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The Cook Islands: Tahiti Without the French

Posted by on Feb 11, 2011 | 2 comments

The Cook Islands: Tahiti Without the French

I left New Zealand on Saturday night at 7:30pm and landed in Rarotonga, the largest of the Cook Islands, just after midnight on Friday night/Saturday morning, thanks to a crossing of the International Date Line. It will come as no surprise to anyone who’s been following along on this trip that it was raining profusely when I landed. Here we go again.

But, even at 12:30am, there was a cheerful islander with a ukulele playing soothing tropical tunes at the baggage carousel so I forced myself to get into the island mood. And, happily, there was someone from my hotel waiting to pick me up. I’d been having second thoughts about my hotel choice for the past few days so at least this was a positive start. In no time, I was in the car and on my way to the hotel in hopes of getting a few hours of sleep before setting out to explore Rarotonga.

Now, I’m sure many of you are wondering, “Where in the heck are the Cook Islands?” A quick check of Google maps will verify the fact that I truly am in the middle of nowhere here in the beautiful South Pacific. My hotel choice for my 4-night stay on the Cook’s main island of Rarotonga was Vara’s Beach House. Known primarily as a popular backpacker guest house, Vara’s also featured beachfront studios with private bath that appealed to non-backpacker types (that’s me!) as well. I’d read good things about Vara’s online and at $60/night the price was certainly right so I figured I’d give it a try. How bad could it be?

My biggest concern was the lack of air-conditioning. This didn’t seem like a big deal since I wouldn’t be in the room much but I worried that it might be too hot for me to sleep at night (I admit to princess-like tendencies when it comes to air-conditioning). So, when I finally arrived at my room around 1:30am, I was pleasantly surprised by how cool it was with the fan on. Whew! Another climate-control crisis narrowly averted.

Rain Delay Part #2,437,502

Since the rain continued through the next day, I slept in until about 10am then walked down to the beach which looked like it would be beautiful if only the sun was out…sigh. So, I decided to use the day to take care of some business and feel out the internet situation on the island. I didn’t need it over the weekend but I knew I would by Monday morning.

Vara's Beach House Rarotonga Cook Islands

The beachfront and deck at Vara’s

The office at Vara’s was open so I walked in and inquired about my options. I was told there was a computer there that I could use when the office was open (which turned out to be almost never) but what I really needed was wifi. The local Telecom company offered a few wifi hot spots around town and there was one in the Muri Beach area near my hotel. The trick was, you needed to purchased a pre-paid card to use the service and finding one would prove to be a challenge.

I went from store to store and hotel to hotel in the rain looking for anyone within walking distance that sold the cards. No luck. Finally, the only option that remained was to take the bus into town (about 30 minutes away) to the main Telecom office. So, that’s what I did.

The Clockwise Bus to Town

Rarotonga’s bus system is kind of comical but mostly effective. There is one main “ring” road around the island. There are two buses, one is the “Clockwise” bus and the other is the “Anti-Clockwise” bus (yes, that’s anti, not counter.) So, you pretty much just flag down the bus you want when it comes by you on the road and hop on. Simplest bus schedule ever.

Apparently, only the clockwise bus was running on this Saturday afternoon so after it stopped in town and I purchased my wifi card, I had to wait a full hour to catch it back to the hotel.  I used the time to check out the tiny downtown area a little – which was somewhat uninspiring in the rain.

When I finally made it back to the hotel, the rain had stopped but it was still dreary and overcast. I grabbed my book and dried off a lounge chair on the hotel’s beachfront deck and spent the rest of my day right there.

Exploring Rarotonga

Rarotonga Cook Islands

Island touring on Rarotonga, Cook Islands

Sunday morning I awoke to sunshine – cue the choir!! Haaaaallelujah!! My plan for the day was to rent a car and check out the island but only if the weather justified the expense of the car. (My back-up plan was to sit on the hotel deck and pout – though I admit that wasn’t exactly a productive option.) There was a little car hire place right across the street from Vara’s so after a shower and a quick breakfast, I walked over to chat with the guy and see what my latest bright idea would run me.

An adorable (but dated) little red Cabriolet convertible was just $25 for the day so I signed the papers, handed over my credit card and just hoped the car would survive at least one lap around the island. Thanks to the rain the day before and a bad seal on the roof, my new wheels were a little damp inside but you still can’t beat tooling around a tropical island in a little red convertible!

I spent a fun 4 or 5 hours circling the island and stopping to check out each of Rarotonga’s gorgeous lagoons. I even made another stop in town to visit the market. By mid-afternoon I felt like I’d seen everything except for my own beach back at the hotel so I returned the car and spent the rest of the afternoon swimming and snorkeling at Muri Beach just a few steps from my room. Now this is more like it!

Later, I took a walk down the beach to the Muri Beach Resort to check out a more upscale accommodation option in the area. It was beautiful and if I’d had a few more days on the island I definitely would have made the switch to enjoy a little luxury while on Rarotonga.

