How To Spend 3 Days in Aitutaki

The bar has been set too high now. I hate comparing locations, as no two locations are the same, but even the Maldives pale in comparison. Where will I go now?

(Hi, it’s me. I’m still alive. 2017 was a disgusting year for this site; I wrote a total of two entries. 2 posts in 365 days…what an achievement. No, I was neither too busy nor too unmotivated to write. This website generates almost no money, but it’s where I hone my writing skills and share with the world my travels and photos so never has writing here felt like work or a burden. In fact, not writing feels weird to me. However, towards the end of 2016 and throughout 2017, I struggled so much with self-discipline and productivity. I’d open a document, write 5 sentences, check Instagram and useless websites, and go back to the draft only to close it. The vicious cycle went on and on, and now there are so many drafts sitting in my email and on my desktop. My day job (teaching) was fine but started to be repetitive after four years. So, 2017 was pretty much a year of constant restlessness and stagnancy. My trip to Cook Islands was 10 months ago so my memories of it are quite blurred, but I need to write them out. To wriggle myself out of this rut. To feel some sense of accomplishment. And of course to provide some useful information for those about to visit this wonderful part of the world.) 

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I spent my first day in the Cook Islands in Rarotonga before flying out to Aitutaki the following afternoon. After a short 50-minute flight, I landed in Aitutaki and was hit with stifling humidity and heat. The Aitutaki airport is the most non-airport-y (is this even a word?) place I have ever been to. It is so small, smaller than even your coffee shop with, if memory serves me right, one counter and no carousel. When you check in, someone will take your luggage and put it on a big cart and then someone else will haul the cart to the plane. Everything is basic and manual. However, what it lacks in amenities and visual stimuli it more than makes up in natural light and fresh air.

No bells and whistles, but still manages to put you in a good mood. That is the essence of Aitutaki.

Aitutaki from above. Would have been even more gorgeous had the light been better.

My stay was at Gina’s Garden Lodges, based on the suggestion of the blog Never Ending Footsteps. I did not see anyone from Gina’s upon arrival, so I asked a smiley woman nearby if she knew the place. With a resounding Yes, she opened her old-school flip phone and called Sally, who manages the lodge. I was very pleasantly surprised because I had never been to a more tight-knit community where everyone knows everyone during my travels. Within 20 minutes, Sally and Gina arrived in their weather-beaten car.

Gina owns the lodge but has retired. I assumed she is in her 70s, but she still is remarkably alert and agile. Sally, about 20 years younger, has dark skin and a warm grin that stretches across her face. Her voice is manly and coarse, which I later figured must have partly come from her chain-smoking. Over the course of my short stay, Sally took great care of me. We would banter, and I’d always tease her, Why are you doing that to yourself?, whenever I saw her drink coke and smoke. And she would quip back, Hey I’m not spending my money on travel and shopping. If I don’t spend it on cigarettes and coke who will spend it when I die?. We also had a few moments of vulnerability when Sally talked to me about her divorce and her children.

The lodge is on the other side of the island. From the airport, we slipped past resorts, locals’ houses, two ATMs, some simple eateries, the Pacific Ocean, and a boisterous soccer match that seemed to bring the entire town out. The entrance to the lodge is lined up with a couple of tombs. I was initially a bit crept out, especially the first night, but then gradually loosened up when I learned that they are of family members and burying loved ones right next to where you live is a time-honored tradition in the Cook Islands and the spirits of the dead are there to protect you. Staying at Gina’s Lodge was an interesting experience; it feels like being in a forest, as you are in an enclosed area, surrounded by nothing but trees. The silence is eerie yet comforting.

Aitutaki greeted me with this tender sunset. I saw an old man taking photos and asked if he was a visitor like me. But no, he has lived in Aitutaki for as long as he could remember and been taking sunset photos almost everyday.

Three days in Aitutaki felt like three days in a completely different world. It was not like stepping back in time in Myanmar or Tibet. It was not like the Maldives where it is extremely beautiful but inaccessible in a way because of the cultural and language barriers. With Aitutaki, you know it is the reality yet you still have that feeling of disappearing from the reality, at least temporary, if that makes any sense. The pace of life is super slow, the people are super gentle and trust each other, the copious sunshine and warm salty ocean breeze are invigorating…life is so simple and blissful.

