Aitutaki, Cook Islands travel guide: The Pacific island where time stands still

I wonder if there's ever been a traffic accident on Aitutaki​. Locals drive as fast as you can run, with thongs on. Aitutaki might be the only place on Earth where you overtake a bulldozer only to find the car in front is travelling slower. But then, what's the rush? Travelling over 40km/h seems to me like reckless endangerment, a selfish incursion into a world where smiley-faced children, and free-roaming pigs, goats and roosters rule the roads. And round here coconuts drop right onto the bitumen, so it pays to look up.

Most people get around Aitutaki on 125cc scooters – children as young as one, and as plentiful as three, hang on to mothers who drive with so little urgency that frangipanis remain permanently wedged behind their ear. You can smell the coconut oil and the sweet scent of tiare as they pass. Scooters are cheap to buy, and mighty economical on fuel – locals go weeks without filling up – though I wonder if they ride them just so as to make their island seem bigger. The first time I came here, I rode a rental scooter to the police shed in the tiny village of Arutunga, the closest thing Aitutaki has to a town. I told the island's policeman I'd come for a driving test. He looked me over: "You drove here, didn't you?" he asked. I did, I told him. "Well, you've passed your driving test."

Coming to Aitutaki and hiring a car is to miss the point of being here. Don't disregard all the in-between bits. Like the smell of backyard burn-offs as you ride (Polynesia's obsession with tidiness makes grandparents seem slobbish by comparison). And the very first glimpse of blue lagoon through coconut trees, or the hen and her chicks you'll wait on as they cross the roadway in front; and the coconut crabs which scamper down holes centimetres from the road opposite the big lagoon. Or the burst of frangipani and tiare Maori (the Cook Islands' national gardenia) that's so sickly sweet you can taste it at the back of your throat (especially on warm, sticky evenings when the waft of it practically shimmers in the air) as you drive by villages made up almost entirely of flowers.

And the people: for it's the locals that are Aitutaki's drawcard, as much as that lagoon. On a scooter, you're much closer to them. Everybody waves, one evening I stop to take notes by the side of the main road and a concerned local pulls over to ask if I'm OK. On Sunday mornings, I like to drive among them all on their way to church – the old mommas on scooters barely moving lest rito hats blow right off their heads. Others arrive on buses driven by locals in heavy suits, hair slicked sideways with coconut oil and brylcreem. The services are conducted in Polynesian, though it's the singing I'm here for; I sit outside the oldest church in the Cook Islands (built in 1821 in Arutunga), with its metre-thick limestone coral walls, as their voices carry out across the lagoon below me. The feast afterwards inspires devotion; guests are always welcomed to tuck in first.

I arrive in Aitutaki as a six-month-long drought breaks. Rain comes at me sideways, and still I'm shocked by the blueness of the lagoon. Lonely Planet founder Tony Wheeler calls this lagoon the most beautiful lagoon in the world. Even perennially pessimistic travel author Paul Theroux says Aitutaki's lagoon is the largest, and most beautiful, in Oceania.

Aitutaki might be just 17 square kilometres in size (with a high point barely 100 metres above sea level), but its lagoon is so big (at 74 square kilometres) that the largest island of the Cook Islands, Rarotonga, could fit inside it. It's shaped like an equilateral triangle with sides of 12 kilometres. There's 14 tiny islands (motu) in it, all but one of these are entirely uninhabited.

It epitomises the South Pacific, I think, this lagoon – the beaches on its motus are the right shade of white, fronds from coconut palms wiggle on the trade-winds like hula dancers, and the water's so clear I can see sea-stars 15 metres below – little wonder really that the concept for Survivor originated here. The BBC series Shipwrecked was filmed here in 2000, TV producer Mark Burnett conceived the idea for Survivor from that series; eventually Survivor came here (in 2005), incidentally, one of Survivor's highest-rating years.

As I head out on a lagoon cruise, the rain clears. There's numerous cruises you can take (and there's sailing, stand-up paddling, bone-fishing and kite surfing to try).  I prefer those done in smaller vessels, with fewer people,  though the larger, the Vaka Cruise, allows Cook Islanders to do what they do best – show off (Cook Islanders are the extroverts of the Pacific). When we arrive at One Foot Island on the lagoon's south-eastern perimeter, I walk for half a kilometre along a submerged sandbank, then swim on my own private sand spit called Paradise, which disappears with the tide.

I haven't written about Aitutaki before; though I've been coming here for two decades. There's too few places like Aitutaki left in the world, and I'd opted not to share this one. But in recent times, Aitutaki has become a beacon for honeymooners from across the globe. Some of the South Pacific's best resorts are here now, like the Pacific Resort, a multiple winner of World's Best Boutique Resort at the prestigious World Travel Awards, and yet still nothing changes on Aitutaki.

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Each time I return, I prepare myself for it, but Aitutaki still seems to belong to a bygone era. It can be a little dorky, I think, people wear button-up shirts open to below the chest with flower prints, the only radio station plays the same endless medley of twangy ukulele island songs. And even though Aitutaki has several of the highest-rated restaurants in Polynesia now, the best meal I have all trip is the fresh-caught tuna served off the barbecue on the lagoon cruise.

Or perhaps the local fish curry served up at Cafe Tupuna – I like that I can take off my thongs to feel the sand beneath my toes at tables set at the back of Tupuna Hewett's home. My favourite bar on the island's still the same one it was in 2000. The bar at Aitutaki Village (I knew it as the Samade Bar) isn't much more than an old wood shed built a metre from the lagoon. A few hundred metres north, the ex-pats at the Boat Shed stare at some point on the horizon like they always have, characters borrowed surely from a Hemingway novel. And locals at the Deep Sea Fishing Club near the island's tiny harbour, always welcome a new pair of ears for stories they've told a hundred times.

If you're a fan of formality, I suggest you try elsewhere. Aitutakians can pull it off – I'm called sir for a full day at the Pacific Resort – but a high-pitched Polynesian giggle is only ever a joke away. And local women will soon insist on "auntie", regardless of how old you are. Don't use the hotel safe, these folk don't steal. Greet them with kia orana if you'd like, but they'd rather you asked them how they are, like you want to know. And if things don't run on time on Aitutaki – and they won't – relax, that's just part of the charm.

There's lots to do on Aitutaki – from lagoon cruising to cultural tours, and from whale watching to deep sea fishing. But don't stack your itinerary; on Aitutaki you need lots of time for nothing, because there's sure a lot of nothing on Aitutaki.

TRIP NOTES

MORE

cookislands.travel  

traveller.com.au/cook-islands

FLY

Air New Zealand flies direct to Rarotonga from Sydney every Friday night, or via New Zealand daily, see airnewzealand.com.au 

Fly to Aitutaki from Rarotonga with Air Rarotonga, airraro.com 

STAY

Stay at Pacific Resort Aitutaki with a seven-night package in a premium beachfront bungalow from $2999 a person, including breakfast. Call Spacifica Travel, 1800 800 722. See pacificresort.com/aitutaki   

PLAY

Take a lagoon cruise, see thevakacruise.com or Teking Lagoon Cruises tekingtours.com. Go deep sea fishing, whale watching, kite-boarding or sight-seeing with Wet & Wild, see wetnwild-aitutaki.com 

Craig Tansley travelled as a guest of Cook Islands Tourism and Air NZ

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