Aitutaki lagoon cruise, Cook Islands: A place so beautiful it doesn't seem real

Standing on the bow of our boat, gently cruising across the lagoon, everything suddenly feels unreal.

How can water possibly be so clear? How can these tiny desert islands we're passing by exist outside some kind of fantasy? How can the sand be so white and bright, the palm trees so green and the sky so blue?

Yet real it is.

I'm on board a tour boat taking visitors around Aitutaki's lagoon. The atoll is part of the Cook Islands, about 45 minutes' flight from the main island, Rarotonga.

Aitutaki, less developed and with a larger, more beautiful lagoon, is popular with day trippers but I'm staying here on the island for a couple of nights, having arrived in the islands via one of the many flights between Auckland and "Raro", as the locals (and copious Kiwi tourists) call it.

The Dash-8 turboprop plane that brought us to Aitutaki offered scenic views from the window seats, though the weather was a little cloudy. By the time we arrived at our beachfront accommodation the sun had broken through, just above the horizon and in time to offer one of the most beautiful sunsets I've ever seen.

The next day we're picked up in a ramshackle bus and taken to our "vaka" (catamaran), along with about 50 other tourists, to visit the motu (small islands) of the lagoon.

These tiny islands are straight out of a picture book. It's not surprising to learn Lonely Planet founder Tony Wheeler declared one of them, Tapuaetai, the most beautiful island in the world.

We visit in the afternoon, the last of our tour of motu. Separated by a small channel from another motu, the much larger Tekopua, we walk around the entire island in less than half an hour.

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It feels like hermit crabs occupy every shell on the beach. We're told these eventually grow into coconut crabs, giant brutes that are named due to their (apocryphal) ability to husk coconuts with their claws and get to the meat inside. The world's largest land crab, there are numerous viral images of large specimens that look like something from a science fiction horror movie.

Fortunately today we're limited to seeing the baby versions, wandering about the sands with their makeshift homes on their backs.

We stop to snorkel in an area that's home to giant trevally, a fish that can grow up to 1.5 metres in length. There are small groups of coral here too, but it's surrounded by a sandy bottom and the water is shallow enough to stand up in, so it's easy to take a breather, unlike some other reefs I've snorkelled in where you can't put your feet down in order to avoid damaging the coral.

Back on the beach, we chat to a couple from Canada who have been here for a week. They love it but they've been surprised by how little tourist development there is – despite it being the second most-visited island in the Cooks, after Rarotonga.

"I asked a local for a recommendation of where to eat and he told me to go to a resort restaurant," the Canadian man tells me. "I said, 'no, I want to eat where the locals eat. Where do you eat?'"

"'At home' he said, 'but you can't eat there!'"

It's true that there's not a lot to do on Aitutaki when it comes to eating and drinking. But that's not why people come here. It's truly an escape from the rest of the world. There is nothing much to do except explore the lagoon, marvel at the island beauty and, most importantly, relax.

TRIP NOTES

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traveller.com.au/cook-islands

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FLY

Air New Zealand flies to the Cook Islands direct from Sydney once a week, but has connections through Auckland 13 times a week. See airnewzealand.com.au/

See also: Airline review: Air New Zealand premium economy, Cook Islands to Sydney non-stop

TOUR

The Vaka Cruise departs daily on a six-hour trip around the lagoon, including lunch, snorkelling gear and guide. Prices are $NZ125 for adults and $NZ62.50 for children aged up to 11. See thevakacruise.com

STAY

Tamanu Beach Resort sits on the edge of the lagoon and offers 23 private bungalows, along with two swimming pools (though with the lagoon on your doorstep, pools seem somewhat redundant) and a beachfront bar and restaurant serving breakfast, lunch and dinner. Bungalows start from $NZ495 a night. See tamanubeach.com/

The writer travelled as a guest of Cook Islands Tourism.

See also: Twenty reasons to love the Cook Islands with the family

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