Notes from the Cook Islands: A first visit to Aitutaki



large_onefootpalm               pam at big foot             sunset

Aitutaki is a surprise. This is my first visit to the second-most-visited island in the Cook Islands and I find it less developed, less populated, less prosperous than expected. There are two big resorts and a handful of smaller ones, plus a variety of self-catering bungalows, beach huts and lodges, but compared with Rarotonga where the whole coastline is dotted with tourist accommodation, Aitutaki is sparsely developed. For an island which dines out on the 2010 comment of Lonely Planet-founder, Tony Wheeler, who described Aitutaki as “the most beautiful island in the world”, I had expected more tourist buzz, more building going on, new places opening.

Aitutaki reputedly has better weather than Rarotonga, more sun and less rain. They are probably equal in the wind stakes however, and often you will find one side of the island is calm while the other is being buffeted. The problem is, it’s impossible to predict which will be the calm side when you make your bookings. That’s why it’s clever to hire scooters or a car so you can travel (in 10 to 20 minutes) to the other side for beach activities. This time in Aitutaki we were lucky. We stayed on the west side which was beautifully sheltered.

pam on beach

Autitaki is perfect for a peaceful escape from the world, in luxury if you choose. The slow pace is marvellous for the visitor seeking quiet and solitude, but it doesn’t do much for the locals who look as though they could do with more dollars in their pockets. The population is down below 2000. Houses are basic. Running water is not taken for granted, hot water is a luxury. Ironically the majority of these flimsy houses were damaged or destroyed in Cyclone Pat in 2010, the same year the Lonely Planet man made his oft-quoted comment.

church Extreme weather does not bother the substantial churches which are everywhere in Aitutaki. The most impressive, and the oldest (built in the 1820s) is the Cook Islands Congregational Church in the main village, Arutanga, a main road with a roundabout which the locals call, in a slight exaggeration, Town. The day we attend the CICC Sunday service, a new minister is being welcomed. He and his wife drive away in a shiny new double-cab ute. Most parishioners travel by motor-scooter, and they can choose between the pretty coral and limestone CICC church, or the equally solid premises of the Latter Day Saints, Catholics, Seventh Day Adventists, the Assembly of God, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Apostolic and the Baha’i interior

The churches surely have more money than the ordinary people, but money is not the driving force here. There is no fishing or agricultural industry. The best jobs are in government, and most resorts and restaurants report difficulty in finding local staff. Waitresses, cleaners, security and grounds staff are brought in from Rarotonga, Fiji and Vanuatu. A woman who runs a simple garden café tells us she is closed at the moment because she can’t find a waitress to take orders and serve the food.

Having said that, Trip Advisor is full of praise for the Aitutaki locals who run the small accommodation units on their family land. Hard-working, generous, helpful, they say. And the few strong, slim attractive young local women among the staff at our resort are a delight.

Health problems no doubt contribute to the difficulties of local people who are not seeking employment. Obesity, with its associated diabetes, heart disease and stroke risk, is rife. More than half the population of the Cook Islands is classified obese by the WHO. Some reports say more than 90 percent of the people are overweight.  The problem is starkly obvious on Aitutaki where a slim and fit person stands out. Waitressing, gardening and cleaning jobs at resorts and restaurants are hard work: obese people are often not capable of doing them.

The cause of the problem is lack of physical activity (a fishing charter skipper says no one walks even short distances these days, everyone hops on a scooter), and a diet heavy in canned corned beef, Spam and other cheap processed fatty food. I watch teenagers in the Town, each downing a 2-litre bottle of bright lime green fizzy drink.  It’s cheaper than bottled water.

None of this is to say Don’t Go.  Absolutely you should go. I can’t disagree with anyone who says it’s the most beautiful island in the world. aitutaki

Floating around the lagoon, any part of it, with a mask and snorkel is magical. Take a boat to offshore motu to swim with giant trevally and gaze down on massive clams.

