Cooked to Perfection
Trip Start Nov 08, 2003
74Trip End Oct 22, 2004
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We checked-in at Rarotonga airport at 2.30pm and waited in a creche loosely disguised as a waiting room for an hour before our flight was called.
We made our way through the airport's only gate which was cut into some wire fencing and made our way across the tarmac to a little Air Rarotonga Saab 30-seater turbo-prop. The aircraft took off half full and before long we were tucking into our inflight meal cheese and crackers.
It was a 40-minute trip north to the island group of Aitutaki, and soon we were leaving behind Rarotonga's cloudy airspace and heading into a wispy-clouded paradise. With barely time to finish gnawing on our lumps of cheese we were descending towards a heaven on earth, skimming low over a turquoise triangular lagoon dotted with islands and coral reefs before banking hard right to land on the hook of this hook-shaped island.
We disembarked and headed for a tiny terminal building and under a tongue-in-cheek wooden sign welcoming us to 'Aitutaki International Airport'. Once bags were unloaded we jumped into a minivan heading for O'otu Beach at the very tip of the island where we met by Steve Schofield, the owner of Ranginui's Retreat, our base for the coming week.
We were shown to our bungalow and were instantly struck by the views across the lagoon. Opposite was Akitua Motu (island) which had been completely consumed by the Aitutaki Pearl Beach Resort, but tastefully transformed with expensive thatched bungalows. We panned around for views of the palm-tree lined main body of the island across a glistening sheet of kaleidoscopic blue and a lovely blue sky framed the scene perfectly.
Our lagoon-front bungalow was by no means Conran-designed but had everything we'd need including fridge freezer, electric hob, sink, sofa and shower. The toilet was of the bio-degradable pit-like sort without a flush but we could live with that and the bed was on unlockable wheels that would travel around the room at the slightest touch but, again, we could live with it, especially as we weren't going to be spending a lot of time in there after seeing what awaited us outside.
Our $995 (£350) 7-day package also included a nice bright-yellow scooter, a lagoon cruise and free kayaks. At the moment it seemed the bargain of the century.
Not wasting one sunny moment we hit the sand and wandered over a causeway connecting Akitua to the mainland. Pearl Beach Resort seemed very nice and was full of hand-carved wooden statues of the well-endowed Tangaroa, God of fertility. Our timing was uncanny as 5.30pm meant happy hour in the resort's bar so we toasted our good fortune with a glass of bubbly and bottle of Cook's lager, physically holding our mouths shut for fear of dribbling alcohol from surveying the jaw-dropping view.
Back at Ranginuis we spruced ourselves up for dinner next door at the renowned Samade bar. We grabbed the last table going and dined on lukewarm overcooked pasta (a Cook Islands speciality it seems) and a seafood omelette which was fed to three doe-eyed cats. Unlike Rarotonga, Aitutaki has no dogs, and there are two stories doing the rounds that explain their fate, one being that a dog once mauled the child of a High Chief so he subsequently hunted them all down.
Jumping on our scooter we headed off towards the main town of Arutanga passing by the airport before slinging a left to journey south along the island's west coast. Resorts of varying plushness lined the road along with the odd shop or church and evidence of the island's supposed 1,800 population was nowhere to be seen. The Orongo Centre in the main town sounded interesting but only offered a solitary ghostly souvenir shop.
Feeling peckish we headed inland for lunch towards a recommended eatery called Café Tupuna, only to learn our Lonely Planet guide was out of date once more as they were only open for dinner at 6pm.
Back in town we stopped by the temptingly-sounding Heineken Store which turned out to be a grocers, but they did sell odds and ends that would satisfy our hunger, and back at base we cooked eggs galore.
What wispy clouds there were soon burnt away so off we went to Samades, the only place around that had sun loungers, to read and get tanned up. Once shadows grew longer it was time to head over to the posh resort once more to celebrate the gift of nature that is Happy Hour.
