Aitutaki, Cook Islands
No artist's palette could ever conceive of a more perfect, more luminescent turquoise than that of the lagoon of Aitutaki, arguably the most beautiful in the world. Triangular in shape, the lagoon is formed by an atoll that rises some 4000 metres from the base of the Pacific Ocean. Within the lagoon is Aitutaki itself, the main island of the group, and a number of volcanic and coral motus, or islets.
The outer rim of the lagoon acts as a natural barrier that calms the sometimes rough waters of the southern Pacific ocean. The meeting point of the waters is marked by a constant white fringe of breaking waves, but the lagoon itself has a glassy smooth surface only occasionally broken by a solitary breakaway ripple. Its waters are remarkably clear, and every detail of its flat, sandy base is perfectly visible, however deep the water. Turtles, rays and even giant clams can often be seen.
Each motu has its own distinct character, and one of the best ways to witness this is by taking a lagoon cruise. The most well-known motu is Tapuaetai (One Foot Island). Typically tropical, with a stand of palm trees perched on a thin sliver of dazzling white sand, it is the only inhabited motu. Alongside its small bar and shop is a post office where you can get your passport stamped to show that you have been to paradise.
The tiny island of Moturakau was chosen as the location for a British reality TV series. It takes only about 10 minutes to walk around, and is another haven of white sandy beaches and palm trees. Here some of the trees lean so far out over the sea that they are almost horizontal.
The newest is Honeymoon Island, which is tucked away in a shallower part of the lagoon. While it hasn't been around long enough to grow any trees, a number of bushes provide shelter for a large population of nesting terns. Every bush seems to have a fluffy white chick crouched beneath it, waiting for its parents to return with food. The restless Pacific carries windfall coconuts from other motus and washes them up on the beaches of Honeymoon Island, so it might not be too long before the first palm tree takes root.
The 15 tiny islands that make up the Cook Islands archipelago have a total land area of just 236 square kilometres but are spread over a vast area of ocean. Their inhabitants are of Polynesian descent, and the total population is around 18,000. On Aitutaki everyone appears to know each other, and no task seems so important that the y won' t take the time to say hello to passers-by. Try walking anywhere and people win stop to offer you a lift.
Others, apart from tourists, are attracted to Aitutaki – as indicated by the captain's languid announcement on the flight from Rarotonga: “Passengers on the left of the plane, if you look out of the window, you can see Aitutaki, whereas passengers on the right can see a humpback whale and her calf.”
For such an out-of-the-way place, Aitutaki has a significant claim to fame: Captain Bligh arrived here on the Bounty in 1789, shortly before the famous mutiny. He returned in 1792 and introduced the pawpaw to the island, where it remains one of the most important crops.
Air Rarotonga flies from Rarotonga (the capital island in the Cook Islands archipelago) to Aitutaki up to five times a day. It is possible to visit Aitutaki on a day trip from Rarotonga, but it is much better to stay there for at least a couple of days.