A family holiday in the Cook Islands

AA Directions masthead Mobile This article was originally written by Monica Tischler for the Winter 2023 issue of AA Directions. View the original article. 

I stand on the pristine white shoreline of One Foot Island, hypnotised by a turtle wallowing in the shallows of the diamond-clear water. I’ve arrived in paradise.

Describing somewhere as ‘paradise’ can seem clichéd, but Aitutaki really is akin to utopia. And spending time on the lagoon is one of the best ways to explore the magic of the second most-populated motu of the Cook Islands, after Rarotonga.

After cruising the Aitutaki lagoon for the day while my partner and toddler son stayed at our resort, I have experienced the translation of this beautiful place’s name – Aitutaki means to ‘keep the fire going’. Today, the fire in my soul is burning brightly.

Cook Islands INP Tamanu Beach

Aitutaki is a paradise for visitors of all ages. Photo by Monica Tischler

Home to fifteen motu including One Foot Island where visitors can get their passport stamped at the world’s smallest post office, Aitutaki lives up to its reputation as a tropical nirvana.

It’s also a snorkelling mecca. While it can be easy for the untrained eye to get lost in the lustrous expanse of aqua, the skipper of our of Teking Lagoon Tours boat has an inbuilt compass and drops anchor at the most intriguing spots.

Red-tailed Tropicbirds glide above us as we float above the eerie wreck of supply ship Alexander, which sank on the reef in 1951. We see majestic giant clams – some close to 50 years old – and other younger ones introduced as filtering systems to help with the reef’s regeneration. We marvel at the strange phenomenon that is brain coral; the organ-like structures which are translucent in the florescent blues and greens of the sea. Before it became a protected species, the coral was used to build houses, churches and roads, its structure sturdy enough to withstand even the most devastating cyclones.

Cook Islands Tamanu Beach Resort

Experience casual luxury at Tamanu Beach Resort, Aitutaki. Photo by Monica Tischler.

I find my family back at Tamanu Beach Resort, weary from their own adventures of flitting between the pool and the gentle waves of the lagoon at the resort’s beach. Casually luxurious, Tamanu Beach Resort has only recently opened one wing to families, while the other is for adults only. As parents, we appreciate being able to enjoy some of the finer holiday experiences, even with a boisterous toddler in tow.

A short taxi ride takes us to Aitutaki village where we follow the enticing aromas to Blue Lagoon Restaurant and Bar. Poised right on the water’s edge we dine overlooking Ootu Beach in the last of the sun’s rays which eventually dim to reveal the glow of the Matariki star constellation.

Air Rarotonga takes us back across the 220-kilometre stretch of Pacific Ocean to the ‘mainland’. After pared-back Aitutaki, landing in Rarotonga is like arriving in a bustling metropolis. It is, after all, home to the Cook Islands’ Parliament buildings, international airport and 75% of the country’s population.

Cook Islands INP Punanga Nui Market

Colourful produce at Punanga Nui Market, Rarotonga. Photo by Monica Tischler.

We immerse ourselves in the sights and smells of Punanga Nui Market, open on Saturday mornings and bustling with more than 130 food, craft and clothing stalls. Fresh fruit juice is the perfect tonic to combat sweltering heat, and the cacophony of indigenous music and colourful produce is the perfect entertainment for an inquisitive infant.

In contrast to the bustling market, Maire Nui Gardens and Café is pocket of peacefulness, set across seven acres of lush, tropical grounds where huge palms give way to lily ponds, tranquil beneath wooden footbridges. The land here is leased by local woman Hinano Macquarie, and has been in her family for 800 years. Her vision is to create an organic, sustainable garden and to offer knowledge to all who visit. The gardens are also used as a hub for school children learning about the benefits of composting and worm farming.

Cook Islands INP Maire Nui Gardens

Maire Nui Gardens in Rarotonga provide a moment of serenity. Photo by Monica Tischler.

Muri Beach has long been a favourite for tourists with its idyllic stretch of sandy shoreline and prime snorkelling spots. But this evening we’re experiencing another of its highlights: the Muri Night Markets. A bonus for grownups is its BYO licence; we perch at picnic tables, sharing a piccolo of prosecco purchased from the neighbouring general store while our son tucks in to some local cuisine. We take our own meals back to enjoy later that evening on the veranda of Sands Villas, our self-contained accommodation overlooking Titikaveka Beach.

Venturing inland in Rarotonga we find unassuming beauty. Joining a Storytellers Eco-Cycling tour – our son happily attached to the back of a bike in a toddler buggy – we trace the 1,000-year-old thread of road that weaves in from the coast.

Constructed from coral and lined with basalt rock, the oldest infrastructure in the Cook Islands is known as ‘the road of our ancestors’, according to our guide. We push past trees dripping in tropical fruits and stop to investigate their bounty: tamarind, cassava, soursop, kapok seeds. We learn how to identify box fruit, the now-banned ‘lazy fishing method’ (the toxic seeds are powerful enough to stun fish) and how the sap of bread fruit is sticky enough to be used as sealant for vaka, or canoes.

We pedal past Black Rock, the spot where local legend says spirits leave the earth. Now a popular swimming spot, it once marked the meeting point for different villages on the island. There are scars on the basalt rock where people would chip off stone to use as tools.

Cook Islands INP Titikaveka beach

Soaking up a Rarotongan sunset. Photo by Monica Tischler.

We had booked a table with a highchair for our last dinner. But once we learnt of the island’s babysitting service, we amended the reservation to a table for two to indulge in a more peaceful meal. Sitting under swaying palm trees at the Nautilus Restaurant, set within its namesake resort, we relaxed to the sound of waves lapping at the shore. After our meal we savoured the luxury of a hot cup of tea – finishing it before it got cold – and, with bellies and hearts filled to the brim, returned to our sleeping son.

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