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Cook Islands: Part Two

Discover this dreamy destination.

Last month we featured Part I of Peggy’s adventures in the Cook Islands. Here’s Part II.

I am standing waist deep in the most beautiful water in the world—a turquoise lagoon that’s so clear I can see my bare feet in the soft, smooth sand below. The warm water feels silky on my skin as it ebbs and flows around me. I’m swimming in a lagoon adjacent to Aitutaki, which many consider the most stunning of the Cook Islands. I can see why. The island itself is small—about 10 square miles—but its sweeping lagoon encompasses another 30 square miles, surrounded by a protective coral reef and 15 uninhabited islets.

It’s my fourth day in the Cook Islands. I feel as if I have left the real world far behind and awakened in a dream-like paradise, where the beauty of nature is only surpassed by the kindness of the people I meet.

My first glimpse of Aitutaki is near the end of a 45-minute flight from Rarotonga, the Cooks’ most populated island. The small, emerald island appears through my window and I am enchanted by its loveliness. No wonder Aitutaki is a popular wedding destination. It’s remote, yet accessible, and a number of luxurious properties offer wedding and honeymoon packages that promise a heavenly experience for the lucky couple and guests.

Lodge In Over-the-Water Bungalows at Aitutaki Lagoon Resort & Spa

At Night View the Awe-Inspiring Milky Way

One such property is called Aitutaki Lagoon Resort & Spa, where over-the-water bungalows feature tropical island décor and incredible lagoon views. Newlyweds can arrange to spend the day on one of the deserted islands at the lagoon’s edge or charter a sailboat for a romantic escape. At one end of the resort, a peninsula juts into the lagoon, and a single table is set for a couple’s sunset dinner. I can’t imagine a more romantic spot.

That evening, we dine in Aitutaki Lagoon Resort’s thatched-roof restaurant on delicious South Sea cuisine. First we savor coconut soup garnished with taro leaves. Next I tuck into a surf-and-turf combo featuring grass-fed New Zealand beef alongside fresh prawns. For dessert I can’t resist the chocolate lava cake with vanilla ice cream. As we savor our dinner, the island’s wildlife serenade us with a little night music.

After dinner I return to Rino’s Bungalows, where my basic, but clean cottage sits beside the lagoon. Before turning in, I head to the beach and look up. A multitude of stars spreads across the night sky—more than I have ever seen in my life. With very little light pollution, the South Pacific offers astonishing stargazing opportunities. The Milky Way is easy to spot, trailing across the sky like a gossamer scarf. But here in the Southern Hemisphere, constellations are less easy to identify.

I stop trying to find familiar stars and planets and instead let the immensity of the universe hypnotize me. I listen to gentle waves lapping the shore. Minutes pass. The world turns. The longer I look, the deeper I see. It seems everywhere I turn in these magical islands, I find lessons meant for me alone.

During the few days I have been here, my third eye has been focusing on things I don’t have time to look at or think about back home. It’s a reminder of why I travel, why I choose to leave the familiarity of day-to-day life behind me and visit a new place where nothing feels the same. It’s as if my soul is waking up after a long sleep.

Snorkel and Swim Onboard the Te Vaka Lagoon Cruise

Dancing Together at Tamanu Beach Hotel

Aitutaki is a place to find rest and respite. The next morning my fellow travelers and I embark on the Te Vaka Lagoon Cruise aboard a traditional wooden vessel with a tiki-style roof that shades us from the sun’s rays. We snorkel in water so blue it’s like swimming in the sky. Below me fish, large and small, colorful and plain, flit and flutter among coral reefs, each one a reminder that life is precious and beautiful, especially when you see the world through your third eye.

We visit One Foot Island. When I try to swim to the next islet, the current carries me away, and I turn back, humbled, reminded that I need to exercise more, that my body, like my third eye needs stimulation on a regular basis.

Back on board the vaka, we lunch on local fish, vegetables, and salad as the boat rocks gently in the lagoon. I feel sleepy and wish I could lounge in a hammock on one of the deserted islands, but it’s time to return to the main island and prepare for the evening festivities.

As darkness falls, we enjoy another delicious buffet of island specialties in a beachside pavilion at Tamanu Beach Hotel and watch a show called Island Fire, which features a talented group of mostly young dancers. It makes me happy that the young Cook Islanders are embracing their traditions and keeping them alive for future generations.

As torches provide a cheery glow, drumbeats sound and solemn chanting begins. What follows is a mesmerizing show where men dance with fire and women in grass skirts sway gracefully as they sing traditional songs. It’s magical.

When the show is over, the dancers invite the audience to join them for dance lessons. I take advantage of the chance to get in touch with my inner island girl but soon discover that mastering the Island dances isn’t easy. As the music’s tempo picks up, instead of dancing gracefully, I feel like Elaine on Seinfeld, arms all akimbo as my hips and legs try to follow the rhythm of the island music. I finally decide to stop worrying about getting the steps right and let the music guide me. Surprise! The dance steps become easier. It’s yet another lesson—learning is to let myself go and stop overthinking everything. Just. Be. In. The. Moment.

