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December 14, 2001  (Aitutaki, Cook Islands)

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Kia orana, once again.  I'm writing this entry on Aitutaki, a lovely island in the South Pacific and part of the Cook Islands group.  I'm posting two updates in this round, including:

  • A previous update, News: December 10, 2001 (Bellingham to Rarotonga).

  • This page, December 14 (Rarotonga to Aitutaki)

If you haven't read the December 10 update yet, you might want to check it out before reading this page so you'll know how I got here.  Picking up where I left off on my December 10 update, let me tell you a bit about Aitutaki.


Aitutaki:  Just Your Average Tropical Island Paradise

My plans to visit to Aitutaki started about a year ago.  While working last winter at my job in downtown Portland, I'd take out my Lonely Planet book on the Cook Islands each day during lunch and read about Aitutaki (pronounced "eye-two-talky").  As I learned, Aitutaki was a beautiful island with a huge lagoon that was located about 150 miles north of Rarotonga, the major island in the Cook Islands.  After looking at the beautiful pictures in the book and staring outside at the cold, rainy streets below, I decided to visit Aitutaki if and when I ever got to the Cook Islands.  


After spending two days on Rarotonga, (see News: December 10, 2001), I flew out to Aitutaki on a small Air Rarotonga turboprop, got off the plane, and walked into the Aitutaki “air terminal.”  The terminal is actually a large thatched hut, but it definitely sets the tone for this island paradise.  I hopped on a rickety-but-colorful bus and got a ride into "town," hopping off at my lodge, the Vaikoa Units, where I was greeted by the owner, a pleasant woman in her 40's.



Above left:  "Leaving on a jet (well, prop) plane."  Boarding the plane to Aitutaki at the Rarotonga Airport.

Above center:  No movie on THIS flight.

Above right:  150 miles later, I arrived at the Aitutaki "airport."  No metal detectors here... and no need for one.  The landing strip here was built during World War II by the U.S. Marines and is one of the longest in the South Pacific.  


With a few exceptions, most of the lodges on Aitutaki are small, family-run establishments with a lot of “character.”  The Vaikoa Units were definitely on the budget end of the spectrum.  For US$14 a night, I got a two-bed unit with full kitchen, plates, and utensils about 100 feet from one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever seen.  The “character” part includes the bare light bulbs on the ceiling, cool showers, and a room that comes fully equipped with a resident lizard.  But hey, what do you expect for $14 a night? 


Here's some nice island music.  This is Israel Kamakawiwo'ole singing Ka Huila Wai.

Requires a RealPlayerIf problems, see Help.


There are several higher-end accommodations on Aitutaki and next time I visit (and there will definitely be a next time), I might opt for one.  You can even spend several hundred dollars a night for the top-of-the-line Aitutaki Lagoon Resort, though I’ve heard that you don’t get what you pay for there.  On the low end of the spectrum, you can spend about $10 a night in a “kikau,” or enclosed thatched-roof hut right on the beach at Paradise Cove, which sounds intriguing.  By the way, the total cost of my two-day jaunt to Aitutaki was just $180, including round-trip airfare from Rarotonga, meals, transfers, and two nights at the Vaikoa Units.  For information about package deals to Aitutaki, I recommend the travel company I booked with, Jetsave Travel, located on Rarotonga.



Above:  Aitutaki, a beautiful mountainous atoll in the South Pacific.  The main island, with the airfield, is on the top.  The other islands are uninhabited.


After the tremendous buildup and my very high expectations of Rarotonga, I must admit that I was a bit disappointed.  Mostly, I was surprised by how crowded Rarotonga was, with few secluded beach areas.  Still, though, I thought Rarotonga was nice.  


If Rarotonga is nice, then Aitutaki is simply wonderful.  I spent two full days on Aitutaki and couldn’t figure out why more people haven’t discovered this place, because it's an unspoiled tropical paradise.  No, I’m not talking about some overdeveloped place like Maui, Tahiti, Acapulco, or Cancun – you can have those places (and their high prices).  Unlike those places, the locals here are very friendly (friendlier even than on Rarotonga), the scenery is right out of a postcard, the weather is usually ideal, and the food and lodging is very reasonable, about a quarter of what you'd pay in the U.S.  Aitutaki is also quite "colorful" -- pigs seem to outnumber people here by about 2 to 1 and the many roosters here begin crowing each morning precisely at 4:30 a.m.  Good thing I brought my earplugs.


