Posts tagged ‘Cook Islands’

Aitutaki: “Surviving” in one of the South Pacific’s most desirable destinations

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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

Hillary Clinton and I took different approaches to travel in the Cook Islands

Last August, when Hillary Clinton visited the Cook Islands on official state business, its population of 11,000 islanders got a good chuckle at the bullet-proof car flown in to drive her around Rarotonga, the biggest of the Cooks’ 15 tropical isles.

Truth be told, Madame Secretary, there are but two potential hazards on a drive around Rarotonga, a 45-minute undertaking that would take only 30 minutes if it weren’t for the motor scooters driving 20 miles per hour: chickens that run loose and smoke that belches from one of two buses that circumvent the island. There’s the clockwise bus and the anti-clockwise bus, the latter named because the 16 letters in counterclockwise didn’t quite fit on the front.

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Our former Secretary of State may have been more prudent to seek protection from curse-spouting tribesmen who have managed (knock on wood) to keep out corporate hotel chains. It’s a long and involved story, but when the Sheraton tried to build a hotel a dozen or so ago, a curse was allegedly placed on the land. The skeleton for that project, abandoned before it was ever opened, still sits off to the side of the beach road near Vaiimaanga like a seventh grade boy at his first dance. Hilton bought it a few years ago, made another valiant attempt, and well, just saying, nothing has became of that either.

Which is one of the Cooks great appeals. All the hotels, shops and restaurants are locally-owned. That’s not to say they’re not upscale or savvy to the needs of Westerners. Quite contrary. The Little Polynesian, where Hillary was GOING to stay (except her people didn’t give the boutique hotel enough notice and all 14 bungalows were booked for a wedding) is exquisite with local woods and accents of wild hibiscus. Pacific Resort in Aitutaki, the other island I visited, is a member of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World, not to mention that manager Jason Strickland offers to eat a table if visitors in July through October don’t see humpback whales migrating through the lagoon outside their luxury suites.

It’s just that Cook Island’s five-star hotels don’t have “Ritz” or “Marriott” on their welcome signs. I loved the unpretentious luxury and found it refreshing to visit a place that still refers to low season as “cyclone season.” Most savvy tourist destinations have banned such inconvenient realities from their marketing vocabulary.

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The cuisine that replaced headhunting of yore (I’m relieved to report that once-practiced ritual was abandoned decades ago) is beyond spectacular. In fact, last week I wrote an article for www.thedailymeal.com nominating the Cook Islands as a top foodie destination. Seriously, the ika mata, fresh seafood, bush beer clubs and iced coffee (it comes with a dollop of ice cream) have made me contemplate relocation.

The giant smiles of the locals and their unending hospitality makes this South Pacific getaway worth putting on the “before you die” list. The Cook Islanders love to tell you “We don’t live to be served. We live to serve.” They even have a saying, “Kiriti maro tai.” It means there’s no such thing as a stranger. And once you step on Aitutaki’s ceremonial black rock, everything on the island becomes yours. You’re part of the family. Except in my case, the dancing gene that enables Cook Islanders to gracefully wow and win most South Pacific dance competitions is still taking root.

It goes without saying that Cook Island beaches are magnificent. They’re smack dab in the South Pacific, after all, and have miles and miles of white sand, snorkeling, diving, fishing and boating. The many lagoons surrounding the islands contain every single shade of blue in a hardware store paint palette.

But I was rather partial to Rarotonga’s jungle. On the second day, my compadres and I took individual ATV’s into the mountainous center. We crossed more than 21 streams, plucked ginger (who knew it sudsed up) for washing our hair and got up close and personal with free range pigs, goats and farmers, who amicably waved even though we were driving right through their homesteads.

Later in the trip, after returning from a spectacular stay in Aitutaki, we took a jungle trek with Pa, a 70-something medicine man with waist-length dreads and tea leaves tied around his knees. He plucked bananas, guava and graviola from trees and regaled us with amazing stories about 64 generations of ancestors, his 12 kids, his swim from the Cooks to Tahiti and the healing powers of various herbs and stones. cook pa

So no, I didn’t merit an armored vehicle while visiting the Cook Islands, but I did feel completely loved by the locals and protected by the magical stone that Pa gathered from a jungle stream, instructing me to take it home and place it in the left-hand corner of my living room, where it remains to this day along with all my memories of this unique Pacific paradise.