Polynesian traditions, pristine beauty, and friendly locals define the Cook Islands, and nowhere more so than on Aitutaki, the nation’s ultimate South Seas idyll.
The incredible beauty of the Cook Islands comes into view even before I arrive. As the plane approaches Rarotonga just after sunrise, the sea, like a vast Mark Rothko canvas, floats in luminous hues of blue—cyan, sapphire, deep indigo. Then, descending toward the island’s airport, we pass jungle-thick peaks that look like something out of Jurassic Park. The brochures have promised a “last heaven on earth,” and for once, the hype seems justified.
Named after Captain James Cook, who charted the group of 15 islands and atolls in the 1770s, the Cooks were first settled by voyagers from what is now French Polynesia a thousand years ago. They’re right in the middle of the South Pacific, scattered across more than two million square kilometers—an area as large as Western Europe. In 1901, the islands were annexed as part of the British colony of New Zealand; in 1965, they became self-governing, with an elected parliament and a council of hereditary chiefs known as the House of Ariki. Though the ariki don’t have any political power, they have an important voice in traditional customs and religious matters.
Rarotonga, the main island, is the modern face of the Cook Islands, and home to more than half of the nation’s 17,000 inhabitants. But there’s no time to linger; I’m booked on a late-morning Air Rarotonga flight to Aitutaki, a fishhook-shaped jewel encircled by one of the South Pacific’s most breathtaking lagoons. By all accounts, Aitutaki isn’t tourist-trampled or overly developed like Bali or the Bahamas. There are no high-rise hotels, no fast-food chains, no stoplights or traffic; nor, I’m told, is there theft. Each of the 2,000 people living here practically knows everyone else; most doors are kept unlocked, and car keys are left in the ignition. On such a tiny island, where would you take a stolen car anyway?
A five-minute drive from the airport brings me to Pacific Resort Aitutaki, the island’s top luxury property. After checking in, I’m escorted through luxuriant gardens to my beach villa, a thatched-roof cocoon outfitted with Tasmanian-oak floors, classic Polynesian furniture, an outdoor shower, and a wall of windows looking straight out to the ocean. The living room also sports a framed reproduction of Paul Gauguin’s The Siesta, which sounds like a great idea. Settling into a sun lounger on my deck, I doze off to the sound of waves breaking against the reef on the far side of the lagoon.
At sunrise the next morning, I meet Tai “Black Jack” Tuati for my first-ever big-game fishing trip. The Cook Islands are known for their offshore sportfishing, and as our eight-meter aluminum boat takes off, I entertain Hemingwayesque fantasies of fighting for hours with a huge black marlin.
We sail beyond the lagoon and its deserted motu (islets) into gentle swells. There’s a salty morning breeze. Boobies, herons, and red-tailed tropicbirds fly overhead; flying fish shoot like missiles past the hull. Black Jack, in his fifties, has fished these waters since he was a child and now runs a tour outfit called Moonlight Charters. “The sea is in my blood,” he says. “Even a day without catching anything is a good day out here.”
Forty minutes later, the boat anchors and I strap a padded rod holder around my waist. As he casts my line into the water, Black Jack tells me, “The most important thing is, when you feel a tug on the line, keep it tight. Pull up the rod, wind down on the reel. Pull up, wind down.”
After half an hour with no bites we cruise to another spot. Within minutes, I feel a tug. I’m ready for battle—to reel in that big fish. But it’s just a foot-long queenfish, which turns out to be the best catch of the day. As we pack up to go home, three humpback whales shatter the water’s surface just meters from the boat. “That’s probably why we couldn’t catch anything today,” says Black Jack after I regain my composure. “The whales scared off the large fish.”