Like I say, it’s not Club Med.  If you want to be pampered, then visit one of the many expensive, exclusive, and snotty places in the South Pacific that cater to the plump and affluent.  But if you want to rub elbows with locals, bask in the sun, and experience genuine South Pacific friendliness, Aitutaki is the place to go.



Above left:  The Vaikoa Units, home for my two nights on Aitutaki.  You drink rainwater that's stored in the white cistern on the left.  Fortunately, this was the wet season.

Above center:  The receptionist at Vaikoa.

Above right:  As this grammatically-challenged sign in my room said, "Please don't used the plate for your mosquito coil and feeding the cat."  After reading this, I decided not to eat off the dinner plates.


Hoofing It Around Aitutaki

After getting unpacked around noon, I walked down to the powdery white beach.  There, I met an Aitutakian named Mary Thatcher and we talked for a half-hour.  Mary told me that she'd returned home to Aitutaki last week for her father's funeral after teaching for the past 14 years in Auckland.  "I don't want to go back to New Zealand," she said.  "It's too crazy there.  My husband lives in Auckland, but I told him that I don't want to leave Aitutaki.  It's peaceful here and this is my home."  From what little I'd seen of Aitutaki so far, I could understand why she wanted to stay here.


After strolling on the brilliant white sand beach, I hiked up to the 400-foot high Maungapu, the highest point on the island.  I was rewarded there with an absolutely stunning view of the huge, turquoise-colored lagoon with the most distant motu (small island) visible about 10 miles away.   It was pretty warm, probably around 80 degrees, and quite humid, but the constant trade winds were refreshing and made it comfortable.  



Above left:  Outrigger canoes on the deserted beach at Vaikoa.

Above center:  The best view on Aitutaki is from Maungapu, the highest peak on the island.  From here, you have a spectacular 360-degree view of the island.

Above right:  Part of the huge lagoon at Aitutaki, from Maungapu.  Back in the late 1940s, flying boats crossing the Pacific landed in this lagoon and refueled.  While the planes refueled, passengers often went swimming in the lagoon.


While walking down Maungapu and through a forest of mango trees, I stopped and picked up several mangoes that I was going to save for breakfast the next morning.  How many places in the U.S., I wondered, can you hike and pick up the next day’s breakfast?  One warning though:  beware of ripe mangoes.  As I was walking along the trail, I heard a loud "splat," turned around, and saw a mango splattered on the ground right behind me.  At first I thought someone had thrown it at me, but then I realized that it had fallen from a tree.  I very narrowly missed getting a mango shampoo -- something you'd pay $30 for in the U.S.


I spent the next four hours walking completely around Aitutaki, about 12 miles altogether, strolling through coconut groves, small villages, and scattered settlements where the children waved shyly as I passed by.  They were curious, I’m sure, about this foreigner with the camera and daypack.  Judging from the reaction of the Aitutakians that I passed by, it was obvious that not many white tourists visited the far side of the island.  During my walk that afternoon, I saw hundreds of Aitutakians and not one Caucasian, many of whom I'm sure were holed up in their $200-a-night bungalows.  While walking down the dirt lane with scattered farms on either side, I heard a young voice shout, "Hello, hello..." and I turned around to see a young boy shouting and waving to me, so I smiled, waved and yelled back, "Hello!"


Late that afternoon, I strolled into the town of Arutanga, the largest settlement on the island.  I stopped at a nearly-deserted open-air cafe overlooking the wharf, ordered some fish and chips for dinner, sat down at a picnic table there, and listened to the Jimmy Buffett music playing on the boombox while watching the sun set beyond the reef.  Within a few minutes, a couple sitting nearby invited me to join them for dinner -- typical behavior in the Cook Islands.  I spent the next few hours getting to know Wayne, a retired Caucasian engineer from Auckland and Chloe, his Cook Islander wife.  It was a very pleasant evening spent with a very pleasant couple, and I walked back to Vaikoa by moonlight.



Above left:  Flowers on Aitutaki...

