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The Cook Islands: Aitutaki Too!
by John Penisten
The short flight to Aitutaki atoll from Rarotonga, Cook Islands, sets in motion a real adventure to one of the South Pacific’s storied outlying islands. Lying some 160-miles and a 40-minute flight north of Rarotonga, Aitutaki is a spectacular triangular shaped atoll some 27-miles around, surrounding a sparkling lagoon. If you’ve never seen an atoll, prepare to be stunned. Aitutaki is simply magnificent.
The atoll is like a necklace with the pendant a hook-shaped main island flanked by the 15 or so motu (islets) along the eastern barrier reef. The brilliant blue green of the atoll lagoon contrasts sharply with the dark blue of the ocean, like an oasis in a desert. With a land area of just seven square miles, the main island’s highest point, Maungapu, is only 420 ft. According to local legend it is the top of Rarotonga’s Paemaru Peak brought back by raiding Aitutaki warriors long ago. Sandy beaches and shoals of the motu converge into the blue green depths of the lagoon.
The vivid beauty of Aitutaki almost appears to be a mirage, afloat as it is on azure seas. Here the days are long and languid and the nights filled with brilliant stars. Aitutaki is populated with some 2400 Polynesians who follow a simple lifestyle unencumbered by the tensions of the modern world.
The people of Aitutaki live in or near the small villages along the coastal road encircling the island. Some live in the lush forested interior sections on their farms where they tend gardens and orchards of taro, cassava, sweet potatoes, melons, vegetables, papaya, etc.
In 1942, during World War II, on a narrow peninsula of land at the top of the island, U.S. servicemen arrived and built the present Aitutaki Airport. It’s the only airport in the Cooks with two runways. In the early days of flying, Aitutaki served as a stopover for the trans-Pacific flying boats from New Zealand used by Tasman Empire Air Lines, the forerunner of Air New Zealand. Even before Rarotonga had an airport, Aitutaki was the Cook Islands’ only outside air link. Aitutaki lagoon was used as the landing strip and Akaiami motu was used as the refueling stop for the flying boats.
Aitutaki-A Special Place
To see Aitutaki closeup, hop on a motorbike or bicycle and take a spin around the island. The main roads are paved near the coast and gravel across the interior. Escapees from urban congestion and freeway madness will appreciate the fact that there is hardly any traffic and no traffic lights on Aitutaki! Traffic isn’t a problem here, yet. It’s that kind of place.
Arutanga, the main town, is about three miles or so from the airport. It’s a typically languorous old South Seas port town that spends most of its time drowsing in the sun. The main street is lined with old island trade stores, the post office, government offices, general stores and such. Near the center of town is the sports field and the Arutanga Cook Islands Christian Church. There is a small open market near the wharf which sells local goods and produce and there are sometimes a few stalls selling island‑made arts and crafts. There really isn’t a whole lot to see in Arutanga other than a vivid slice of life in a genuine sleepy South Seas port.
The roads in the interior of the island pass through lush forest areas and neat farms and gardens of Aitutakians living in the rural areas. There’s a wave or a word for just about everyone along the road. On Aitutaki, everybody knows, or is related to, everybody else.
Aitutaki has that unique island sense of community and caring about others where every individual is important. It comes from the smallness of the place, the slow pace of life in general, and the endemic lifestyle of the islands often called “the Pacific Way” which westerners don’t quite fathom. But as a visitor, you quickly notice it, respect it and, yes, even envy it. It’s what makes Aitutaki such a special place.
The Aura of Aitutaki
The protective coral reefs, lagoon and the several motu riding on the fringe are Aitutaki’s major visitor attractions. Lagoon cruises for snorkeling and diving are very popular with visitors and are a featured activity. The cruise out to the motu and reefs across the lagoon takes perhaps an hour or so. It’s one of the most sensual parts of the entire Aitutaki adventure. The brilliant blue greens of the lagoon make the white sand beaches and groves of coconut palms on the motu stand out vividly against the puffy white clouds and blue South Pacific sky. Some have described Aitutaki as the most beautiful island in the South Pacific. It’s a hard point to argue perhaps.
After a mid-morning departure on the cruise catamaran, the first stop across the lagoon is at one of the desert motu for a short beach combing stroll and exploration. It’s just a few minutes walk around the eight to ten-acre sized motu, following the shoreline at low tide. The small islet has a dense stand of coconut palms along the gorgeous sandy beach and heavy vegetation in the interior. The shoreline has some outcroppings of basaltic rock, indications of the islet’s volcanic origins eons ago.
