Cook Islands: Scenes from Aitutaki

Aitutaki, the second largest of the Cook Islands, is one of the most laid-back places we’ve ever been.

Exploring the island for four days during Oceania’s winter, we felt a little sun, a little wind and a lot of peace. It offers the perfect combination of nature, cultural exploration…and pure sloth.

Aitutaki is found in the Southern Group of the Cook Islands, an hour’s flight from the hub of Rarotonga.  Only 12 square miles (20 square km), the island so small and remote that, at first, you might feel you’ve been complicit in your own marooning; but it doesn’t take long to take a deep breath and surrender to its mellow wavelength.

A two-lane asphalt road rings the whole of Aitutaki, a modern, Western marvel built during World War II by American soldiers.  All along this road are scenes of a small-town, tropical life steeped in both a missionary influence and a Maori culture in which native people can trace their families back 80 generations.

Aitutaki marae (cermonial site), island interior

Aitutaki marae (cermonial site), island interior

170 years after it was built from tender plaster, the pretty white church here still has a big following, but its poor construction and ill-advised location are cruelly punished in every storm; its cracks and chips held fast mainly by a revolving team of masons.

Cook Islands Maori people, most of whom are converted Christians, no longer dry the bones of their dead above ground; now, deceased relatives are enshrined beside their own homes, on the land their families have owned for a thousand years or more.  These roadside tombs are decorated with photos, beads, flowers and more.

A flotilla of day-cruises launch from Avarua’s port, but it really only bustles around the monthly arrival of The Big Supply Ship; this behemoth waits outside the coral-choked lagoon to meet smaller, local boats bearing steel containers.

Around Aitutaki, vines grow thickly on jumbles of bushes, pin-stuck with rustling palm trees.  Yellow-masked myna birds jockey for bugs and bread crusts.  Blue lorikeets nestle in the shady centers of banana trees.  Pendulous, pockmarked fruit hangs heavy from from tangled branches, like lime-green potatoes.

While there are no dogs, few cats and three horses on the whole island, chickens run rampant; some beaches seem populated only by roosters and their lady friends.  Little goats dot every open field, one leg tied to a staked rope to keep them from straying; the island rule is, if a goat wanders free for more than a week and you’re the one who’s tracked it…it’s your goat.

Along the shores of the lagoon, hermit crabs, small as pebbles or large as plums, sift through white coral sand in someone else’s shell.  Pacific herons tiptoe across chunks of exposed coral, and sea cucumbers flop and burrow on the sea floor.  These natural water purifiers are almost always coated with sand, but finding a clean one is a treat for some locals who’ll pick them up whole, suck out their spaghetti-string innards, and throw the skin back in the water to regenerate anew.

(Note:  Adam and I would quite possibly choose death before giving this a try.)

In winter, humpback whales breach themselves just outside the reef in the open ocean.  Sunsets are lavender and brilliant orange.  When the sun shines, the lagoon is eleventy-five shades of turquoise blue.

Maybe it’s needless to say, but we miss Aitutaki very much.

See related posts:
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?
Flying ‘Round the Cooks: The Easy Version
Flying ‘Round the Cooks: The Not-So-Easy Version

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