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 year’s 30-day trip around the world that it was raining profusely when I landed.
The theme for the past two weeks of this trip has definitely been “rain gear.”
But, even at 12:30am, a cheerful islander with a ukulele welcomed arriving passengers at the lone baggage carousel with soothing tropical tunes. So I focused on the positives and mentally transitioned to island time. And, happily, a driver from my hotel was waiting to pick me up.
In no time, I was in the car and headed to the hotel, excited to check another South Pacific destination off my Bucket List. Rain be damned.
Where in the world are the Cook Islands?
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.
The 15 islands that make up the Cook Islands are situated northeast of New Zealand, between French Polynesia and American Samoa. The islands are self-governing but enjoy a free association with New Zealand for things like defense and foreign affairs.
Most of the islands’ population of roughly 18,000 residents live on the main island of Rarotonga. That’s also where you’ll find the international airport, where all international visitors arrive.
Where to Stay on Rarotonga
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 a 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 it might be too hot to sleep at night (I freely 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.
Another climate-control crisis narrowly averted.
Rain Delay Part #2,437,502
Since the rain continued through the next day, I decided to use my first day on the island to take care of some business and feel out the internet situation. Because my annual 30-day adventures aren’t all fun and games, at some point I do have to squeeze in some work to support all this globetrotting.
I didn’t need internet access over the weekend but I knew I would by Monday morning. (2020 Update: Vara’s does offer free wi-fi these days, but not back when I originally visited!)
The office at Vara’s was open so I walked in and inquired about my options.
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 tricky part was, you needed to purchase 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.) You just flag down the bus you want when you see it coming toward you and hop on.
Simplest bus schedule ever.
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, 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 planted happily right there.
Sunday morning I awoke to sunshine – cue the choir!! Haaaaallelujah!!
The plan for the day?
Rent a car and check out the island, but only if the weather justified the expense. (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 small car hire place right across the street from Vara’s, so after a shower and a quick breakfast, I strolled over to 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 prayed 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. Regardless, you still can’t beat tooling around a tropical island in a little red convertible!
I spent a fun day 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 beautiful 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 a gorgeous resort 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. To my delight, the sun was slowly rising in a cloudless sky.
My pick-up was scheduled for 7am for my day trip to Aitutaki.
After an early morning stroll to the wifi hotspot down the road to check e-mail, 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, (Moorea comes to mind). But I’ve never been to Aitutaki before and believe me when I say, this is a whole new level of “ever.”
The tiny island of Aitutaki is minuscule in landmass but surrounded by miles and miles of the most magnificent lagoon you’ve ever imagined. So many hues of blue I lost count.
Exploring Aitutaki on Land
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 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 fascinating to see how much damage it had caused on another island.
When we finally arrived at Piraki Point, the dramatic view over the lagoon below was out of this world.
I couldn’t wait to get out on the boat and check out that lagoon. And luckily, that was next on the agenda.
Aitutaki’s Incredible Lagoon
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 a 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.
How to describe Aitutaki?
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.
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.
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.
Without a doubt, I felt like I had discovered the best kept secret in the South Pacific.
If you think I’m exaggerating, go immediately and see for yourself…the Cook Islands Tourism Bureau would love to have you.
Are the Cook Islands Better Than Tahiti?
Well, obviously I think so! You might say the Cook Islands are Tahiti, without the French.
Conveniently, they’re also Tahiti without the exorbitant prices. And most 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.
Lunch in the Lagoon
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.
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.
Thanks to his heads-up, 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!
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.
We walked the beaches, swam in the lagoon, and generally marveled at our surroundings for a few hours before finally heading back.
Survivor in the Cook Islands
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.
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.
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?
They 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!
Returning to Rarotonga
By 4:30pm we were back on a nearly 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.
That’s a promise.
It’s almost impossible to believe that tomorrow I am lucky enough to be going from this tropical paradise to my previously crowned “Most Beautiful Place on Earth” – Moorea. It’s an embarrassment of South Pacific riches.
Amazingly, I’d barely even heard of the Cook Islands before planning this trip. Now, I’m convinced they truly are the best-kept secret in the South Pacific.
But don’t take my word for it. Come see this paradise for yourself.