Above center:  ...and another palm tree.

Above right:  Why did the chicken cross the road?  Apparently, to eat a squished mango.



Above left:  There's lots of fruit all over the island, like these bananas.  I picked up a bunch of mangoes and ate them for breakfast the next morning.

Above center:  This is a typical house on Aitutaki, most of which are from the "Neo-Concrete Block" period.  The people on Aitutaki aren't very affluent, but they take great pride in their yards and in the few possessions they have.

Above right:  As I walked around the island that afternoon, I kept thinking of the "Lime in the Coconut" song.  You need to be careful, though, not to linger under the coconut trees!



Above left:  On my hike around the island.

Above center:  The Aitutaki welcoming committee.

Above right:  Arutanga, the main town on Aitutaki, is a sleepy South Pacific seaport.



Above left:  Back at Vaikoa that evening downloading photos into my laptop (right).  The rooms here are small but they cost only $14 a night...

Above right:  ...and come with complimentary lizards.


The Lagoon Cruise

The next morning, I decided to take a cruise on Aitutaki's lagoon.  As I learned, a lagoon cruise is a real "must" for any visitor to Aitutaki, and so far it's been the highlight of my trip to the Cook Islands.  Several boats go out to the lagoon each day but I opted for the "party boat," a 55-foot long pontoon craft called the Titi-ai-tonga (no jokes, please).  It's a 6-hour trip and it's a real blast.  


For about $20, you get a transfer to and from your lodging, the 6-hour boat ride, a BBQ buffet lunch onboard, stops on a couple of motu (small deserted islands), and free use of their snorkeling gear.  The snorkeling among the coral reefs is pretty interesting and I spotted several huge clams, each over three feet across.  I hadn't been snorkeling in six years since my last visit to the Florida Keys and I had a really good time.  During my swim, something bit my on the foot which scared the crap out of me, but then I realized it was just a tiny, black fish apparently defending his turf.


Interestingly enough, after several hours on the boat no one had collected my fare.  I could've done the whole ride for free but wouldn't have felt good about it, so I asked a crewman who I should pay.  "Oh, you can pay me," he said casually.  As I discovered, this laid-back attitude is typical in the Cook Islands.  This definitely wasn't America.



Above left:  Getting ready to ride on the Titi-ai-tonga.

Above center:  Heading out into the Aitutaki lagoon.  Yes, the water really is that color.

Above right:  One of the deserted motus (small islands) that surround the lagoon.  This one, known as Rapota Motu, used to be a leper colony.



Above left:  Back on board the Titi for a barbeque lunch after an hour of snorkeling.

Above center:  Heading towards One-Foot Island after lunch.

Above right:  We spent a couple of hours on One-Foot Island (another deserted motu), did some more snorkeling and kicked back.



Left:  Back on board, returning to Aitutaki after a hard day.


Say what?

We had a pretty good group on the lagoon cruise -- mostly Caucasian couples and a large group of Islander kids who were being dropped off on One-Foot Island for an overnight camping trip.  A young girl, about seven years old, and I struck up a friendship on the way out and she taught me several Maori words, all of which I've since forgotten.  It was interesting to hear the kids talk, though, because they intermix English with Maori when speaking to each other.  The official language of the Cook Islands is Maori but all the locals also speak English with an accent that lies somewhere between Polynesian and New Zealander (though an independent country, the Cook Islands have strong ties to New Zealand). 


This being my first visit to the Cook Islands, I've had a little trouble picking up the accent, but I'm learning that New Zealanders (and Cook Islanders) use a lot of long vowels.  For instance,

  • "Best" is pronounced "beast" (as in "the beast burgers on the island").

  • "Check" is "cheek" (as in "traveler's cheeks"), and

  • "Progress" isn't "prawgress," but "pro-gress" with a long "o."

I'm doing my "beast" with it and am making good "pro-gress."  But I sometimes stare dumbfounded when Islanders ask me a question.  Most Islanders seem to understand ME, though -- thanks no doubt to Hollywood and the influence of American music.  Yes, people here are quite familiar with John Wayne and Britney Spears -- for better or worse.


My Impressions of the Cook Islands

I've been in the Cook Islands for five days now, visiting the two most popular islands here, Rarotonga and Aitutaki.  Before I leave, I want to pass along my impressions.  


