Cook Islands > These Islands Have Captured my Heart!

A vacation to Rarotonga and the Cook Islands will transform your perspective. Guaranteed. These islands have captured my heart.

I’ve heard previous generations nostalgically describe the “old Hawaii” before it became overly commercialized. They reminisce about a time when Hawaii’s beaches weren’t lined with massive hotels and condos, and when an entire family taking an expensive trip to such an idyllic location was rare (except perhaps for the Brady Bunch). All of this untouched beauty is still attainable in Rarotonga and the Cook Islands.

Rarotonga and the Cook Islands

Rarotonga and the Cook Islands

Flying into the main island of the Cook Islands, Rarotonga, to take our connecting flight to Aitutaki. Old Hawaii was an exclusive destination for honeymooners and adventurers. For most others, it was a tropical getaway that could only be dreamed about. Hawaii was timeless for a period until Elvis revealed its secrets to the masses.

Getting excited as we get closer to our dream destination, the Cook Islands.

Many Americans have heard of or visited Hana, while very few know about Rarotonga and the Cook Islands.

The Nostalgia of Old Hawaii

We’re all familiar with today’s Hawaii, still breathtakingly beautiful but becoming less like how our grandparents remember it each year. Guidebooks recommend taking the road to Hana and visiting the town if you want to experience how Hawaii used to feel. The challenge of navigating the winding, narrow roads has helped Hana remain small and quaint.

In the Cook Islands, it’s possible to have the most breathtaking beaches all to yourself.

Most people visit Hana as a day trip and never stay overnight. By 5:00 pm, most tourists have departed, allowing the charming little town to unwind from the day’s chaos.

The road to Hana? No, just the much quieter main road on Rarotonga.

Regarding typical tourist activities, those daring to stay overnight quickly realize that Hana doesn’t offer much. If you’re seeking casinos, bars, or nightlife, you’ve come to the wrong place. But this is precisely why people visit Hana – for a true island escape.

The Cook Islands are about 700 miles southwest of Tahiti.

The Cook Islands Are the New “Old Hawaii”

So why all this discussion about Hawaii and Hana? Many Americans have heard of or visited Hana, while very few know about Rarotonga and the Cook Islands. It seems that just as Hawaii is popular with Americans, the Cooks are favored by New Zealanders.

Additionally, Americans can relate to Hana as an example of what “old” Hawaii used to feel like, especially on low tourist turnout days. This sensation of “old” Hawaii is alive and attainable in the Cook Islands.

The Journey Begins – Aitutaki

The main island of the Cook Islands is Rarotonga. Flights on Air New Zealand fly nonstop from Los Angeles to Rarotonga weekly.

From the air, you can see One Foot Island and Honeymoon Island on Aitutaki.

Our journey started in Rarotonga, where we took a small propeller plane with Air Rarotonga to the outer island of Aitutaki, about a 45-minute flight away. Flying over Aitutaki is an awe-inspiring experience. The elevated perspective is the only way to fully appreciate the entire nine-mile-long lagoon.

The views of Aitutaki from the air were unlike anything we’d ever seen.

The turquoise waters and desolate sandy white beaches become even more intensified as you slowly descend to the ground.

Arriving at the smallest airport in the world, Aitutaki Airport.

Arriving Into the Smallest Airport

Upon landing, you realize you’ve arrived in the middle of nowhere at what must be the world’s smallest airport.

Aitutaki airport

The hostess and owner from Tai Roto Bay Beach Villas, Veia, greeted us as soon as we disembarked. A sweet, nearly 70-year-old woman who has lived on Aitutaki her whole life, she welcomed us with leis and walked us to her vehicle. Displaying great pride in her business, she wore an Inano Beach football jersey.

Update: The villas are now managed by Cheran Kimiora, Veia and Moeau’s great-niece, who retired in 2018.

Audrey gets lei’d upon arrival.

Tai Roto Bay Beach Villas

Before we knew it, we were on our way to our lodging, never having to deal with the frustrations of a typical airport. The three-minute commute to the bungalows was short, mainly filled with introductions and gratitude for the handmade leis. We’d be spending the next nine nights in a beachfront bungalow directly facing the famous Aitutaki lagoon.

Rustic, yet cozy and fully equipped, our beachfront bungalow was a great value at under USD 100 per night.

Veia immediately showed us to our bungalow. The two-level house she lives in with her husband Moeau was located just next door to the six bungalows and also positioned directly on the lagoon. Veia was responsible for nearly all tasks concerning the bungalows.

The views from our lanai.

Her duties involved changing and washing the linens, cleaning the bungalows, and everything in between. We were amazed that at her age, she had the energy to handle all these responsibilities.