The next morning we head to the airport for a quick flight to Atiu, a small island known for its unique birds and network of caves. We meet Birdman George soon after arriving and set off in the back of a pickup truck for a bird tour. We stop in the middle of nowhere next to a dense jungle, and George makes a smooching sound, trying to lure birds out of the bush. We hear them flitting in the trees, but all we see are butterflies and dragonflies drifting drowsily through the hot morning air.

We drive a bit deeper into the jungle and discover quite a few indigenous birds: fruit doves, Rarotonga flycatchers, wood pigeons, lorikeets, white terns, and the endangered kopeka, or swiftlet, which nests deep inside caves. In between bird sightings George shares island wisdom with us, like putting Noni fruit on a cut and using a sea cucumber to glue the cut closed. “I don’t like Western medicine,” says George, who claims Noni, which grows everywhere in the Cook Islands, is the secret to a long, healthy life.

We lunch under palm trees at a makeshift picnic table and watch a group of young dancers practice nearby. Behind them the South Pacific sparkles, but what impresses me most are the sparkling smiles on the faces of the young dancers. Here we are in this remote corner of the world, and these young people are enjoying the simple pleasures of dancing together.

I admire these Cook Islanders for holding onto what matters in life: friends, family, prayer, nature, culture, traditions, and a deep-rooted connection to the past. Sometimes I think we are running headlong toward a future that is out of sync with the natural rhythms of life. We need to slow down, look at the stars, listen to the birds, dance, celebrate, breathe. The Cook Islands are teaching me these lessons, and my third eye is taking it all in.

Exploring the Caves and Famous Kopekas in Atiu

Don’t Miss Island Night at Atiu Village

A cave tour is next, and I am wearing boat shoes, which it turns out are not ideal for the terrain we will be traversing. Marshall, our guide, is concerned, but thinks I’ll manage with the help of a couple walking sticks. As the oldest in the group, I am not sure what I’m getting myself into, but soon I understand Marshall’s trepidation. The hike to the cave is on a trail that’s comprised of sharp, pointy, uneven ancient coral, and the path winds among large boulder-sized pieces of coral. One slip of the foot would be a disaster.

I consider turning back, but I go on, hoping and praying I can stay in balance. Marshall says I’m not the only one to be challenged by this hike, but he encourages everyone to give it a go. It’s an empowering feeling to complete the hike, he says. I just keep my thoughts focused on staying upright.

When we finally get to the cave, some of my intrepid companions climb down to an underground pool for a dip, but I’m happy to sit in the darkness of the cave and rest. Soon we see kopekas flying to their nests inside the cave. By making chirping sounds, these rare birds use echo-location to find their way back to their nest.

I’m glad I came to this cave, but will be gladder still when I’m back on solid ground. Still I love the way nature makes us resourceful: we learn to be better balanced as conditions require—another lesson for my third eye to ponder.

We are lodging at Atiu Villas, owned by Roger Malcolm and his wife, Kura. The chalet-style villas are made of local timber, including mango, coconut, acacia, and cedar trees, and have lovely outdoor verandas for enjoying morning coffee. In the evenings everyone gathers in Kura’s Kitchen.

Tonight is Island Night, a once-a-week event that features a hearty buffet dinner, followed by an Atiu-style dance show. The performance is laid-back and feels natural, earthy. Again the dancers invite us to join in the fun, and this time I stop worrying about doing it right and let the rhythm guide me.

The next morning on our way to the airport, we meet a coffee grower, Juergen Manske-Eimke, and his wife, Andrea, a fiber artist, and enjoy delicious coffee grown on Atiu. First Juergen gives us a tour of his grove of coffee trees, followed by a quick look around the small factory where they manufacture the coffee. We see beans drying in the sun. After 20 days they’re roasted and then aged for five months until they reach peak flavor. The coffee is spectacular, and I enjoy more cups than I should.

In a tiny plane, we hopscotch back across turquoise water to Rarotonga, the first island we explored. After a hike, we change clothes and head for a new luxury property called Nautilus Resort, where we inspect their not-quite-finished villas before gathering for a delicious send-off dinner under the stars at their newly opened beachfront restaurant.

Dinner is spectacular, a celebration of Cook Islands’ abundant bounty. We pass around plates of seafood, fruits, vegetables, and desserts while enjoying good wine and conversation. As the stars slowly pop out in the sky, I look up and say a silent prayer of thanks for this wonderful island paradise, where I have discovered a new way of seeing.

Air New Zealand flies nonstop to the Cooks weekly from LAX. The Cooks are on our side of the international date line. For more information about visiting the Cook Islands, go to www.cookislands.travel. There have been no cases of coronavirus reported in the Cook Islands.

Peggy Sijswerda

Peggy Sijswerda is the editor and publisher of Tidewater Family Plus magazine. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction from Old Dominion University and is the author of Still Life with Sierra, a travel memoir. Peggy also freelances for a variety of regional, national, and international magazines.

Website: www.peggysijswerda.com

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