All hail the lagoon show

Besides its spectacular lagoon, Aitutaki is an island of simple pleasures, Carol West writes.

FROM the balcony of the two-storey house we're renting on Aitutaki, the lagoon mythologised by novelists, travellers and ancient mariners has momentarily lost its lustre.

Somewhere over the Pacific Ocean it's raining and the Aitutaki Lagoon's waters, which usually range from sapphire to opalescent turquoise, are reflecting the grey sky.

This is, however, a temporary aberration on what has been touted as the most beautiful lagoon in the South Pacific. After all, this pinpoint of beauty, one of the 15 Cook Islands amid 2.25 million square kilometres of Pacific Ocean, is bound to be buffeted and becalmed by the vagaries of climate, current and prevailing winds.

Life here is lived at a leisurely village pace. Chickens and pigs roam, while goats are kept on a short leash. A quiet road runs parallel to Aitutaki's 22-kilometre lagoon frontage while its lush interior is the island's heartland.

In the Cook Islands land ownership comes through blood connection and the policy is a major influence on social patterns. As with all of us, the importance of knowing your roots is part of the psyche and something that makes Cook Islanders fiercely independent. As land cannot be bought or sold but is passed on through the generations, people start to acquire curiously configured pieces of property. Families may have a house by the lagoon, a taro patch somewhere else, a plantation elsewhere and the odd group of pawpaw trees.

It was Captain Bligh who introduced the pawpaw fruit to Aitutaki. Bligh was credited with discovering the island when he arrived on his ship the Bounty on April 11, 1789, a few days before the infamous mutiny.

The morning is hot and, as I walk to the store, people on bikes stop and offer a lift, nod or raise their eyebrows in greeting. Only children walk and that's because they're too young to get a licence. As for jogging, they just shake their heads at me; no one's in that much of a hurry to be anywhere.

Going hungry in the Cooks isn't an option. Food, whether coconuts, pawpaws or starfruits, will literally hit you on the head. Beyond, the Pacific provides a diet of yellowfin tuna, bonefish, swordfish and parrot fish.

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On this tidy island the throb of motor mowers or annoying whine of whipper snippers are regular parts of the soundscape. Peeking in open doorways you see people sprawled on mattresses; motorbikes lie abandoned by the roadside, their riders taking a siesta under nearby palm trees.

"Twenty years ago there were 6000 people on Aitutaki, now we have 1400," says James, who works at one of the two luxury resorts on the island. While overseas visitors trek to this outpost to experience a micro view of island community life, the locals have been leaving in search of greener financial pastures and a macro world view in Australia and New Zealand.

There's a certain loss of anonymity that comes with small community life. Shopping for provisions in Aitutaki's tiny township of Arutanga, someone asks where we're staying. Before I can respond the woman checking out my grocery purchases answers for me in Cook Island Maori.

When I inquire how she knows, her reply is simple: "Everyone knows. It's a small island."

Small it may be and probably no place for the slick urban traveller but its simple heart beats to rhythms that are both age-old and hypnotically modern. While the boom of ukulele-fuelled "island pop" can be heard when young men gather in front of each other's homes, it's the traditional island nights and the Christian church that underpins the cultural fabric.

"Dance in the Cook Islands is intrinsic, it's woven into everything we do and is our most soulful art form and living culture," says Glenda Tuaine, Cook Islands Tourism marketing manager. The tourism authority acknowledges that by using beaches as destination symbols to sell the islands, the Cooks have become anonymous. So it is about to rebrand the islands by tapping into their rich cultural heritage to drum up more business.

"Dance was established during the ancient days of war when men returned triumphant and, as a sign of joy, their women moved their hips and wriggled their legs to welcome them home," said Papatua Papatua, one of the Cook Islands' most renowned traditional dancers and part of the Cook Islands Tourism team.

"Our history has always been oral but through the singing, drumming and chants, many legends are told and retold," said Papatua, who is instrumental in reviving old songs and chants from the Cooks' far-flung islands to the north.

From the number of dance troupes, variety of ages and performing abilities seen on Aitutaki, the culture is vibrant and alive.

Apart from Sunday - the Sabbath for the majority of islanders - the island nights rock the joint and are appreciated by locals as well as guests.

A floral-shirted drummer, known in these parts as princes of Polynesian percussion, will be beating out pagan rhythms on Saturday night and singing vigorously in the church choir on Sunday morning.

Young women who've moved their hips sensually to the hypnotic beats appear in the congregation in demure cotton frocks. The oiled young warrior, grass skirt flying, who has danced and chanted tales of battles won and love lost, could be carrying your bags or waiting table when you next see him.

The small boy who had been taking his first knee-trembling steps into island-night show business is running up and down the aisle, while the spine-tingling island hymns bear more than a passing resemblance to the lusty singing enjoyed at the cultural shows.

Aitutaki is an island of contradictions, where ancient oral legends meet European missionary beliefs on a daily basis. When John Williams of the London Missionary Society landed on Aitutaki, it became the first of the Cook Islands to accept Christianity and the large coral limestone church in Arutanga, dedicated in 1826, is testament to his success.

No visit is complete without attending a Sunday service at the Cook Islands Christian Church at Arutanga. On the day we attend it's 10am and women are dressed in Sunday whites and fine straw hats, men in white shirts, ties and dark pants. Footwear is optional for some, thongs and shoes for others. Fans lazily oscillate from timber beams.

Hymns are an introduced idea that Cook Islanders have adapted to a local art form and parts are seldom in unison. Sometimes the counterpoint and harmonies seem to take on the form of a chant. Tourists who probably seldom set foot in a church at home look forward to being part of the experience and are welcomed into the congregation with friendly charm. The service is mainly in Cook Islands Maori, partly in English, but there's no mistaking the inherited missionary zeal of the preacher and enthusiastic responses of his flock. Later, as the clouds part over the lagoon as the curtain-raiser to one of Aitutaki's epic sunsets, people gather to witness nature's floor show.

Later still a full moon hangs like a platinum disc over the Pacific and on the sand before us a luminous pathway is projected across the lagoon.

Maidens are performing at Samade Bar's island night on Ootu Beach threading their way through a line of chanting warriors, their backs gleaming with effort. They smile beguilingly at the men as they move their hips to the ancient rhythms.

A tribal elder once told me Aitutaki had seen many changes but the fundamentals always remained the same. He couldn't have foreseen that the American television program Survivor would come to town in mid-2006 to film its 13th series.

My instinct tells me that after they've gone it will be as though they were never there. At least, that's my fervent hope.

TRIP NOTES

* There are 15 islands in the Cook Islands group, of which only two, Rarotonga and Aitutaki, are established tourist destinations. Air New Zealand flies to Auckland 137 times a week from major Australian capital cities and onwards to Rarotonga. See http://www.airnewzealand.com.au or phone 132 476 for flights and 1300 365 525 for holiday packages.

* Air Rarotonga services the 45-minute route from Rarotonga to Aitutaki every day except Sunday. See http://www.airraro.com or email bookings@airraro.co.ck.

* Pacific Resort Aitutaki is the Cook Islands' only member of the prestigious Small Luxury Hotels of the World, see http://www.pacificresort.com.

* If you want to feel completely cut adrift, the Aitutaki Lagoon Resort & Spa can oblige. Its seven over-water bungalows, garden and beachfront villas are situated on Akitua, a tear-drop shaped islet on Aitutaki Lagoon opposite Ootu beach. See www.aitutakilagoonresort.com.