The Happy Hour tonight was soon to be followed by an 'Island Night', and having missed out on a Rarotongan Island Night we quickly put our names down for a ring-side table. A barbecue of mammoth proportions was accompanying the entertainment, so come 7pm we dived headlong into flame-grilled Nirvana.
A massive steel barbie held every living creature edible to man and to its side were big bowls full of curry and rice. That was cruel, barbies and curries are my two favourite meals in the whole wide world yet they knew I only had one stomach. Fiendish.
A whole plethora of salady healthiness was on offer as well but who needs lettuce when you've got legs of grilled meat and bathtubs full of curry to get through? What were they thinking?
While Soph incredibly ate lots of salad, I gave the hot section a complete going over and was soon on first name terms with the chef, although he did constantly mispronounce my name to sound like 'glutton'.
Ordinarily our innards would have waved a white flag by dessert, but with profiteroles on display we dug deep and somehow found an empty orifice somewhere behind our kidneys where we stored two chocolate creamy balls of delight (excuse me?).
Suddenly out from the shadows came the dancing troupe of four boys and four girls, the boys wearing grass skirts and the girls half-coconut shells to preserve their modesty. Behind them were their extended families belting out a jungle beat on a peculiar assortment of percussion.
The boys flailed around miraculously to a 300bpm beat, with only one of them looking as though he was a Generation Game contestant, and the girls snake-hipped their way through gentle almost-Hawaiian ukulele melodies with constant embarrassed looks.
It was 45-minutes of good fun and as per usual the audience weren't going to get away without going home embarrassed as Soph was dragged to her feet by a young loin-clothed native looking for a Jane. I too was asked to dance by a dusky maiden . . . honestly, but feigned injury due to a lodged profiterole somewhere in my larynx.
Soph began hippy hippy-shaking with her young admirer, not in the least bit looking embarrassed, just mortified. The brunette pirouetted her way through her five-minutes of fame and came back to the table looking flushed after wowing the sell-out crowd of twenty with moves not seen since the heady mid-Eighties at the Hairy Frog Disco in Bridlington.
It was another hot sunny day and not a moment could be wasted as we Germanically sprinted down to O'otu Beach to grab a couple of sun loungers. With sun cream marinated bodies, we reclined back to think of England momentarily before turning our thoughts back to Aitutaki to savour our last days in the sun.
Once medium-rare, we ventured out into the warm shallow waters to saunter out onto some distant sandbars leading out to Akitua Island for some postcard-worthy photo opportunities.
Our afternoon was spent kayaking into the lagoon with the hope of some top-class snorkelling, but were disappointed to find murky coral-less water, which meant no sign of fish. We settled for a choppy circumnavigation of Akitua that led us near the atoll's fringing coral reef and into the path of some stray waves that had soared over the island's natural barrier.
That evening our little restaurant next door, Samades, was having a $25 a head barbecue night. We didn't give it a second thought and were soon sitting at a table for two supping beers and willing the barbie to grill quicker. On the barbie tonight was chicken, fish and bananas alongside a table full of the usual green-leafed table-fillers. Although nowhere as good as the Island Night slap-up from the previous night, we still sidled up to the spit on three occasions.
Entertainment tonight was supplied by a local singer on an electric piano who belted out Elvis classics interwoven with a Polynesian twist, while Soph fed some stray cats once more.
Our bargain package at Ranginui's Retreat included a lagoon cruise, so with the weather holding its shape we set off early in a crowded speedboat driven by a butch-looking guy called Quentin, the owner of Wet 'N Wild. Besides the driver and us were a retired German couple who were our neighbours at Ranginuis, an Italian guy named Gianluca and two more crew members, making a grand total of seven.
Soon Quentin had put his hand down, so to speak, and our cruise had quickly turned into a cross-lagoon sprint of Donald Campbell proportions. With room for only three sitting it was left to me and the German guy to sit on the edge of the boat and hold on to handrails until our knuckles turned red.
