There is a place lost in the Pacific Ocean, an archipelago of fifteen unspoiled and remote islands, the Cook Islands. Among these, Aitutaki, the pearl of New Zealand Polynesia, with a primordial beauty. In its crystalline waters hides an invisible time machine. In fact, flying over the islands on a small AirRarotonga aircraft, you will bring the clock back of 24 hours because it is here that the International Dateline strikes the last hours of the day.
A glimpse was enough to make us fall in love with this place. Looking at the islands from the plane window we pictured the surprise of the Spanish explorers and of Captain James Cook – to whom they owe their name – when they first set their eyes on this spectacle at the end of the 18th century. It must not have changed much since then. Nature, culture and the smiles of the Maori have certainly remained unchanged.
A thin white strip of sand surrounds Aitutaki. Further off a coral ring of islets, or motu, form an immense and spectacular lagoon: one of the most beautiful seascapes in the Pacific. The seabeds, covered by coral gardens, are inhabited by colourful fish, shells, rays and turtles. The air smells like frangipani, the beaches are deserted and the water is warm and inviting at all hours. There are only a few bars for tourists, in the evening there’s only music, stars and Matutu, local beer without preservatives.
The best time to visit the Cook Islands? From May to October, when the weather is dry and breezy and the average sea temperature is around 25 degrees.
GUIDE TO AITUTAKI, COOK ISLANDS: what to do
Snorkel and discover the uninhabited Motu
Not to be missed is the boat day-trip to the most distant motu – islets. It starts with a snorkelling session in the deep and wavy waters of the Pacific in search of sea turtles and stingrays (we were lucky enough to swim with both of them!). After returning to the calm waters of the lagoon you will snorkel between corals, big shells and the giant trevally, a huge fish typical of the lagoons. In the afternoon you will hop on and off different motu. You will set foot on Maina, where you will see the nests of the red-tailed tropicbird, on Akaiami and on Moturakau. Lastly, you will reach Honeymoon Island, a strip of white sand that emerges 10 cm from the blue water and from here, walking in the water, you will reach Tapuaetai, also known as One Foot Island, an uninhabited island with a post office where you can stamp your passport.
When we arrived in Aitutaki at the beginning of October we discovered that the whales that had populated the coast of the island a few days before had gone away, continuing their long journey towards warmer waters. “Whales? Really ?? “… our reaction showed how unprepared we were for this trip that we have planned at the very last minute without knowing that we were going to miss a unique opportunity!! The Cook Islands Whale Sanctuary – which covers an area of 1 million square kilometres – welcomes, in fact, a huge number of humpback whales during the austral winter, from July to October. During this time it is possible to admire these enormous cetaceans while they swim incredibly close to the coast.
Explore the lagoon by kayak
One of the best ways to explore the beautiful Aitutaki lagoon is by kayaking. Single or double kayaks can be rented at Aitutaki Village in Ootu Beach. Here the lagoon is sandy and free of corals and paddling you can reach the uninhabited motu of Angarei and Ee. Stopping for dinner at the resort you can attend one of the many Island Nights, a dinner followed by local music and dance performances.
Visit the local community
In the main village of Aitutaki, Arutanga, you can find the oldest church in the Cook Islands, as well as one of the most beautiful. Built in 1828, the church welcomes the inhabitants of the island every Sunday morning. Women wear colourful clothes and fancy hats with black pearl inserts and sing touching songs. A perfect opportunity to immerse yourself in the local culture and rediscover a real sense of community.
Discover the island
Exploring the island is easy: rent a scooter or a bicycle and go exploring the inland following the only paved road. For a panoramic view hike the Mount Maungapu, 125 meters above sea level, located at the northern end of the island (30’ walk). For lunch stop at Cafe’ Tupuna, order the catch of the day and other local specialties while relaxing in the shade of the palm trees of the cafe’s garden.
➳ Find all: Hotels in Aitutaki
GUIDE TO AITUTAKI, COOK ISLANDS: where to sleep
In Aitutaki you can find accommodation for all budgets. We chose the Matriki Beach Huts. It was so cute we didn’t want to leave it. We could have spent the whole time there just enjoying our own little beach and stretch of the lagoon. With four beachfront cottages – Beach Hut, Treehouse huts and Reef Hut – and a fifth bedroom in the garden – the Garden Unit – the Matriki Beach Huts is a haven for adventurers and dreamers. We chose the Beach Hut, a detached cottage with a double bed, kitchen, balcony and private outdoor shower (a dream!!). At the airport Erica and Byron, the managers, were waiting for us. Always available and smiling, they advised us where to dine, what to see and how to move. With them we rented a scooter, learned how to open a coconut and explored the lagoon with a beautiful boat trip.
➳ Find all: Hotels in Aitutaki
GUIDE TO AITUTAKI, COOK ISLANDS: how to get there
Among the islands of the archipelago, Aitutaki is definitely the most striking. It is located less then an hour flight from the capital, Rarotonga. Reaching it is easy, but certainly not cheap. Flights are operated only by the AirRarotonga and are around 360 NZ $ return. Do not forget to book a window seat!! Transportation to and from the airport is generally provided by the hotel where you are staying.
GUIDE TO AITUTAKI, COOK ISLANDS: general info
Hour. The local time is 10 hours behind the time in Greenwich. The Cook Islands are east of the International Dateline, which means they are on the same day as the United States and one day behind New Zealand and Australia.
Sunday. Taking part of a Sunday Mass is an unmissable experience, but keep in mind that during this day of celebration most of the activities remain closed. This applies to shops, restaurants, boat tours and rentals. We arrived on the island on Saturday morning and we got told to go and buy some food for the day after to cook in our hut. Our advice is not to fly on Sunday to avoid organisation problems.
There are no dogs in Aitutaki. According to a legend, the daughter of a tribal chief was bitten by a dog and so he forbade their presence on the island. On the other hand you will see cats and a lot of giant crabs that show up at night time and walk along the only sealed road. Their weight reaches 4.1kg and can reach a maximum length of 1m. The name Coconut Crab comes from their ability to use the huge claws to open the crack the coconuts open.