AITUTAKI, Cook Islands — There's a saying in the West that could easily apply to the little-known and largely unspoiled island/lagoon of Aitutaki: "Never ask a Cook Islander where he comes from. If he's from Aitutaki, he'll tell you. If not, don't embarrass him."
Everything is bigger and better on Aitutaki. I know. They told me so.
"But isn't Rarotonga larger?" I asked. "Yes, but Aitutaki would be larger," they carefully pointed out, "if you include the lagoon."
"But your highest peak, Maungapu, is much lower than Rarotonga's Te Atukuru," I countered. "Who needs mountains?" they wondered. "For even Maungapu," they claim, "was chopped off of Rarotonga's Mt. Raemaru and brought back by victorious Aitutaki warriors."
"Raemaru is surprisingly flat on top," I had to agree.
"But what about animals? I see no dogs here." I wondered aloud. "They were banned long ago," I was told, "due to a widespread belief that dogs carried leprosy."
Aitutaki is also the quietest and cleanest island, they claim.
"But what about food?" I questioned. "We have the best of that, too," a fisherman bragged. "The lagoon is full of fish and pahua (clams)."
"The lagoon is also full of sea slugs. Do you eat those too?" I asked innocently as his upper lip curled toward his nose. "Ugh!" he laughed. "Only Rarotongans eat those."
"And fruit?" I queried. "I haven't seen any in the markets." "Nobody buys fruit here," I was told. "They just go to the bush or somebody's farm and take it."
Aitutaki has an unwritten law that any ripe fruit can be taken free. "Once the fruit is ripe it's too delicate and too late to ship and to sell it," he said.
Suspiciously, I asked again: "But what if a farmer sees you?" "He'll probably come over to help you pick it," he replied. Aitutakians are also the happiest and best-fed.
"And bread?" "I never take bread with me when I visit Aitutaki," the ex-local said. Of course, Aitutakians also make the best bread, they maintain.
A women greeted us and asked, "Do you have any children?" Aitutakians have the most children. "No," Sue and I answered, "not yet." "Would you like one?" she nudged one of her youngest forward. Aitutakians are also the most generous.
A young man named Neill Mitchell introduced himself to me. "My uncle was Sir Albert Henry" (the notorious premier who led them to independence). Aitutakians are also the leaders. Soon our discourse turned to philosophy, and as he quoted from the greats I couldn't help thinking, Aitutakians are also the thinkers.
The conversation changed as a pretty young Maori wahine at the hotel table leaned over and casually asked, "How long were you on Rarotonga?" "Two weeks," I replied. "Two weeks?" she exclaimed. "Why would you want to be there for two weeks? It's so boring!" Aitutaki also has the best parties, she enthused.
"Is there anything that isn't the biggest or the best on Aitutaki?" Surely they couldn't have everything . "Mosquitoes," came the answer. "Aitu has more mosquitoes."
I finally gave up. Such is life in the Cooks.
A conversation like this could go on forever with native and non-native Aitutakians alike, and as one put it herself, "If he talks your ears off, he's an Aitutakian."
But why not? Aitutaki is everything it claims to be. Beautiful rolling hills rich in banana and citrus plantations cover the verdant interior. Tin-roof cottages and thatch-roof bungalows sit side by side in the shade of the spreading mango trees. Rust-red dirt roads cut through the inland tropical soil while white crushed coral roads shimmer on the island flanks near palm-lined sandy beaches.
And then there is the lagoon. Most of all, Aitutakians are proud of their lagoon. Rivaling even Bora Bora is the triangular reef-bound jewel that Aitutakians claim as their lagoon. Like a highly polished turquoise gem, it shimmers to meet you.
All Its Majesty
Only from the air can you see it in all its majesty. The minutely suspended particles give the water its famous color but it's the emerald green, palm-studded motus (small islands) that give it its charm.
From the moment you arrive you'll be bombarded with information about lagoon cruises and people asking you if you've seen the motus yet. If you're a cheapskate like me, you may hesitate at first to spend the 18 New Zealand dollars per person for the boat cruise and picnic on a motu , but after a couple of days there you'll realize it's not a matter of choice, and nobody's asking "if," just "when?" Aitutaki has the best lagoon tour. You have to go.
Three boats run the tours and after inspecting each, my wife and I chose Capt. Takapuna's. A native Aitutakian, he knows the reef as well as any man but his special pride is in making sure that we would have more fun on his boat than on any of the others.