Aitutaki: the most precious of jewels in the crown of the Cook Islands. Few destinations offer the bewitching spectacle that Aitutaki does on final approach, on a 45 minute flight from Rarotonga.
Even the most worked up hype can't do justice to the gazillion dollar view emerging out of the endless blue ocean. Peering out the plane window with my camera at the ready, the seraphic site of that triangular reef cradling the atoll with its necklace of 15 motus (islets), bathed in every shade of blue water imaginable.
Geologically dramatic, it all rises 4000 metres from the ocean floor.
After being reunited with my luggage at the diminutive airport, (the runway was first built by American troops during the War of the Pacific in the 1940s), I was whisked to my stupendous escape-pad on Aitutaki, the gob-stoppingly gorgeous Pacific Resort. Billed as one of the world's most secluded boutique island resorts, you can expect romantic luxury and frills galore.
Nestled among 19 acres of tropical gardens, with over 1.5km of beach frontage, there's just 27 bungalows and villas, ramping up the sense of space, exclusivity and solitude. And they're all absolute beachfront.
I instantly fell in love with immaculately maintained gardens - many of the fruits that feature in the breakfast buffet are grown on-site, like the passionfruit and bananas, plus they've got a steadily expanding and fabulously fragrant herb garden. Contemporary comforts are thickly laid-on, from USB charging points, WiFi and aircon to in-house movie channels, infinity pool, gym, rental bikes and water sports equipment.
My premium beachfront bungalow was literally 12 steps away from the luminescent water, bracketed by the subtle whisper of the palms swaying in the cooling breeze.
The masterly blend of ornate timber furnishings and Polynesian décor combine to create a surefooted sense of place and stylish ambience, accentuated by the gorgeous artworks adorning the walls.
Dining options include the chic poolside venue, Black Rock, or fine dining with all the
trimmings at Rapae Bay Restaurant. Ramping up the pamper-factor, I trudged my travel-weary body from my bungalow to the on-site Tiare Spa, which has rewritten the recipe on a hushed and calm oasis.
My chosen treatment was an Aromatherapy Massage, which is designed to reduce anxiety, release stress and calm the mind. Over the course of fifty minutes, those boxes were fitfully ticked, with long gentle strokes and palm pressure liberating the tight and tired kinks in my body.
I was suspended somewhere between nodding off and nirvana. Staff are unfailingly outgoing, attentive, friendly and efficient and their tour desk will attend to your every whim. Pacific Resort Aitutaki is a star-turn.
With a population barely nudging 2000 and no tub-thumping nightlife, Aitutaki's infectious allure is the chance to laze away indulgently alongside and in that languid, limpid lagoon.
My mornings and early evenings were routinely punctuated with care-free dabbles in the lustrous lagoon, immersed in the visual feast of the fish life within this gigantic tropical aquarium.
Replete with sea cucumbers, these clever critters do a tireless job cleaning the lagoon of algae like natural vacuum cleaners. Don't step on them!
In need of a work-out, I set myself the challenge of scaling the hillocks that rear up behind the main village of Aratunga all the way to the airport. The big boy is Maunga Pu, a 124 metre high "mountain," which only takes thirty minutes to scale from the main road. Straight after breakfast, before the day's heat sparked up, I virtuously hauled myself up to the summit for the panoramic splendour across the elemental glory of Aitutaki.
Another great stroll is from Aratunga, past the Post Office and walking through the middle of the island past Kuramoo Gardens before heading up to Pirakai Lookout.
The incline is far less strenuous than Maunga Pu, with another rewarding knock-out
view. Ask the locals and they'll tell you that Pirakai is also the best location to glimpse a sunrise.
From the lookout, look towards motu Angarei and you'll see the first rays sneak through the coconut palms, illuminating the lagoon. It's an electrifying way to start your day.
Back in Aratunga, I marvelled over the grand old dame, the Cook Islands Christian Church. Built in 1826, it was the very first church built in the Cook Islands after the Reverend John Williams from the London Missionary Society introduced Christianity to the islands. Its white-washed coral walls, ornately carved ceilings painted red, green and white, and stained-glass windows all contribute to its architectural pride and grace.
As a history hound, I was intrigued to learn that Captain Bligh is credited with introducing pawpaw, along with wild pigs, to the island in 1789. Incidentally, there are no dogs on Aitutaki.
Delving deeper into the island's back-story, Punarei Cultural Tours offers eye-opening encounters with Aitutaki's indigenous richness. Led by local archaeologist, Ngaakitai Pureariki, Ngaa will take you to the marae at Paengariki which has been carbon-dated as being established in 1000AD.
Coming-of-age ceremonies were celebrated here, including circumcisions, human sacrifices would take place, and warriors would converge here before and after a battle.
The ancient site is strewn with large obelisk-like stones. What a revelation. It struck me as the pre-chapter to the great migration south to Aotearoa.
Speaking of history, I enjoyed a fabulous dinner at Tamanu Beach Resort, joined by the general manager, Nick Henry. Nick is the grandson of the island nation's first Prime Minister, Sir Albert Henry, following independence in the 1960s. Ever since, most Prime Ministers have shared in common their proud Aitutaki heritage.
Chomping down on the succulent Beef & Reef, the fusion of beautifully cooked eye fillet beef and prawns was heavenly.
If you're up for an island night spectacular, Tamanu's Takurua Island Night & Fire Dance Show is fiendishly popular, as is Auntie Marie's pork.
But the essence of Aitutaki starts and ends with that glorious body of aqua, cradling its treasures.
Eager for more watery pursuits, I joined Quinton from Wet & Wild who offer a wealth of tailormade tours, charters and adventures, within and beyond the lagoon. On my previous visit to Aitutaki, I savoured the joys of One Foot Island, famed for its passport stamp office, so this time I asked Quinton to whisk me across the crisp palette of lagoon blues, where the varying depths exude hues of emerald, sapphire and turquoise, to Honeymoon Island.
It is one of the richest snorkelling realms of all, with a frenzy of fish life of the island's soft white sandbank. Honeymoon is also the premier location if kitesurfing is on your agenda.
Wet & Wild have a large range of top-notch kiteboarding gear on the island, with experienced instructors on hand.
You'll be riding in no time. Fancy trying your hand at deep sea fishing pulling in the "Big One?" Quinton's team at Wet & Wild know exactly where to take you, to pull in whaoo, ono, mahi mahi, tuna and marlin.
Life is certainly a day dream on blissful Aitutaki. The prettiest princess of the
Air New Zealand flies non-stop to Rarotonga from Auckland, Sydney, and Los Angeles with connections available from all Air New Zealand serviced domestic airports. A variety of inflight product choices are available; seat, seat+bag, the works and works deluxe in addition to premium economy and business premier. One-way seat fares start from $326.00 (inclusive of taxes) ex Auckland. www.airnewzealand.co.nz