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Aitutaki:  Just Your Average Tropical Island Paradise

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.  If you haven't read my December 10 update yet from Rarotonga, 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 that update, let me tell you a bit about Aitutaki.


Above:  Boarding the plane to Aitutaki at the Rarotonga Airport.

My plans to visit to Aitutaki started about a year ago.  While I was working last winter at my office job in downtown Portland, I took out my Lonely Planet book on the Cook Islands every day during lunch and read about Aitutaki (pronounced "eye-two-talky").  The book described Aitutaki as a beautiful island with a huge lagoon, located about 150 miles north of Rarotonga, the main 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.


I spent two days on Rarotonga (see News:  December 10, 2001), then flew out to Aitutaki on a small Air Rarotonga turboprop.  After getting off the plane, I walked into the Aitutaki “air terminal" which is actually a large thatched hut.  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 40s.



Above left:  No movie on THIS flight.

Above right:  After a 30-minute flight, I arrived at the Aitutaki "airport."  No metal detectors here – and no need for one.  The landing strip was built during World War II by 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 lots of “character,” shall we say.  The Vaikoa Units were definitely on the budget end of the spectrum.  For only US$14 a night, I got a two-bed unit with small kitchen, plates, and utensils, all located about 50 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, for only $14 a night I wasn't complaining!


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


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 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. 


Above:  Aitutaki is a beautiful mountainous atoll in the south Pacific.  The only inhabited island, with the airfield, is on the top.


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 and developed Rarotonga was, with few secluded beach areas.  Still, though, I thought Rarotonga was nice.  But if Rarotonga is nice, then Aitutaki is simply wonderful.  I've spent two days on Aitutaki and can’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 overinflated 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 around 4:30 a.m.  It's a 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.  The fresh water supply is from rainwater that's stored in the white cistern on the left.  Fortunately, this was the wet season.

Above center:  The laid-back receptionist at Vaikoa.  She's purr-fect.

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

Above:  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.

I got unpacked at Vaikoa after my short plane ride, then around noon I walked down to the powdery white beach, only a dozen yards away.  Down at the beach, I met an Aitutakian named Mary Thatcher who lives nearby and we talked for a half-hour.  Mary told me that she'd returned home to Aitutaki last week for her father's funeral here 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.


After our talk, I strolled on the brilliant white sand beach for a half-hour, then hiked up to the 400-foot high Maungapu, the highest point on the island.  I was rewarded with an absolutely stunning view of the huge, turquoise-colored lagoon with the most distant motus (small islands) visible about 10 miles away, on the other side of the lagoon.   It was warm, around 80 degrees, and quite humid, but the constant trade winds were refreshing and made it comfortable.



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

Above right:  Part of the huge lagoon at Aitutaki, from Maungapu.  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.


I walked down Maungapu and hiked through a forest of mango trees, so I picked up several mangoes to have for breakfast the next morning.  Where in the U.S., I wondered, can you hike while picking up the next day’s breakfast?  Beware of ripe mangoes, though.  As I was walking along the trail, I heard a loud "splat."  I 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 it had fallen from a tree.  I very narrowly missed getting a mango shampoo, something I would've had to pay $30 for in the U.S.


Above:  Coconut trees are beautiful. But don't linger under them because the coconuts can suddenly fall.

I spent the next four hours walking completely around Aitutaki, about 10 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 white foreigner with the camera and daypack.  Judging from the reaction of the Aitutakians that I passed, I figured that not many white tourists ever visit this far side of the island. 


During my walk that afternoon, I saw hundreds of Aitutakians but not one Caucasian.  Perhaps they 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!"  I turned around to see a young boy shouting and waving to me, so I smiled, waved and yelled back, "Hello!"


Late that afternoon, around 5 p.m., I strolled into the town of Arutanga, which is 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 watched the sun set beyond the reef while listening to Jimmy Buffett music playing on the boombox.  A few minutes later, 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 who was about 10 years younger.  They told me they lived in the Cook Islands now and loved it, and I could understand why.


It was a pleasant evening spent with a pleasant couple.  And after saying goodnight to Wayne and Chloe, I had a pleasant walk back to Vaikoa by moonlight.



Above left:  Flowers on Aitutaki.

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



Above left:  On the hike up to Maungapu.

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



Left:  This is a typical house on Aitutaki, most of which are from the "Neo-Concrete Block" period. 

The people on Aitutaki aren't affluent by Western standards, but they take great pride in their yards and in the relatively few possessions they have.




Above left:  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 on my laptop (right).  The rooms here are small but cost only $14 a night.

Above right:  And they come with complimentary lizards.

The Lagoon Cruise

I got up early the next morning to take a cruise across Aitutaki's breathtaking lagoon.  The lagoon is about 10 miles across and fairly shallow, with an average depth of only about 15 feet or so, and it's ringed by a dozen or so motu (small islands) that comprise the Aitutaki atoll.  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 six-hour trip all the way across the lagoon and back, and it's a real blast.


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

For only $20, you get a transfer to and from your lodging, the six-hour boat ride, a BBQ chicken buffet lunch onboard, stops on a couple of motu, and free use of their snorkeling gear.  Snorkeling among the coral reefs is interesting and I spotted several huge clams, each over three feet across.  I hadn't gone snorkeling in six years since my last visit to the Florida Keys and had a great time.  During my swim, something bit me 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, 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:  Heading out into the Aitutaki lagoon.  And yes, the water really is that color.

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



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

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

Say What?

We had a 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.  I struck up a friendship on the way out with a Aitutaki girl who was about seven 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 most of the locals also speak English with an accent that lies somewhere between Polynesian and New Zealander.  Though an independent country, the Cook Islands, as I learned, has strong ties to New Zealand.


Above:  Happy feet returning to Aitutaki after a hard day.

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," like Americans say but rather "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.  That's thanks, no doubt, to Hollywood and the influence of American music.  Yes, people here are quite familiar with the likes of John Wayne, Mariah Carey and Britney Spears – for better or worse.

My Impressions of the Cook Islands

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


Above:  Rapota Motu from One Foot Island on Aitutaki atoll.  It's not a bad place to stroll around, even if you have just one foot.

What can I say?  The Cook Islands is a wonderful place to visit.  For the most part, islanders are friendly and the general attitude is relaxed, not one of trying to separate tourists from their money, like in more touristy places (think Bora Bora or Tahiti).  In fact, I was 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 they 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 seem 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 the next time I visit Rarotonga.  With the weak New Zealand dollar (the official currency of the Cook Islands), lodging as well as food is a real bargain for Americans right now.  One New Zealand dollar now is worth about 40 cents U.S., so lodging ranges from about US$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).  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'll definitely come back to the Cook Islands someday.  Next time, however, I'll spend more time on laid-back Aitutaki than on bustling Rarotonga.  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.



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