Fairytale Reality on Aitutaki, Cook Islands
Aitutaki, Cook Islands
Photos by Brent Cassie
Swiss Family Robinson had been a favourite bedtime story when I was young. Before lulling off to sleep, I’d imagine being swept away to an island paradise where palm trees swayed in sugar white sand. Although I eventually learned the difference between fact and fiction, I discover on this South Pacific adventure that fairytales can come true.
The dream transforms as soon as we set foot on Aitutaki, one of the fifteen idyllic Cook Islands located smack dab between Tahiti and Fiji. As well as being welcomed by the traditional “Kia Orana,” and a medley of blister-provoking ukulele tunes, we’re draped with heaven-scented gardenias, offered a husk of coconut milk and treated to winning smiles. There’s no rush, no bustle. It’s obvious, we’re on island time.
Fantasy blurs with reality even more when we veer away from the tarmac, take a sandy road less traveled, and wind up on a shoreline that fringes a breathtaking lagoon.
“This has gotta be as close to Eden as it gets,” I whisper with 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, our pontoon boat captain is decked out in Polynesian florals. And though the short voyage is certainly do-able by back stroke, the venture authenticates the real Robinson Crusoe feel. Add a tribal warrior to the far side beach, who dons a mid-calf pareus (sarong), tasseled leggings and a beckoning conch call, and I know we’ve escaped reality.
A modern day version of Gilligan’s Island comes alive after we disembark on Akitua and home of the island’s solo property, Aitutaki Lagoon Resort and Spa. Billowy palms stand like watchtower sentinels as they line the pristine beachfront and throw shade over the fiesta of tropical flora. Although the resort only takes up a small portion of the twenty-seven lush island acres, its award winning location offers us the best vista of the Cook’s largest lagoon.
Over the next few days, after slathering up with SPF 50, we splash in the glorious Pacific, kayak to neighboring islands, and take a snorkel tour to check for treasures beneath.
I feel like Thor Heyerdahl, the South American native who ventured to Polynesia in his reedy boat, when hopping aboard the Kon-Tiki-like catamaran sporting a canvas pop top. But while skimming the lagoon’s surface, where the infamous Cap’n Bligh and his mutiny men once sailed, the ride is a glide and the vistas are drop dead gorgeous. Tropical motus (islets) that fringe our surreal surface link together by a strand of reef, like a necklace of emerald gems. It’s a setting that’s sensationally stunning, and although it’s with some trepidation, I look forward to seeing what lurks below.
“The reef keeps flesh-loving predators away,” I’m told by our burly pony-tailed guide after we anchor, “and even if the occasional barracuda slips by, they only go for glitter.” He reveals a toothy grin as I nervously don my mask and webbed feet. Without haste, I remove my wedding ring and instruct my hubby to do the same. When he can’t get it off I ask if our wills are complete. I then submerge.
Shards of sunlight pierce the water’s surface, silhouetting colourful species that swarm within my vision; saucer size 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.
Land loving activities are also at our fingertips during our paradisiacal stay. We’re enticed with everything from coconut climbing to Island night, when the hip-notic dancers keep the 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 of Rey, his full title is Retire. And while traveling en route, I can’t think of a more suitable name.
Swaying coconut palms throw shade over hills and valleys choked with vibrant flora. Manicured yards host cyclone-proof cinderblock homes, where wide-eyed children look curiously when we pass. They all smile and wave. In spite of their humble lifestyle, they seem happy.
Sun baked burial plots dot most yards and we discover love for family members continues long after they pass. More tombstones are grounded next to the oldest island church, built by missionaries in 1823. Sun filters through stained panes onto intricately etched motifs and reflect off the raised pulpit where, every Sunday, the preacher gives praise in Maori tongue. And from the rows on rows of pews, harmonizing voices soar and fill all space.
“We have more churches than people,” Rey jests, as we cruise the nine island miles. “There are 1,400 residents and no secrets,” he contentedly chuckles. Rey’s lived on Aitutaki all his life and when he speaks about his country and culture, it’s with pride. “Money’s not an issue. We own our land, grow and catch our food, and get water from the clouds. Life is simple. Simple is best.”
It’s obvious that Cook Islanders march to the tempo of a different drummer. No big box stores, fast food chains, or even traffic lights! It’s clear which one of us has the right idea.
The climax of our tour is the top of an island summit. Although small potatoes in comparison to our hills back home, it surpasses the most scenic postcard. Variegated shades of blue stretch to the horizon; everything from pale limpid to vibrant aquamarine. And snuggled up to one end 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!
Where To Stay
The Aitutaki Lagoon Resort & Spa
Jane is president of BC Association Of Travel Writers. She and her husband, Brent, freelance for a number of publications.