Aitutaki – a little slice of heaven

Kia Orana!

Aitutaki is 220 kilometers north and an easy 45 minute flight from Rarotonga, the capital of the Cook Islands. Considered one of the most magnificent lagoons in the world with small uninhabited islands on its surrounding reef, it is unquestionably the most picturesque of the Cooks southern group islands. 

Many visitors to the Cook Islands take the opportunity to discover Aitutaki’s beauty by taking a day trip from Rarotonga, which usually includes a cruise on the lagoon. However, the luxury of a little extra time fully reveals the stunning palette of a tropical retreat unsurpassed anywhere in the world; and a welcoming and friendly local populace who live life at an easy, relaxed pace. So, if you’re considering a visit – stay over a night or two, or preferably longer; you will not be disappointed. 

And certainly, a visit to the Cook Islands is not complete without visiting Aitutaki. It is a place of unsurpassed natural beauty and simple tranquility, providing a rejuvenating tonic to sooth away the pressures of the outside world. The breathtaking allure of its crystal clear turquoise waters and sparkling white beaches confirms that it is “one of the places to visit while you are still on this earth”.

From the air this island paradise has to be one of the most beautiful sights in the South Pacific. Aitutaki is made up of a triangular-shaped reef encompassing an aqua lagoon in which three volcanic and twelve small coral islands nestle. A small island is known locally as a motu.

The best thing about Aitutaki is undoubtedly its lagoon. They have taxis here, but rather than those normally found on land, these are small fast boats equipped with outboard motors. They can take you to your own private island where you can spend the day snorkeling, sunbathing or having a picnic, and then pick you up after several restful, sun-filled hours. 

There are also numerous lagoon tours, which last almost an entire day. Lunch, refreshments, snorkeling gear, and towels are always provided and nearly all tour operators can pick you up from the airport, or your hotel. Possibly the most well-known is Air Rarotonga’s day tour onboard Titi-ai-Tonga, a large double hulled vessel that cruises languidly in the lagoon. Sit down meals are served by friendly staff, and after snorkeling in the lagoon visitors are taken to One Foot Island (Tapuaetai). 

Bishops Cruises is perhaps the lagoon’s most experienced and they offer a choice of cruises to various islands. And you can opt for a smaller boat with a more intimate and personal tour if you wish. After a wonderful morning of snorkeling and feeding the fish, lunch is usually served at One Foot Island which boasts what could be the world’s smallest Post Office. Don’t forget to take your passport with you; because you can have it stamped here, making a great souvenir of your visit.

This vast lagoon was once a stopover for the TEAL (Tasman Empire Airways Limited) Short Solent flying boats traveling the renowned ‘Coral Route’ through the South Pacific. TEAL is the former name of Air New Zealand and TEAL themery can be found in a small lodge on Motu Akaiami. The lodge has been built on the exact spot where the original terminal stood and remains of the original base and jetty are still visible today. Here the well-to-do of the fifties, including movie stars John Wayne, Cary Grant and the like, stopped for a few hours or even overnight, while planes were re-fuelled, serviced, or waiting for weather to clear. Passengers would swim in the clear warm waters in the bay, shower outdoors under the palms and eat lunches of crisply cut sandwiches and local pawpaw, before re-embarking. 

Aitutaki has an interesting aviation history. It was 1942 when the construction juggernaut that would soon become known as the Seabees came ashore and began constructing what many feared would be the last line of defence for allied forces fighting the Japanese. The airport at Aitutaki was constructed as part of operation Bobcat. With their slogan” we build – we fight”, the Seabees soon had the island air-base operational; just in time to see them move from this part of the Pacific, as they pursued the Japanese further to the north and west. The runway has recently been completely rebuilt. Charmingly small, quaint even, Aitutaki airport is the busiest it’s been since the war days.

Back further in time; the first European discovery was by Captain Bligh sailing on the Bounty in 1789. He sighted the island just 17 days prior to the infamous mutiny. Bligh returned later to Aitutaki and is said to have introduced the pawpaw which, like other varieties of tropical fruit, grows in abundance all over the island.

50 years later the first missionary, the Reverend John Williams of The London Missionary Society, introduced Christianity to Aitutaki and the Cook Islands Christian Church, down by the wharf at Arutanga, became the very first Church built in the Cook Islands. A grand old lady with coral walls, stained glass windows and ornate ceiling decorations, she is a constant inspiration to locals and a reminder that Aitutaki was the first of the nation’s islands to embrace Christianity.

A grand old lady with coral walls, stained glass windows and ornate ceiling decorations, she is a constant inspiration to locals and a reminder that Aitutaki was the first of the nation’s islands to embrace Christianity.

Delving further into the islands past is local archaeologist Ngaakitai Pureariki. On a four acre site in one of Aitutaki’s bush-clad valleys Nga’a is uncovering remnants of his peoples’ ancient past on a site strewn with large obelisk-like stones. Carbon dating of samples reveal that the Marae at Paengariki was established around 1000 A.D. Warriors met here before and after battle; sacred feasts and coming-of-age ceremonies were celebrated and human sacrifice took place. This is a fascinating place to visit for the Aitutaki Cultural Tour at Punarei.

Visitors will find a wide range of accommodation options available on the main island; from award-winning resorts to less expensive clean and comfortable motels and backpacker operations. The best way to see the Aitutaki mainland is by hired car or motor scooter. A winding road criss-crossing the island and lots of small tracks, lead to interesting, unexpected places and a number of local villages. A short drive up Maunga Pu provides a fantastic 360 degrees’ lookout of the entire vista – whichever way you turn. Several guided tours are available on the main island, visiting ancient sites, burial grounds and major points of interest. Most serve light refreshments or lunch.

Island nights with cultural shows are on throughout the week. Experiences not be missed are the island nights at Pacific Resort Aitutaki, Aitutaki Village, Tamanu Beach and Aitutaki Lagoon Resort & Spa. Some of the best meals using local produce are to be savoured at Blue Lagoon restaurant, Boatshed Bar & Grill and Te Vaka Bar & Grill. On the waterfront near the wharf at Arutanga, is the Aitutaki Game Fishing Club which has a bar inside a shipping container; this is a good place to make contacts for deep sea fishing enthusiasts. At O’otu Beach you’ll find the Koru Café is an ideal spot for lunch and Blue Lagoon Restaurant & Bar, a great place for a meal any time of the day or night, or for lazing away long hours on a white sandy beach.

Fishing aficionados will be in heaven on Aitutaki, as several operators offer game and sport fishing beyond the reef and there is always the call of the elusive bone-fish within the lagoon. Scuba diving is excellent in clear, warm waters and there is a choice of accredited operators who will show you a great time and a memorable underwater experience.

Hot sun, white sands, swaying coconut palms, a stunning turquoise lagoon and romantic sunsets – Aitutaki is blessed with them all; and friendly, laughing people that make you feel very welcome – all the time.