As I passed by locals lounging about in front of their houses or leisurely hanging their laundry, I thought about happiness. The media these days constantly bombard us with cliches like how we need to slow down and simplify our lives and try to be less materialistic. Which is valid in a way. But that way of living is not for everyone, especially those who thrive on challenges and want to contribute to their communities. A lot of pressing issues in our society will not be solved by slowing down or simplifying. However, this simple and peaceful life is perfect for others. And it was truly wonderful to see the Cook Islands people enjoy it. It was a lovely and gentle reminder that we all live differently and there is no one-size-fits-all formula to how to lead your life.

Mama Sally picked me up in the morning of the third day and drove me to the airport. We hugged each other tightly and said goodbye. I took one last look at all the lush palm trees that both accentuated and contrasted with the cloudless deep blue sky and promised myself I would be back.


Here are a few things you can do if you decide to spend a few days in Aitutaki.

1. The Vaka Cruise

This cruise is a must-do. Actually, you do not have to join this particular tour because there are several similar cruises so you can pick what is most suitable for you, but you need to go on one that takes you to One Foot Island.

One Foot Island is excruciatingly, inexpressibly beautiful. Actually I do not have the words to describe its beauty, so let leave the photos do the talking. How can you accurately tell the colors of the waters?!?

The cruise takes about five hours and involves some very lovely and make-you-feel-good live performances.

Cook Islanders have gorgeous skin and do not look their age. Seriously. Can you believe the guy on the left (he is super friendly!) is only 18? And remember Mama Vara? How is she in her 80s? [Read more…]

How to Spend 4 Days in Rarotonga

Vision of Love, the Cook Islands Edition.

It has been two months of dead silence on this blog. I am alive, but life got in the way. Or to put it another way, I was not motivated enough to write. March was a busy month, and I spent the better part of April in New Zealand and Cook Islands. The good news is now I have a lot of stories and photos to share with you guys, and this time I will not repeat the mistake I made with the Tibet series—always drafting but never completing. I am full of shame whenever I look at those unfinished drafts.

I visited New Zealand for the first time in April ’16 and fell head over heels in love with the country. When I left after criss-crossing the South Island, I was not sad. Instead, I felt happy because after 20 countries I finally found a place that I love with all my heart. I decided the moment I arrived at the airport on the departure date that I would return as soon as I possibly could in 2017.

And I did.

On this second visit, it was all about the North Island, coupled with a quick jaunt to the Cook Islands, 4-hour flight from Auckland. Sounds easy-breezy, but getting to Cook Islands from Vietnam was genuinely taxing. First I had to fly to Singapore (3 hours), then to Auckland (10 hours), and then to Rarotonga (almost 4 hours). 17 hours in the air, but more than 30 hours in total with all the waiting.

However, it was worth every hassle and penny.

Love the way the pink house and blue trash can interrupt an otherwise perfectly verdant, lush scene.

I wish I could find the words to express the intensity of my love for this sequestered place. It is just inexpressibly beautiful! I have never felt more physically, mentally, and creatively nourished anywhere else during the last few years roaming the world than when I was in Cook Islands. The most wonderful thing is that there was no expensive resort, Michelin-stared restaurant, Internet (well, there was some WiFi, but it happened, like, every 3 days), or any hedonistic shenanigan. I stayed among the locals (and passed by a lot of tombs every night on my way home!) and slowly got to know them. Days passed by languidly; they consisted of reading, writing, yoga-ing, gazing lovingly at the sparkling Pacific ocean, driving a scooter around and letting the sun beat down upon my face and the ocean breeze fill every corner of my lungs, flowers hunting, sunset chasing, and trying to absorb every tiniest detail of the slow yet fascinating island life.

In his book “Me’a Kai: The Food & Flavours of the South Pacific,” which I had to buy because it is so stunning, the award-winning chef and author Robert Oliver describes Cook Islands as “the last frontier of friendliness.” His words hit the nail on the head. The Cook Islands has all the hallmarks of paradise- feel-good climate, drop-dead gorgeous beaches, extraordinary fauna and flora, and an conspicuous lack of tourist traps and bad tourist behaviors, but what truly distinguishes it from all other advertised “paradises” around the world (at least all the ones I have been to) is its people. Cook Islanders are gorgeous both inside and out. Their looks and cultures couldn’t be any more different from mine, but they all made me feel like I was coming home, not an outsider from a far-flung country many of them had very little idea of. They waved, smiled, hugged, said Kia Orana (Hello) and Have A Lovely Day Darling, bought me drinks, and stopped whatever they were doing to help me when I needed it. Their hospitality made me feel good about everything.