I went to bed that night hoping for another good day of weather the next day for my long-awaited trip to the island of Aitutaki.

Paradise Found:  Aitutaki, Cook Islands

Monday morning I was up bright and early and thrilled to see the sun slowly rising. I was being picked up at 7am for my day trip to Aitutaki and I needed to walk down to the little food stand down the road with the lone wifi hotspot to check e-mail before heading out. Yes, folks, I am really in the middle of nowhere.

Aitutaki Cook Islands

Landing in Aitutaki

E-mail checked, I gave myself the rest of the day off. My driver showed up at 7am and we headed for the airport. There are two options for visiting the remote island of Aitutaki in the Cook Islands. You can stay on the island in one of only a handful of small hotels or you can take the day trip offered by Air Rarotonga. Since the few hotel options on the island were pretty pricey, I decided to try the day trip.

For about $295, Air Rarotonga’s Aitutaki Day Trip included round-trip flights from Rarotonga (with hotel pickup), a morning tour of the interior of the island and an afternoon full of swimming and snorkeling in Aitutaki’s world famous lagoon. It also included a seafood BBQ lunch on the boat. It sounded like a perfect day and – thanks to near perfect weather – boy, did it turn out to be.

Our 40 minute flight departed Rarotonga at 8am and before I knew it we were coming in for a landing over the most gorgeous place I have ever seen. Now, I know I’ve said that before, but I’ve never been here before and believe me when I say, this is a whole new level of “ever.” The tiny island of Aitutaki is minuscule in land mass but surrounded by miles and miles of the most magnificent lagoon you’ve ever imagined. So many hues of blue I lost count.

When we landed on the island, I learned there would only be four of us on the tour for the day – two ladies from Canada who had been on my flight and were staying at the hotel next to mine and Alex, a travel writer from Australia. Alex had spent the previous two nights at one of the resorts on Aitutaki so she had some insight into how fabulous the hotels were on the island.

The four of us began our day with a guided Jeep tour of the island including a stop in “town” which consisted of one general store. As we drove around the island up to Piraki Point, the highest peak,  our guide pointed out the substantial cyclone damage still being repaired from last year. Like Bora Bora, Aitutaki suffered severe damage from last February’s Cyclone Oli. Having ridden out that storm myself, it was strange to see how much damage it had caused on another island.

We made our way up to Piraki Point for a dramatic view over the lagoon below. Wow. I couldn’t wait to get out on the boat and check out that lagoon. And luckily, that was next on the agenda.

One Foot Island Aitutaki Cook Islands

Approaching One Foot Island, Aitutaki

The Jeep delivered us to the waterfront and to our spacious boat for the rest of the day. We picked up one other group of 4 from the stunning Aitutaki Lagoon Resort & Spa (think overwater bungalows in tropical paradise) bringing our total on the boat to 8 plus a crew of 3. Since the boat was easily meant for 20-30 people, there was more than enough space for everyone and we headed out into the lagoon.

I am going to try my absolute best to describe the next few hours to you but I have a feeling my words are going to be woefully insufficient. I only hope that the pictures will succeed where my words fail. And if those fail, there is video. As we rode through Aitutaki’s indescribably beautiful lagoon for the next few hours, I had to keep pinching myself to believe it was real.

Aitutaki Lagoon Cook Islands

Cruising Aitutaki’s dreamy lagoon

The best way I can describe it? It’s all I had hoped Bora Bora would be – but wasn’t. No wait, Aitutaki is the island that whacked Bora Bora with an ugly stick. It’s the island that told Maui to sit down and shut up. Seriously. It’s the dreamy turquoise waters and white wisps of sand that is the stuff of South Pacific legend. Idyllic. Exotic. Serene. Unspoiled. Stunning. Pure. I’m at a loss for adequate adjectives. If you think I’m exaggerating, go immediately and see for yourself…the Cook Islands Tourism Bureau would love to have you.

One Foot Island Aitutaki Cook Islands

Swirls of turquoise and white on One Foot Island

It may well be Tahiti without the French but it’s also Tahiti without the exorbitant prices and more importantly, the tourist crowds. Of course, comparing it to Tahiti probably isn’t fair. Truly, it doesn’t compare. It’s that much better.

Alex and I had gotten to talking during the ride and I’d mentioned my travel blog. As we both stared out at our utterly unbelievable surroundings she said, “How am I ever going to put this into words?” My thoughts exactly. We agreed that if either of us came up with the words to do it justice, we’d share!

We made a brief stop to explore one of the islands before moving on to our lunch and snorkeling spot in the middle of the lagoon. The snorkeling was fun and the water couldn’t have been clearer but the wind had picked up quite a bit making the water rough and snorkeling difficult with the current. It was somewhat of a struggle to not get pushed into the colorful coral by the current. And even more difficult if you were trying to take pictures, like I was!

