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Peace, Beauty in Atiu

January 17, 1988|NANCY SMITH and KEN SMITH | Ken and Nancy Smith are free-lance writers living in Newbury Park, Calif

ATIU, Cook Islands — The breeze is murmuring through the ironwood trees as we enjoy a breakfast of pineapple, papaw and whole-grain cereal on the deck of our tropical chalet.

Looking down the valley lush with ferns, coconut palms and verdant jungle, the brilliant blue sea is punctuated with whitecaps, beckoning for a day of reef walking, shelling, bird watching and exploring.

Should we hop on the motor scooter and wind down the country road to the beach? Or perhaps go into town to pick up a loaf of freshly baked bread, some New Zealand lamb for the barbecue tonight and a few more bottles of San Miguel beer from Samoa? Decisions, decisions. . . .

Well, no hurry. Time to sit a while longer to watch the graceful white sea birds soaring over the treetops and to study the cloud formations.

If you want to experience the beauty and tranquillity of the South Pacific, away from the din and clamor of the typical resort hotel without giving up all the niceties, this is the place.

The Gracious Hosts

Roger and Kura Malcolm are gracious hosts of the Atiu Motel, three charming cottages complete with bath, fridge, kitchen and provisions.

Complimentary fruit in season magically finds its way to your table, sometimes via their delightful children, Zervena and Duane.

You'll meet friendly Atiuans (almost all speak English) along the road or in "town," but not many tourists--the Malcolms have the only visitor accommodations on the island.

Sounds like one of those expensive hideaways for the rich and famous, doesn't it? Taking into account the favorable New Zealand dollar exchange rate, it adds up to less than $25 a day U.S. for a double cottage, plus $10 for a motor scooter, which two can ride comfortably.

If you're into walking or hiking, you can walk to town or several miles to the beach--no rental cars are available. Food costs are moderate. There aren't any restaurants, so you do the cooking.

We've learned to bring dry, packaged side dishes such as soup mix, noodles and rice to go with fish, eggs, cheeses, canned goods and frozen meats.

Some favorite condiments along with Tang, cookies, powdered milk, a few chocolate bars and a small plastic container of peanut butter are also nice to have in remote areas.

There are several beautiful sandy beaches along the fringing reef surrounding Atiu, but because the lagoons are shallow, swimming and snorkeling are limited. No Waikiki crowds, however.

A population of 1,300 lives in villages on the raised center of the island; you usually have the reef all to yourself.

For diversity you can take a somewhat rigorous cave hike conducted by Tangi Jimmy. An expert and congenial guide, he relates the legend of how the cave was discovered as he leads you through the jagged ancient coral called makatea.

The trip culminates in the viewing of the kopeka birds that nest deep within the totally dark caverns.

For a touch of local color you can visit the tumunu and have some home brew in a thatched hut in the jungle at night. Sort of like a Fijian kava ceremony, except that the brew tastes good.

Only 12 Square Miles

Atiu is about 12 square miles and is one of the southern Cook Islands, 130 miles northeast of Rarotonga.

At a longitude of 19 degrees (similar to Hawaii except south of the Equator), the climate is usually pleasant, with prevailing breezes to cool things off. It's a little hotter, with more rain, during summer--December through March.

You can reach Rarotonga on Air New Zealand via Tahiti or on South Pacific Airways via Honolulu. Fares are a little under $1,000 round trip from LAX. Then a 45-minute flight brings you to Atiu on Air Rarotonga or Cook Island Airways; at least three flights a week (except Saturday and Sunday) at about $100 round trip.

Reservations for flights and for the Atiu Motel can be made through Air Rarotonga, P.O. Box 79, Rarotonga, Cook Islands.

Allow at least five days to unwind, enjoy the island and accept the possibility that in the tropics you may be rain-bound part of the time.

For further information call Air New Zealand at (800) 262-1234.

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