Fairy-Tale Reality: Aitutaki, Cook Islands

LEADCookIsland2Swiss Family Robinson was a favorite bedtime story when I was young. Before being lulled 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 discovered on a South Pacific adventure that fairytales can come true.

The dream transforms as soon as we set foot on Aitutaki, one of the 15 idyllic Cook Islands located between Tahiti and Fiji. In addition to being welcomed by the traditional greeting of “kia orana” and a medley of blister-provoking ukulele tunes, my husband and I are draped with heavenly scented gardenias, offered coconut milk still in its original container, 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 an island shoreline fringed by a breathtaking lagoon. “This has gotta 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.

Sun filters through stained panes of the island’s oldest church, Cook Islands Christian Church.

Instead of wearing traditional naval gear, our pontoon boat captain is decked out in Polynesian florals. And though the voyage to the island of Akitua is only five minutes long, the venture adds to the Swiss Family Robinson feel.

We disembark on the pedestrian-only Akitua Island, home of The Aitutaki Lagoon Resort & Spa, the sole property on the island. Billowy palms, like watchtower sentinels, line the pristine beachfront and throw shade over the tropical flora. The resort takes up only a small portion of the island’s 27 lush acres, and its location offers us the best view of the Aitutaki Lagoon.

After slathering up with SPF 50 sunscreen, we splash in the glorious Pacific, kayak to neighboring islands and take a snorkeling tour to probe for treasures beneath.

I feel like Thor Heyerdahl, the Norwegian explorer and anthropologist who ventured from South America to Polynesia on his balsa-wood raft, when hopping aboard the Kon-Tiki–like catamaran. The infamous Cap’n Bligh and his mutinous men once sailed in these waters.

The ride is a glide and the vistas are gorgeous. Tropical motus (islets) that fringe the surreal surface are linked together by a strand of reef, like a necklace of emerald gems. The aqueous setting is stunning, and 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. With 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. Then I submerge.

A Kon-Tiki-like catamaran takes the author on a tour of tropical motus (islets).

Shards of sunlight pierce the water’s surface, silhouetting colorful 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 stay. We’re enticed with everything from coconut-palm climbing to Island Night, when hip-notic dancers keep the culture alive.

During an Aitutaki Island tour, we discover even more beauty behind the scenes. Although our guide goes by Rey, his full name is Retire. And while exploring this laidback destination, I can’t think of a more suitable name.

Swaying coconut palms throw shade over hills and valleys overflowing with vibrant flora. Manicured yards host cyclone-proof cinderblock homes, where wide-eyed children look curiously as we pass, smiling and waving.

Sun-baked burial plots dot most yards, and we learn that love for family members continues long after they pass. More tombstones can be found next to the oldest island church, Cook Islands Christian 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 the Maori tongue.

“We have more churches than people,” Rey jests, as we cruise the roughly 9-mile-long (14km) string of islands. “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 of us has the right idea

The climax of our tour is an island summit. Although small potatoes in comparison to our hills back home, it surpasses the most scenic postcard. Variegated shades of blue, from pale and limpid to vibrant aquamarine, stretch to the horizon. And snuggled up at one end is our home away from home, our fairy tale–like treasure island of Akitua, where over the next few days we simply retire.

If You Go

Cook Island Tourism: www.cook-islands.com

The Aitutaki Lagoon Resort & Spa: www.aitutakilagoonresort.com



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