Really, CBS? I used to feel sympathy for the cast of Survivor, having to battle the elements, construct shelter and scrounge for food. But after visiting the motu ( a South Pacific word for little island) where the 13th season, Survivor: Cook Islands, was filmed, I’m thinking about applying.
Surviving? Seriously? This idyllic motu, one of 15 in Aitutaki, is truly one of the prettiest places I’ve ever seen. And I’ve been around the globe a few times. Even Tony Wheeler, founder of Lonely Planet, calls it “the world’s most beautiful island.”
Aitutaki’s 8 by 10-mile coral lagoon is stunning with literally hundreds of shades of blue. Sure, it hasn’t succumbed yet to mass tourism and it takes a while to get there. From L.A., ten hours on Air New Zealand and then an hour hop from Rarotonga. But neither is much of a chore. Applicants for Air New Zealand flight attendants must come from Super Nice People Academy and the 48-minute, nearly-always-on-time flight from Rarotonga to Aitutaki is reminiscent of air travel before 9/11. No one asks you to take off your shoes or get there hours early or submit yourself to embarrassing pat-downs. In fact, the flight into the miniscule Aitutaki airport is nearly as gorgeous as a Monet water lily and certainly a lot less expensive.
I supposed the fact that Aitutaki’s golf course is only nine holes, doesn’t have a phone and that stray balls sometimes land in either the lagoon or the airport runway could be considered a hardship, but any one of Aitutaki’s hotels or guesthouses can arrange rentals and tee times.
I’m not sure where the Cook Island “Survivors” bunked before starting their outdoor challenges, but Aitutaki has a fine selection of five-star resorts including Pacific Resort and Aitutaki Escape where I had one of the best massages of my life, outdoors, next to crashing waves while a chef prepared an amazing three-course meal.
While in Aitutaki, I visited several motus: Honeymoon Motu, Heaven (it’s aptly named), One-Foot Island and, yes, Survivor Island, although it’s officially called Motu Rakau. . Bishop’s Cruises (nearly half the people in Aitutaki have the surname Bishop) even took us to Motu Akaiami with a small museum (very, very small) with exhibits from the old Coral Route.
Operated by TEAL (the forerunner of Air New Zealand), these Coral Route flying boats famously hopped from one South Pacific paradise to another in the 1950’s, back when flying was an elite, wealthy-man’s only sport. John Wayne, Cary Grant and Queen Elizabeth II, to name just a few of the Coral Route “Survivors,” enjoyed chefs, white linens, full silver service and, in Aitutaki, Polynesian dancers and cocktails served on the white sand, palm-fringed beach where the museum now sits.
My favorite Aitutaki motu was probably Tapuaetai (AKA One-Foot Island), the world’s only “deserted island” with its own post office. Lagoon cruises often stop there for lunch so passengers can mail letters and get their passports stamped with a giant foot that now dwarfs all the other “countries” in my passport. Depending on the tide, you can walk so far out on a sandbar (in pictures from One Foot, I resemble Jesus when he got out of the boat) that your party could easily mistake you for an errant sea bird or an insignificant dot.
Two years after “Survivor: Cook Islands,” One Foot Island’s beach was even chosen as “Australasia’s Leading Beach,” not exactly a resume builder for “roughing it.”
So, call it what you will, but “surviving” in Aitutaki with its crystal clear lagoon, archetypical tropical islands and New Zealand savoir faire is something I’d volunteer for any day.