Travel

Cook Islands: The tropical paradise you need to visit before everyone else does

A lagoon off the island of Aitutaki in the Cook Islands is popular for snorkling.
Christopher Muther/Globe Staff
A lagoon off the island of Aitutaki in the Cook Islands is popular for snorkling.

ATIU, Cook Islands — I was already off course when my scooter lost its grip trying to conquer a slippery hill. The scooter slid backward, tipped, and so did I, landing with an undignified squish in the mud. The scooter’s engine emitted an angry growl.

I sat in the middle of a deserted road lost and coated in burnt sienna mud looking like a flabby, defeated cross-fit competitor. There was no Uber to save me. I was in the jungle on a slip of an island in the South Pacific with a population of 400. I got back on the scooter and tried again. Squish. I could now feel mud in my underwear.

I had been under the impression that this trip to the Cook Islands would be a bit less arduous and perhaps a tad less muddy. The Cooks comprise 15 islands that were once a territory of, but are now in “free association” with New Zealand. Geographically the Cooks are much closer to French Polynesia or Fiji than New Zealand.

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But the most important thing to know about the Cook Islands is that they are an unsung tropical paradise. Vacationers from New Zealand and Australia are abundant, but it’s time that the Aussies and the Kiwis play nice and share with the rest of the world. Those with a taste for unspoiled beaches, which I think means everyone, need to put this destination on their list. Do it now before the place is overrun with North Americans wearing ill-fitting cargo shorts. You can thank me later, preferably with a kind e-mail and a roll of Butter Rum Life Savers.

An aerial view of Aitutaki’s One Foot Island.
David Kirkland
An aerial view of Aitutaki’s One Foot Island.
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There are miles of topaz-tinted lagoons devoid of crowds. The warm water is so clear you can wade out just a few feet and see angelfish frolicking around your legs. Even the most populous of the 15 islands, Rarotonga, doesn’t feel overtly touristy. There are no high-rise buildings or chains. Not even Starbucks. The law dictates that buildings here can be no taller than a coconut tree. The description I heard more than once was that the Cook Islands are what Hawaii was like 50 or 60 years ago.

But as I sat in the mud beside my scooter in the jungle of Atiu (say it like achoo), I was more focused on finding my way back to town. It was at this moment that I heard another scooter approaching. I wiped away the tears I may or may not have been crying (stop judging). A local Cook Islander puttered up, stopped, and asked if I was OK.

“Yeah, just, you know . . . ” I stammered with unconvincing bravado.

Then something miraculous happened. The local yanked my scooter out of the mud, jumped on, and instructed me to get on as well. He selflessly gave a mud-covered stranger a ride to the top of a steep hill, my dirty hands wrapped around his torso as we drove up the hill. I had never witnessed this level of tourism kindness. I nearly swooned “My hero,” but kept my mud-covered mouth shut.

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I hastily drove to the beach and jumped in the water before I was mistaken for one of the local wild pigs, or worse, a flabby cross-fit competitor.

• • •

Until a fateful Black Friday last year, I had never heard of the Cook Islands. But then I spied a ridiculously low airfare departing from Los Angeles. After a quick Google search of “What are the Cook Islands?” followed by an image search, I bought a ticket.

In the months following, a mention of the Cooks to friends mostly garnered empty looks. Understandably so. Less than 150,000 tourists visit the Cook Islands annually. Only a few friends recognized the name because they are fans of “Survivor,” which filmed a season here. A few threw out the name “Captain Cook,” and the Islands were named for Captain James Cook, but that’s where their knowledge ended.

My journey began at the diminutive Rarotonga airport after a 10-hour flight from Los Angeles. It was early Sunday morning, so I did what any God-fearing, jet-lagged traveler would do. I brushed my teeth and went to church.

Avarua Cook Islands Christian Church congregants departing after a Sunday service.
David Kirkland
Avarua Cook Islands Christian Church congregants departing after a Sunday service.
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Missionaries from England arrived in the Cook Islands in 1821 and told the locals they should give up dancing, drinking, sexual freedom, and cannibalism (!) and turn to the Lord. Those killjoy instructions stuck. There are 24 congregations on Rarotonga alone. Church in the Cook Islands was a unique experience. The singing was otherworldly. Waves of vocals crashed over each other and then slowly rose again. It was hypnotic, despite the fact I couldn’t understand a word of it.

But I hadn’t flown a total of 16 hours for an opportunity to go to church or a chance to buy ukuleles made by prisoners. Yes, prison ukuleles are available and make a thoughtful souvenir for friends and family back home. The snorkeling, biking, and hiking was outstanding in Rarotonga, but after a few days I found an island where the snorkeling was even better: Aitutaki.

