The chooks (and their chicks) wandering through Aitutaki’s open-walled airport look flustered from the effort it takes to keep out of the way of tourists. For two years – minus the few months the Government managed to set up a quarantine-free travel bubble with New Zealand travellers – there has been just a handful of locals in thongs (jandals, they call them) walking through.

Today, I see Birkenstocks, hiking shoes, loafers and even high heels. The tourists are coming back to the Cook Islands; let the chickens beware.

There are few more welcoming places on Earth than Aitutaki Airport. There’s no security, for one, instead a local in a floral skirt and a head garland is waiting on the tarmac with an <I>ei<I> of sweet-smelling frangipani and native tiare maori flowers. My rental car in the car park is unlocked, and the keys are in the ignition. Should I have rented a motorbike, the driving test the local policeman employs is to see if I manage to ride from the airport to the police station in town in one piece. The speed limit is 40 kilometres per hour, but few drive anywhere near that fast. It’s that kind of island.

Though Australia runs a distant second to New Zealand in terms of overall visitors to the Cook Islands (Kiwis 70,000, Aussies 27,000, pre-Covid), we’re number one when it comes to Aitutaki. We’re here generally for one thing: and today it’s glowing under the midday sun as I drive around the corner and reintroduce myself to it. This is the world’s best lagoon, according to Lonely Planet founder Tony Wheeler. While Bora Bora’s lagoon is more famous, its every motu (islet) is covered with resorts full of rich US and French travellers. Whereas Aitutaki’s lagoon is four times larger than its total land mass – and it’s home to 15 motu, only one of which is inhabited.

I’m soon out on the lagoon, sailing all the way across with local Ted Tavai on his 5.1-metre Hobie Cat. 

“You had a 99 per cent chance of seeing that,” he said, as a hawksbill turtle swims across our bow. 

The further out into the lagoon we get, the clearer the water, till I can see starfish on the bottom of the ocean, four metres down. There’s hardly anybody here today, just two island-style motor catamarans taking visitors out for a day trip. 

We sail to a deserted motu to swim in calm, warm water by the beach. The wind picks up just enough for me to sail back to port in one long, straight tack. 

In the late afternoon, I drive along streets where locals sit outside their houses gossiping, and kids play frenzied games of football and volleyball right beside the lagoon. I’m staying on the beach at one of the South Pacific’s most-lauded resorts, Pacific Resort Aitutaki. My room is right on the sand but I walk instead to the octagon-shaped restaurant built in trees beside the lagoon, for a bird’s-eye view of a sunset across the ocean beyond the reef, complete with whales breaching. 

There are few places on Earth quite like these Cook Islands, 15 islands home to barely 15,000 inhabitants, and sitting in an ocean of over two million square kilometres. The islands are tiny – so tiny you can drive around each of them in less than an hour.

I was raised on the Cook Islands’ most populated island, Rarotonga (10,000 residents), where all international flights land. Rarotonga is a 40-minute flight by propeller plane south from Aitutaki. It’s volcanic – shaped much like a mini-Tahiti, with sharp basalt peaks covered in rainforest, angled down to a coastline protected entirely by a barrier reef. 

The Cook Islands were one of the few places on Earth with no Covid cases, thanks to a decision to close borders early in the pandemic. Many tourism operators returned to a subsistence lifestyle, but in January New Zealanders were allowed back in, and from April 14 Australians were welcome to return, too.

Arriving in Rarotonga, I expect to find an island struggling to get back on its feet, but instead discover a host of new businesses that have opened during Covid. I’m staying at Ocean Escape Resort & Spa, built right on the lagoon. Owners Jade and Barry Weizman moved from Australia after falling for Rarotonga on their honeymoon. They built their dream resort here, and then Covid hit. 

Dreamy beaches.

But now the resort is nearing full capacity, with bookings solid through winter. My room looks across a pool that draws water straight from a lagoon set just beyond the pool area. There are swing seats and hammocks by a barefoot sand bar, and later this year the Weizmans will add a tapas bar. You can practically touch the water from the bar.

For all its marine appeal, I’ve always loved Rarotonga’s wild mountains. There’s a coastal road that encircles the island, but travel 100 metres or so inland and you reach Ara Metua, the Pacific’s oldest road, used by more pigs than humans. Beyond this road lies an uninhabited interior few people – even locals – bother to explore.

I join a tour to climb Rarotonga’s tallest peak, Te Manga. Guide Barry Goldsworthy has just taken over from Pa, a South Pacific hiking legend who led tours here for 40 years. Goldsworthy guides smaller-group hikes across the island and to its tallest peaks. “During Covid, the Cook Islands went into a hibernation state,” he said. “We slowed down, we smelled the flowers, it reset us.”

The next day, I take the brand new Reefman tour, which visits Rarotonga’s reefs to fish and fossick for the creatures Cook Islanders have feasted on for centuries. Before we leave for the reef, we build an earth oven (umu) and wrap fish and other seafood in banana leaves to cook over hot coals as we explore the lagoon. 

Later, local Charlotte Piho leads me out to a passage in the surrounding reef to swim with hawksbill turtles. I’m surrounded by turtles as I hold my breath and swim down beneath the surface of a dead calm lagoon. Acclaimed underwater photographer Piho zeroes in with her camera to immortalise the moment.

The owner of Cook Islands Tours (which runs the Reefman Tour), Temu Okotai, said it’s these kinds of environmentally based tourism activities that are a sign of where tourism is headed in the Cook Islands. 

“I think Covid has made people want different things,” he said. “The connection to culture and community, and sustainability, is now more important.” 

There are also newly introduced air and accommodation packages that allow visitors to explore the more remote islands of the Cook Islands (it has traditionally been next to impossible to get to these islands). 

The Cook Islands have been off-limits for so long that just being here feels like a privilege. While I’m busy trying new activities and dining at recently opened cafes, I’m just as happy driving around and around the island. Rarotonga can be circumnavigated in 40 minutes at 50 kilometres per hour but, like the rest of these tiny islands, you won’t believe how much there is to see.

Flourishing vegetation.

Take me there

Fly: Air New Zealand and Jetstar offer flights to Rarotonga through Auckland.

Stay: On Aitutaki, Pacific Resort is a multiple award winner of the WTA’s World’s Leading Boutique Island Resort. Ocean Escape is Rarotonga’s newest eco-friendly boutique resort.

Tours: Sail the lagoon with Sailing Aitutaki, see how Cook Islanders live off the reef on one of Cook Islands Tours, or venture into Rarotonga’s wild interior with Maunga Tours.

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