The ridge of coral that surrounded the lagoon had one or two 'passages' where daring skippers could squeeze through in order to hit the open seas, and our Quentin was sniffing one out. After weaving through a minefield of rocks and coral we were soon battling a ten-foot swell that threatened to tip us all out at any moment, and as the ladies and our little Italian stallion hunkered down on the three-seater, it was left to me and Hans (didn't actually get his name but Hans is as good as anything) once more to leave hand-prints in the steel handrails as our knuckles went into purple-mode.
Quentin scanned the situation for twenty minutes until he came across a patch of the raging sea he thought looked calm enough to snorkel in. We'd never snorkelled in a washing-machine before but we were sure going to this morning. Although rough, the water looked crystal clear and shapes on the ocean floor were visible even though we were informed it was 90-foot deep. One by one we plopped into the mix, followed by Quentin and his two helpers who were armed with a harpoon that was apparently going to catch our lunch today. We were indeed a long way up from the surface almost to the point that we were scared to look down because of the height, a kind of underwater vertigo if there's such a thing, but crystal clear it was and soon we were being coaxed along by a strong tide towards the reef. Things began to get more interesting as the reef built up and the water became shallower and a whole city of fish loomed into view. Just as we were being washed about on the surface, the fish were too as they were sucked in and out relentlessly by the current. Although looking bleached and dead, fish still flocked around the coral's nooks and crannies in search of what soft stuff there was to nibble on.
Having drifted from the boat quite a distance and losing energy after every doggie-paddle, we headed back to the boat against a current that would take us two strokes forward and one stroke back. Every now and again we'd stop to look for the boat that was just about visible over the waves, before getting our head down once more to grind out the metres.
Finally we hauled ourselves onto the boat to find the German lady (I'll call her Brigitte) still there and looking a touch green around the gills. We tried to make conversation but couldn't get a ja or a nein out of her and suddenly she'd moved to the front of the boat to try to be sick in private. Next into the boat came Hans and Gianluca who were also fighting for breath, and what followed was an agonising wait for the three fish-hunters to come back to the boat. We were being tossed around in an ocean that was now resembling the North Sea, and soon each and every one of us was succumbing to queasy feelings of various strengths. Gianluca was all gesticulations, patting his stomach and tapping his head, Brigitte's head was over the side of the boat, Hans was putting on a typically staunch Germanic brave face, Soph was concentrating on a land mass on the horizon and I was just plain green.
Suddenly our three hosts returned from the front line and remarkably everyone had kept their insides intact. The first two climbed into the boat empty-handed clutching unused harpoons and it looked for a while that we could have been going hungry today, but suddenly the last of the crew swam up to the side of the boat and lobbed a quartet of flailing fish onto the floor that flapped around until their gills ran out of water. It was a sight to get our bellies churning again but once more we all held firm, and it was a sad sight as the fish were four of the most colourful examples you could find including Sunset Wrasses and Parrotfish, but my belly soon told my brain to shut up as they were to look a lot better gutted and grilled with a slice of lemon. Sometimes I worry about my cruel side.
Finally we made for the calm waters of the lagoon once more and in an instant all European tummies were wunderbar. We now headed at top speed to the largish island of Akaiami where we were thankfully allowed onto sandy ground for a while to recuperate, while Quentin and the boys set about gutting our lunch. Akaiami had once been an important stop-off for the seaplanes who used to run, what was known as, the Coral Route, between Fiji and Tahiti. It was here that they'd refuel while passengers got off to enjoy a paddle and a ciggie.
Our next destination was Moturakau, apparently the location for the UK reality-show called Shipwrecked, but I can't be sure as it's probably the only reality claptrap we haven't watched. We wandered inland to explore one of only two volcanic islands in the whole group (the others all being sand based) and hovering in the trees was the lovely sight of Red-tailed Tropic birds.