Then it’s back on the catamaran for a short cruise to a good snorkeling spot in the lagoon. After anchoring the boat carefully, it’s into the water for cruise guests and time to snorkel among numerous colorful fish and corals, seashells and mollusks, sea anemones and blue starfish. Aitutaki’s lagoon has many colorful species of tropical fish such as parrotfish, wrasses, angel fish and much more.
Meanwhile, the crew prepares a real atoll-style lunch of fresh ahi and mahi onboard with breadfruit, salad, fruit and more. After lunch, the boat pulls ashore at the motu called Tapuaetai, or One Foot Island. Here visitors can swim, relax, or have another chance to play Robinson Crusoe and explore the small coral islet surrounded by blue green waters. The lagoon cruise is a highlight of the Aitutaki adventure and leaves an indelible impression.
It’s the aura of Aitutaki. Perhaps it’s the rural nature of the place and its relative isolation, off the beaten path. And yet it’s also the gentle people who inhabit these islands, their lifestyle, and the glorious beauty of reef, motu and sky. Aitutaki is a mellow place that grows on you, caressing you with its brisk trade winds. It’s the sort of place that, just when you think you’ve forgotten it, comes rushing back in a flood of pleasant memories of time spent in its warm embrace. It has a way of not letting you forget. Somehow, the wondrous and fragile world of Aitutaki never really lets you go.
Day tours or overnight stays at Aitutaki can be arranged through Air Rarotonga, the local airline. Air Rarotonga offers several round trip flights daily to Aitutaki from Rarotonga. Day tours from Rarotonga to Aitutaki include round‑trip airfare, lagoon cruise with on-board lunch and all snorkeling equipment provided. For the latest details, see the website: www.airraro.com
Accommodations on Aitutaki vary but are generally expensive compared to Rarotonga. Some of the pricer places include the Pacific Resort Aitutaki (www.pacificresort.com) with rates that start at about US$660 double per night and the Tamanu Beach Hotel (www.tamanubeach.com) has rates that start at US$285 and up double per night, both are near Arutanga town. More moderately priced places include Paradise Cove (www.paradisecove.co.ck) with rates at US$125 and up double per night and Gina’s Garden Lodges (www.ginasaitutaki.com) with rates at US$100-250 double per night. There are several other varied accommodations as well. Some of the rates include breakfast; check special package deals with lagoon cruises and air transportation included. Get the latest hotel information through the Cook Islands Tourism Corporation website: (www.cook-islands.com).
Independent island tours can be arranged as well as rental cars, motorbikes and bicycles. Snorkeling and diving lagoon cruises can also be arranged on Aitutaki through several local tour operators. Lagoon cruises usually include lunch and plenty of time to snorkel. It’s a great way to experience Aitutaki.
If you’re a golfer, you might consider the Aitutaki Golf Course located next to the airport. It’s mostly a par‑three course but with a difference. One hole, the number six par four, has a fairway shot across the airstrip runway. It’s probably the only golf course in the world with a runway hazard. Obviously, play is interrupted when planes are taking off or landing.
Penalty strokes are assessed for hitting airplanes. Green fees are about $5, but there’s often nobody around to collect it, so just go ahead and play. Bring your own clubs and balls.
American Samoa: Off the South Pacific’s Beaten Path
by John Penisten
(Pago Pago, American Samoa)
Mention Pago Pago to most South Pacific travelers and the response will often be a blank stare. For when it comes to reputations, American Samoa and its capital are, well, sort of unknown. That’s because the U.S. territory doesn’t really promote itself as a visitor destination. Being a bit off-the-beaten-track of overseas airline routes is also partly responsible. And therein lies American Samoa’s attraction and charm as a destination.
Located some 2,600 miles southwest of Hawai`i, American Samoa includes five volcanic high islands and a couple of remote coral atolls. Tutuila is the main island and Aunu`u is a small island a half-mile offshore of the eastern tip of Tutuila. The Manu`a Islands include Ta`u, Ofu and Olesega and are located a few miles further east of Tutuila.
Tutuila is the largest island of the group and covers an area of 137 square miles. It’s roughly 20-miles long and 5 miles wide at its widest point. The island is a series of steep rain forested volcanic peaks and ridges, indented with valleys and open bays.
Fiord-like Pago Pago Harbor is a submerged volcanic crater almost bisecting the island. It’s one of the most scenic harbors in the South Pacific, surrounded by green hills and dominated by 1700 ft. high Rainmaker Mountain. The climate is tropical warm, humid and rainy the year around.
U.S. Pacific Territory
American Samoa became a U.S. territory in April, 1900. Before and after World War II, Pago Pago Harbor was an important refueling port for the U.S. Navy. The population numbers about 60,000, most living on Tutuila.
