We explored Rarotonga via a single road that traced the outer edge of the island, and Atiu was much more enclosed with the majority of the island huddled in the middle of the landmass. But in Aitutaki, the second most visited island of the Cook Islands, one of the most popular ways to explore the area is by water. Certainly there are things to do on land in Aitutaki, but the highlights of this island lie offshore.
Aitutaki is fringed by a bright turquoise lagoon and several small, uninhabited islands. An outlying reef protects this massive area of water, which, in many places, is only a few inches deep, which means you can literally walk from island to island. A few boats have capsized here, and snorkeling reveals not only a brilliant array of colorful fish but fraying ropes and rusted pieces of sunken ships.
One of the best ways to explore the outlying islands is via a lagoon trip, which is the perfect way to enjoy a sunny and relaxing destination in the middle of the South Pacific.
There are eight glass-bottomed lagoon cruise companies, many of which leave from the main island of Aitutaki every day, but there aren’t so many on the water that it feels overwhelming. In fact, you may only see a few other boats on your day out on the water. We cruised with TeKing, who runs a lagoon tour company out of Aitutaki. The tour we took was $85 per person with a maximum of twelve people on board. A day with only a handful of other people, palm trees and a leisurely ride from island to island? Yes, please!
We started our lagoon cruise with a morning of snorkeling. At first we were dumped into the warm, clear waters near a large school of bright yellow fish with a few long white fish sprinkled into the mix. We floated for about an hour, dipping in and out of a large shipwreck, checking out the colorful brain coral and fluorescent sea creatures that darted in and out of the sunken boat and the reef that had grown around it.
At our second snorkeling stop, Teking jumped off the boat with us, and we navigated our way through a protected clam farm also riddled with a rainbow of brain coral and other sea creatures. During a third snorkeling stop later in the day, a trigger fish chased a sea urchin into a hole in a rock.
Throughout the day we hopped from island to island as Teking gave us lessons in ecology, history and pop culture. We waded along the shore of Honeymoon Island, which is rightly named with its fine white sand beaches, palm trees and not a commercial thing in sight. We weren’t in any rush, and we set the pace as we dragged our toes in the sand and admired tiny palm trees working to forage roots. After a leisurely stroll up the shoreline, we headed to Maina, where we were treated to a light lunch beneath a shaded pavilion. Before departing, we raced hermit crabs in the sand. Mine chose not to move and instead lounged in the sun like he was on vacation.
On Moturakau, we learned about the medicinal plants available in the South Pacific. From bug bites to headaches, there seems to be something natural to cure any symptom. And it only made sense that this lesson on natural remedies occurred on Moturakau. After all, this was where Survivor: Cook Islands was filmed. Anything they might have needed to survive really did seem to be on the island.
Our final stop, One Foot Island, is one of the most popular islands in Aitutaki. If someone wants to get off the mainland of Aitutaki and they are only headed one place, it’s One Foot Island. This piece of land is, in fact, shaped like a foot, and it’s possible to walk around the whole island in about a half hour.
Back on board the boat, chances are you’ll be salty, soggy and maybe even a bit sunburned like I was, but you’ll be relaxed and content, perfectly happy by the day you’ve spent exploring the otherworldly waters surrounding Aitutaki, far from everywhere and exactly where you want to be.