The Cook Islands are made up of 15 islands, of which Rarotonga is the largest. The next largest is Aitutaki, which is a 40 minute flight north. It too has a thriving tourist industry, but it’s also possible to take a day trip, which is what we did.
We drove to the airport to check in at 7:30am. Belinda at Te Vara Nui had told us this would cost $1. At the airport, there was a sign saying parking $2, so clearly rampant inflation was in force. At the airport I asked about how to pay for parking, as there didn’t appear to be a machine or anything, and was told “Oh, that’s only when there’s an international flight”.
On board the plane we were in row 1. Sadly not business class, but we were by the emergency exit, so…extra leg room! Always important on a 40-minute flight. I just about had time to read the inflight magazine before we landed. We could see the lagoon as we came in to land, as it’s built along the long spit that extends from the top of the island.
Unlike Raro, whose lagoon extends around the island at distances of 50 to 500m, most of Aitutaki is in fact lagoon. With an airstrip built by US forces in 1942 “in case the Pacific war got out of hand” as our guide, Ari, put it, Aitutaki has been on the tourist trail longer than Raro. In the late forties and early fifties it was part of the Coral Route, flown by seaplanes between New Zealand, Fiji, Samoa, the Cook Islands and Tahiti. It’s said to be the most beautiful lagoon on earth, by the people who say these things.
At the airport we got on board a bus which had clearly seen earlier service as a lorry, and our guide for the day, Ari, introduced himself and gave us some brief notes about Aitutaki. A lot of his patter seemed to concern various television shows that were filmed there, such as Survivor and Shipwrecked. Less than interesting to us, but it garnered the island a lot of publicity and, importantly, money.
After a brief stop in the island’s commercial centre, we boarded our boat, a catamaran which would be home for the rest of the day. We were served fresh coconut water, as Ari kept up his talk, and introduced the rest of the crew. We got under way to our first destination, a motu called Akaiami, which is where Survivor was filmed, apparently. A motu is the name given to the islets which surround each island, and are essentially part of the reef itself.
Our next stop was One Foot Island and the world’s smallest post office, to post our cards – they should be with you in about 4 months, if our Vanuatu experience is anything to go by – and to get our passports stamped with the One Foot Island stamp.
Then we headed out to the middle of the lagoon where the best snorkelling was. The area they chose had several reefs, including an enormous giant clam marked by a buoy. As we arrived, so did several giant trevally. These are seriously large reef fish, and we were cautioned about the use of underwater cameras: hold them in your hand as you swim about, and don’t let them just dangle, as the fish will mistake it for food and come in and have a bite. Some of them are over a metre long, so you don’t want to mess with them. There was also the usual selection of reef fish, some of which, particularly the black and white stripey ones, were curiously reluctant to get out of your way! We saw many different types as we swam about. After around 45 minutes’ snorkelling, Ari blew the conch shell which signalled us to get back aboard. The signalling he’d explained earlier: one blow meant “no hurry”, the second meant “still plenty of time”, the third meant “hurry up and get aboard!”, the fourth meant “we’ll pick you up tomorrow”. Everyone was aboard by the time the third one went.
By the time we’d dried off, lunch was ready. This was barbecued tuna, with various salads and local delicacies which we were encouraged to try, including sea grapes and cooked overripened bananas, as well as the usual pawpaw and coconut.
After lunch, we had a coconut show. This appears to be standard on any type of tour that you do in the Cook Islands – it was our third. Ari demonstrated how to husk a coconut, and then got a volunteer to crack it open in the correct manner – which he did on the first go. It’s easy when you know the right way to do it. After scraping some of the flesh out, he demonstrated how to get coconut milk from it using the mesh that can be found between the leaves on the coconut tree.
We then went back to One Foot Island, and Ari took us on a nature walk, explaining the flora and fauna, including mahogany trees and white terns. We then went for another snorkel on the artificial reef which has been planted there; corals have grown on it for the last five years, attracting reef fish to the area. Ari explained that once the corals had grown for about 10 years they were moved to a new location and a new reef started. In this way they are populating more sites around the lagoon.
We went for a walk all the way round the island, then reboarded and headed back to the main island. On the way Ari told us the story of how the island got its name – a sad tale of a father and son.
Finally, we debarked, took the bus back to the airport, and flew back to the mainland. We were back by 5:30 and ready to go out again. First stop was at the Shipwreck Hut for a cocktail as we watched the sunset…quite literally a sundowner. Nicola had a pina colada and I had a mai tai.
For dinner, we’d decided to try Muri Night Market, which, as its name suggests, is a night market held in Muri, the second-largest town in Raro and just a short drive from where we’re staying. They have stalls selling local dishes. They also have a rather good scheme called rent-a-plate, whereby you spend one dollar to get a plate and metal cutlery, which is filled at each stall, rather than using disposable containers and plastic cutlery. All the proceeds go to the local primary school which runs the scheme. There’s music and dancing as well, and the party probably runs into the night. Fogeys that we are, were circled the market once more after eating before deciding to head home.