With its huge turquoise, sunlit lagoon decorated with 15 motu (islets) and an emerald green main island, Aitutaki is undisputed one of the most beautiful of all South Pacific destinations. The view when approaching by air is one of the most stunning sights that travellers to this part of the Pacific will experience. Just 220 kilometres north and an easy 45 minute flight from Rarotonga, its lagoon is considered one of the most magnificent in the world.
A triangular shaped reef encompasses Aitutaki lagoon which is embedded with massive coral heads – home to countless varieties of brilliantly coloured tropical fish and marine life. It is this spectacular lagoon that makes Aitutaki unrivalled in the Cook Islands for water activities.
But the allure of Aitutaki doesn’t stop at the water’s edge. The charm of this lovely place which has the unique characteristics of being both an island and an atoll continues on land. The main island of Aitutaki is where some 2000 people live on approximately 16 sq kilometres.
Ancient seafarers and fascinating legends
It is believed that Aitutaki was first settled by Polynesian seafarers in 900 AD. Aitutakians say they are descended from Ru, the famous seafaring warrior who sailed from Avaiki, the legendary homeland of early Polynesians. Fascinating legends are retold by local guides who take visitors to some of the islands marae (sacred ceremonial grounds) where volcanic boulders were erected in distinct formations by early Aitutaki forefathers. The largest marae, measuring about 1.6 hectares, is Te Poaki o Rae.
Much later, Captain Bligh and the crew of the HMS Bounty are credited as having the first known European contact with Aitutaki in 1789, before the infamous mutiny on the Bounty, which has been the subject of several major films.
The island of Aitutaki – the hub
Safari tours takes visitors to Maunga Pu, whilst touring the lush interior of the island, along little used tracks where the scenery is breathtaking. Maunga Pu hill is the highest point on Aitutaki. The hill provides a wonderful 360 degrees view of the entire lagoon and all motu. Along the way visitors will pass a WWII bunker built by American GI’s when they were stationed in Aitutaki. The island’s two airstrips on the northern end were also built by American and New Zealand forces, establishing an airbase as a line of defence for allied forces against the Japanese.
During the cyclone off-season yachts from all over the world make a point of calling in to the small harbour and most spend several days in this idyllic corner of the world. They make a pretty picture quietly moored of Arutanga Wharf, the focal-point of the island.
Don’t miss the colourful Saturday market in the wharf area, which sees plenty of activity with locals and visitors purchasing fresh island produce, assorted crafts and yummy food. Otherwise the wharf is normally quiet with only local fishermen or lagoon and fishing tours leaving and returning. The Aitutaki Game Fishing Club is next to the wharf and is a great place to unwind after a day on the water, watch a splendid sunset, and to meet the friendly locals.
At the other (eastern) end of the island the ever popular O’otu Beach area is a great place for swimming and kayaking. Several cruise boats leave from here and you’ll also find a couple of restaurants and a great café.
The magic of the lagoon
The motu (islets) sprinkled along the reef are mostly uninhabited. Recently motu Tapuaetai (One Foot Island) received the well earned distinction of being voted Australasia’s leading beach by World Travel Awards. It boasts the world’s smallest post office, where you can mail your postcards and even have your passport stamped making a wonderful souvenir of your visit.
On motu Akaiami a jetty still remains which was used during the 1950s when the TEAL (Tasman Empire Airways Limited) flying boats regularly landed in the lagoon and passengers on the famous Coral Route flight came ashore to stretch their legs. Of note also is that due to its spectacular beauty, isolation and the positive attitude of locals, Aitutaki was the location for the US ‘Survivor’ and British ‘Shipwrecked’ reality TV series, which were filmed on two of the motu.
If you want an island to yourself for the day, this can be arranged with a local tour guide who can prepare a picnic and will “taxi” couples to a deserted motu. Aitutaki is fast gaining a reputation as an island of romance and a perfect wedding destination. Various wedding packages are available which can be tailored according to the wishes of clients. How about a sunset cruise, with a late afternoon picnic meal arranged with local lagoon tour services? Relaxing in the glow of a brilliant sunset on your very own desert island is a romantic dream that really can come true.