Grandma and Grandpa Aitutaki

Grandma Aitutaki

Veia enjoys meeting new people, taking care of them while they’re visiting, and providing insight into her island. After a few days, we came to realize that she loves what she does and wouldn’t want it any other way. In fact, Audrey and I began referring to her as “Grandma Aitutaki” because she displayed all the traits that reminded us of our grandmothers.

View of the lagoon from Inano Beach Bungalows.

One time, for example, she showed up on our deck fairly early in the morning to get into the bungalow and begin cleaning. Audrey tried stopping her at the doorway, exclaiming, “Oh, ah, Harry’s in his underwear.” With a dismissive wave of her hand, she replied, “Oh, that’s ok” and made her way in anyway, as if she’d seen it all before, which I’m sure she has.

Bright, vibrant flora is prevalent throughout the islands.

Time to Enjoy Paradise

The vibrant flora and fauna within the gardens were vividly on display, with various hues of green, orange, and red jumping out along the walkways. Although simple, the bungalow provided us with all the basic amenities to ensure a comfortable stay, except for air conditioning, internet, and television.

The beginning of a quiet night on the lagoon.

This was going to be a time to unplug, reflect on past journeys, and plan for future ones. The small, partially stocked kitchen and refrigerator provided us with just enough essentials to ensure that we’d prepare all our meals in the bungalow, as food is outrageously expensive in the Cooks.

The best way to explore Aitutaki is by scooter. It is also a great way to stay cool on hot days.

Once settled, we began our exploration of the island. To rent a scooter, we immediately walked to the nearby Popoara Rentals. (The Aitutaki map/guide picked up at the Rarotongan airport provided a $5 off coupon per rental per day.)

The Rawness of the Island

The rawness of the island is sharply apparent as soon as one begins their self-guided tour. The population of Aitutaki is stated to be 2,000, but riding around the island, it’s hard to believe there are that many residents.

Renting a scooter and cruising around Aitutaki is by far the best way to get around.

Upon traversing for days, riding on any road or path suitable for our scooter, it seems to be closer to a few hundred inhabitants. There are no large hotels or condos. In fact, Veia’s two-story house may have been the tallest building on the island.

Houses are small, open, and colorful. Daily drives allowed me to conclude that all the residents share one thing in common: they seem to take great pride in their lawns, which are all manicured to perfection. The grass is rarely longer than an inch.

The beaches are unspoiled and raw, without another soul in sight.

Outside of the lawns, nearly everything else is wild, as pure as it was 500 years ago. Beaches are never raked, coconuts are never removed from the tops of palms (not even at the luxurious resorts), and trees are left to grow wild.

Out in the lagoon near the small island of Maina.

Somebody’s Watching YouAt only 10 square miles, there’s always a set of eyes watching you on this small island. No matter where you roam, the Tupa crab is there observing your every move. There must be millions of them, all scattering back to their holes at the slightest hint of a human’s presence.

A fabulous day out exploring the lagoon!

All of the typical water-based activities are possible on Aitutaki Lagoon and most likely performed at O’otu Beach, which is the best swimming beach on the main island. Nevertheless, the main reason tourists visit Aitutaki is the lagoon.

Aitutaki Lagoon Tour

The best way to experience the lagoon is to take an excursion with one of the local outfitters. Veia recommended that we go with Puna from Aitutaki Adventure as he was the “cheapest on the island.”

The water is so crystal clear that you can see fish swimming throughout the lagoon.

The tour included visiting a couple of popular snorkeling spots, Honeymoon Island, One Foot Island, and of course lunch. A few years ago, the television show Survivor was filmed on the Motus (islands) that surround the lagoon. As huge fans of the television show, we eagerly drilled Puna with questions about which islands the survivors stayed on, whether he met Jeff Probst, and if the survivors knew how to survive there.

Cook Islands Travel Guide

Puna mentioned that he was a cameraman for the show and was able to meet Mark Burnett. Upon hearing this, our ears suddenly perked up. He mentioned how Mark was “a really good guy” and “very humble.” Most impressively to Puna, Mark seemed truly interested in learning about the culture and history of the local people. Regarding Jeff Probst, Punta stated, “Don’t ask.” He hardly saw him, as Jeff was perhaps too busy living it up at the Aitutaki Lagoon Resort, the ritziest resort on the island.

Out in the lagoon is a world of blue.

Tribal Council

As the day passed, Puna would mention the facts surrounding the show, mainly pointing out the precise locations of the tribal council, immunity challenges, and where the survivors lived. We were a little disappointed to find out that the crew removed all buildings and artifacts after filming.

There’s nothing physical to touch or hold anywhere. The subject, no matter who we spoke with, always brought out the same passionate response and glow in the locals’ eyes. Everyone wished that the show would return to their island. It brought in a lot of business and excitement, with every room on the entire island booked for three months. Aitutaki was in the limelight – a golden age for the little island, at least during filming.

