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Aitutaki has much less to offer ashore than does Rarotonga. The central island is dotted with the coconut, pineapple, banana, and tapioca plantations that are worked by most of the island's 2,100 residents. Aitutaki is a major supplier of produce and seafood to Rarotonga.

The administrative center, most of the shops, and the main wharf are on the west side of the island at Arutanga village, where a narrow, shallow passage comes through the reef. Trading boats cannot get through the pass and must remain offshore while cargo and passengers are ferried to land on barges. The late Sir Albert Henry was born and raised on Aitutaki, and the divided road to the wharf is named for him and his wife, Elizabeth (one lane for Sir Albert and one lane for Lady Elizabeth).

Just south of the post office in Arutanga is the Cook Islands Christian Church, the country's oldest church, built in 1839 of coral and limestone. The monument in front is to John Williams, the exploring missionary who came to Aitutaki in October 1821, and to Papeiha, the Tahitian teacher who came with him and converted the entire island. The interior of the church is unusual in that the altar is on one side rather than at one end. Worshippers from each village sit together during services, but visitors can take any vacancy during services at 10am on Sunday. An anchor suspended from the ceiling is a symbol of hope being a sure and steadfast anchor, as in Hebrews 6:19.

A network of mostly paved roads fans out from Arutanga to Viapai and Tautu villages on the east side and to the airport on a flat hook at the northern end of the island. About 1,000 American servicemen -- with considerable help from the local residents -- built the large airstrip during World War II. Many present-day Aitutakians reportedly trace their lineage to those Americans.

According to ancient legend, the first Polynesians to reach Aitutaki came in through Ootu Pass, on the eastern side of the lagoon between the airport and Akitua island, site of today's Aitutaki Lagoon Resort & Spa. They were led by the mighty warrior and navigator Ru, who brought 4 wives, 4 brothers, and a crew of 20 young virgins from either Tubuai or Raiatea (the legend varies as to which one) in what is now French Polynesia. Akitua island, where they landed, was originally named Urituaorukitemoana, which means "where Ru turned his back on the sea." The area on the north side of the pass is a major tourism center.

Aitutaki Discovery Safari (tel. 31-757; safari@aitutaki.net.ck) will take you by 4X4 vehicle to an ancient marae, up Mount Maungapu, to a plantation, and to World War bunker sites. These half-day tours cost NZ$55 (US$44/£22) per person.

Lagoon Excursions

The main reason I come to Aitutaki is to spend at least a day on the lagoon and one of the small islands out on the reef. The standard day trip begins at 9am and ends about 4pm. The boats spend the morning cruising and fishing on the lagoon. Midday is spent on one of the reef islands, where guests swim, snorkel, and sun while the crew cooks the day's catch and the local vegetables. The itinerary changes from day to day depending on the weather and the guests' desires.

The "Survivor: Cook Islands" TV series was filmed on Maturaku islet, but a more common destination is Tapuaetai (One Foot) Island and its adjacent sandbar, known as Nude Island (for its lack of foliage, not clothes). One Foot got its name when an ancient chief prohibited his subjects from fishing there on pain of death. One day the chief and his warriors saw two people fishing on the reef and gave chase. The two were a man and his young son. They ran onto the island, the boy carefully stepping in his father's footprints as they crossed the beach. The son then hid in the top of a coconut tree. The chief found the father, who said he was the only person fishing on the reef. After a search proved fruitless, the chief decided it must have been rocks he and his men saw on the reef. He then killed the father. Ever since, the island has been known as Tapuaetai (in the local dialect, tapuae means footprint, and tai is one).

Those dark things resembling cucumbers on the bottom of the lagoon are beche-de-mer (sea slugs). Along with sandalwood, they brought many traders to the South Pacific during the 19th century because of high prices they fetched in China. Sea slugs are harmless -- except in China, where they are considered to be an aphrodisiac.

As noted in "Getting to Aitutaki," above, Air Rarotonga has day trips from Rarotonga, which include lagoon excursions. Several operators also have full-day lagoon cruises Monday to Saturday. The oldest is Bishop's Lagoon Cruises (tel. 31-009; fax 31-493; bishopcruz@aitutaki.net.ck). It goes to One Foot Island, where it has erected a beach bar. Teking Tours (tel. 31-582; teking@aitutaki.net) goes to a sand bar, where you'll have lunch sitting at umbrella tables in the lagoon. It also has champagne brunch and sunset tours. Kia Orana Cruise (tel. 31-442; kcruises@aitutaki.net) uses a smaller boat to visit Maina Island, on the southwestern corner of the lagoon, and it has overnight "honeymoon" trips to a small motu, where you sleep under a thatched roof or under the stars on a beach mat. All charge about NZ$65 (US$52/£26) per person for the all-day excursions, including lunch.

A less strenuous way to see the lagoon is on the Aitutaki Glass Bottom Boat (tel. 31-790; story@aitutaki.net.ck), whose 6-hour excursions cost NZ$35 (US$28/£14).

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.