Where on earth? Scattered across two million square kilometres of the South Pacific, west of Tahiti and east of Fiji and Samoa, the Cook Islands are some of the remotest places on the planet. But for honeymooners, is it worth making the 24-hour journey around the globe to reach them?
The answer is an unequivocal ‘yes’. These hard-to-reach pockets of peace and tranquillity offer one of the last chances on earth to experience what we’ve come to regard as paradise; clear warm water, balmy climate, curves of pristine white sand without a single footprint and an artist’s palette of primary coloured flowers. Lots of destinations claim to offer all this, but it’s not until you’re in the Cook Islands that you realise you’ve seen the real deal.
However it’s not just the landscape that’s worth circling the globe for. Equally as alluring is the way of life (über-laid-back) and the islanders (über-smiley). Landing at main island Rarotonga you’re greeted with a flower lei while a guitarist strums the swaying rhythms the islands are famous for, which instantly puts you in a holiday mood.
It would be easy to spend your entire honeymoon on Rarotonga, and many couples do, however it’s Aitutaki, – a remote island 45 minutes north of Raro (as it’s called locally), which lies in what many consider to be the world’s most beautiful lagoon – that has a hold on our heart.
The amazing thing about Aitutaki is that it manages to make Rarotonga seem like a bustling metropolis. There’s a teeny tiny airport (also with welcome guitarist) and pretty much one of everything; post office, police station, main road, hill.
Hot hotel Of the handful of resorts, ranging from hostel to five-star, our favourites were Pacific Resort and Aitutaki Lagoon Resort & Spa. The former is set on a promontory with a white-sand beach either side – an ideal spot if you’re looking for something rustic yet upmarket. There’s a large pool overlooking a lagoon, excellent fine-dining restaurant with 180-degree views and Black Rock, a cool little poolside café serving up great fresh fruit smoothies (kiwi and breadfruit anyone?) and light bites during the day. The beach villas are slightly faded, but they’re in keeping with the overall rustic feel of the place; think hand-carved dark-wood furniture, whirring ceiling fan, furnishings in tropical colours and huge balconies with dining table, chairs and loungers.
The grounds here are incredibly lush and beautifully kept, bursting with brightly coloured bougainvillea, ginger lily, huge coconut palms and fragrant frangipani, the white flower many of the staff wear behind their ear. Above all, it’s very relaxed – one of the first things the general manager told us on arrival was that he doesn’t wear a watch as he’s ‘on island time’ and you will be too by the end of your stay.
Motu magic Further along the coast lies Aitutaki Lagoon Resort & Spa, which we immediately fell in love with due to its location on a private motu reached by Tainui, a little ferry hailed by waving at the captain. The last boat is 11pm but if you find yourselves stranded you can easily swim or wade across!
You’ll step ashore on Bligh’s Beach, named after Captain Bligh who was the first Westerner to discover Aitutaki in 1789 (17 days before the mutiny on the Bounty). Once on the island, it’s clear to see why US Condé Nast Traveler magazine described it as ‘the resort on the beach’. The sand is magnificent, some of the most white and dazzling we’ve ever seen and the view stretching out over the famous turquoise lagoon is mesmerising.
There are currently 36 villas and bungalows, including a vast royal honeymoon pool villa with separate thatched huts for eating, lounging, bathing, spa’ing and sleeping (however the resort is in the process of removing some older villas and building new beach accommodation). Our advice would be to bypass all of this and book one of the seven over-water villas, currently the only ones in existence in the Cook Islands.
It took eight years to get permission to build the wooden stilted villas on the edge of the lagoon, but it was well worth the wait. They’re completely charming, from the woven palm frond walls and ceilings to the vast cream bed and outside deck with steps down to the water. Are there any downsides to this honeymoon haven? Well, the pool and restaurant aren’t as spectacular as the rooms and beach and there are a fair few mosquitoes, as you’ll find everywhere on the island.
Lagoon love While the accommodation is fantastic on Aitutaki, the real star of any visit to the island is the lagoon. Why all the fuss? It’s not only the colour (bright turquoise) it’s also what lies within it – 12 coral islands and numerous sandbars which are uninhabited and the stuff dreams are made of.
A boat trip around the isles is a must-do. Eschew larger tours and opt for a day out with Captain Fantastic (everyone on the island knows him, so just ask your hotel reception to put you in touch) who will take you to One Foot Motu and the three best snorkelling spots in the lagoon, including one where it’s possible to see giant clams as large as you.
However the best part of the adventure is stepping ashore Honeymoon Island, a breathtakingly beautiful white-sand motu where couples are encouraged to plant a coconut palm and where the captain will whip up a delicious lunch of freshly caught fish, salad and paw paw (papaya) served in a banana leaf basket and eaten with your hands. For a little extra, NZ$120 per person, he can also arrange for you to stay the night alone on the island, with nothing but candlelight and stars to distract you. Absolute bliss (particularly as there are no mosquitoes here!).
Sitting together on tiny Honeymoon Island, gazing out across the seemingly never-ending pacific, it’s incredible to imagine brave boatmen setting off from Raro in search of new lands centuries ago. However, when they did find Aitutaki, it’s not hard to understand why they never left.
Honeymoon there Turquoise Holidays (turquoiseholidays.co.uk) offers 10 nights from £3490pp. Includes accommodation at the Pacific Resort Aitutaki in a Premium Beachfront Bungalow, return Air New Zealand Flights, breakfast, return Aitutaki and Rarotonga flights, return transfers to and from the property, a choice of early check-in or late check-out and a Lagoon Cruise with transfers and lunch on Aitutaki Lagoon. Aitutaki Lagoon Resort & Spa (aitutakilagoonresort.com).