Manihiki, known also as Island of the Pearls, is a tiny paradise on the fringes of the Cook Islands, located more than 1100 kilometres from Rarotonga and an international airport. It’s the birthplace of all Cook Islands black pearls sold in markets on Rarotonga and overseas.
Several other islands used to produce pearls, but Manihiki is the only producer remaining. The story begins in the 50s, when a local diver and English scientist discovered how to use local foliage to attract juvenile oysters; it continues in the seventies, when an Australian businessman created a profitable business culturing pearls on Manihiki. In the 1980s, the jewel catapulted the atoll into the global economy; at its peak, the industry was earning an annual $18 million.
Shaped like a shark’s jawbone, the island – all four square kilometres of it – surrounds a wide, expansive lagoon. Travelling across it, from one village to the other, takes about 15 minutes in a powered boat. Dotted across the lagoon are pearl farms – shacks that appear to be floating, built on lonely coral heads – and hanging beneath them are lines of oysters containing jewels that become necklaces worth thousands of dollars.
About 250 people live on Manihiki in the villages of Tauhunu and Tukao. There are a few shops open twice a year, when the cargo ship comes, but otherwise families live on fish and coconuts and whatever’s in the deep freezer. No one goes hungry.
Few tourists visit Manihiki, so if you make the journey you’ll be treated royally. People will wave, introduce themselves, meet you at the crushed-coral runway. Plane day is a fortnightly affair, one that people from both villages attend to receive their cargo, mail, and passengers.
You can rent a bungalow with a deck jutting into the lagoon, its windows framed by coconut trees and ocean views. You can learn about how pearls are farmed; you can fish, explore, read, listen to the locals’ stories, and taste some incredible seafood and coconut-based dishes. You can absorb the natural beauty – the teal lagoon, coconut trees sprouting from every inch of unoccupied land, pigs and chickens dawdling across roads of white sand and coral, birds gliding through seamless blue skies. Some homes have thatched roofs and all have neat, tidy yards. The people are quintessential Polynesians, kind and generous and lovely to their core.
On Manihiki, you can leave the noise and stress and clock-governed world behind. The rising and setting of the moon and the sun, the changing of the tides and weather – these, not diaries and iPhones, are the things that dictate the pace of life. Manihiki is a tonic for the soul.