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The Cook Islands
Fairytale Reality on Aitutaki

Published in the Spring 2007 Issue of Canadian World Traveller
By Jane Cassie
Photos: Jane Cassie / Cook Island Tourism

Swiss Family Robinson had been a favourite bedtime story when I was young. Before I was lulled off to sleep, I would imagine being swept away to an island paradise where palm trees swayed on sugar-white sand beaches.

Although I eventually learned the difference between fact and fiction, I discovered on this South Pacific adventure that some fairytales could indeed be true.

An Island Welcome

The dream transforms into reality as soon as we set foot on Aitutaki, one of the fifteen idyllic Cook Islands located smack dab between Tahiti and Fiji in the middle of the vast South Pacific Ocean.

In addition to being welcomed by the traditional island greeting “Kia Orana” and local musicians playing a medley of finger-blistering ukulele tunes, we’re draped with garlands of heavenly-scented gardenias, offered husks of coconut milk and treated to the winning smiles of our gracious hosts. There’s no rush, no bustle. It’s obvious; we’re now on island time! 

Fantasy blurs with reality even more when we veer away from the airport tarmac, take a sandy road less travelled, and wind up on a shoreline that fringes a breathtakingly beautiful lagoon.

Close to Eden

“This must be as close to Eden as it gets,” I whisper in awe, while gazing over the aquatic wonder that boasts every imaginable shade of turquoise. “All aboard to Paradise, ladies and gents,” comes a command that confirms my suspicion.

Instead of the wearing traditional navy gear, the captain of our pontoon boat is decked out in a Polynesian floral-print outfit.

And although the short voyage across the lagoon is certainly do-able by backstroke, the crossing by pontoon creates a real ‘Robinson Crusoe’ feeling. Add to this is a ‘tribal warrior’ on the far side wearing a mid-calf pareus (sarong) and tasselled leggings and beckoning to us with blows on a conch shell, and I know that we’ve escaped from all of the usual constrains of reality.

A Lagoon Resort

A modern-day version of Gilligan’s Island comes alive after we disembark on Akitua and arrive at the island’s sole hotel property, the Aitutaki Lagoon Resort and Spa. Stately palms, billowing in the wind, stand like watchtower sentinels all along the pristine beachfront. They throw their welcome shade over the fiesta of tropical flora growing below them.

The resort only takes up a small portion of the island’s twenty-seven lush acres, but its award-winning location offers us the best vista of the Cook Islands’ largest lagoon.

The Glorious Pacific

Over the next few days, after slathering up with an amble amount of SPF 50 sunscreen, we splash in the glorious Pacific, kayak to neighboring islands, and take a snorkeling tour to check for treasures beneath the waves.

I feel like Thor Heyerdahl, the South American native who ventured to Polynesia in his reed boat, as I hop aboard the Kon-Tiki-like catamaran, which sports a canvas pop-top. But while skimming the lagoon’s surface where the infamous Cap’n Bligh and his mutinous men once sailed, the ride turns out to be a smooth glide over the water offering panoramic views at every turn that are all drop-dead gorgeous.

Tropical motus (islets) fringing the surreal surface of the ocean are linked together by a strand of reef, which resembles a necklace of emerald gems. It’s a setting that’s stunningly sensational, although it’s with some trepidation that I anticipate exploring what lurks below.

Underwater Adventure

“The reef keeps flesh-loving predators away,” I’m told by our burly, pony-tailed guide after we drop anchor, “and even if the occasional barracuda slips by, they only go for things that glitter.” He reveals a toothy grin as I nervously don my mask and webbed feet. Without much hesitation, I remove my wedding ring and instruct my hubby to do the same. When he can’t get it off, I ask him if our wills are in order, then I take the plunge.

Shards of sunlight pierce the water’s surface, silhouetting the colourful species of fish that swarm within my field of vision. Among them are saucer-sized angelfish, rainbow-scaled parrotfish, and zillions of minnows. It’s a surreal intermingling and as I float buoyantly in the tepid swells, I feel at one with the Pacific, free from any worldly cares, even barracudas!

An Inland Tour

Land-lover activities are also at our fingertips during our paradisiacal stay. We’re enthralled with everything from displays of coconut tree climbing to Island Night, when the “hip-notic” dancers keep the native culture alive. We also check out some local lore during an island tour and discover even more beauty behind the scenes.

Although our guide goes by the short form Rey, he is more formally called Retire. While en route, I can’t think of a more suitable name for him.

Along the way, we view countless swaying coconut palms throwing their shade over hills and valleys that are choked with the vibrant island flora.

We also pass manicured yards that house cyclone-proof cinderblock homes, where wide-eyed children look curiously at us as we go by. They all smile and wave at us. In spite of their humble way of life, they seem quite happy.

Historic Island Church

Sun-baked burial plots dot most yards and we discover that on the islands, love for family members continues long after they pass away. More age-old tombstones stand in the grounds of the island’s oldest church, which was built by missionaries in 1823.

Sun filters through stained-glass panes onto its intricately etched motifs and reflect off its raised pulpit where, every Sunday, the preacher gives praise to the Lord in the native Maori tongue. And from its many rows of pews, harmonizing voices soar and fill all of the space.

“We have more churches than people,” Rey jests, as we cruise along the island’s nine miles of road. “There are 1,400 residents and we have no secrets,” he chuckles contentedly. Rey has lived on Aitutaki all his life and when he speaks about his country and culture, it’s with great pride. “Money’s not an issue. We own our land, grow and catch our food, and get our water from the clouds. Life is simple. Simple is best.”

It’s evident that Cook Islanders march to the tempo of a different drummer. No big-box stores, fast-food chains or even traffic lights! It’s obvious who has the right idea.

A Fairytale Come True

The climax of our tour comes at the summit of the island. Although the crest is small potatoes in comparison to some of our hills back home, it surpasses the most scenic postcard. Variegated shades of blue, everything from pale limpid to vibrant aquamarine, stretch out to the horizon.

And snuggled up at one end of this breath-taking vista is our home away from home, our fairytale-like treasure island of Akitua, where over the next few days we’ll just relax and simply ‘retire’! 

About the Authors

Jane Cassie is president of the BC Association of Travel Writers. (www.bctravelwriters.com)

She and her husband, Brent (pictured at left), freelance for a number of publications. (www.janecassie.com)

For More Info about Cook Islands

Contact: Cook Island Tourism www.cook-islands.com

Air New Zealand www.airnewzealand.com/gateway.jsp

Aitutaki Lagoon Resort & Spa