Honeymoon Island – Paradise found if you seek solitude.

The Highlight of the Lagoon Cruise

The highlight of the lagoon cruise was visiting Honeymoon Island. When daydreaming of an island paradise, this is the place that is envisioned. White sandbars extend off the small green lush island for what seems like hundreds of feet. A wedding arch made from local timber remains in one corner of the sandy beach.

Walking along the sandbars, in knee-deep water, one can only imagine the weddings that have taken place here. The water is so purely clear that there’s no need to put on a snorkel mask. Just walk along the sandbars – it’s easy to spot the various tropical fish as they swim by, investigating the rather rare human foot. With only a half-hour allocated on the tour for this small piece of heaven, it’s hard to leave.

Hit by a Major Rainstorm

On departure, we find ourselves preparing the small pontoon boat for a South Pacific rainstorm for the 45-minute journey from Honeymoon Island to One Foot Island. The wind was picking up, and the sky was growing darker in the exact location where we were heading.

Living in the middle of nowhere requires that people be extremely resourceful.

Living in the middle of nowhere requires that people be extremely resourceful. Nothing can go to waste because the cost of receiving goods in Aitutaki is beyond exorbitant. This was well displayed in Puna’s pontoon boat, which reminded me of Johnny Cash’s song “One Piece at a Time.” The pontoon had obviously seen better days, with various parts replaced with scrap metal, and everyone sat on plastic lawn chairs. However, it was running and afloat, which was important because this was now our mode of transportation across the lagoon during this unexpected storm.

Audrey wraps herself in Puna’s tarp to stay dry from the brief rain shower on the Aitutaki Lagoon Cruise.

We began wondering how bad this storm was going to get as Puna started handing out blue tarps for us to wrap ourselves and our belongings in. After all, the roof of his pontoon boat consisted of the same blue tarp with scattered holes and random tears.

At first, there was no need to take shelter. But as we inched closer, the rains picked up, and so did the winds. Enjoying the feeling of being alive (and wet), there was no need for me to take cover. Audrey, on the other hand, felt differently.

We’ve Arrived at One Foot Island

Upon reaching One Foot Island, the storm had passed, and the sun had returned. Being suckers for passport stamps, we rapidly approached what is said to be the world’s smallest post office, which also serves cold beer to thirsty tourists, making it the smallest bar/post office combo in the world.

Fish circle us as we stop and pose for a picture in the Aitutaki Lagoon.

After a fabulous lunch of freshly caught tuna, we headed back out to do some additional snorkeling in the lagoon. There are small sandbars approximately three to four feet deep throughout the lagoon, which prove to be the ideal spot to drop anchor. The sandbar then drops to about 15-20 feet with an abundance of coral and tropical fish to entertain all.

With Puna providing a nice fish carcass as a lure, the superb snorkeling was on. The highlight of that day was the two large Trevali fish that seemed fascinated with us, as they constantly circled the boat during the entire length of our visit.

With the second snorkel stop of the day complete, it was time to end the full-day tour of the lagoon. On the way back, Captain Puna warned us that it was going to be a bit slow going as one of the two small engines had locked up. Sluggishly inching closer to port, one could sense that we all felt bad about the engine issue.

On one hand, we knew Puna’s resourcefulness instilled from a young age would overcome this breakdown. On the other hand, we were grateful because it would buy us additional time on this breathtakingly amazing lagoon.

Cruising around Aitutaki!

Main Pastimes

The other main pastime to pursue is sightseeing around the island on a scooter. One thing to prepare yourself for is the amount of waving that occurs while you’re riding. Every person you pass, whether walking or riding, will enthusiastically wave to you accompanied by a huge smile.

It’s like nowhere else on earth that I’ve visited. As we rode around the island, people would stop whatever they were doing in the yard, including mowing, and wave to us. Literally, they would stop the mower, turn it off, and wave.

It’s like nowhere else on earth that I’ve visited.

The goodness that Aitutaki prescribed to us was impactful. The dosage of that “old” Hawaii feeling was just right, I imagine. Leaving the slow-paced life of Aitutaki was challenging. Living life so simply is extremely liberating. But with great regret, it was time for us to depart Aitutaki and spend the next 30 nights in Rarotonga.

Our bungalow at night.

We Must Sadly Depart

Now it was time to experience the “fast-paced” life of the main island, at least how Aitutakians perceive it. With approximately 13,000 people, over half of the population of the Cook Islands resides in Rarotonga.

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2 thoughts on “Cook Islands > These Islands Have Captured my Heart!
  1. Thank you for this post (and your blog!) I am looking into taking a trip this November and the Cook Islands are on my list! 😀

    1. Its probably one of the most beautiful exotic destinations on the planet! Please feel free to reach out if you have any questions! 🙂

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