Are the Cook Islands & Aitutaki the Best Kept Secret in the South Pacific?

Cook Islands | Oceania | RTW #6: Here Today, Guam Tomorrow | South Pacific
One Foot Island Aitutaki Cook Islands

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After a brief but lovely stay in Auckland, New Zealand, I’m off to the next stop on Round the World #6, the Cook Islands.

Read More: Always Perfect Auckland

Thanks to a crossing of the International Date Line, I depart Auckland on Saturday night at 7:30pm and land in Rarotonga, the largest of the Cook Islands, just before midnight Friday night.

Sure, time-traveling sounds like fun. But it also means paying for a Friday night hotel twice.

Good times.

The Cook Islands weather report…

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 is raining profusely when I land.

Pair up the animals, here we go again.

First the Philippines, then Palau, then Guam…and now this.

Read More: Here Today, Guam Tomorrow

The theme for the past two weeks of this trip has definitely been “rain gear.”

But, even at 12:30am, there is a cheerful islander with a ukulele welcoming passengers at the lone baggage carousel. His soothing tropical tunes help right my attitude.

I begin to focus on the positives and mentally transition to island time.

And, happily, a driver from my hotel is waiting to pick me up. In no time, I am in the car and headed to my hotel.

I’m 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 on your phone will verify that I truly am in the middle of nowhere here in the vast 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 handy things like defense and foreign affairs.

Most of the islands’ population (roughly 18,000 residents) lives on the main island of Rarotonga. That’s also where you’ll find the international airport, where all international visitors arrive.

Cook Islands South Pacific

Where to Stay on Rarotonga

My hotel choice for the 4-night stay on Rarotonga is Vara’s Beach House.

Known primarily as a popular backpacker guest house, Vara’s also features beachfront studios with private baths that appeal to non-backpacker types (that’s me!) as well.

I’ve read good things about Vara’s online and at $60/night the price is certainly right so I figure I’ll give it a try.

How bad could it be?

My biggest concern is the lack of air-conditioning. Probably not a big deal since I won’t be in the room much. But I worry 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 arrive at my room around 1:30am, I am pleasantly surprised by how cool it is with the fan on.

Another climate-control crisis narrowly averted.

Rain Delay Part #2,437,502

The rain continues through the next day, so I decide to use my first day on the island to take care of some business. I need to scope out the island’s internet situation.

No, 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 don’t need internet access over the weekend but I will by Monday morning. (2020 Update: Vara’s does offer free wi-fi these days, but not back when I originally visited!)

Vara's Beach House Rarotonga Cook Islands
The beachfront and deck at Vara’s

The office at Vara’s is open so I walk in and inquire about my options.

The local Telecom company offers a few wifi hot spots around town and there is one in the Muri Beach area near my hotel. The tricky part is, I need to purchase a pre-paid card to use the service.

And finding one proves to be a challenge.

I go from store to store and hotel to hotel in the rain looking for anyone within walking distance that sells the cards. No luck.

Finally, the only option that remains is to take the bus into town (about 30 minutes away) to the main Telecom office.

So, that’s what I do.

Rarotonga’s 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 is running on this Saturday afternoon. So after it stops in town and I purchase my wifi card, I have to wait a full hour to catch it back to the hotel. I use the time to check out the tiny downtown area, which is somewhat uninspiring in the rain.

When I finally make it back to the hotel, the rain has stopped but it’s still dreary and overcast. I grab my book, dry off a lounge chair on the hotel’s beachfront deck, and spent the rest of my day planted happily right there.

Exploring Rarotonga

Sunday morning I awake to brilliant sunshine.

Cue the choir!! Haaaaallelujah!!

The plan for the day? Rent a car and check out the island now that the weather justifies the expense.

Full disclosure: My back-up plan was to sit on the hotel deck and pout – though I admit that wasn’t exactly a productive option.

There is a small car hire place right across the street from Vara’s. After a shower and a quick breakfast, I stroll over to see what my latest bright idea will run me.

Rarotonga Cook Islands
Island touring on Rarotonga, Cook Islands

An adorable (but dated) little red Cabriolet convertible is just $25 for the day.

Score! I sign the papers, hand over my credit card, and pray the car will 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 are a little damp inside. Regardless, you still can’t beat tooling around a tropical island in a little red convertible!

I spend a fabulous day circling the island, stopping to check out each of Rarotonga’s gorgeous lagoons. I even make another stop in town to visit the market.

By mid-afternoon, I feel like I’ve seen everything except for my own beach back at the hotel. So I return the car and spend 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!

Another hotel option in Rarotonga

Later, I take a walk down the beach to the Muri Beach Resort to check out a more upscale accommodation option on the island.

It’s a gorgeous resort and if I had a few more days on the island I definitely would make the switch to enjoy a little luxury while on Rarotonga.

I go to bed that night hoping the South Pacific weather Gods will bless me with one more day good day of weather.

