Winston Aldworth

Winston Aldworth is the Herald's Travel Editor.

Cook Islands: My blue heaven

Winston Aldworth spends a few precious days enjoying the bounty of beautiful Aitutaki - and wondering why Captain Bligh ever left...
You'll find it hard not to be dazzled by the beauty of Aitutaki. Photo / Getty Images
You'll find it hard not to be dazzled by the beauty of Aitutaki. Photo / Getty Images

The first European visitor to Aitutaki probably should have stayed for longer. Later on, with the benefit of hindsight, Captain William Bligh might have wondered if letting his crew relax on the island for a few days could have relaxed tensions aboard the HMS Bounty in 1789.

Eighteen days after they sailed away from Aitutaki, with their cargo of breadfruit bound for the West Indies, Bligh found himself the focal point of the British Navy's most infamous mutiny. After three days on the island before heading back to work, I know how Bligh's crew felt.

The atoll that perhaps best sums up the outside world's vision of Pacific paradise meets the key requirements for a relaxed tropical getaway. The best bit is the gorgeous azure halo that surrounds the islands. The waters of the lagoon, which doesn't get much more than six metres deep, are crystal clear and full of fish in myriad crazy colour schemes.

Air New Zealand's much-noted bikini girl safety video is merely the latest high note in the outside world's fascination with Aitutaki's lagoon.

Islands here have also hosted American and British television Survivor shows.

You won't find exciting nightlife on Aitutaki. But it would take a hardened soul not to be dazzled by the wonders of a day trip snorkelling around the corals in the lagoon.

If only Bligh had thought to pack a couple of masks and some flippers.

At some point, every tourist destination in the world sells the same thing. "It's all about the locals," the visitors are told. "The locals are amazing. They're sooo friendly." (okay, Paris is the exception.)

There's one local in particular who leaves a striking impression on visitors to Aitutaki. George is old and rude; he's also a surprisingly graceful mover with an astonishing turn of pace. He's got a massive protruding lip and when you're mingling with other smaller locals, he'll appear to try to swallow the poor little buggers whole.

George is a giant trevally, well over a metre in length. He cruises the lagoon with three giant trevally mates chomping smaller fish.

After my first meeting with the Aitutaki lagoon's apex predator, I pop my head above the water with a question for our snorkelling guide, Mere.

"Is the water magnifying things? Because that fish looks huge," I say, holding my arms out in the classic lying-fisherman pose.

"Nope," says Mere. "That's how big George is."

George the giant trevally samples some of the local cuisine.

Mike Tekotia and his wife Mere run snorkelling charters inside the lagoon from their boat the White Pearl. We're the guests for the day on a snorkelling and island-hopping tour.

Mike also takes the larger Black Pearl out for fishing charters, beyond the reef where the really big fish are. George is plenty big enough for me.

I have to ask: "Would he be any good in a frying pan?"

"You'd be pretty unpopular with the islanders," says Mere.

For the rest of our day's snorkelling we take breaks on the surface where Mere gives me frying-pan ratings on the species we see. "Did you see that school behind the coral over there? Delicious."

Beautiful to look at too. We see corals of deepest red and blue starfish stretched out taking in the sunlight. Two kinds of unicornfish catch the eye - silver and dark blue (I can't recall which one Mere said was delicious).

The little fish are the coolest. Butterfly fish dart around our fingers as Mike stands in the boat throwing chunks of bread in the water around us. It's a beautiful scene until George intrudes, fancying a butterfly fish for lunch. The little fellas scatter, so we get back in the boat and scout for another area.

Many of the day trips on the lagoon will take in the beautiful One Foot Island and Honeymoon Island. The later is a recent addition to the lagoon, created by sand banking up with tidal movement since the 1960s.

It's become more permanent (and earned its name) as visiting honeymooners indulge a local tradition and plant a coconut on the island. The trees hold the place together; the honeymooners keep on coming.

We buzz around other islands, stopping for a dip around interesting coral spots.

Mike has an astonishing knack for seeing shapes beneath the water and knowing what's coral and what's sealife. As the White Pearl fizzes along, he spots a faint smear 40 metres ahead. "Turtle." Sure enough, we're soon drifting alongside an ocean-going turtle bopping along at his own rhythm and pace.

He knows how to relax.

You don't need a boat to experience the best of the lagoon. Everything on the island faces the sea. Steps lead down from our chalet at the Pacific Resort directly to the beach. We put on reef shoes and make a splash minutes after arriving.

From the highest point on the island - Maunga Pu which stands just 123 metres higher than the waters of the lagoon - we see the stark contrast between the deep blue of the ocean and the lighter tone of the lagoon.

Out in the deeper blue, fishermen are hooking up to massive yellowfin tuna that have arrived in these waters during our stay. There are crayfish there too, just where the walls of the atoll drop into the ocean. The islanders come straight to shore and sell the fish fresh to the resorts.

For dinner, we eat outrageously fresh sashimi. Again, everything faces the sea. The outdoor dining at Pacific Resort is at beach level and they lay on a fabulous romantic dinner at sunset. More tuna, thanks.

Tourism has been touching these waters since early last century. Tasman Empire Air Lines landed giant seaplanes here in the 1950s, filling up mid-flight between Auckland and Tahiti.

The big planes would pull up, allowing the engines to be refuelled and giving the passengers the chance to take a dip in paradise's waters and meet the friendly locals.

In his journals (where he spelled the place name as "Whytootackee"), Bligh writes of his first meeting with the friendly locals.

"On being told I was the Erree [chief], the principal person immediately came and joined noses with me and presented me his shell and tyed it around my neck."

The Bounty's crew had also planned friendly meetings with locals - Bligh learned later that his some of his men had made arrangements for local women to be brought aboard.

Perhaps he should have encouraged them. Don't repeat Bligh's error - relax on Aitutaki.

Look but don't touch

When snorkelling or swimming in the Aitutaki lagoon, keep your fingers to yourself. The marine life - especially the coral - can be harmed by a clumsy prod. Watch out for your feet too. Be mindful that your flippers are not belting corals when swimming, and watch where you put them when standing up.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air New Zealand flies six days a week to Rarotonga. In partnership with Air Rarotonga, they have several connections daily to Aitutaki.

Where to stay: The Pacific Resort has luxurious villas and rooms in private settings. And yes, that's their swimming pool in the Air New Zealand safety video.

Further information: See cookislands.travel/nz.

Winston Aldworth writer travelled as a guest of Cook Islands Tourism and Air New Zealand.

- NZ Herald

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production apcf04 at 25 Nov 2014 13:29:23 Processing Time: 2062ms