Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Heaven on Earth

Aitutaki is one of the most beautiful islands in the world

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AITUTAKI, COOK ISLANDS -- The search for heaven on earth is a quest many travellers undertake.

Until a few weeks ago, however, I didn't realize it was as simple as booking a flight to the Cook Islands in the South Pacific.

While on a catamaran tour of the lagoon at Aitutaki (the second most visited island in the Cooks), we stopped at a tiny sandbar, which many locals call Heaven.

Gentle ripples of water from the turquoise lagoon lapped at the shore. Powder-soft white sand sparkled under the sun. There seemed no doubt about it -- this was definitely one place where Mother Nature got it right.

The sense of solitude and serenity here seemed almost mystical -- our catamaran captain had taken the boat to a nearby island called One Foot, leaving us alone on the sandbar in the middle of the lagoon.

If heaven were a place on earth, this could well be it.

It was so peaceful and perfect I wished everyone could experience a moment like this, here on Heaven (not all at the same time, of course). The sandbar is less than a hectare in size.

It was hunger that eventually drove us toward One Foot. We simply waded 200 or so metres through waist-deep warm water to reach the uninhabited island, where the boat's crew had a barbecue lunch waiting.

Over the years, the remote One Foot Island has become known for being home to one of the world's smallest post offices. When a captain lands on the island, he will open the post office "hut" to sell postcards to his passengers and give them a unique stamp on their passports.

Recently, however, an international spotlight shone on One Foot (traditionally called Tapuaetai), when world leaders attending the Pacific Islands Forum visited the island for a break from their meetings.

Each leader planted a tamanu tree, symbolizing the strength of Pacific leaders when they work together and the importance of their sustainability messages.

With media coverage of the tree planting shown around the world, Aitutaki's beauty was on display for all to see.

Its lagoon is considered to be one of the most picturesque parts of the Cook Islands, which is a significant honour, considering there are untouched, palm-fringed beaches at every turn.

To start our visit to Aitutaki, we took an inter-island, 50-minute flight from Rarotonga, the largest and most populous island in the Cook Islands.

Upon arrival, we made our way to the postcard-perfect lagoon and joined a catamaran tour.

The captain manoeuvred the craft through the lagoon, which was dotted with about two dozen islands, islets and sandbars.

We stopped to snorkel in the middle of the lagoon, where we witnessed gentle, giant fish swimming by and huge clams sitting on the ocean floor.

We also stopped at a number of islands, including one that was the home base for the reality TV show Survivor, which shot its 13th season here in 2006.

The island was small, but it was intriguing to check out the area where Survivors such as Ozzy Lusth and Season 13 winner Yul Kwon lived for a few weeks.

The exposure from the show was immense. Thanks to prime-time airing and subsequent syndication, more than 200 million viewers were exposed to the Cook Islands -- a number that greatly exceeds the total visitors the country has attracted in its history.

Economic benefits were also noteworthy, say Cook Islands tourism officials.

Local landowners received about $100,000 as payment for use of their property. Restaurants and hotels on Aitutaki were packed to the rafters. The local hospital, rugby club and schools received dozens of gifts from the show's crew.

While day tours for visitors were cancelled to accommodate shooting, tour operators were compensated for lost revenue and were among the 200 or so locals hired to work on the production, garnering almost $500,000 in wages.

Our catamaran captain, for example, took Survivor contestants on a reward trip after they completed a challenge for the show; he was also paid to ferry crew members back and forth to various islands where taping occurred.

"There was a total economic spinoff of $8 million," said Captain Leo Daniel.

"It had a big impact on tourism... lots of locals made money because of Survivor."

A reality series from Britain, called Shipwrecked, has also shot here a number of times, as has the TV show Survivorman.

It's no surprise that this idyllic area has repeatedly been chosen to represent a stranded-on-a-deserted-island theme on TV. Aitutaki's scenery is so spectacular that the founder of the Lonely Planet travel guides nominated it as the world's most beautiful island in 2010.

"This is the kind of place that makes you stop and think, 'Wow,' " says Jason Webb, owner of Down under Travel Ltd. "It's magical, it's untouched and it's unspoiled."

Accommodation on Aitutaki ranges from quaint to luxurious. The beach bungalows at Tamanu Beach Resort offer privacy and seclusion, while the suites, bungalows and villas at the Pacific Resort Aitutaki provide five-star options.

Relaxing over breakfast at the Pacific Resort, and watching whales swim by the lagoon, makes for truly memorable moments.

Another dining spot worth checking out is Tupuna's Restaurant, which has become known for a famous seared tuna fillet stuffed with shrimp. Owner Tupuna Hewitt -- who has been featured in magazine articles and TV food shows -- enjoys meeting visitors as much as she enjoys cooking.

"Cook Islanders like Tupuna love to tell their stories," notes Webb.

"To listen to these stories adds to the value of a vacation here... It makes you feel like you belong."

-- Postmedia News


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 23, 2013 A1

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