I gave up on the snorkeling after a while and decided to just enjoy the view from the boat. Our lunch of grilled fish, vegetables and fruit was delicious and you certainly couldn’t beat the scenery! After lunch we moved on to our final (and my favorite) stop of the day, One Foot Island. I should point out that throughout the lagoon there are sandbars that extend for miles making it possible to practically walk between islands in some places.

One Foot Island

On my bus ride into town a few days back, I was chatted up by a tourist from Sweden who had just come from Aitutaki the day before and proudly showed me his adorable footprint-shaped passport stamp from One Foot Island. So, luckily I’d had the foresight to bring my passport with me to Aitutaki in the hopes that I could also get a stamp. I didn’t know if we’d be visiting the island but the girl scout in me was prepared just in case!

Passport stamp One Foot Island Aitutaki Cook Islands

My passport stamp from One Foot Island

One Foot Island claims to have the World’s Smallest Post Office. I didn’t see any official documentation of that but I can tell you that there was nothing else on the island other than the tiny shack that serves as a post office. I was in luck because the office was open during our visit and after shelling out $2.50NZ I am now the proud owner of my own footprint stamp in my passport – hooray!! It really is the cutest stamp ever.

While One Foot Island doesn’t have any services other than its ramshackle post office, it doesn’t need anything else. It is quite possibly the most gorgeous island in Aitutaki’s vast lagoon. Curved white sand with crystal blue waters – in some places so shallow that you can walk out into the water up to your knees for what seems like miles. Absolute paradise. We walked the beaches, swam in the lagoon and generally marveled at our surroundings for a few hours before finally heading back.

On the hour-long ride back to the airport, our guide pointed out all of the surrounding islands used in the filming of Survivor: Cook Islands. I swear I am starting to feel like I’m on the Survivor tour – first Borneo, then Palau and now the Cook Islands…I’ve seen almost as many Survivor islands as Jeff Probst. What was interesting about this tour is our guide pointed out not only the island that was used to film the show but also the surrounding islands:  one was used for housing the crew where a makeshift town was set up (as a TV person, I always wondered what they did with the TV crew), another was used as “Exile Island” on the show and on yet another was the hotel where those who’d been “voted off’ the island went to while away the remainder of their sequester time.

Aitutaki Cook Islands

Aitutaki’s beautiful beaches

I’m telling you, the best gig in the world has got to be “first person voted off Survivor.”  The bungalows where they stayed were gorgeous! I’m beginning to re-think my whole “I wouldn’t last a day on Survivor” theory…maybe I’d only need to last a day? Hmmm.

They had even used our boat to film one of the rewards for winning a challenge, a sumptuous lunch on the lagoon – I actually think I remember seeing that episode. During the two months they filmed the show, tour boats like mine were unable to travel the normal route and had to visit other islands in the lagoon on the day trips. I’m glad I didn’t visit the Cook Islands during that time! Overall, the Survivor crew was in Aitutaki for almost 6 months and hired hundreds of locals at US television rates (a virtual fortune compared to local wages). They also brought in speed boats, cars and vans – most of which were left behind for the locals. To say the Survivor crew achieved legendary status with the locals would be an understatement. They love to talk about it!

By 4:30pm we were back on an almost empty plane to Rarotonga. After a full day in the sun I was ready for a shower and some sleep. It was an absolutely amazing day and I’m not sure I will ever see another place as spectacular as Aitutaki. The one thing I am sure of is that next time I come to the Cook Islands, I will be staying at one of those spectacular resorts like the Aitutaki Lagoon Resort or maybe even the Pacific Resort Aitutaki. That’s a promise.

It’s almost impossible to believe that tomorrow I am lucky enough to be going from here to my previously crowned “Most Beautiful Place on Earth” – Moorea. It’s an embarrassment of South Pacific riches.

Click Below to View the Cook Islands Photo & Video Gallery

    View photos at SmugMug

    2 Comments

    1. 3-7-2011

      Hi Jenny!

      I have finally, and belatedly, jumped on your blog and it’s wonderful! I admit I’m at work and haven’t read all of it yet but you’ve given me something to do later tonight with a cup of tea.

      I hope you’re well after your travels, and that aren’t suffering South Pacific withdrawals back in the real world. I’m heading off to New Caledonia on Friday with work again so i’ll at least get another taste to keep me going!

      And can I just say you painted Aitutaki with perfect words. I’m still unsatisfied with my account but as it’s now in the hands of publishing I can’t do too much about it.

      Just wanted to touch base with you again and to let you know you now have another follower that will be hanging out for all your future adventures. Your photos are fantastic too.

      Take care!

      • Jenny
        3-8-2011

        Hi Alex – great to hear from you! I just checked the Travel Weekly site the other day to see if your article was up, I’m looking forward to reading it. Yes, I am suffering from South Pacific withdrawals! But I’m already on to planning for my next trip – July in the Mediterranean, Balkans and Eastern Europe, can’t wait! Thanks for your kind words on my Aitutaki post, it was such a difficult place to describe in a way that does it justice. I look forward to seeing your pictures & reading your article soon. Take care and keep in touch!

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