Tomorrow, my long-awaited trip to the island of Aitutaki.

Paradise Found:  Aitutaki, Cook Islands

Monday morning I’m up bright and early. To my delight, the sun is slowly rising in a cloudless sky.

My pick-up is scheduled for 7am for my day trip to Aitutaki.

I take an early morning stroll to the wifi hotspot down the road to check e-mail and then give myself the rest of the day off. My driver shows up at 7am and we’re off to the airport.

How to Get to Aitutaki

There are two options for visiting the remote island of Aitutaki in the Cook Islands.

You can stay on the island at 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 went with the day trip.

For about $295, Air Rarotonga’s Aitutaki Day Trip includes 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 includes a seafood BBQ lunch on the boat. It sounds like a perfect day and – thanks to near-perfect weather – boy, does it turn out to be.

Aitutaki Cook Islands
Landing in Aitutaki

The 40 minute flight departs Rarotonga at 8am and before I knew it we are 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).

Read More: Blue Lagoon Paradise in Moorea Island, French Polynesia

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 it is 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 land on the island, I learn there will only be four of us on the tour today. Two ladies from Canada who were on my flight and Alex, a travel writer from Australia.

Alex spent the previous two nights at one of the resorts on Aitutaki so she later told me just how fabulous the hotels are on the island.

The four of us begin our day with a guided Jeep tour of the island including a stop in “town” which consists of one general store. As we drive around the island up to Piraki Point, the highest peak, our guide points out the substantial cyclone damage still being repaired from last year.

Like Bora Bora, Aitutaki suffered severe damage from last February’s Cyclone Oli. Since I rode out that storm myself on Bora Bora while on Round the World #5, it’s fascinating to see how much damage the storm caused on another island.

Read More: Surviving Bora Bora: Sea Turtles & Cylcones, A Tahitian Adventure

When we finally arrive at Piraki Point, the dramatic view over the lagoon below is out of this world.

Just wow.

I can’t wait to get out on the boat and check out that lagoon. And luckily, that’s next on the agenda.

Aitutaki’s Incredible Lagoon

The Jeep delivers us to the waterfront and to our spacious boat for the rest of the day.

We pick up one other group of 4 from the stunning Aitutaki Lagoon Private Island Resort & Spa (think overwater bungalows in a tropical paradise).

This brings our total on the boat to 8 plus a crew of 3.

One Foot Island Aitutaki Cook Islands
Approaching One Foot Island, Aitutaki

Since the boat is easily meant for 20-30 people, there is more than enough space for everyone as we head 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 will be woefully insufficient. I only hope that my pictures will succeed where they fail.

And if those fail, there is video.

As we ride through Aitutaki’s indescribably beautiful lagoon for the next few hours, I have to keep pinching myself to believe it is 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.

Without a doubt, I feel like I have 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.

One Foot Island Aitutaki Cook Islands
Swirls of turquoise and white on One Foot Island

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 got to talking during the ride and I mentioned my travel blog. As we both stare out at our utterly unbelievable surroundings she says, “How am I ever going to put this into words?

My thoughts exactly.

A lunch cruise on Aitutaki’s Lagoon

We make 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 is terrific and the water is incredibly clear. But the wind has picked up quite a bit making the water rough and snorkeling difficult with the current.

I give up on snorkeling after a while and decide to just enjoy the view from the boat. Our lunch of grilled fish, vegetables and fruit is delicious. And you certainly can’t beat the scenery!

Throughout the lagoon, there are sandbars that extend for miles. It’s even possible to practically walk between islands in some places.

One Foot Island

After lunch, we move on to our final (and my favorite) stop of the day, One Foot Island.

On my bus ride into town a few days ago, I was chatted up by a tourist from Sweden who had just come from Aitutaki the day before. He proudly showed me his adorable footprint-shaped passport stamp from One Foot Island.

Thanks to this heads-up, I had the foresight to bring my passport with me to Aitutaki today. In the hopes that I can also get this awesome stamp. I didn’t know if we’d be visiting the island but the girl scout in me is prepared just in case!

One Foot Island claims to have the World’s Smallest Post Office. I don’t see any official documentation of that. But I can tell you that there is nothing else on the island other than the tiny shack that serves as a post office.

I’m in luck because the office is 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 passport stamp ever.

Passport stamp One Foot Island Aitutaki Cook Islands
My passport stamp from One Foot Island

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 walk the beaches, swim in the lagoon, and generally marvel 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 points 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.

Read More: Wowed by Palau

What’s interesting about this tour is our guide points 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, the hotel where those who’ve 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 are 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 are back on a nearly empty plane to Rarotonga. After a full day in the sun, I am 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.

Perhaps the stunning Aitutaki Lagoon Private Island Resort (which is adults only and would make a dreamy honeymoon location). Or the 5-star luxury of the Pacific Resort Aitutaki.

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.

2 Comments

  1. Alexandra Rampano says:

    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!

    1. 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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