Cook Islands: blue lagoons, gracious people

Low-key approach means a memorable time for tourists

Destination: South Pacific

July 17, 2005|By Rosemary McClure | By Rosemary McClure,Los Angeles Times

I kept the queen waiting.

Thunderstorms had delayed my flight. By the time the plane landed, Cook Islands Queen Manarangi Tutai had been waiting at the airport for three hours.

Despite the imposition, she smiled regally, wished me Kia orana -- "May you live long" -- and draped a fragrant necklace of gardenias around my shoulders.

I stumbled through an apology. I had planned to stay at her bed-and-breakfast inn on the remote South Pacific island of Aitutaki during my November trip, but I didn't expect her to pick me up, much less grab my luggage and drive me to the B&B herself.

"Don't worry. We're on island time," she said cheerily. Clearly, I had left Los Angeles behind. Gridlocked freeways, scowling faces and diesel-scented air faded as Queen Tutai hoisted my bag into the back of her well-worn utility truck.

In the Cook Islands, I soon learned, there is no traffic, people smile at one another and the air is scented with plumeria. Plus, for $53 a night, any guest can receive a royal welcome.

The 15 atolls and islands that make up the Cooks -- named for 18th-century explorer Capt. James Cook -- are strung across 850,000 square miles of ocean midway between South America and Australia. It's a part of the world that is sometimes subject to violent tropical storms and cyclones during the rainy season, November to March.

Earlier this year, in a little more than a month, five major cyclones swirled through -- a record. But "we took precautions and were prepared," the queen said. No one was killed or injured, and despite the pummeling the islands took, the welcome sign is out once again.

During balmier periods, the Cooks -- which are part of Polynesia -- are known for their sparkling lagoons, swaying palm trees, powdery white beaches and pleasant, gracious people.

Unlike their famous neighbor French Polynesia, about 600 miles east, the Cooks have no McDonald's restaurants and no large hotel developments. They differ from Tahiti in another way too: Everyone speaks English.

Though easily accessible, the islands get relatively few tourists. Last year, 83,000 people visited -- about the same number who arrived in Hawaii in a 12-hour period. That's all the better for travelers seeking a fantasy island experience. It's easy to find an isolated beach to call your own or to stake claim to a private island.

Most U.S. travelers arrive the way I did, on an 8 1/2 -hour Air New Zealand flight that originates in Los Angeles, stops for an hour in Tahiti and continues 90 more minutes to Rarotonga, site of the Cook Islands airport and Avarua, the capital.

Although some visitors see only the beaches and craggy mountains of Rarotonga, about 20 percent visit the slower-paced Outer Islands, particularly Aitutaki, which is known for its lagoon.

Aitutaki's lagoon

It's the blue lagoon that resides in your daydreams, the one that stalks you on a dreary afternoon when the boss is glaring at you, the water heater has sprung a leak and you can't stand the thought of another long commute.

I saw it first from the air, after a 40-minute flight from Rarotonga. It was striking, a turquoise triangle outlined by waves crashing against a barrier reef. Outside the triangle, the water was cobalt blue and looked deep; inside, it was so shallow and clear that the sandy bottom was visible in some places. Sheltered inside the lagoon was the lush, green island of Aitutaki and more than a dozen of the sandy islets called motu.

The next morning, I explored the lagoon more closely from the cabin of a 24-foot cruiser. Queen Tutai and her husband, British expat Des Clarke, let me ride along as they took a Danish family to the queen's beach lodge at a semiprivate island in the lagoon. (My cottage at Gina's Garden Lodge -- she named her two inns for her daughter Georgina -- cost $53 a night; the Danes paid about $170 a night at Gina's Beach Lodge, including transportation and rustic accommodations.)

One of the queen's favorite crusades is preserving the environment, a difficult task in the face of an expanding tourism industry.

"Tourism offers economic liberation," she said. "But there are drawbacks. Our forefathers had no money, but they had the land and the sea. What part of our environment are we willing to give up to make money? We must preserve the dream that others travel across the world to see."

Many islanders agree. They don't want their Shangri-La to become another Waikiki. Regulations specify that buildings may not exceed the height of the tallest palm tree; they also prohibit nonislanders from owning land. Tourist facilities are mostly small and owner-operated. There are no chain hotels.

Islanders fiercely guard their social and religious beliefs. Sunday, they say, is God's day, a time to attend church, not a day for shopping, touring or traveling. When Air Rarotonga tried to begin Sunday flights into Aitutaki from Rarotonga in the mid-'90s, there was a mini-revolt, Queen Tutai said.

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