Paradise awaits visitors to Aitutaki

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Photos by Christina Almeida, The Associated Press
A group of children play near a boat on Aitutaki, Cook Islands.

By Christina Almeida, The Associated Press

AITUTAKI, Cook Islands -- This tiny spot in the South Pacific was one of the last places William Bligh, captain of the H.M.S. Bounty, visited before the infamous 1789 mutiny.

   
If You Go ...

Cook Islands Tourism: http://www.cook-islands.com

Getting there: Air New Zealand, www.airnew
zealand.com
offers roundtrip tickets to Rarotonga, the capital of the Cook Islands, starting at $896 per person from Los Angeles. After passing through customs, you can catch a flight on Air Rarotonga, www.airraro
tonga.com
to Aitutaki. The flight, lasting about 45 minutes, starts at $61 one way.

Accommodations: Rates at Aitutaki Lagoon Resort & Spa, www.aitutaki
lagoonresort.com
start at $367 and go up to more than $740 for the over-water bungalows per night. Pacific Resort Aitutaki, www.aitutaki.pac
ificresort.com
. Internet rates start at $475 a night for a beachfront bungalow (includes airport transfers and breakfast). For those looking for beachfront homes with kitchens, check out http://www.aretamanu.com from $262 and www.areamatatui.com from $370.

Activities:

Kayaking: Rent equipment at Samade bar across from the Aitutaki Lagoon Resort & Spa for $13 per day.

Lagoon cruise: Kia Orana Cruises offers one of the best and the $40 price also includes lunch. For contact information, ask at your accommodations.

   

Bligh, set adrift along with 18 members of his crew shortly after leaving Aitutaki, later reached Timor and successfully returned to England.

Today, this island paradise is visited more by those living in nearby Australia and New Zealand than Europeans and North Americans, although it's an idyllic vacation spot filled with friendly people and breathtaking scenery.

Traveling to Aitutaki last summer, I spent 11 days on this remote island that sits in the corner of a glistening lagoon surrounded by a handful of smaller islands called "motus." For honeymooners and those looking to get away from it all, Aitutaki provides the perfect haven.

After a 17-hour flight from Los Angeles, which included transfers in Papeete, Tahiti, and Rarotonga, the capital of the Cook Islands -- I arrived on a Saturday afternoon in time to experience "Island Night" at one of the local bar/restaurants.

The Blue Nun transformed from a barren, open-air hall into a stomping, melodic frenzy featuring an island band and dancers. For around $19, you're treated to an island buffet of barbecue chicken, local fish, poke (a type of gummy, banana pudding) and other treats. Alcoholic drinks were included.

The next day was spent at the Aitutaki Lagoon Resort & Spa, which sits on its own little "motu" about 40 feet across a canal.

You must have permission to cross by boat -- either to visit the spa or eat at the Beach Bar and Restaurant. The spa is wonderful, with reasonable rates. A 90-minute massage costs about $56 and is a perfect end to a day in the sun.

With pricey beach bungalows that are the only ones on Aitutaki to sit over water, the resort is one of the most beautiful places on the island.

I spent some time relaxing on the beach in a hammock. Though the beach equipment is technically reserved for hotel guests, no one bothered me.

The prime attraction is the area's access to the lagoon. With sand dunes a short swim from the beach, you can lie in the water or walk across a surprising portion of the lagoon.

Getting around Aitutaki can be difficult since there is no public transportation. There are few cars, and most islanders use motor scooters.


The beach at the Aitutaki Lagoon Resort & Spa.
Click photo for larger image.

On my third day, I caught a ride to Rino's Rentals, which sits just outside the main town of Arutanga -- home to the bank, post office and police station.

After some paperwork and a fee of $74 for the week, I set off to get my rental. An employee expressed concern about my lack of driving skills, suggesting I practice a bit and then telling me I should consider a bicycle instead.

After some persistence (and a few laps in an adjacent field), I finally persuaded him to let me take the motor scooter. He warned me about the dreaded "island tattoo" -- a smattering of bruises on the elbow that many islanders have from wrecks on their scooters.

I finally set off, enjoying the freedom of roaming around the island (slowly, of course) and discovering the small villages that dot the tropical landscape.

The weather was mild most of the time, averaging about 75 degrees, with a few showers here and there. The water, however, was always warm.

The day I took a lagoon cruise, it was stormy and a bit windy. Yet the water was warmer than the outside temperature.

I made arrangements with Kia Orana Cruises, and the captain of the boat picked me up at about 9:30 a.m. For about $40, I spent the day out in the lagoon, snorkeling and visiting the little "motus," including Honeymoon Island, which was a sand dune 35 years ago, the captain told us.

Snorkeling, you find a rich array of marine life -- from puffer and unicorn fish to giant clams that captivate with their rich, neon colors.

On Honeymoon Island, where tradition calls for those recently wed to plant a Coconut Palm tree, I came across a nesting ground for the red tail tropical tern. The baby birds were surprisingly friendly and allowed me to get within a few feet to snap photos.

After a lunch of tuna sandwiches, sea grapes and more poke, we returned about 4 p.m.

That night, my last on Aitutaki, I headed to Pacific Resort Aitutaki and "Island Night" at the Rapae Bay Restaurant. Chef Ben Kirk, who trained in Australia and Singapore, served up a wonderful blend of Polynesian fusion.

Dining in a tiki hut overlooking the water, I enjoyed a three-course, prix-fixe menu for around $40 that featured, among other items, barbecue beef skewers on papaya salad with lemon chili dressing, grilled orange roughy with lemon caper butter and chocolate ganache cake with whipped cream. A glass of Australian sauvignon blanc cost $8.

As I was leaving, I already missed the people -- the spa employee with a warm smile and the boat captain who sensed I was hesitant to snorkel alone and offered to accompany me.

To all of them, I wanted to say "maetaki" (may-TAH'-key), thank you, one more time.



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