Back on shore, I wonder how the unspoiled Cooks are balancing record-level tourism (mostly from New Zealand and Australia) with environmental conservation. Asking around, I’m told the best person to speak to is Aitutaki’s long-serving mayor, Po-o Bishop. He’s a regular visitor to Pacific Resort, so it wasn’t difficult to arrange a lunch. The jovial 63-year-old greets me with a “Kia orana” and, over wahoo sandwiches, talks about overseeing the island’s affairs and commitment to sustainable development. Tourism, he says, is the main source of income, “but it has to be controlled. Aitutaki is the golden egg of the Cook Islands. So we need to protect the mother chicken.”
In a country where no building may be built higher than the tallest coconut tree, strict rules and inherited rights govern development. This guardianship, which extends to the ocean, is part of a deep kinship between the people and the natural world, explains the mayor. “As islanders, we realize the importance of the sea. Its future is our future. Mana tiaki—to protect and preserve this. It is our Maori belief that this responsibility was given to us long ago by the gods.”
In 2017, the archipelago created one of the world’s largest protected marine reserves, Marae Moana. Spanning almost two million square kilometers, it includes protection for valuable coral reefs, seagrass beds, and over 150 different fish species. And by the end of this year, all the inhabited islands will be solar-powered. Could the Cook Islands set an example as one of the most eco-friendly places on earth?
That evening, I attend the resort’s weekly cultural show. There’s a buffet of Western and traditional dishes, including one of my favorites, ika mata, a raw fish salad with lime, coconut milk, and vegetables. Later, while I’m sipping a rum cocktail, an explosion of fast and furious drumming ushers in a troupe of bare-chested, foot-stomping men, followed by a line of female dancers in grass skirts and shell necklaces. Their movements are bewitching.
The next morning, I’m in a motorboat zipping over the sun-speckled sea to Tapuaetai, otherwise known as One Foot Island, with Aita and his buddy Pligh from Teking Lagoon Tours. After a quick stop to count scuttling hermit crabs on the motu’s sugar-white sandbar, we sail to nearby Akaiami, another uninhabited islet that, in the 1950s, served as a stopover on Tasman Empire Airways’ flying-boat service between Auckland and Tahiti. The so-called Coral Route was a glamorous island-hopping affair that attracted moneyed types and celebrities like Cary Grant, John Wayne, and Marlon Brando, who would dress in their finest and enjoy haute cuisine in the plane’s dining room before splashing down for a midday swim. What’s good for the super rich is good enough for me. Snorkeling among the flowery coral I see angelfish, butterfly fish, darting trumpet fish, large black trevally, and a lone, giant Napoleon wrasse.
The next day being Sunday, I head to the Cook Islands’ largest and oldest church for the morning service. As elsewhere in the South Seas, the predominant religion here is Christianity, introduced by British missionaries who arrived in Aitutaki in 1821. Built of coral stone and decorated with simple stained-glass windows, the Cook Islands Christian Church is located in Arutanga, the island’s tiny main town. The pews quickly fill with worshippers dressed mostly in white; women wear wide-brimmed hats encircled by wreaths of handwoven flowers known as ’ei katu. For me, the highlight of the service is the jubilant Polynesian harmonies from the choir and congregation.
On my last day, I sail around the lagoon with Titiroa “Ted” Tavai on his five-meter Hobie Cat. Ted runs Sailing Aitutaki, a company he started after returning to his home island in 2008 from New Zealand, where he spent much of his life. “You can call me a Cookiwi,” he quips as the wind takes us out into the lagoon. “I liked living in New Zealand, but my heart always belonged to my homeland. I missed family and the people here.”
After lunch on the tiny islet of Moturakau, where episodes of Shipwreck and Survivor were filmed, it’s time to head back. I continue to marvel at the surrounding beauty. Will this remote paradise endure, or is it a slowly vanishing world? For now, I’ll just
savor it. Ted hands me the tiller and tells me to steer us back to Aitutaki. I turn the sail into the wind.
Where to Stay
682/28140; bungalows from US$874.
What to Do
This article originally appeared in the February/March 2020 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Pearl of the Pacific”).