Aitutaki, Cook Islands: The ultimate tropical fantasy island


I'm on Akaiami Island off Aitutaki Island in the scattered archipelago of the Cook Islands. I have to do a lot of enlarging on Google Maps to find myself. This is the embodiment of the Middle of Nowhere, surrounded by vast blue sky and sea that goes on to infinity. There's only me and a few fellow passengers from The Vaka Cruise – a highfalutin name for a tin catamaran – and some hermit crabs. For a brief moment in time, though, princes and Hollywood stars trod these sands, and Akaiami was the most glamorous stop on a flying-boat route across the Pacific.

It's hard to imagine now although, as I wade onto the beach, imagine is what I do. I like to think of those silvery seaplanes from the golden age of air travel approaching this sudden effervescence of beauty in a monotonous ocean. Passengers could see whales, and pink coral formations in a lagoon of magnificent hues, so blue it seemed unnatural.

Tasman Empire Airways Limited (the forerunner of Air New Zealand) began its trans-Pacific service in 1951. It was abandoned in 1960 when a new airport in Papeete could accommodate large airplanes. In the 1950s, it was the most bewitching service imaginable, a 2½-day journey from Auckland to Papeete via Suva, Samoa and the Cook Islands. Uninhabited Akaiami was the highlight.

The flying boats landed at dawn and passengers were welcomed by locals who sailed over from "mainland" Aitutaki with flower garlands. The airport was a thatched hut. Passengers swam in the lagoon or walked the beaches of the three-kilometre island while their flying boat was being refuelled. You can imagine them on the seaplane jetty in their 1950s frocks, holding parasols and white clutch bags.

The jetty is made from black coral and thrusts a bony finger into impossibly blue lagoon waters. It's the last dilapidated remnant of Akaiami's glory days. A nearby information board tells you about the all-but-forgotten Coral Route. But the same gobsmacking scenery that transfixed those early seaplane passengers is just as gobsmacking now, and hardly changed. Coming here still feels like a glorious adventure.

It's adventure without the ferocious cost, though. Part of the glamour of the Coral Route was its exclusivity, since a ticket cost a third of an average annual salary. Yet Aitutaki still has low tourist numbers, and the catamaran that takes us out onto the lagoon carries no more people than did a seaplane 60 years ago. There are astonishingly few visitors on the lagoon, and boat is a better way to see it than flying boat. No point in feeling nostalgic for past travel in this splendid, nearly lost corner of the world, where little has changed.

Akaiami is our first stop on The Vaka Cruise. Just like the passengers of yore, we stroll the sands where crabs scuttle, and watch white terns wheeling in the sky. Coconut trees toss their fronds like showy teenagers. The only change to the island is a modest guesthouse, with hammocks slung between the trees and chickens scratching beneath the verandahs.

We move on to an even smaller blob of land, Motu Rakau, and then to One Foot Island. The water just gets ever more dazzling, ever bluer. Everyone from Tony Wheeler to Paul Theroux has claimed Aitutaki has the most beautiful lagoon in the Pacific. I'm not arguing. The lagoon spreads across 74 square kilometres of startling peacock waters dotted with 14 small islands in the ultimate tropical fantasy. You can't get here by seaplane any more but, however you see it, your spirit will take flight.

Advertisement

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/cook-islands

cookislands.travel

FLY

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

STAY

Tamanu Beach Resort has two swimming pools, a restaurant and accommodation in private bungalows from $NZ495 a night. See tamanubeach.com

TOUR

The Vaka Cruise departs daily on a six-hour lagoon trip for $NZ125 including lunch, snorkelling gear and guide. See thevakacruise.com

Brian Johnston travelled as a guest of Cook Islands Tourism.

Comments