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Islands Mag Cook Islands Aitutaki Travel Review

Islands Mag Cook Islands Aitutaki Travel Review



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Published by Islands Magazine
http://islands.com/freeissue Islands magazine showcases this dream trip to Aitutaki in the Cook Islands, from the beautiful history of this South Pacific travel destination to the resorts, people and places that make it a stunning vacation destination today.
http://islands.com/freeissue Islands magazine showcases this dream trip to Aitutaki in the Cook Islands, from the beautiful history of this South Pacific travel destination to the resorts, people and places that make it a stunning vacation destination today.

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Published by: Islands Magazine on Nov 20, 2009
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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clad Polynesian beauties are practicing the hula,
their laughter chiming like crystal bells. The crispy 
aroma of coconut oil and baking pork wafts froman
oven. “I missed you, Ruru!” John Wayne
booms as he tosses a barefoot youngster in the air.
Before I can even take my Tony Lama boots off,Sam Mackey, the Irish airport manager, hands me
a highball glass that’s sweating so I don’t have to.
“Tide was shy and the tail clipped a coral head,” heapologizes. He’s sending the
on to Papeete
 without us for repairs; another plane will pick us
up soon. In the meantime, he’s rounded up some
islanders for a luau and some dancing later tonight.
 And the tiki bar? Well, the tiki bar never closes.
 A dark 21st-century cloud drifts across the sun,blotting out my 1950s fantasy. But I’ll be damned
if the lagoon doesn’t just glow all the brighter.
If this island is heaven, then I think Godjust turned on the pool lights.
aitutaki now
skimming at 200 miles per 
hour over the wind-scrolled
South Pacific, I spot the bright turquoise
lagoon from five miles out, glowing in the
noon sun like an opal on a jeweler’s velvet tray. Imake my way forward, passing Brigitte Bardot
coiled like a mink in 4A and the Duke himself snor-ing two rows ahead of her. He tied one on last nightat Aggie Grey’s bar in Samoa. That’s why we’re run-ning late. When John Wayne shouts for a full round
of mai tais, you really can’t say no, pilgrim.
I poke my head into the cockpit of the
Tasman Empire Airway’s 45-passenger flying boat.
Like Brigitte, the
is a double-decked beauty 
 with a sleek hull and a set of props to make grown
men purr like the Hercules engines that spin them.
“Welcome to the most glamorous airport in the
 world,” St. Pierre announces above the roar, push-
ing up his Ray-Bans. Like the rest of the crew, he’s
The runway oclear water whereTasman EmpireAirway’s fyingboats once landedhasn’t changedmuch since big jetschanged air travel.
barely in his 30s. And like them, he earned his wings
in places like Midway Island and Guadalcanal. He
puts the
into a yawing left turn, and 90 sec-
onds later we’re buzzing over the lagoon at 100 feet,
so low I can see coconuts on the trees. “Hold on to your Bloody Marys, boys,” St. Pierre says.
Rita Hayworth is clearing away a dream of filet mignon when I get back to my seat. She
flicks a smile and her silver Ronson as I tap out
a pair of Lucky Strikes. “We have a quick refuel-
ing stop in Aitutaki,” she says, taking a long, cool
draw. “We’ll be in Tahiti by sunset.”
I sink into the leather wingback seat for a silk-soft touchdown that’s rudely interrupted by a grinding jolt. The Duke wakes from his tipsy 
slumber, but nobody spills any champagne.
 Aitutaki’s semi-international airport is littlemore than the jetty and a couple of thatched
. Beyond the palapas a dozen grass-skirt-
even 20 feet down in
 Aitutaki Lagoon, the water
is so clear I can feel the sun come out from
behind a cloud, and the warmth soothes
away my goose bumps. It’s late afternoon, and I’mfree-diving off Maina Motu at the southern tip of 
the lagoon. Schools of yellow butterysh scatterbefore us like October leaves as Puna, my guide,
points out a giant clam as big as a Samsonite.
Back on Puna’s banana-yellow pontoon boat, we towel off. The sun goes behind a cloud again,
this time for good. Puna casts a wary glance at thecurdled gray sky as lightning ickers.
He points to a motu on the far edge of the lagoon.
 A shaft of sunlight sneaks through a ragged gap inthe squall, and the island’s long, coral beach burns
like lament. A row of coconut palms, their fronds
bent silver in the rising wind, sways in unison.“That’s where it happened,” Puna says above
the growl of thunder. “That’s Akaiami.”
Back in the 1950s during the golden age of air travel, ying boats ew the Coral Route, the
Orient Express of the South Pacic. It was a glam-
orous three-day journey between New Zealand
and Tahiti with overnight stops at swanky hotels in
Fiji and Samoa. On the last leg of the journey, the
planes touched down in Aitutaki Lagoon to refuel.
One of them ran into trouble, and the passengers were stranded on an uninhabited island.
Fat, warm drops kiss my face. Puna shoves the
throttle forward and swings the bow toward home
as Akaiami vanishes in our wake and a curtain of rain.The low-pressure cell has ed the next day when
I join Chief Solomona and his cousin Max on an
 Aitutaki Discovery Safari Tour, a four-wheel-drive
expedition around the atoll. With his gelled hair, wraparound sunglasses and popped-collar Aloha 
shirt, Chief reminds me of a young Elvis.
On our way up Maungapu, the highest hill on theisland, Chief points out tombstones neatly arranged
in front of almost every house. “We bury our deadat home so they will always be close to us,” he says.
Later he points out a fat, sway-bellied goat tetheredto a frangipani tree in front of a home. “The Aitutaki
lawn mower,” he says, pulling up for a photo op.
Chief’s in the middle of giving a lesson on wild-
boar hunting — “You set the eld on re, then …”— when Max slams on the brakes. For a cat.
“Want a picture?” Chief whispers. It’s anorange-brown tabby reclining by the side of the
Aitutaki LagoonResort rontsthe blue lagoon.Opposite: Atollactivities rom reedives to mai taisand resh ruit lldays without clut-tering the mind.

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