A Tropical New Years

Trip Start Apr 17, 2009
Trip End May 09, 2010

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Flag of Cook Islands  , Southern Cook Islands,
Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Well, we made it to the small island of Aitutaki (population 1,400) in the Cook Islands. We arrived in Aitutaki on December 30 and stayed for 8 nights. The weather was hit or miss while we were there with some sunny days and some rainy days. However, there really was not a lot to do on Aitutaki and 4 nights would have been ample for us here.

Aitutaki is a beautiful island with a high rugged center surrounded by lush farmland and ringed with white sand beaches, and a beautiful turquoise lagoon dotted with several small islands. While Aitutaki is definitely beautiful, we felt that it was not quite as beautiful or dramatic as some of the islands we have visited in Tahiti.

When we arrived we were met at the tiny open air airport by our “hotel” owner who drove us to the very inexpensive, small 7 bungalow “hotel” (Inano Beach Resort) where we would stay. As is customary, we were given floral leis to wear for our arrival and then taken to our small, clean, but very basic bungalow (hut) that was set back in a garden about 200 feet from the beach. Overall the place was decent but not great, and we were less than impressed by the owners who seemed a bit fake and a bit passive aggressive.

There are no taxis on the island and you need to rent a car or scooter to get around. We called around to all of the local places that rent cars but there were no cars available because of the New Year holiday weekend. However, we were quite hungry and set out on foot to a nearby restaurant (one of the few on the island!) called the Boat Shed. It turns out that the Boat Shed is managed by Steve Christian (the great-great-great-great-great grandchild of Fletcher Christian who led the mutiny on the Bounty at the end of the 1700s) Since we are very familiar with the famous mutiny we were very excited to meet a direct descendent of Fletcher Christian. Steve was a very nice guy and very laid back. He had grown up on Norfolk Island and moved to Aitutaki about 18 years ago.

Anyway, Steve said he had some scooters for rent if we wanted to have them to get around the island. Rich was a bit apprehensive about riding a scooter around the island on the bad roads, but eventually agreed since there were no cars for rent. John suggested they get one scooter and Rich ride on the back of it while John drove. Rich thought that sounded more dangerous than driving himself and decided that if he were to have an accident it would be best to only have himself to blame. So, we both rented our own scooters. Rich hopped on his newly rented scooter and after a few shaky starts and stops managed to drive the thing quite well. Now, Rich is thinking about upgrading to a “Harley”!

We grew to love riding around the island on the scooters (no helmets available!). However, we found that we were continuously leaving our turn signals on since you have to manually turn them off after each turn. It became a joke as Rich and John were constantly yelling at each other to turn of their turn signals

There are no dogs on Aitutaki because several years back a dog attacked someone quite severely and they were banned after that. There are, however, tons of free range goats, pigs, chickens, cats, and land crabs. In fact, chickens wander aimlessly around the airport terminal in both Rarotonga and Aitutaki, often with their little chicks in tow.

100 year old Mango trees dot the island and were quite a fascination for John who was constantly wanting to stop and pick fresh mangos to eat. The island has little litter which was nice. Also, several of the roads led deep into the countryside with small farms and lush forest of fruit trees and coconut palms. Flowers covered the landscape, and we loved taking rides around the countryside.

The people on the island are very religious but also very tolerant. However, one thing they are very against is having air flights to/from the island on Sundays. The local government had a ban on Sunday flying and the national government overturned the ban and allowed flights to go on Sundays into Aitutaki. The people of the island are furious about this and you will see signs all over the island saying “No flights on Sunday”

After getting settled in a bit we realized we had no way to make coffee in the mornings because our bungalow had no coffee maker. Panic set in as we were faced with the realization of a morning without fresh coffee. So, we headed out on our scooters to scour the island for a store that would sell us a French Press (they call them plungers here) coffee maker. We found one and had to shell out $42 buck for it. However, we decided that we would travel with it for the next several months and that it was worth the investment. Then came the quick trip to the grocery to get the ground coffee. Surprise- they don’t sell ground coffee in the grocery shops on Aitutaki!!!!!! We searched high and low to no avail. We had spent the day hunting for and then shelling out $42 for a coffee maker. We sure as heck would not give up on finding ground coffee. Finally, someone suggested that we go to one of the larger hotels (large is a relative term here) and see if we could buy ground coffee from one of their kitchens. So we drove our scooters to the Etu Moana Beach hotel (small, elegant property) where they were very nice and sold us a large bag of locally grown and fresh ground coffee from the island of Atiu. YUM and THANK YOU to Etu Moana Hotel!

For New Year’s we had made reservations for a dinner show at the Tamanu Beach Resort. The dinner was a large buffet of local island food which was very nice. The best things were curried lamb, roast suckling pork, and Ika Mata (raw yellow fin tuna with vegetables marinated in lime and coconut juice). Kumara is another popular item served everywhere and it is a purple root similar to a sweet potato. After dinner they presented a local island dance show which was decent but not as good as others we have seen. However, the show also included a troop of 5 men performing the fire dance and it was probably the best fire dance show we have ever seen (including Tahiti).

