Screensaver paradise: Aitutaki, Cook Islands

Eyes open. Eyes closed. Am I dreaming? I blink my eyes once again. It is still there. I had not imagined that a place like this could actually exist. Of course, I had seen the pictures in travel magazines and had googled some more myself. Had I hoped for it? Yes. Had I thought it could be this beautiful? Let’s just say I thought this was the kind of place that is truly amazing but is photoshopped on the go – just to keep up the image of the unreachable paradise.

The beach on which I’m standing now, wriggling my toes in the white sand, is not unreachable, but you must at least be quite convinced of the beauty of this destination if you are flying in from the other side of the globe as it is in incredibly long and expensive flight. I have to admit though that we did not fly in from home but added this small week of island life to our camper trip in Australia and New Zealand and flew in to Cook Island’s main island Rarotonga from Auckland. On our way back to Amsterdam however – an inevitable moment I just don’t want to think about right now – we will be dealing with the full monty of a three day flight.

My partner jumps into vision interrupting my train of thoughts, and brings me back to the here and now. Hugging and kissing each other, then both turning our faces to the calm waters of the lagoon and the bright blue skies, we conclude that we must be the happiest couple in the world right now.

It is 77 days after our wedding in Amsterdam. After weeks of hiking, sleeping in a minivan, and enduring quite some rain in Australia and New Zealand, we feel privileged to be ending our already amazing honeymoon on the palm tree covered islands of Aitutaki, the picture perfect lagoon that is part of the Cook Islands archipelago. It is our first encounter with a tropical destination and it has everything you would imagine when that word pops up in your head: white sand beaches lined with palm trees and decorated with coconuts, bright sunshine, a light breeze providing perfect weather conditions, and comfortingly warm turquoise waters. It is now time for us to relax our bodies as much as our minds, and indulge ourselves in the ultimate relaxation of island life.

IMG_9081 (2)The cleaning lady calls out to us that our room is ready and so we pick up our small bags from the wooden outdoor desk that is reception and walk up the stairs of our first ever wooden and wicker hut on poles. A tropical dream – the affordable version. Our balcony is precisely in front of the small beach bar ‘Coconut Shack’ which means that there is no undisturbed view of the ocean, and the water in the shower is cold – but it is all so unimportant. We are honeymooning backpack style and this is definitely paradise on earth.

We stroll the beach and dip the water, then stroll a bit further for lunch. Waitresses dressed in bright yellow flower print blouses greet us. Their black tube skirts that are probably supposed to give them a chic appearance, look out of place in the open beach restaurant. The local specialty cocos crab is served unpretentiously in a deep plate, small pieces of white crab meat soaking in coconut sauce. Unrefined but tasty.

In the afternoon we savour a cocktail from the ‘Coconut Shack’, the bar in front of our wooden hut. Our books lay closed in the sand beside us as the view is just too good to hide behind pages. While the sun sets beautifully, reflecting a deep orange line across the lagoon water, we walk barefoot to dinner. Some hours later and our bellies full of Tuna steak, we walk the same path for the fourth time that day. (Our options for lunch and dinner places are limited since we only have our feet as means of transport). But this time the beach is pitch dark. Our torch light saves the lives of many small crabs that cross our path. In the quiet darkness of the night we kneel down on the beach to witness a unique food feast. A cracked coconut that has landed in the sand is tonight’s favourite pop-up restaurant for crabs living on this part of the sandbank.

A lagoon tour the following day makes us realise we are not very special as newlyweds on this honeymoon destination – two other couples on the snorkelling tour also just got married – but the destination itself could not be more special. After a lot of waiting, watching various locals trying to load the boat in the water off a trailer that was pulled by a battered and rusty van, we bounce the most amazing water I will ever see – I am sure of that. The water is incredibly clear and has many more different shades of blue and turquoise I ever imagined existed.

Our guide firmly but carefully zigzags between massive coral rocks to designated snorkelling spots. As we explore three different spots during the day, we see massive purple and black fishes as well as bright blue and yellow smaller ones. Our guide points out various lagoon life and we marvel at sea stars and truly gigantic clams in the most wonderful colours – as if the waved ends of their shells are ceramic artwork.
Dreamy sights under water compete with the beauty of the two most famous motus (small sand islands) of Aitutaki: Honeymoon Island and One Foot Island. The truly stunning islands equal what most people think of going to when they win the lottery – a computer screensaver of a tall palm tree hanging low over a white sand beach against a backdrop of clear blue skies. I am a bit reluctant to hop on the boat again and continue our snorkelling trip – this must be the best place on earth to play castaway for a day.

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After these 1,5 days of easy relaxation, strolling beaches and snorkelling the clear waters, our exploring backpacker’s minds start to present us with some challenges. We were so convinced that we did not want to be part of the touristic island night at our accommodation – including traditional dance and a buffet – and wanted to find a new local dining option, that we now find ourselves in front of two closed bars and out of other dinner options. Eventually we take our ‘loss’ to walk 25 minutes to the same restaurant where we have had lunch and dinner the day before.

On Sunday, we are not able to book any excursions but are itching too much to just sit back and relax. It is time to venture out, see something of the rest of the island and find a place to rent a kayak. And so we rent a motorbike. Quicker said then done, island time once more tests our patience. After 30 minutes of waiting (“she’ll be here in 5 minutes”) the owner of the rental company picks us up in her pope style mobile with electrical sliding doors, to be followed by another wait of 20 minutes at the office before we can finally take off.

