked two nights on the West side of the island, and another two nights on the East side of the island, so that he could appreciate the sunset and the dawn. Jose also kindly allowed me to freeload his spare bed in both hotels, which I did my best to make up for with beer. A plan was hatched, and we agreed that I would join him for one night on the West coast and one night on the East coast, leaving him the nights either side for his own fun.
Karsten gave me a lift to the airport and I boarded a Saab 340 propeller plane to Aitutaki. I don’t recall being on a prop plane before, so I noticed that the engines were very loud, as well as pretty fun to photograph from the passenger window. After 45 minutes, we started our descent over the lagoon and onto the short runway. The airport had been built by US engineers during the Pacific War for use as a rearguard base should the unthinkable happen and a retreat from the advancing Japanese prove necessary. History records that the war “developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage”, and so the airbase was turned over to civilian use once the US troops pulled out.
All I had was the name of Jose’s hotel, and since Aitutaki’s airport was tiny there weren’t any available taxis available at the airport. I asked someone the right direction to walk in and slung my backpack over my shoulder, putting shoe to road. I walked around the runway and past a few trees bearing objections to the introduction of flights on a Sunday (the Cook Islands are quite religious and therefore many residents oppose such things). After a time, a car pulled up alongside me and offered me a lift into town.
Jose was staying at a place called Ranginui’s Retreat, on the west side of the island and looking into the lagoon. The place consisted of eight self-catered beachfront bungalows. There were a lot of bugs already and it wasn’t even close to sunset, and I got bitten walking from the car to the front desk. My advice would be to pack plenty of DEET insect repellent if you visit Aitutaki.
I found Jose busy doing nothing on his porch, whilst looking after a cat that had decided to adopt him. At first I thought it was his natural charm that had attracted the cat, before I noticed that Jose had filled a dustpan with milk. The cat was patiently waiting for his next drink.
Looking out over the water, I could see why Jose was so busy doing nothing:
Across the water was another island, called Akitua, with a much posher hotel. Essentially it was exactly the same accommodation as Ranginui’s Retreat, but just a bit tidier and about ten times the price. Jose and I were able to wade through the shallows between our part of the island and this island. We soaked in the warm water of Aitutaki’s beautiful turquoise lagoon and soaked in the view.
Dinner that evening was at a beach restaurant down the road from the bungalow. We chowed down on more Ike Mata and watched the cultural show that was included with the dinner. In the interests of science and journalism, I’m delighted to share one of the highlights here:
After the show, we headed back to the bungalow. We were supposed to get up early to go on a lagoon cruise, but the sky was so clear that we spent a good few hours stargazing and taking photos of the incredible night sky. I’ll share some of those photos later on.
The next morning, we joined a day cruise around Aitutaki Lagoon organised by a company called Teking Lagoon Cruises. The schedule consisted of a day of cruising around the various Motus (Islets), and was led by the self-styled “King of the Lagoon”, Teking himself. His schtick was to flirt with all the ladies, being overly chivalrous, and to be rude and demeaning to the men, all whilst referring to himself in the third person. It was funny for a time, about five minutes to be precise, but it was easy enough to ignore him and focus on the awesome scenery instead.
We all piled onto a small speedboat and cruised off into the lagoon. The lagoon is very shallow in places, and so a boat with a low draught is essential. If you’re ever planning to do this, it’s well worth knowing that the floor of the boat can flood a fair bit, so bring nothing you’re worried about getting wet or bring a waterproof bag – oh and lots of sunscreen!
A second boat followed our boat around the lagoon. A TV crew was shooting a documentary about Aitutaki, so I’m sure I ended up on Australian TV:
Our first stop was some reefs in the middle of the lagoon to get a bit of snorkelling in. The water was as clear as a swimming pool and the fish were abundant:
Cruising around the lagoon was very leisurely. We would sail around, snorkel and go for walks along sandbanks to visit islands. It felt liberating to simply hop off a boat and walk in the long shallows to get to the next island.
Some of the snorkel sites were full of Giant Clams, which can grow to over a meter across and live for as long as a hundred years!
After some more cruising and snorkeling, we stopped for an awesome lunch of fresh tuna and other delicious island edibles, including papaya, passion fruit, cassava and star fruit.
After lunch, we had a hermit crab race, which I’ll blog about later on. A couple on the trip got engaged (on a Motu called “Honeymoon Island” no less!) and the camera crew went wild. We were granted some time to kill on the island whilst the couple re-enacted the event for the cameras.
Probably the most famous Motu in the lagoon is “One Foot Island”. Legend has it that a fisherman and his young son were fishing here against the edict of the King. They ran from an approaching war party, and the fisherman told his sun to hide up a tree on the island. He made sure to step over his son’s tracks so that the warriors would think he was alone. The son escaped after coming down the tree that night and a legend was born. The island was as beautiful as any of the other islands, and even had its own post office where you could have your passport stamped. We had a little time to walk around the island, and I made a new friend:
It was getting late in the afternoon and we’d had a full day cruising the lagoon. We headed back to the pier and from there to the Paradise Cove hotel for dinner. This was to be Jose’s place for the next two nights and was on the West side of Aitutaki for cracking sunsets. We had a bungalow on stilts with a pretty cracking view over the beach and got chatting to the couple in the next bungalow, who passed beers over the balcony to us. More island time ensued over drinks before we headed to dinner. This island paradise was not without its perils, however:
The following day, Jose and I chilled out on the beach. Although there were plenty of tourists about, I was still able to find a little solitude, even if I did ignore the warning signs.
Sadly, the time came to pack my bags and leave the island. The upside was that I wasn’t going home just yet – I still had a few more days in Rarotonga. I got to the airport in good time and waited for my flight to be made ready. A few minutes before boarding started, this chap came out to the airport gate and sang us farewell:
Karsten picked me up from Rarotonga’s airport in his little lime green Smart car. He and his wife had a delicious dinner of grilled swordfish waiting for me, and we washed it all down with some local beer and served it up with great conversation into the wee small hours.