The territory’s visitor industry is small by most standards. Other than for a few small privately-operated lodges, inns and motels, there is no real hotel industry. Visitor arrivals total around 40,000 or so annually. Many who come for the experience find it a relaxing and adventurous place to visit. There’s terrific scenery, natural beauty and enough to keep one busy exploring and discovering for more than a couple of days.
American Samoa’s economy is driven by the government, one of the largest employers. The territory gets considerable support from the U.S. government in annual grants and subsidies. The tuna canneries at Pago Pago Harbor represent American Samoa’s largest primary industry.
Experiencing American Samoa
So what to see and do in American Samoa? There’s quite a lot really. Fagatogo, right next door to Pago Pago, is the main business and government center of the territory.
Fagotogo Public Market is a great place to view a cross-section of American Samoa, especially on a busy Saturday morning. There is all manner of island produce, veggies, tropical fruits, and fish for sale, along with some authentic Samoan handcrafts as well.
The National Park of American Samoa includes sections of three islands: Tutuila, Ofu and Ta`u, the last two part of the Manu`a Islands. On Tutuila, the park includes the mountain ridge to coastal section north of Pago Pago Bay and area surrounding the village of Vatia. A section of Ofu’s pristine shoreline and fringing reef is protected as a marine sanctuary within the national park. The southeastern half of Ta`u is part of the national park and features 3,000 ft. sea cliffs, some of the tallest in the world, plus native bird and plant species. Visits can be arranged at the National Park of American Samoa Visitor Center, Pago Shopping Plaza.
If you’re into hiking, one of the best is to the TV transmission towers atop 1600 ft. Mt. Alava above Pago Pago Bay. The hike takes one through the National Park of American Samoa rain forest hills. The half-day trek follows the ridgeline high above the bay and provides great views of Pago Pago Harbor and opposite to Rainmaker Mountain. There are other hikes in and around the central Pago Pago area and the hills behind the bay.
Visitors can rent a car and drive to opposite ends (east and west) of Tutuila. The coastal road zigs and zags its way up the coast, following the bays and coves along the way. The road passes through quiet and tranquil villages and there are several deserted white sand beaches here and there. The villages usually feature one or more large churches and several traditional-style fale or meeting houses. A cheaper option for transportation are the colorful “Aiga busses” that crisscross the island frequently.
Offshore at the eastern end lies the small island of Aunu`u. Ferry boats shuttle passengers a half-mile across the water and visitors can walk around Aunu`u to discover and explore this remote corner of American Samoa. The eastern road terminates at the village of Onenoa and the return follows the same route.
From Pago Pago, the road west heads through Nu`uuli to Tafuna near the airport and across the flat southern plain. Several roads branch off, taking in villages throughout this area. The road extends west to Leone, site of a World War II airstrip, and into the hills surrounding the coastal villages of Amanave, Poloa and Fagamalo where the road terminates. There are several scenic viewpoints along this coastal drive with secluded coves, waterfalls and a few beaches as well. At dusk, watch the forests and coastline for the dozens of “flying foxes,” fruit bats that take to the air for their nocturnal forages. Sunset skies fill with dozens of the airborne mammals common in American Samoa.
Information Box/Travel Information
Hawaiian Airlines currently provides the only overseas air service to Pago Pago International Airport from Honolulu. For information from the U.S. and Canada, call
1-800-367-5320; web: www.hawaiianair.com.
For lodging and visitor information, contact: American Samoa Visitors Bureau, PO Box 4240, Pago Pago, American Samoa 96799; tel (684) 699-9805, fax (684) 699-9806; Email: email@example.com; Web: http://www.americansamoa.travel/ also try: http://www.amsamoatourism.com/
For information on visiting the National Park of American Samoa, contact: Superintendent, National Park of American Samoa, Pago Pago, American Samoa 96799; tel (684) 633-7082, fax (684) 633-7085; web: www.nps.gov/npsa/index.htm
If you’re looking for an original American Samoa experience, go no further than Tisa’s Barefoot Bar (622-7447) at Alega Beach, a few miles east of Pago Pago Bay. It’s an open-air deck and bar built on pilings over the beautiful sandy beach at Alega. Lovely view of surrounding green hills and the bay. Take a table and enjoy the view with your favorite beverage; light lunches served as well. This is a typical folksy South Seas watering hole. Folks suck up Vailima beer (the local product from Samoa) and drink in the view and atmosphere. If you’re lucky, Tisa herself will be there to greet you and “talk story” a spell. This is a must stop on a drive to the east end of Tutuila.
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