Flying ‘Round the Cooks: The Not-So-Easy Version

Photo courtesy of Ngaakitai Pureariki

Aitutaki - Photo courtesy of Ngaakitai Pureariki

Continued from
Flying ‘Round the Cooks: The Easy Version

On a map, the teeny, tiny Cook Islands look almost like a scattering of pebbles. But with 2 million square miles of ocean between the islands themselves, a trip around the Cooks could be surprisingly…epic.

The Cook Islands are in the dead center of the South Pacific: way south of Hawaii, east of Fiji and west of Tahiti. The 15 Cooks are split into two groups, Northern and Southern.

Rarotonga and Aitutaki, the two most popular Cooks, are both part of the Southern Group. The most remote of the Northern Group, Penrhyn, is 848 miles from Rarotonga.

The Cooks were one of the most remote island groups on Earth until World War II, when the Americans and Kiwis opened them up — literally.

Soldiers dug trenches through the coral-studded lagoons of Rarotonga and Aitutaki, and for the first time, supply ships could come across the choppy Pacific and small, local boats could head out to meet them.

A TEAL Solent "Flying Boat"

But despite two military airports, passenger air transit didn’t touch the Cooks until Tasman Empire Arlines Ltd. (TEAL) started running their luxurious “flying boats” in 1951. Along what was known as the Coral Route, these fancy airships flew from Auckland to Fiji to Tahiti, with two water-borne stops for refueling; one of these was aside Akaiami, one of Aitutaki’s islets.

If you’d like to know more about this early history of Cook Islands air travel, check out this post, based on interviews with Queen Manarangi, Paramount Chief of the eastern side of Aitutaki: The TEAL Story.

1960 brought the construction of Tahiti’s first airport, and the flying boats were officially retired.  In 1965, TEAL rebranded itself as Air New Zealand, still the official carrier of foreigners to the Cook Islands.

But in 1978, Air Rarotonga unfurled its wings, and at long last, travelers could fly between 9 of the 15 Cooks.  That is, if said travelers have a lot of time and money on their hands.

When we heard about the small island of Atiu, the third largest of the Cook Islands (and relatively near Rarotonga and Aitutaki), we immediately wanted to go.  Atiu, the only one of the Cook Islands the infamous Captain James Cook ever visited, offers: a series of limestone caves which shelter a colorful and entirely indigenous bird, the kopeka; its own island-grown coffee; and a growing tourist trade.

Six days a week, you can take a single, direct, 50-minute flight Rarotonga → Atiu.  Three days a week, you can retrace this route.

But if you want to go Aitutaki → Atiu or Atiu → Aitutaki, there’s just one flight a week, on Wednesday.  Weather’s bad that day?  Problem with the plane?  Well, you wait another week for the next one.

The clincher?  All of these flights cost about $200 NZ ($137 US)…each way, per person.

In our present climate of fierce airline competition, a ticket at this same price could easily take you across North America.  Between the Cooks, though, Air Rarotonga is the only choice.

Getting to the Northern Group is more daunting.  For example, just about the farthest you can presently go on Air Rarotonga is to Manihiki.  This über-remote island, the main home of Cook Islands black pearl production, is 746 miles (1200 km) northwest of Rarotonga.  Word is, it’s pristine, sparsely populated and you can stay right on the water in places like the spare but comfortable Manihiki Lagoon Villas.

There is exactly one 3-hour-40-minute Rarotonga → Manihiki flight in or out per week, on Tuesday.  Flights here tend to book up several months in advance; again, the bad weather/technical difficulties factor should be weighed; and each way, this flight costs…$1,346 NZ ($920 US).

And don’t forget: Should you want to fly to a relatively neighboring island in the Northern Group, you will have to fly back to Rarotonga and then again back out.

So, you ask, what about a cruise in and amongst the Cooks?  Well, at present, there isn’t one.  Few major cruise lines go beyond Rarotonga, and if they do, it’s merely a side trip to Aitutaki.   But the crowds we saw on Rarotonga, as well as the full airplanes and resorts we witnessed on Aitutaki, tell us that a small-ship cruise operation may someday soon fill this woeful gap in the tourist market.

Until then, you can always fantasize about chartering a yacht to take you from island to island to island…and never coming home again.

Aitutaki Lagoon

See related posts:
TWT Travel Binder: Cook Islands
Cook Islands: Scenes from Aitutaki
Pacific Resort Aitutaki?  Yes, Please
Aitutaki Discovery Safari Tours: Story of an Island, Part 1
Aitutaki Discovery Safari Tours: Story of an Island, Part 2
The Small Blue Yonder: An Aitutaki Lagoon Cruise
Ever Thought About Moving to Paradise?
All Around Rarotonga
Rumours of Rarotonga
Rarotonga: Pa’s Cross-Island Trek


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