Most people who come to the Cook Islands remain on Rarotonga. It’s where you’ll find the majority of restaurants and bars. But the island of Aitutaki, which is about 35 minutes by plane from Rarotonga, is where I fell in love with the Cook Islands, and I fell hard. It’s a sun-baked circle surrounded by coral reefs with a population of just 2,000. I idly drove around roads that were nearly empty, stopping at beaches that I greedily claimed for myself. Every morning I sat at the Koru Café for breakfast with roosters proudly strutting past me, wondering how on earth I was lucky enough to be here. I ended my days chasing sunsets and eating rukau, a local favorite of taro leaves, cooked with coconut cream.

David Kirkland
Couple snorkeling in Aitutaki lagoon off Honeymoon Island.

I’m not one to hand out superlatives lightly — or ever — but the snorkeling in Aitutaki was the finest I’ve experienced. I booked a tour with a company called Bishop’s Cruises, which brought me to Honeymoon Island. I’m not very good at snorkeling, swimming, driving a scooter in the mud, or anything that involves any level of athleticism, but I dove in the water and despite ingesting as much salt water as the giant clams beneath me, I continued bobbing my head in and out of the water with a crooked smile like a confused dolphin with a concussion. It was glorious.

A few days later I was on another propeller plane to Atiu, the most rustic of the three Cook Islands I visited. The airport here was more like an open-air shed, and the boarding passes were handwritten on small slips of paper. The runway was made of crushed coral. I had fully stepped back in time.

Atiu is often called bird island. Bird nerds take note: There’s an eccentric here who goes by the name Birdman George. He’s like Dr. Doolittle (the Rex Harrison version and definitely not Eddie Murphy) who talks to his feathered friends. That’s all well and good, but there was only one bird I wanted to see — the kopeka. This is a bird that thinks it’s a bat. Perhaps a spot of therapy could help these birds with their identity issues.

The only place in the world to see the kopeka is Atiu, and naturally you need to hike a couple of hours over rough terrain to get to the caves where they live. I heard them clicking their way around the cave — they use sound to navigate in the dark — before darting out to find food.

The reward for all of the hiking and birding was a natural pool located deep inside one of the caves. The guide lit candles around the pool to create a romantic swim. Well, romantic for the two couples I was with. They were looking at me as if I was a tick that fastened itself onto their otherwise amorous and athletic afternoon.

The entrance of the Anatakitaki Caves in Atiu, where the rare kopeka bird lives.
Christopher Muther/Globe staff
The entrance of the Anatakitaki Caves in Atiu, where the rare kopeka bird lives.

In addition to the bird that thinks it’s a bat, Atiu boasts another unique feature, the tumunu. A tumunu is not another rare animal species, but a hut that’s slightly hidden in the jungle where the locals drink home-brewed hooch they call bush beer created in the hollowed-out trunk of a coconut tree. A server sits at the trunk, dips in a cup and passes it from person to person. Germophobes, you might want to skip this one.

Visitors are more than welcome to crash the scene at the tumunu, and probably encouraged because they provide members with entertainment. Especially after they’ve downed 10 cups of bush beer, which I believe is the recommended daily dose.

The night I went to the tumunu, a visiting Dutch couple got engaged after 10 (or possibly more) cups of bush beer. The woman who proposed took out her phone and videoed her freshly-minted, sun-burnt fiancé saying yes to make sure he would remember the following morning.

Christopher Muther/Globe staff
Pa Teuruaa, a guide in Rarotonga in the Cook Islands, leads a group on a cross-island trek.

I was back in Rarotonga on my final day in the Cook Islands, and since I had already seen just about every species of fish the island had to offer, I decided to stick to land and make a cross-island trek with a group lead by Pa Teuruaa. He’s a spry septuagenarian who had made more than 5,000 treks. I happened to be there on his last tour before retirement. We said a prayer, because that’s what you do in the Cook Islands, and started up the mountain.

The same rain showers that had passed over Atiu a few days earlier had also come through Rarotonga, making the rocks slick and portions of the path muddy and impossible. I was once, twice, three times a loser and fell into the mud multiple times when I lost my footing. The third time I went down, Teuruaa came to my rescue with a kindly smile.

“The mud that is sticking to you now is temporary,” he said. “What will remain when it’s gone is the memory of your time here.”

And with that he gave me a warm hug, mud and all.

Christopher Muther can be reached at muther@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther.