The Small Blue Yonder: An Aitutaki Lagoon Cruise

In Aitutaki, no matter what you’re doing, eventually you’ll catch a glimpse of pure turquoise water, cotton-white clouds and periwinkle sky.

And maybe, like us, you’ll ask a nice man to take you out across the lagoon…just the two of you.

We spent four glorious August days on Aitutaki, and on our last day, the sun was strong and the lagoon called our names.  That morning’s group cruise was leaving with a full haul of 20 people, but this was our 10th anniversary celebration…and we only had eyes for each other.

Captain Awesome aboard our private charter

So, with help from the front desk staff at the Pacific Resort Aitutaki, we booked a private charter with “Captain Awesome” (a.k.a Utu) of Bishop’s Cruises.  No, it wasn’t cheap ($550 NZ, about $370 US), but we may never have a boat all to ourselves again…and what are milestones for, if not to go into debt?  (Ahem.)

Captain Awesome, with his thick black hair, wide feet and hands, and hearty laugh, evokes a Polynesian Fred Flintstone.  With 25 years of lagoon-cruising experience, he can handle strong winds and rough water with ease.  Good thing, too, because on our Oceania-winter cruise day, the Pacific surf swelled 15 feet high just outside the reef’s edge.

The real advantage of a private charter (besides, well, privacy) is the chance to visit as many as six of Aitutaki’s 15 motus (islets); a group cruise generally makes it to no more than three.  Over a five-hour trip, the captain took us to the southeast tip of the lagoon to see Rapota, Moturakau, Motukitiu, Tapuaetai (a.k.a. One Foot Island), Muritapua, and finally, Akaiami.

Map of Aitutaki Lagoon and its islets

Photo by Robert Paul Young

Photo by Robert Paul Young

Rapota is popular for snorkeling, and with good reason. The water here is relatively deep (some parts of the lagoon are shallow enough to walk across) and full of teal-pink parrotfish, black-striped angels, skinny needlefish, schools of flashing silver guys with yellow eyes, and bright blue starfish.  We thought we’d found our own personal aquarium until we realized that a bigger tour boat had arrived to scatter fish food into the water…enticing them to gather.

This cheat didn’t ruin our fun, but the wind nearly did.  Snorkeling on a very windy day means the second you come to the surface to fuss with your mask, you’re instantly tossed like a water-borne rag doll.  This can feel pretty scary if, like me, you’re not a big fan of flailing and drowning.  Fortunately, Rapota boasts a long, wide sandbar, and we were never actually far from safety.

Hawksbill sea turtle - Photo by divemecressi (flickr)

Hawksbill sea turtle - Photo by divemecressi (flickr)

Near tiny Moturakau motu, Captain Awesome slowed down a little and boomed:

“Hello, turtle!  How are you, friend?”

At first, we saw nothing but shadows:  Gray chunks of coral create a liquid field of land mines for any sailor.  But up popped a hawksbill sea turtle’s brown-white mottled head — and then another, and another farther off — until it was clear we’d come across a little family outing.  One turtle waved his flipper at us, and I’m not embarrassed to say we waved back.

Motukitiu, our favorite motu of the day, lies all but deserted in the farthest southeastern tip of the lagoon; it features a single handmade picnic table.  The wind was harsh but the sand was soft on our feet; Adam kissed me beneath a palm tree and asked me to marry him all over again. We prowled through a little patch of jungle and up a short volcanic cliff to look over One Foot Island, the most-visited of Aitutaki’s motus…and wish we could have stayed on Motukitiu for hours.


Tapuaetai, or One Foot Island

Tapuaetai, or One Foot Island

One Foot Island, or Tapuaetai (Cook Islands Maori for “one footprint“), bears an ancient legend about a chief who forbade fishing here and a father and son who defied him; the son was hidden from the chief and spared, but the father lost his life.

Today, the murder rate is way down and every cruise stops here to have lunch.  There’s a little hut where you can send a postcard, have a beer, and for a small fee, buy a passport stamp with a great big foot. Lunch is fresh fish, taro salad, bread and fruit, served on banana leaves and with a serenade by a small Polynesian band.  After a morning of virtual solitude, being around people from all over the world (and their cigarettes) wasn’t as appealing as we’d hoped, so we took once again to our snorkel masks; however, despite much calmer conditions, we sadly didn’t see a single fish.

For anyone who wants to experience the sugar-sand beach, absolute quiet and zero electricity on One Foot Island after the day-tours have gone, look into booking the one accommodation on the island:  McBirney House.

Or, go unplug from reality on Akaiami, a long, quiet motu where you can choose from Akaiami Paradise and Gina’s Akaiami Beach Lodge. (The latter’s website is a glitch-fest, so I’d start with the former.)  From 1951-1960, this islet was the Cook Islands refueling stop along the luxurious Tasman Empire Airlines Ltd. (TEAL) Coral Route, and a rocky “flying boat” jetty still remains.

The main beach on Akaiami; a cottage at Akaiami Paradise

Late in the afternoon, Captain Awesome brought us gently back to Aitutaki’s port in Arutanga, where a WWII tanker rusts on a landing and international yachts come to linger.  We distinctly remember getting off the boat, but to be honest, many weeks later we still feel like a part of ourselves is still out wandering the lagoon.  A sun-bright wind ruffles the palm leaves, clear salt water slaps volcanic rocks…and we’re there.

See related posts:
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
Ever Thought About Moving to Paradise?
Flying ‘Round the Cooks: The Easy Version
Flying ‘Round the Cooks: The Not-So-Easy Version


  1. Great article! We’ve been on Aitutaki for the past 9 days. We got married on September 1st with a sunset beach wedding, so like you – we’re celebrating. We did the lagoon cruise a few days ago and agree it is an amazing experience. Even the cruise ships are beginning to stop by and shuttle passengers to shore to take a cruise w/ Bishop’s or Aitutaki Adventures. Anyways, good luck on your travels and you never know, one day our paths might cross.

    Paul and Christine (bertandpatty)


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