Maybe the notorious Captain Bligh, the first European to lay eyes on Aitutaki, should have treated himself and his crew to a holiday on the island when he sailed past it in 1789. Perhaps if he had anchored the HMS Bounty and stopped to relax, even for a just a few days, he might have avoided the fateful mutiny that guaranteed him a place in history as a foul-tempered seaman.
Travelers today are not repeating Bligh’s mistake and are making the trip to the Cook Island’s definition of paradise: Aitutaki. Located off the beaten path, this holiday destination filled with exotic culture and unspoiled (and uncrowded) beaches, is only a 50-minute flight from the main island of Rarotonga.
The unsurpassed beauty of this small island is apparent even before setting foot on the ground. The view offered from Air Rarotonga’s 340 Saab as it begins its descent over the island reveal the lagoon’s turquoise waters washing onto blindingly white sand beaches. The waters are so clear that, even from the airplane, the outlines of coral heads are discernable.
Offering a wide array of accommodation, this island has a hotel to suit every traveler’s need, from exclusive high-end resorts to reasonably priced self-contained bungalows. There are only 250 beds on the island so early bookings are essential.
The Are Tamanu Beach Village combines the luxury of a resort with the intimacy of self-contained bungalows. Originally two separate hotels, Are Tamanu and Manea Beach Hotel, they recently merged to form one larger resort offering five levels of accommodation: Tamanu Garden Bungalows, Tamanu Lagoon Bungalows, Tamanu Beachfront Bungalows, Manea Lagoon Suites, and Manea Beachfront Suites.
The bungalows on the Tamanu side of the resort have a no children under 12 policy and are geared towards couples and honeymooners. The bungalows are a bit crowded together and the balconies don’t offer a tremendous amount of privacy. The Manea suites can accommodate up to four people and are perfect for families. With great ocean views, the best values are the Tamanu Lagoon Bungalows and the Manea Lagoon Suites. The resort also has an onsite restaurant located at Manea: the Te Vaka Bar and Grill. Guests can either dine in the restaurant or in the privacy of their room.
Although small, Aitutaki has no shortage of things to do. Besides the obvious allure of relaxing by the hotel pool, lying on one of the many white sand beaches, or snorkeling in the crystal clear lagoon, there are a number of other enjoyable activities.
For a taste of Aitutaki culture, “Island Nights” —a buffet followed by a floorshow of music and dance—are a great opportunity to see traditional Cook Island dancing. Samade on the Beach Hotel hosts an excellent “Island Night” in their restaurant located only a few feet from the lagoon. The night starts with a delicious buffet of fresh fish, meat, taro root, and salads. Shortly after dinner, the show begins. Dressed in grass cuffs and loin cloths, the men fiercely stomp their feet and swing their knees. The women, sporting sarongs and coconut bras, gyrate their hips with seemingly implausible fluidity. Shy travelers be warned, after the performance is over there is a round of audience participation. Guests are pulled onto stage to try and shake their stuff. (Phone (682) 31526; E mail: email@example.com; Website: http://www.samadebeach.com.)
The highlight of Aitutaki is the Coral Route and One Foot Island lagoon cruise. Set sail with Bishop’s Lagoon Cruises and meet the spirited captain of the Lagoon Lova, Captain Wonderful—whose self-declared moniker is displayed on his bright blue ball cap—guides you through the lagoon’s interesting history with ceaseless enthusiasm.
The first stop is Akaiami, a small, uninhabited islet that served as a Coral Route refueling station for TEAL (Tasman Empire Airway’s Limited) flying boats from 1950–1962. Many celebrities, including Clark Gable, Carey Grant, and John Wayne, flew on this South Pacific tour and wandered the shores of Akaiami while waiting for the flying boats to be serviced.
After visiting Akaiami Island, Captain Wonderful sets anchor in the lagoon for an hour of snorkeling. The Lagoon Lova then sets course for One Foot Island, where a delicious lunch is served. While the lunch is complimentary, beverages are not. Water is sold for NZ $3.00 so it is advisable to bring your own. Be sure to bring your passport and have it stamped at the world’s only uninhabited post office. (There is also a small fee for the stamp.) After a few hours of relaxing one One Foot, it’s time to return to Aitutaki. As the Lagoon Lova glides through the brilliant blue waters, the passengers, sedate from their relaxing afternoon, are happy that they didn’t make Bligh’s mistake of sailing past paradise.
(Bishop’s Lagoon Cruises: Phone: (682) 31109; Fax: (682) 31493; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org)
Sidebar for Aitutaki:
For travelers on a tight schedule, Air Rarotonga offers a day trip service to Aitutaki. The tour operates daily Monday–Saturday and includes transfer to and from the airport, a “circle island” tour, lunch, and a lagoon cruise aboard a 69-foot catamaran. While the nine and half hour tour doesn’t allow guests to experience the true relaxing nature of the island, it does provide a great taste of all that Aitutaki has to offer. To ensure an enjoyable experience, guests are given the option of re-booking or canceling without penalty in the case of wet weather. (Rates: NZ $ 399.00; Phone: (682) 22888; E-mail: email@example.com; Website: http://www.airraro.com)
Travelers looking for authentic Aitutakian crafts need to stop in at the Women’s Craft Center, located in the Orongo Center. Mrs. Henry, a shy Maori New Zealand ex-pat with a warm smile, operates the center, which buys crafts from local women and then sells them for almost no profit. Mrs. Henry is eager to explain the cultural significance of each artifact and the process involved in making them. It’s an excellent place to buy Tivaevae, traditional quilts; rito hats, hats woven from uncurled coconut palm fibre; pareus, brightly coloured sarongs; coconut oil; fans; and nono juice, a foul tasting juice made from the nono fruit said to have exceptional health benefits.
An Aitutaki Discovery Safari is an excellent way to get your bearings and learn about the cultural landmarks on the island. This three-hour tour teaches participants about local custom and visits such interesting sites as Te Poaki o Rae Marae, a well preserved sacred alter. Set amidst the tropical forest, this arrangement of large upright stones was once the site of tribal meetings and cannibalism ceremonies. The Discovery Safari tours fill up quickly so it is important to make reservations well in advance. (Rates: NZ $ 50.00 (adults), NZ $10.00 (children under 10); Phone/Fax: (682) 31757; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; Website: http://www.aitutaki-walkabout.com)