My cousin is spellbound, his eyes fixed on the turquoise lagoon spreading from beneath our little boat, his mouth open in awe.
“This is unreal,” he says, with intentional stress on the final syllable. He saw this lagoon once, when he was a child, but hazy memories left him ill prepared for its electrifying beauty.
This lagoon has a reputation for being one of the loveliest in the Pacific. Even on off days, during rare periods of overcast skies, the water retains a strikingly vivid colour. “No artist’s palette could ever conceive of a more perfect, more luminescent turquoise than that of the lagoon of Aitutaki, arguably the most beautiful in the world,” Steve Davey writes in his travel anthology entitled Unforgettable Places to See Before You Die.
The lagoon covers nearly 70 sq kilometres of area, and in its centre sits Aitutaki – an atoll except for one volcanic mountain, rumoured in legend to have been stolen from Rarotonga by Aitutaki’s early warriors. A coral reef encircles the entire Aitutaki lagoon, keeping the ocean at bay and protecting the main island and 15 other motu, the local word denoting tiny, flat, uninhabited atolls.
Without a doubt, Aitutaki’s sprawling lagoon is its foremost tourist attraction. Big, blue, warm, and full of harmless life, the lagoon is not only disarmingly beautiful, but it’s also an invaluable asset for the Aitutaki community. Local people creatively maximise its tourism potential.
Signs near the airport advertise day tours, fishing trips, kiteboarding lessons, snorkeling charters, and bonefishing guides. There are SCUBA dives, spearfishing excursions, wakeboarding trips, boats for hire, water taxis.
For a waterbaby, Aitutaki is the prototypical playground. Trust me on this one. Through a SCUBA mask I ogled at fleshy, blue-lipped clams as big as truck tyres. I went wakeboarding behind a speedboat; lunched on a buffet of fresh fish and fruit aboard a double-hulled canoe; paddled in a six-man canoe against the backdrop of a setting sun; and glided across the lagoon’s placid surface on a stand-up paddleboard.
I watched kitesurfers hit ramps in high winds and anglers creep up on the elusive bonefish. Many an afternoon I spent splayed out on a sandbar, half-submerged in water clear as glass and warm as a bath. I had my passport stamped at One Foot Island and spent hours reading on islands inhabited by palm trees and little else. I never tired of playing in this vast marine park.
There are, of course, things to do on Aitutaki itself – cultural tours, evening crab hunts by the light of a bright moon, Sunday morning services at the Cook Islands Christian Church, farmers’ markets, dance and drum shows.
For bookworms, there are hammocks strung between two coconut trees. For the indulgent traveler, there are seaside bars serving cocktails, fresh fish, and breadfruit chips. For the adventurous, there are undeveloped atolls, home to a cluster of palms and brilliantly white sand, free of footprints, fringed by the lagoon.
This is the stuff of fantasy, the picture of a holiday destination conjured by anyone who’s been overwhelmed by traffic or paperwork or monotony, and dreamt of escape.
The landscape hearkens back to a Polynesia of old. This is the Rarotonga of yesteryear – some roads are charmingly unpaved, the airport is an airy, one-room building, and signs warn us to SLOW DOWN as we proceed at less than 20 km/hr. People wave, cheerful and genuine, happily welcoming us onto their island. My cousin wonders aloud whether they might be waving at someone else, or because we’re driving a car that belongs to our hotel manager. “Or are they really just that friendly?” he muses. Then, he answers his own question: “Wow.”
This air is fragrant and the sky, seamlessly blue. Everywhere there is greenery, punctuated only by the vivid pinks, reds, and purples of frangipani, hibiscus, and bougainvillea. The main road is lined with homes, their front yards immaculately raked and planted with flowering trees that cast shade onto well-maintained, white graves. As in Rarotonga, the local people bury their relatives in the yard – a solution to the problem of limited cemetery land, and a means of keeping ancestral spirits near.
Local homes are unpretentious, with slatted louvres for windows and pareu fabric standing in for doors. Across verandahs, sheets and clothing line-dry in the gentle breeze. There are a substantial number of empty homes scattered about. For decades the Cook Islands has grappled with the challenge of mass outward migration, but Aitutaki’s depopulation in particular accelerated in 2010, when Cyclone Pat devastated scores of homes.
Now, nature has grown around those concrete building frames whose occupants have departed. Green vines coil themselves around deserted manmade structures, as if to reclaim them.
As we drive, the paved road ends and a sandy path begins, leading into a thick jungle that tumbles into an ever-present lagoon. Green presses against our car – the large leaves of purau (yellow hibiscus) trees and the wispy tentacles of toa (ironwood). Banana trees spring like fountains from the earth.
It is increasingly common to meet travelers who reserve most of their time in the Cook Islands for Aitutaki, and use Rarotonga as a point of transit rather than a destination. One couple I met on Aitutaki was visiting for 13 nights. “We were a bit nervous that would be too many nights and we’d run out of things to do,” said an English fellow named Richard, who was preparing to enjoy the final day of his honeymoon. “But we haven’t been bored. Not at all, have we?” he said, turning to his bride, who offered an enthusiastic shake of her head.
Next to Rarotonga, Aitutaki is the most visited of the Cook Islands. But while it lags behind Rarotonga in terms of tourist numbers, its international profile has always rivaled the capital island’s. Indeed, Aitutaki has a unique modern history.
For one thing, it was the first of the Cook Islands exposed to Christianity. Willingly, the people of Aitutaki embraced the gospel introduced in 1821 by John Williams of the London Missionary Society (LMS), who brought with him two Tahitian converts named Papeiha and Vahapata. They remained on Aitutaki even after their mentor departed, and within the decade, Aitutaki and the other Cook Islands had adopted the LMS religion.
Then, a century later, the island was again a point of intersection between the Cook Islands and the rest of the world. During World War II, American soldiers chose Aitutaki to be a South Pacific outpost, as it was strategically located between the United States and Japan. They arrived in droves, and here they built the Cook Islands’ first airstrip and international airport. American soldiers met local women and fathered local children, and today, the G.I. legacy lives on.
Then, in the 1950s, Aitutaki became the Cook Islands’ portal to the tourist community when aviation company Tasman Empire Airways Limited (TEAL) designated one of the motu in its lagoon – Akaiami – a re-fuelling stop on The Coral Route.
Solent flying boats came from Auckland via Fiji, Samoa, and Tahiti. Wealthy, glamorous Kiwis – people who could afford the luxury of flying – arrived on Aitutaki, where they would swim and relax as the aircraft topped up its fuel tanks on Akaiami. That decade was the advent of the South Pacific – known then as the South Seas – as a tourism destination, and Aitutaki was swept into its embrace.
Today, the Coral Route is no more, but Aitutaki still performs regularly under the international spotlight. Well-known productions like British series Shipwrecked, American game show Survivor, and Canadian program Survivorman have all filmed episodes on its deserted motu. Tony Wheeler, who co-founded the travel guide Lonely Planet, called Aitutaki the world’s most beautiful island. British news agency Reuters even named it one of the 10 best places to survive a breakup or divorce.
As Aitutaki’s profile expands, its tourism industry becomes more fully developed – not as an offshoot of Rarotonga’s, but in its own right. The main island has several resorts, one of them five-star, and the only over-water bungalows in the Cook Islands. Customer service is surprisingly attentive.
This, I think to myself, is paradise found – the kind of place that will sear itself into my memory, work its way into my dinnertime conversations for years to come, and beckon me back for another visit.