I had been wanting to visit Aitutaki for 30 years, alerted to it by reading it was the favourite holiday destination of gone-but-not-forgotten New Zealand  Prime Minister David Lange. Somehow I felt the place would be much developed and much changed by 2016, but I doubt it is. Perhaps a little more accommodation, including a couple of really posh resorts and a luxury retreat, but no more infrastructure, little in the way of ‘progress’ in the life of the people.

Travel writer Paul Theroux wrote about encountering Lange on the beaches of Aitutaki in his book The Happy Isles of Oceania, published 1992.  Theroux quotes Lange as saying the reason the Cooks have retained their character is because they are owned by the islanders. Not one acre has been sold to a foreigner.  The manager of best resort on Aitutaki says the same thing: he reckons New Zealand should have made that rule a long time ago.  (The island owners lease their land to resorts.)

What to do? Just chill. Loll in that wondrous lagoon. The cruise boats will take you to the little motu of Akaiamu, where the Teal flying boats on the famous Coral Route used to stop in the 1950s, en route to Tahiti. Or walk to the highest point on Aitutaki, Maunga Pu, which is only 123 metres above sea level. A puffy but quick walk for a 360-degree view.Maunga Pu

Where to Stay?  Pacific resortThe Pacific Resort, luxury, well-reviewed, expensive. Ditto Aitutaki Escape, a small luxury adults-only retreat. On the opposite side of the island is Aitutaki Beach Resort and Spa, situated on the most beautiful part of the lagoon. In between, cost-wise, are Tamanu and Etu Moana, and there are myriad other mostly self-catering options.

Eat.  Our favourite restaurant find was Tupuna’s, in the centre of the island. (Tupuna used to look after the aforementioned David Lange, back in the day).  She is a trained chef and has a restaurant-grade kitchen at the front of her house. TupunasTables are set under a canopy in her garden, sand underfoot. Tupuna’s mud-crab is apparently not to be missed. I settled for her ika mata, which was best version of the Cook Islands’ raw fish salad I’ve ever tasted.

Book a table. It might look laid-back and ultra-casual but Tupuna’s fame has spread, and she feeds only about 20 people per night.

The restaurant at the Pacific Resort is very good.  Outside that, there are a handful of dining options which we found to be mostly average. Prices are about the same as in New Zealand cafes and restaurants.

Stopping over in Rarotonga? I have two eating places to recommend. For dinner, Kikau Hut.kikau hutWe went there twice because the food and atmosphere were so appealing. And The Mooring Fish Café for lunch. Here you eat seafood burgers or salads prepared in a shipping container at the wharf. Look them up – both places are on Facebook. Mooring

Next time: I want to do a Plantation House Dinner. Minar Purotu Henderson and Louis Enoka host a feast at their home about once a month. The evening involves a tour of their garden where most of the dinner comes from. They say that 98 percent of the food on offer is island-grown or caught. The couple has worked around the world, managing and cooking in hotels and resorts. Now they have returned to their homestead, one of Rarotonga’s oldest, built in 1853.  Eat at long tables on their veranda.  Book direct with Minar at    (They have a market stall and a small gift shop called Island Living.)

That’s all. I can’t wait to go back.            aitutaki beach


Fiji versus Rarotonga

Fiji versus RarotongaBeen to Raro this winter?  Pamrovia has, and we highly recommend Cooks Beach Villas for a family holiday with pre-schoolers. (View from our deck.) Self-catering with a supermarket across the road, two bedrooms, clean and comfortable, a swimmable beach with not too much coral underfoot (though do take your reef shoes), swimming pool (a bit chilly after the warmth of the sea) and free glass-bottom kayaks. Cost: NZ$400 per night.

And we are about to test a brand new resort in the Yasawa Islands. Paradise Cove opened in July, and the Pamrovian whanau has two beachfront villas for a week, all meals included. Resort versus self-catering? Child-friendly versus adults-only? Watch this space! (This is all Honest Travel – no discounts asked for or taken.)

Speaking of Fiji, here’s a story about a trip to back-country caves published earlier this year.  SONY DSC  cave safari vehicle

Delving into cannibalism

Pam Neville leaves the resort and heads to the hills on a Fijian cave safari.

 Cannibalism is on the menu throughout this excursion into the wild jungle outback of Fiji. Apparently the locals have given up eating people – since yesterday – but that courtesy is not necessarily extended to New Zealanders.

Two young guides, bubbling with more than their share of the teasing, in-your-face Fijian sense of humour, can’t resist ribbing the Kiwis. It’s all to do with rugby rivalry. Deep inside an eerie cave with a grisly history, they show off a “cannibal oven” under limestone rocks. Just the right size for roasting Richie McCaw, they reckon.

There are cannibal jokes, cannibal recipes, and cannibal history from the times when Fijians did in fact eat one other. The practice continued well into the 1800s and Fiji became known as the Cannibal Islands. In London earlier this year, a set of Fijian cannibal forks sold at auction for 30,000 pounds ($54,000).

 But on this bumpy four-wheel-drive trip, the history is mixed up with the humour, and as the guides admit – a certain amount of “bula-sh**”. The only reason Japan invaded the Solomon Islands rather than Fiji in 1942, we are told, is that the invaders had heard that Fiji was full of cannibals and they were particularly keen on eating Japanese.

We are a couple of hours drive inland from Sigatoka, one of Fiji’s bigger towns and capital of the Coral Coast.  This is Rugby Town: home to the country’s most fanatical rugby supporters, the top provincial team, and a host of top players. Former All Black Joe Rococoko, current NZ Sevens player Waisake Naholo, and Australian union and league star Lote Tuqiri are from this area.

The welcome sign at the entrance to Sigatoka could say ‘welcome to the Coral Coast’, ‘welcome to the salad bowl of Fiji’ (most of the country’s vegetables come from the Sigatoka Valley’, ‘welcome to Sigatoka river adventures”, or ‘welcome to some of the best resorts on Viti Levu’. Instead, the sign proclaims ‘Welcome to Rugby Town’.

The closest 5-star resort to Sigatoka, the Outrigger on the Lagoon resort, sponsors the local rugby team, The Stallions.

“The most successful and greatest provincial rugby team in Fiji rugby history”, the team calls itself.

An eye-opening Saturday can be spent watching a match in Sigatoka, or better still watching the spectators. The Outrigger on the Lagoon takes guests at the resort to a roped-off sponsors area during the April-October rugby season. It’s a favourite out-of-the-resort tourist activity.

Everyone talks rugby – man, woman, child, Fijian, Indian, tourist – so no wonder it’s on the minds of our guides as we tour the Naihehe Cave. This is an immense network of limestone caverns and formations deep under a marble mountain. Sculptured human-like formations of ‘cannibal man’ and ‘cannibal woman’ are particularly stunning. Access is through a narrow crevice. We crouch and bend nearly double, then walk crab-like in a stream of water gripping a bamboo pole laid on the ground. No built-in lights or hand-rails here. We wear small head torches, and grip strong Fijian arms to get over slippery rocks.

The difficult access made this cave a haven for the local tribe escaping a rival cannibal tribe around 200 years ago. The village population survived deep in the caves (where only they knew the location of air vents and crevices for smuggling in food) for months. The slit-like entrance in a creek bed, which tourists now squeeze through, meant cave residents could easily club to death any rival warrior who came looking for them. A tasty addition to their vegetable diet, the guides say, “No bula-sh**”.

And speaking of Raro, let me introduce you to one of the island’s characters. Copy of trader jackHere’s a story I wrote a couple of years ago about Jack Cooper, the owner of Rarotonga’s most famous watering hole, Trader Jacks. His new restaurant is now up and running. (No freebies taken, though it’s possible Jack shouted me a shandy.)

Copy of trader jacks

A Tiger for Punishment

The famous Trader Jacks of Rarotonga is soon to have a sister restaurant serving Asian food, reports Pam Neville

“Another foolish venture” says the sign advertising the opening of Bamboo Jacks. It hangs proudly behind the bar at Trader Jacks on the waterfront at Avarua, Rarotonga’s main town, but the irony is difficult to fathom given that Trader Jacks is a bustling, successful-looking joint, crammed with tourists stuffing themselves with fish fresh from the Pacific and cold local beer.

But then you meet Jack Cooper, Trader Jack himself, and the words make more sense. Jack Cooper tells how Trader Jacks has been wiped out by cyclones three times since it opened in 1986. After the first time, insurance companies declined to do business with the restaurant, so when Cyclone Meena annihilated the building in 2005 the million-dollar rebuild was financed solely out of the pocket of the uninsurable owner.

Plenty of people had told kiwi Cooper, not long off the boat from New Zealand, that his waterfront restaurant would not withstand cyclones but “like a foolish white man” he went ahead and built it because he believed tourists wanted to watch the sea and the sunset while they ate. With the same “foolish” spirit he rebuilt, twice, and after Meena did her worst in 2005 he moved a six-metre shipping container to the site. By cutting holes in the metal walls, adding a bar and kitchen, and dumping a few truckloads of sand around, Jack was back.

Jack in a Box became another famous, if short-lived, Rarotongan watering hole, keeping the customers happy and the cash flowing. When the new Trader Jacks building on the wharf was finished, Jack in a Box was moved to the outlying island of Aitutaki where it serves the local big game fishing club.

Time will tell whether this latest venture, Bamboo Jacks, is as foolish as the advertising proclaims. In reality it is probably more a canny business plan than a foolish venture. If a cyclone destroys Trader Jacks a fourth time, customers can be directed down the road to Bamboo Jacks which is in an old but less vulnerable building. And Jack Cooper says Rarotonga lacks an Asian restaurant, other than Indian.

“We’ll be pan-Asian,” he says, referring to the planning he and his long-term Rarotongan partner Rosa are doing. “We’ll be a mix of Thai, Malaysian, Singaporean, Vietnamese and Chinese.

“There will be a chef from overseas, and I’ve bought a Buddha in Auckland to create some Courtyard Zen in the outdoor area.”

Despite the joking image of a white man ‘gone troppo’, the real Trader Jack remains a suave and successful businessman who runs a fish processing plant as well as the restaurant, and is the major sponsor of Vaka Eiva, Pacific canoe championships which bring close to 1000 visitors to Rarotonga each year.

Put Trader Jack in a suit and he could still be the Jack Cooper who was General Manager of the St George Hotel in Willis Street, Wellington, from 1977 to 1982, or an older version of the entrepreneur who set up the 1860 Victualing Company bar and restaurant in Lambton Quay in the early 70s.

He recently celebrated his “third 21st birthday” and he’s still learning. The sign advertising Bamboo Jacks, like pretty much everything else in the building, can be moved at short notice. In this third version of Trader Jacks, he has pack-up-and-run features such as the central Vaka Bar. It has a hydraulic roof which can be lowered onto the bar to create a box-like arrangement which can be lifted to safety.

“We can strip the place in one day if we have to, and then head for the hills.”

Between “foolish ventures” Jack Cooper is writing his memoirs, to be called Forty Years Behind Bars. The book will cover the past 30 years in Rarotonga, and the earlier years in Wellington, including experiences from the infamous 1981 Springbok Tour. The Springbok team was to have stayed at the St George but protestors invaded the hotel, causing damage such as filling toilets with cement. The team was forced to spend the night under the stands at Athletic Park.

Publisher and publication date are undecided, but amongst the facts Jack promises previously untold tales from places such as Scribblers Bar in the St George Hotel which he opened to cater for newspaper staff and which housed memorabilia from the early days of The Evening Post and The Dominion newspapers. And there will be plenty of humour, often self-deprecating.

“People say I’m mad, and that’s probably fair,” says Trader Jack.