As we explore the island on two wheels, tarmac makes way for unpaved roads and the lagoon disappears out of view as palm trees surround us. As we pass churches that have just finished their Sunday mass, we are greeted by men and women dressed in white, the ladies’ hair beautifully decorated with colourful flower crowns. We halt at an intersection to decide which road to follow next, and an oncoming young man immediately stops to ask us if something is wrong with the motorbike and if we need help. He points us in the direction of Aitutaki’s luxury resort where the more healthy newlyweds spent their bridal days. Our hostess had told us we would be able to hire a kayak there. The resort is located on a separate sandbank at the tip of the island and requires the shortest ‘ferry’ ride I ever made to cross the only ten metre wide water stream separating the resort from the rest of the island. A warm welcome is not included in this resort, at least not for us. The incredibly rude hostess makes it quite clear that there is no way we can rent a kayak here (“only for guests”) and that we are not to go anywhere else on the premises than straight to the bar. A little taken aback we sit down on the most scenic lunch spot you can possibly imagine. A wooden terrace built over the white sand beach provides a magnificent view of the clear waters sprawling with little fish, the motus spread out over the lagoon and the palm tree lined shore of the main island. Also in this upstate resort, the lunch is not that refined (my tempura fish was more dough than actual fish) and the waitress was working on island time, but the two of us – we were just jealous of ourselves, noticing these details in such a setting.

After lunch we try our luck for a kayak hire at a nearby, more down to earth accommodation, and after a long discussion the lady behind the bar is finally willing to rent us a bright yellow kayak. As we slide the kayak in the clear warm waters, the first challenge to reach one of the motus at the other end of the lagoon becomes clear. The water is so shallow, and the lagoon so plentiful of coral, that we have difficulty manoeuvring between the sandbanks without getting stuck in the sand or hitting some coral with a peddle. Clearly, we do not want to ruin any of the amazing water wonders, so we pick up the kayak and walk to deeper waters. As we slide up the beach of a densely forested motu, we feel like we have just entered the living grounds of Robinson Crusoe. We enjoy a dip in the water and then decide to crack a coconut for some refreshment. What an awesome experience. Luckily, unlike Robinson, we’re not stuck here and we paddle our way back trough the smooth water. We end the day with a cocktail in Aitutaki’s other ridiculously expensive resort, followed by a lovely evening dining at our private Formica table placed some metres away from the Coconut Shack. We eat plain fried fish, but the ambiance is as tasteful as it gets.

We saved the ultimate ‘heaven on earth’ experience for our last day in Aitutaki and find ourselves on a water taxi with just one other (again just married) couple to Honeymoon Island. In the coming hours we will only need to share the island with them, in other words enjoy our own private beach and pop that bottle of champagne that we had already bought in Auckland and brought along for the occasion.

Arriving on the sand bank of the island we had briefly visited on the snorkelling trip two days before, a flawless beach spreads out in front of us. Not a single footstep of another person to be seen. We walk a couple of minutes to find our perfect island spot: a combination of dreamy white sand and partly shaded beach from the overhanging palm trees, in the lee, with a mesmerising view of the turquoise lagoon and One Foot Island. Laying down on our towels we find ourselves amidst a cheerful gathering of crabs. Small crabs, but all variations of small and all with their own outfit – finding the right shell to protect their bodies, changing shells as we watch them. A little further in the bushes we spot a tropical bird and as he opens his beak we follow his gaze to the skies. Soaring above us we see his congener, making a distinct appearance. With his constitution and white feathered body he looks a bit like a seagull or albatross, but taking him up from head to toe a most remarkable red tail that stands out from the blue skies attracts my attention. We decide to sit and enjoy the view for a while before enjoying a swim in the warm waters, and are faced with the most decadent reality in the world – the water has such a comfortable temperature, there is no way that it can cool down our warmed up champagne.

Eyes open. Eyes closed. We are living the dream.

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Say yes to making that screensaver of yours an everlasting memory!

How to get to Aitutaki?

All international flights to Cook Islands originate or stop over in Auckland, New Zealand and will connect you with the main island Rarotonga. From there, you can continue your trip to one of the other vulcanic atoll islands with Air Rarotonga. Keep in mind that the islands are spread out over an area the size of Europe, so it can still take some hours to reach your final destination.

The flight to Aitutaki was a scenic flight and an experience on its own, providing a spectacular view of the lagoon and its white motu’s.

Where to stay?

Don’t be tempted to think that Aitutaki is small enough to go around by feet. Renting a scooter is definitely necessary if you want to see different parts of the island. The most fancy resorts are undoubtedly Aitutaki Lagoon Resort – with the most stunning view of the surrounding motus – and Pacific Resort Aitutaki – for a cocktail in the swimming pool while you watch the sun disappear into the ocean. I would say, check out these beautiful places for a lunch or cocktail, and spend the rest of your money on lagoon trips and boat taxis by staying in a more affordable version of paradise, such as Paradise Cove.

Help to keep this wonder of nature the paradise it is

With the warm sun on our faces and an endless view of the horizon, it was almost difficult to grasp the important information that our guide shares with us. Due to fishing activities the reef and fishes in the waters have suffered a lot and are not as abundant as they used to be. He also explained that part of the erosion is due to tourist body fluids and sun protection. Throughout the Cook Islands you will find reef friendly sun protection that does not contain ingredients such as oxybenzone and butylparaben that bleach and even kill coral.

 

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