Dreamy lagoons, deserted beaches… you haven’t seen paradise until you’ve seen the Cook Islands, says Jane Labous
“KIA ORANA! Kia Orana!”
The cry echoes through the tiny open-air arrivals hall at Aitutaki airport, ‘Welcome! may you live long!
A group of smiling women in brightly-patterned dresses fling leis made of gardenia, the national flower, around our necks. A man with a guitar croons Polynesian love songs, families hug each other exuberantly; crates of frozen fish and vegetables are unloaded and a swarm of children gathers to investigate. The air is sultry and tropical; insects hover in the fading dusk; everyone is smiling.
That’s the thing about this part of the world. Everyone smiles, big, white, beaming smiles, all the time, not just because you’re a tourist and they want to help but because, well, it’s hard not to be happy when you wake up every morning to the kind of views that you only normally see on posters in travel agent windows; you know the ones, with the beautiful brown girl with flowers in her hair and the white sands, blue seas and tropical skies which are pretty much everyone’s vision of heaven.
I’m smiling, that’s for sure, because flying in from the main island of Raratonga, I’ve already seen Aitutaki from the air. It’s one of the 15 main islands in the Cooks archipelago and one of the most beautiful. Amoeba-shaped, it’s surrounded by a thin, white ruffle of surf enclosing a kaleidoscopic lagoon– slashes of bright green, slivers of glittering turquoise, folds of rich peacock blue and stripes of transparent water where the sea is so shallow and clear that it’s the colour of the white sand on the ocean floor. People come here for the views and the isolation; for the incredible snorkelling and diving; to relax and recuperate after trekking through nearby New Zealand – Auckland is just four hours away by air. These islands are popular but not overrun; choose the right hotel and you really can find yourself in that Crusoesque idyll, miles from anywhere with only the crabs for company.
I’m still smiling when, the next morning, I wake at six am and look out of the window of my villa on the edge of the lagoon. You see, to be up at six in the Cook Islands is to witness one of the greatest sunrises on earth; a marooned world of sky and sea, silent apart from the roar of the waves breaking on the crescent of the reef. Out there that ruffle of surf glows deep gold in the rising sun, but in the lagoon the water is rose-coloured and still, dotted with the dark, other-worldly forms of the sea cucumbers which thrive in these strange waters. A few wispy clouds float in the gently iridescent sky and the shadows of the coconut palms slant across the empty, pale-custard sand in front of my villa. Could London be any further away?
Later that day we sail out into the lagoon as the sun climbs higher and the colours change and darken, as though a painter is sitting at his easel gently filling them in from an infinite palette. The sea becomes candy-striped, the blue sky drips with tropical heat; the lagoon water, pristine, sparkling, takes on the most perfect graduation of colour. We pass miniature coral islands resembling tiny, perfect cocktail canapés, sand syruping around a cluster of slender palms. On one we glimpse a sunburnt family; naked blonde children paddling while their parents cook lunch over a camp fire. Back in Europe they’re probably the kind of people who have the latest laptops and television, but here they’re urchins, losing themselves in paradise.The Cook Islanders like to eat, and today is no exception – lunch is coconut-marinated tuna, avocado, kumara salad, a local staple similar to starchy potato, and lots and lots of papaya. This fruit is so abundant that you’ll find yourself eating it for breakfast, lunch and dinner and if you’re not eating it, you’ll be discussing its endless culinary possibilities. I pick up a coconut from the many lying on the sand and shake it to see if it’s worth opening.“Like this,” says our captain helpfully. He shows us where the three eyes of the coconut are, then how the softer of the three eyes can be used to penetrate the fruit. Bringing out a fierce-looking machete, he flexes his muscles (Cook Islanders are all built like rugby players, with macho personalities to go with it) and expertly slices the coconut in two.Jungle feverAitutaki is all about the lagoon, but many of the other Cook Islands have a lush jungle landscape packed with exotic palms, medicinal plants and magnificent flowers and trees. Back in Rarotonga, eighty-three year-old local medicine man Pa is something of a legend. A well-built man with white dreadlocks and a rather beautiful face sprinkled with freckles, he must have been a heartbreaker in his time. Even now, as we embark on a five-hour trek through the jungle, his flirtatious smile hints that he still has an eye for the ladies. He’s a lovable guide, although modesty is not his strong point – he informs us not a few times that he’s scaled the mountain 3,334 times, climbed the Te Rua Manga (The Needle) at the top ten times and frequently swims around the entire island ‘for fun’. Pa’s athleticism is evident in the way he leads the group, barefoot and barely out of breath. We follow, sweating, panting, scaling the twisting mountain path, climbing over trees, hacking through thick bushes. Pa shows us shampoo plants, breadfruit and medicinal herbs; some hours in, he brings out papaya for us to snack on.
Out there, a ruffle of surf glows deep gold in the rising sun. In the lagoon the water is rose-coloured and still, dotted with the other-worldly forms of the sea cucumbers which thrive in these strange waters
A tiny, sweltering twelve-seater plane takes us to Atiu, an island entirely made of fossilised coral or makatea. Its main attraction is the sacred Anatakitaki cave, with its massive stalactites and stalagmites, resident swifts and underground pool. Touching down on the baking coral runway, we’re greeted by a bevy of local women dressed in the brightest blues and greens who throw garlands of yellow flowers around our necks and gesticulate madly to the driver of the pick-up truck which is to transport us to the main town. It jolts us through the vines and palms and giant cashew trees towards Avarua, which turns out to be inhabited by a close-knit island community whose single storey, pastel-coloured houses are surrounded by neatly-mown lawns, tropical flowers and white picket fences. It’s like a tropical St Mary Mead.
The local shop sells tins of luncheon meat and dry biscuits, forties-style, and the lodge where we stay is half hotel, half camp, with fridges stocked with crackers, tinned tuna and processed cheddar cheese from New Zealand. It’s all rather exciting, particularly when night falls and we find ourselves surrounded by the mysterious twitterings and rustlings of the jungle. In our rooms, geckos flicker up the walls. The day ends at the tumunu, a local drinking den where local men come to drink bush beer. It’s a well-practised ritual - the coconut shell cup is passed around the circle and everyone is obliged to drink once. After that it goes round again and again and again…
Flying back, I stare down at the great blue Pacific below, imagining how those explorers must have felt when they arrived here. How they must have marvelled at the colours and the silence and the softness of the sand as they waded in to shore. For there is about this most remote of archipelagos, a thousand miles and an entire 24 hours from the UK, a sense of extraordinary perfection that I’ve yet to experience anywhere else in the world. We’re quite literally at the other end of the earth, in a place where the landscape is new, untouched, innocent. To come here is to realise what true beauty is –quite simply, it’s paradise, or about as near as you’re ever going to get...
First published in Real Magazine. Copyright Jane Labous 2008