Back in the boat and we were steaming across the lagoon to Tekopua, the setting for our lunch today, and while the fish-murderers barbecued their prey, the rest of us worked up our already big appetites with a stroll along the island's sandbars for photo-opportunities of a lifetime. After twenty minutes we were wolf-whistled back to a little glade where an island feast awaited us, including our poor defenceless but thoroughly tasty fish, heavenly curried sweet potatoes, coleslaw, boiled eggs, donuts and passion fruit. We all piled into the grub like the castaways that we were and soon our stomachs were well and truly settled.
Just across a shallow causeway sat another little islet, and home to the biggest tourist trap in all of Aitutaki, it was the island of Tapuaetai, better known as 'One Foot Island'. A wooden building stands on the beach offering expensive T-shirts but it also doubles as a post office where you can hand over $2.50 for the privilege of getting your passport stamped with a One Foot Island inky print. This therefore gives you the chance to bore everyone rigid with a flick through your passport when you get home. Dinner conversation doesn't get much better.
Quentin quickly quoozed over and dropped us off along with Hans and Brigitte, but minus Gianluca who went all deep on us and refused to be drawn into this wonderful tourist trap, preferring his passport was kept 'clean', as he put it. Whatsa matta you. Hey! Gotta no memento . . . er, I'll shuddupa my face.
One Foot Island was awash with washed up pleasure cruisers carrying washed up tourists, but by 3pm the post office was shut and the other boats were steaming off back to Aitutaki, full of pleased daytrippers showing each other their passports.
While Quentin sped off again to get Gianluca, we were left on our own to fight it out with the Germans as to who would lay claim to this newly emptied island, but before a summit could be arranged we were picked up again to head for an area renowned for its snorkelling. Once there, the crew handed out fishfood to us in the shape of bananas and after launching off the side of the boat in thankfully millpond-calm water, we were immediately surrounded by a thousand Scissortail Sergeants baying for banana and licking their lips with their imaginary tongues. As soon as fruit was peeled we were attacked from all sides as a stream of predators circled us taking turns to dab at our food. A pound of bananas was gobbled up in no time which gave us the chance to explore absolutely pristine waters, it was as if we were floating in space with our bubbles being the only sign we were underwater.
Soon Gianluca was gesturing in that inimitable Italian style once more, and he had every right to as we flippered over and looked down to see a Giant Moray Eel snapping away at pesky fish and annoying snorkellers. His whole body was coiled beneath a rock but looked to be a metre long so we backed away and made our way over to another clump of coral where two Giant Clams sat, looking ominously like they could lop off a stray limb of a careless snorkeller, and instead of being your usual dull barnacle-encrusted clam, these were as sparkling and as colourful as a Dame Edna gown. We glided around searching for more crustaceans of the Giant kind but settled for another marvel at a multi-coloured multitude before climbing back into the boat babbling on to one another about our sightings.
We thought our action-packed lagoon cruise was now at an end as we motored back to O'otu Beach, but Quentin's outfit wasn't called Wet n' Wild for nothing. Once in sight of home we came to a stop and were all offered the chance to try water-skiing or wake-boarding at which point Gianluca and the ladies declined, leaving Hans and I to show ourselves up. As it turned out it was left to me alone to show myself up as Hans' previous experience shone through as he raced around the lagoon with a nonchalant ease. My turn came and with a couple of weeks skiing experience under my belt I was sure to take to it like a duck to water, but it was soon clear even a duck would have had better luck than me as I began to struggle immediately in just getting the skis on while floating on my back. Even getting hold of the rope proved a tricky proposition as the speedboat circled around me, and once I was set to go it was over in a flash and a big splash. Once boat was engaged into full speed ahead the thrust tore the handle from my hands. Now I knew what to expect attempt number two lasted 0.3 seconds longer as my tensed body buckled into a blubbery mess. With energy levels depleted I braced myself for a third attempt and got half way into an ungainly crouch before being blinded by the wake and falling forwards with an audible sigh that reverberated around the lagoon. I crawled back into the boat a beaten quivering wreck of a man.