There are also numerous lagoon tours, which last almost an entire day. Lunch, refreshments, snorkeling gear, and towels are always provided and nearly all tour operators will pick you up from the airport, or your hotel. After a wonderful morning of snorkeling and feeding the fish, lunch is usually served and islands explored before heading back to the main island.
A day tour?
An advantage for visitors who don’t have much time but want to experience Aitutaki is the option of a day tour from Rarotonga. Air Rarotonga flies to Aitutaki several times each day of the week.
The tour includes heading out on to the lagoon onboard the powered vaka Titi-aiTonga for snorkeling, swimming and visiting a number of motu. Lunch is served onboard with a final stop off at One Foot Island for swimming and relaxation before returning to the main island and flying back to Rarotonga in the evening.
Something for everyone Keen fishermen and those looking to experience deep sea fishing, or bone fishing in the lagoon will not be disappointed. Aitutakilagoon is home to some of the largest bonefish in the world. Scuba buffs are well catered for with two local and experienced operators offering dive trips and there’s a chance of swimming with turtles and rays. Kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding and windsurfing are also unbeatable on Aitutaki lagoon, but the fast growing popularity of kite surfing sees many enthusiasts attracted to the lagoon’s flat turquoise waters whenthe warm trade winds are blowing. Or pop in to the Aitutaki Golf Club which is on the way to the airport for a cold one and to arrange a game on the quaint golf course, which is adjacent to one of the airstrips.
The best places for snorkeling are on the western side of the main island where the water is always warm, crystal clear and large coral heads abound with marine life. Need some assistance? Ask a friendly welcoming local for directions…
Dining, dancing & entertainment Aitutakians are outgoing, friendly and well known in the Cook Islands for their showmanship. In fact, the village of Vaipae has earned the nickname of “Hollywood” for the high-spirited, resplendent performances at the islands local bars and hotels. Aitutaki’s traditional drumming is reputed to be the best in the Cook Islands. The breathtaking fire dancing performances that take years of practice to perfect are not to be missed.
Despite being gorgeously small, Aitutaki has several exceptionally good restaurants, most using daily fresh local produce to present exotic meals with an island flavour; check local visitors publications for details. Island nights with cultural shows are on throughout the week and a couple feature fire-dancing; check out barbeque nights also. These are experiences not to be missed and will be a highlight of your visit to this alluring island.
If you choose self-catering accommodation and prefer to prepare your own meals, there are several local shops which are fairly well-stocked with food items and a selection of wines, beers and spirits. For a quick, light snack there are also a number of takeaways situated along the main road in the neighboring villages of Amuri and Ureia. Internet services are available at some of the café’s.
Sundays in paradise Aitutakians are proud that they were the first island in the group to accept Christianity, when early missionary Rev John Williams visited in 1821. He left two native missionaries Papehia and Vahapata to convert the population. The island also has the oldest church in the country.
The building of the Cook Islands Christian Church in Arutanga by hand, using limestone coral rocks, was organised by Papehia and Vahapata and its interior is quite magnificent and worth visiting.
The splendid acoustics in Arutanga Church are such that traditional hymn singing by the Sunday morning congregation is a moving experience and visitors are made especially welcome. Like the rest of the Cook Islands, Sunday is a day of rest and relaxation on Aitutaki.
Stay with us!
The variety of accommodation available on Aitutaki can cater to all tastes. At the top end of the scale are luxurious resorts that have won many international awards. Mid-range accommodations are plentiful, as are self-catering establishments and there is a good handful of budget options.
Hot sun, white sands, swaying coconut palms, a stunning turquoise lagoon and romantic sunsets – Aitutaki is blessed with them all; and friendly, laughing people that make you feel very welcome – all the time. Do try to stay over at least a night or two. You won’t be disappointed.