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