You either need superhuman strength to water-ski or technical expertise. I guess it was the latter if our neighbour who was a lean retired granddad could do it.
After being dropped home we headed to Samades for post-lagoon Malibu's with Gianluca who filled us in on everything Italian and gushed at how everything was really beautiful especially his homeland, Italy:
"Umbria ees rilly bewdival."
"Roma ees rilly bewdival."
"David Mellor is rilly bewdival."
and so on.
Later Gianluca needed to be back at Tom's Beach Cottage where he was staying, to take some snaps of his last Aitutakian sunset, so I offered to give him a lift on the back of the scooter.
[Warning: The following paragraph may not be suitable for minors.]
Once we'd arrived Gianluca unwrapped his sinewy arms from around my warm plump body and we dismounted. This is the moment when we'd have to say goodbye. We gazed tearfully into each other's eyes and exchanged email addresses as a red sun began to drop over the horizon. Engulfed in a warm glow, Gianluca, who was now overcome with Latin passion, drew closer to me and grasped my shoulders with a firm but tender grip before planting moist double-cheeked kisses upon my face. He slowly turned away with a last lingering look and soon my Italian stallion was walking into the distance mouthing a final 'Ciao bella'. It was rilly bewdival.
Ahem . . . see the Bears play the other night? Helluva game.
Back home I picked up my dinner date for the night (Soph) and headed for the swishest digs on the island, the Pacific Resort. The place had a beautiful entrance, and so it should for over $600 a night. The beautiful receptionist in the beautiful entrance informed us that it was their Island Night tonight with a $60 barbecue and dance show, but having already seen one we declined the invite and headed along the road to a little organic eatery called Tauono's.
Tauono's was run by a Cook Islander-Austro-Canadian husband and wife team and promised good things according to reports. We arrived to find just two tables, both taken, in the garden of their house as the rest were under construction. Soon a kindly looking lady came out of her kitchen wiping her hands on her apron and like a favourite gran she told us she had plenty of food on the go and beckoned us to sit down at a table already occupied by an old German chap. An uncomfortable situation was on the cards as the three of us sat at the table in desperate need of a cold beer and a translator.
Neither was forthcoming as the restaurant wasn't licensed. Luckily the Cook Islands at this time of year was crawling with Hamburgers and Berliners and suddenly our dinner companion left us for the other table which was also under occupation from Jerrys.
We were thankfully left alone to mull over the beverage menu, a verbal menu that was read to us by our kindly cook's husband Tauono, whose name stands over the entrance to the restaurant, well actually scribbled on a blackboard near the road. We had a choice of: homemade lemonade or tap water; we chose the former which turned out to be good stuff and before long our mystery starters were arriving in the shape of home-baked bread and a banana-ish salsa dip which kept us going til the main course.
We had a choice between steak and wahoo fish with assorted sauces. We both went for the fish with cherry tomato and parsley dressings and as we waited for them to arrive another couple turned up, and with just two chairs remaining at our table we were soon joined by a pair of Aussies. Having dinner with complete strangers is pretty tough at the best of times, but when you're seemingly in someone's back garden without a drop of the hard stuff in sight it can be a whole lot trickier.
Things turned out pretty well though as we tucked into our superb wahoo and talked 'holiday' with our uninvited guests. Tauono, our waiter and owner would drop by every now and again for a chat to lament on the demise of their once profitable business feeding homegrown filling food to anorexic backpackers, but Aitutaki had now distanced itself from being on the backpacker trail by inviting hotel chains to come along and build posy pads for a select few, and Tauono's was by no means targeting gap-yearers by charging £12 for main courses.
The food was worth it though and a sticky situation with our dinner companions turned into a very nice evening, although we'd probably only return when they've knocked up a few more tables.
Continues in part 2 . . .