Cook Islands: On island time in paradise

By Pamela Wade

Aitutaki, Cook islands. Photo / Pamela Wade
Aitutaki, Cook islands. Photo / Pamela Wade

How long does it take a big, nattily tweed-patterned crab on Aitutaki to come back out of hiding so you can take his photo? Long enough for the camera battery to go flat in the meantime, that's how long.

Crouched on a rock on the edge of this fabulous lagoon in the Cook Islands, I discovered an interface between island time, which drifts past so irrelevantly that it doesn't seem to count, and techno-time, inexorably clicking off the nanoseconds with measurable consequences. There should be some kind of small explosion, or at least a shimmering of the air - but all that happens is that I tut mildly and put the camera aside, knowing that tomorrow will do just as well.

It doesn't take long to slip into Pacific procrastination-mode. It starts the moment I arrive in Rarotonga with my first step outside the plane door, warmth and bright sunshine washing over me, the colours all turned up a notch, and the scent of gardenias wafting from the piles of leis that wait to be draped around our pale, computer-hunched necks.

From then on it's a seamless blur of coconut palms and volcanic peaks, white coral churches and lime and turquoise houses, and finally the perfection of Muri Beach. I watch a leisurely dog fish-spotting in the clear water of the lagoon as I sip a cocktail and dig my toes into the sand.

"Watches should ideally not be worn. You are now on island time", the guide in my room has instructed, but I'm way ahead of it, already thinking that taking the clockwise bus - or perhaps the anticlockwise one, it doesn't matter - for the 32km circuit of the island is much too energetic, and can wait for another time.

It's far more important to lie back and listen to the skitter of tiny flying fish over the rippled water and the stiff rattle of palm fronds above, and think about dinner on the beach by the light of flaming torches.

Yet this is frenetic by Aitutaki standards. Just a 40-minute flight away, its spectacular lagoon is a wobbly heart-shape of turquoise outlined by surf breaking white on the reef and surrounded by the deep blue of the sea.

Inside are 15 scattered islands - some coral atolls, some volcanic - all perfect cliches of pink sand and coconut palms. Even the roosters have no sense of time, crowing at random throughout the day, their only function to remind visitors that alarms and schedules have no meaning here.

Arriving not long after Cyclone Pat's 140km/h winds ripped through Aitutaki in February, I see more activity than normal as the locals wear their rakes to stubs and stack sawn-up logs; but there's still time for a smile and a friendly chat.

"It's not so bad," says the little old man with the wheelbarrow in front of his house, a pile of debris in the middle of a neat goat-trimmed lawn.

"I just need to stand the front up and lift the roof on again."

The island's new slogan is "Aitutaki: Back Better" and in the face of such optimism it's hard to disagree.

Already there's new growth on the coconut palms and hibiscus bushes, and waxy white tiare flowers have opened to scent the air; and out beyond the sandy beaches the lagoon, the fabulous opal in Aitutaki's crown, is as astonishingly beautiful as ever.

On a cruise, I discover that the paint-chart range of blues and greens in the water is matched by the variety of cartoon-coloured fish beneath the surface: here with a giant clam with paisley-patterned velvet lips in electric blue, there's a pink and turquoise parrot fish rasping at purple coral. Yellow and blue damsel fish dart past. Long, slim shapes, built for speed, lurk in the distance; at the other end of the scale, fat black sea cucumbers roll passively on the sand.

As I snorkel in the warm water, spotting new colours and shapes every which way I look, up on the Titi ai Tonga, the captain/cook is sizzling tuna steaks and bananas on the barbecue. And there's a third string to his bow: while we wolf down our lunch, he and his mates pick up ukuleles, their pudgy fingers nimble on the strings, and sing as we eat.

Pokarekare Ana segues bizarrely into The Green, Green Grass of Home, but it's all cruisy and chilled, and we're fully relaxed by the time we get to One Foot Island where a friendly man in a thatched hut puts a novelty stamp into my passport.

Visitors to this lagoon could once have got the real thing: back in the glory days of the Coral Route, Aitutaki was unique in having the world's only international airport on an uninhabited island, Akaiami.

Like giant pelicans, fat Solent flying boats would lurch into the air in Mechanic's Bay in Auckland and lumber all the way to Fiji, Samoa, Aitutaki and Tahiti. In 1951 this was a proper journey - but far from an expedition.

Teal, Air New Zealand's forerunner, looked after its passengers well on this route: it was the first to focus solely on tourism, rather than the transport of goods, and the first to employ hostesses to look after the rich and famous who, dressed to the nines, strolled through the plane's spacious lounges.

Described as the Orient Express of the air and patronised by such luminaries as John Wayne, Cary Grant, Marlon Brando and Graham Greene - even the Queen and Prince Philip - it was first class only, the silver service meals prepared by an on-board chef.

The luxury and glamour was given extra fizz by the adventure of flying as low as 61m, whales and sharks clearly visible. Then came the thrill of landing in a flurry of spray on opal-coloured tropical lagoons, to be met by flotillas of dugout canoes paddled by excited locals offering exotic fruits, shells and carvings.

Aitutaki, five hours from Samoa and four from Tahiti, was a refuelling stop only, when passengers could change into swimming costumes and loll in the lagoon's warm waters, or do some barefoot beach-combing along Akaiami's sandy margins.

Engine problems once stranded 40 people on the island, to their initial fury: when they were collected eight days later, they were persuaded to board with the greatest difficulty.

The service was discontinued in 1960 and the last Solent to fly the route, Aranui, is now at Motat. Though the flying boats are gone, I get a taste of Coral Route elegance and luxury at the Pacific Resort on Aitutaki, where I sit below the open-sided restaurant with a cocktail as pink as the tropical sunset that's upside-down in the infinity pool.

The drink is called "Aitutaki Girl", and after dinner I watch the real thing shimmy her hips to the irresistible beat of the drums, while little Ipo dances with an enthusiasm and energy that would be invigorating - if I weren't so very relaxed.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air New Zealand flies direct to Rarotonga eight times weekly from Auckland. The most convenient flight out of Auckland is NZ46, which means an overnight stay on Rarotonga before continuing to Aitutaki. Air Rarotonga has several flights daily from Rarotonga to Aitutaki.

Where to stay: On Rarotonga, Pacific Resort Rarotonga is perfectly situated on beautiful Muri Beach and Te Manava Luxury Villas more than live up to their name.

On Aitutaki, Pacific Resort Aitutaki has 27 beachfront bungalows, suites and villas, and is close to the island's highest point which gives a panoramic view of what's been called the world's most beautiful lagoon.

Further information: See the-cook-islands.com. In Auckland, Motat is open daily.

Pamela Wade was a guest at Pacific Resort Aitutaki and flew there courtesy of Air Rarotonga.

- NZ Herald

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