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For those of you unfamiliar, Cook Islands is a country with 15 islands spreading 850,000 square miles over the South Pacific. The islands are divided into the Northern and Southern group, with the former being more remote and thus sparsely populated. Its capital and biggest island is Rarotonga, which offers you the greatest number of accommodation and activities options.

The nation’s history, for the sake of brevity, dates back to around 800AD when fearless seafarers landed on Rarotonga after crossing the vast South Pacific.

“The earliest records of the Cook Islands can be traced back to the 6th century CE, when Polynesians migrated to the southeastern islands from nearby Tahiti. However, the oral history of Rarotonga, the first island to be inhabited (and the most influential of the group) dates back 1,400 years. Until the arrival of Europeans in the 16th century, they followed a chieftain system, where power was inherited through mana kinship. Spanish sailor Álvaro de Mendaña de Neira sighted Pukapuka in 1595. However, the first recorded European landing on Rakahanga was not until Pedro Fernández de Quirós stepped foot in 1606, calling the island Gente Hermosa. The year 1773 marked the arrival of British explorer and navigator Captain James Cook, who called them “Hervey Islands.” The name “Cook Islands” was not introduced until the 1820’s. Missionary John Williams made the first written sighting of Rarotonga in 1813, but it was in 1814 that the first recorded landing on the island took place. Trouble brewed between the islanders and the sailors, and brought great bloodshed from the warring parties. The islands were freed from Europeans until 1821, when British missionaries arrived to spread Christianity, which was widely embraced and still followed today. Christian churches are well preserved and landmarks like the Takamoa Mission House (built in the 1830’s) and the hand crafted coral limestone structure known as the Cook Islands Christian Church (one of the most fascinating pieces of architecture on Rarotonga) still stand today. After the missions, the Cook Islands came to be a British protectorate. The islands were annexed by the New Zealand Government in 1901 and locals were provided New Zealand citizenship in 1949. Only a few years later, they were granted self-governing status. Islanders were given Cook Islander citizenship, though strong ties with New Zealand are still evident.”

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I spent 4 days in Rarotonga. It was not love at first sight; in fact, my initial reactions were along the line of Did I just travel for more than 30 hours for this?!? However, my affection for the island grew slowly and firmly, just like how the pace of life is on the island. I did not get greedy and try to squeeze everything in, but everything that I ended up doing was great in more ways than one. If you are headed to Rarontonga, I hope this guide will be helpful 🙂

(A lot of guides will tell you to do a lagoon cruise. I did not do it in Rarotonga because I stayed in Aitutaki first and did the cruise there. Once you do the lagoon cruise in Aitutaki, no other lagoon cruise will measure up. Even locals affirmed to me.)

1. Pa’s Cross-island Trek

I feel constitutionally incapable of handling the beauties of fern leaves.

This 3-hour trek would take the cake, if I had to rank my most favorite activity in Rarotonga. It was fun, adventurous, (moderately) challenging, educational, and eco-friendly. And judging by the unanimously great reviews the trek has garnered, I am not alone.

This guided trek, as its name indicates, takes you across the island through a lush, tropical landscape of tall trees and plantations, culminating at Te Rua Manga (The Needle), one of the the highest points on the island. Length-wise, it is easy- only 2 miles, but the trail includes some steep, narrow, and slippery ridges and streams that require scrambling and ropes to climb up/down and cross over. Also, since we hike through the jungle, the humidity and heat can be stifling. It takes a decent level of fitness, so if you want something more forgiving but equally interesting and educational, you can try Pa’s Nature Walk, which is about herbal medicines and native plants and led by Pa himself. He led the cross-island trek for many years but has handed it over to Bruce (his nephew) because of age. I wish I had done the Nature walk too, as Pa strikes me as being very interesting, but time was limited. [Read more…]