The dinner and show wrapped up around 1030pm. So, we headed back to our hotel to see if we could find anywhere to have a cocktail and toast in the New Year. However, our hotel, the one next to us and the nearby restaurant Boat Shed were all closed by 11pm. So, we retrieved two Heinekens from our bungalow and sat on the beach by ourselves under a beautiful full moon and toasted in the New Year very quietly in a perfect setting. Side Note- The Cook Islands are in the last time zone of the Earth - so we were the last spot to say farewell to 2009 and hello to 2010.

One evening we were riding our scooters at dusk and noticed that there were literally hundreds of large land crabs in the road. There was no way to avoid running over some of them because of the sheer numbers of them on the roads. We got off our bikes (as did other people who stopped their car etc) to watch the crabs. Apparently, we were witnessing the annual December full moon migration of the crabs to the ocean where they lay their eggs. Somehow, all of the crabs do this over a period of two or three nights each year, and there are thousands of them. Most land crabs live in the forests a couple of hundred feet away from the ocean. As a result, they end up having to cross the coastal road to get to the water for laying their eggs. While this does provide for quite a spectacle, it also means that quite a few of them get run over by vehicles resulting in a large road kill feast for the local chickens and minah birds.

One morning we decided to take kayaks from our hotel and kayak to some of the offshore barrier islands. We had been disappointed with the beach at our hotel (small and the water was cloudy and too shallow for swimming). So, we headed out in the kayaks to find better beaches and better areas for swimming. We had to fight some very strong headwinds and the battle wore us out. However, after much paddling we visited two deserted islands with beautiful beaches and decent swimming areas. In general we found the lagoon areas near the main island to be cloudier and too shallow for decent swimming. This is not the case in most of the islands of Tahiti. That’s one reason why we think Tahiti is a bit better (but far more expensive) than what we experienced of the natural environment of the Cook islands.

A few days into our trip we signed up for a lagoon boat tour with Aitutaki Adventures that would take us way out in the deep areas for snorkeling, around to several of the small islands, and then to a private island for a BBQ lunch. It was a cloudy day but the rain held off. The boat tour had about 20 people on it. We befriended a large family originally from South Africa but now living in Auckland and another nice couple from the Sydney area. As we have mentioned before, we are just amazed at the friendliness of people here- especially those from New Zealand and Australia. We have had quite a few nice invitations to stay with people and to have dinner with them when we come through their towns as part of our travel.

The snorkeling part of the tour was AMAZING. It was some of the best snorkeling we have ever had because they took us way out to the edge of the lagoon where there was a deep drop off (about 30 feet) filled with coral heads, giant clams in varying colors, colorful small corals, and tons of tropical fish.

We also visited the recently formed Honeymoon island. It is an island that started building up as a sand bar in the late 1970s and has continued to build up to become a full fledged island. People began taking trees out to plant on it in the 1980s and now it is a tree covered island that has only been in existence for 30 years.

As part of the tour they took us to one of the barrier islands where one of the seasons of the TV show Survivor had been filmed. While there we enjoyed walking through forests of ancient Mahogany trees which were filled with beautiful white terns (a type of bird). John mastered the task of opening coconuts (quite a challenge when starting with one fresh off the tree!). We also learned that you can actually pull up three foot high coconut tree saplings and use the nut (from which the tree has sprouted) for food. Once the tree has sprouted from the nut the filling of the nut loses much of its moisture and leaves behind an edible, sweet white fluffy center reminiscent of cotton candy (or fairy floss which is what they call cotton candy here).

Anyway, we loved the whole day long tour with Aitutaki Adventures. We were so pleased with it that we decided to try doing another tour with a company called Bishops. Unfortunately, the weather was HORRIBLE that day with driving wind and rain. However, the tour still went out and we did not have a very good time. Even if the weather had been better the tour would not have been anywhere nearly as good as the one with did with Aitutaki Adventures because the snorkeling area we were taken to was too shallow and the current was way too strong for good snorkeling. Also, they only visited two islands and the lunch, while decent, paled in comparison to what Aitutaki Adventures provided.

The next day was sunnier and we drove our scooters to the top of the highest hill overlooking the whole island and its lagoon. We actually had to park our scooters and hike up the steepest part. The views from the top were amazing.

That evening we headed to dinner (20 minute scooter ride each way) to a small restaurant called Tapuna Café, located out in the rural countryside. Tapuna is the name of the lady that runs the place and the food was quite good. There just aren’t many places to eat on the island and Tapuna Café was a welcomed change.

After dinner we were riding our scooters back and the route took us through a small village where we could hear the loud rapid drum beats and singing that often accompany Polynesian dancing. As we came into the village we saw that then entire community (about 100 people) were gathered in an open field playing music, singing, and watching their children do Polynesian dancing and fire shows for them. It was reminiscent of attending a school recital where the kids perform what they have learned for their parents. It was a WONDERFUL experience for us. We parked our scooters and watched as the village cheered their young girls and boys (ages 5 to 12) who performed the local Polynesian dances of their ancestors. At one point all of the old women from the village ran out and joined the children in the beautiful dances. It was so sweet and so authentic and so real- so unlike the staged island dance shows that you see at hotels. Everyone was cheering and laughing and it was one of the most genuine and memorable nights of our travels.

So, we prepare to depart Aitutaki and fly to New Zealand where we will spend the next couple of months.
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