The Cook Islands are a great place to visit.  For the most part, Islanders are friendly and the general attitude is pretty relaxed, not one of trying to separate tourists from their money, as it is in more popular destinations.  I was a little surprised at how few tourists there were here.  The area, however, is more densely settled than I had thought and there aren't many secluded beaches, especially on Rarotonga.  People here live in houses, not in grass huts, and have most of the conveniences of modern-day life, including television, cars or scooters, and washing machines.  The strong trade winds, which blow constantly from the east, take a little getting used to but in general, the climate is very pleasant and the lack of insects is another plus.  


Regarding accommodations, there are several small family-run lodges here, many of which seemed to be a better deal than the larger and more expensive resorts.  I enjoyed my stay at Vara's and will probably stay there again next time I visit Rarotonga.  With the weak New Zealand dollar (the official currency of the Cook Islands), lodging as well as food was a real bargain.  Lodging ranges from about $8 a night for a bed in a not-so-great hostel up to over $200 a night for a top-end bungalow on Muri Beach, though most rooms range from $20 to $50 a night (all in U.S. dollars not New Zealand dollars, which are currently worth only about 40 cents U.S.).  From what I’ve seen, the more you spend, the incrementally less you get, with the best overall values being in the $30 to $50 a night range.


I'm definitely coming back to the Cook Islands.  I think next time, though, I'll spend more time on Aitutaki than on Rarotonga, and I want to explore the smaller and even lesser known outer islands, as well.  Rarotonga is nice but from what I've seen and read, you really haven't seen the Cook Islands until you get to the outer islands.




Next News

December 21, 2001  (Auckland, New Zealand)



Previous News

December 10, 2001  (Rarotonga, Cook Islands)

December 3, 2001 -- Part 2  (Bellingham, Washington)

December 3, 2001 -- Part 1  (Bellingham, Washington)

October 18, 2001 -- Part 3  (Bismarck, North Dakota)

October 18, 2001 -- Part 2  (Bismarck, North Dakota)

October 18, 2001 -- Part 1  (Bismarck, North Dakota)

October 6, 2001  (Fort Lincoln State Park, North Dakota)

September 30, 2001 -- Part 2  (Bismarck, North Dakota)

September 30, 2001 -- Part 1  (Bismarck, North Dakota)

September 15, 2001  (Bismarck, North Dakota)

August 30, 2001  (Webster, South Dakota)

August 18, 2001  (Watertown South Dakota)

August 17, 2001  (Walnut Grove, Minnesota)

August 14, 2001  (Minneapolis, Minnesota)

August 10, 2001 (Battle Creek, Michigan)

August 8, 2001  (12 Days in Syracuse: Part 2)

August 8, 2001  (12 Days in Syracuse: Part 1)

August 6, 2001  (Manlius, New York)

July 23, 2001  (Middleton, Massachusetts)

July 22, 2001  (Boston, Massachusetts)

July 20, 2001  (Pomfret, Connecticut)

July 18, 2001  (Denton, Maryland)

July 16, 2001  (Cumberland, Virginia)

July 14, 2001  (Roanoke, Virginia)

July 9, 2001  (Sevierville, Tennessee)

July 8, 2001  (Fontana Lake, North Carolina)

July 5, 2001  (Manchester, Tennessee)

June 30, 2001  (Hohenwald, Tennessee)

June 29, 2001  (Corinth, Mississippi)

June 27, 2001  (Natchez, Mississippi)

June 24, 2001  (Austin, Texas)

June 20, 2001  (Canyon de Chelly, Arizona)

June 18, 2001  (Clay Canyon, Utah)

June 15, 2001 -- Part 2  (Zion Nat'l Park, Utah)

June 15, 2001 -- Part 1  (Zion Nat'l Park, Utah)

June 14, 2001  (San Diego, California)

June 11, 2001  (San Jose, California)

June 2, 2001  (Bellingham, Washington)

May 19, 2001  (Hillsboro, Oregon)

April 30, 2001  (Hillsboro, Oregon)

April 19, 2001  (Bellingham, Washington)

April 5, 2001  (Bellingham, Washington)  


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