Aitutaki’s lagoon in the Cook Islands is the South Pacific’s version of heaven.
She is a vision in white, an angel in a flowing lace gown with blond locks peeping from beneath her white organza hat. The hem of the bride’s wedding dress brushes across the white sand as she runs along the beach. She stops to etch the shape of a heart in the sand with her finger.
The groom, a slim young man, also in white, runs up to the bride. Their lips touch in a long and lingering kiss. It’s a picture-perfect island paradise of soft sand, swaying palms and blue skies.
The scenery is everything I expect from a gorgeous day in the South Pacific.
Before my muddled brain can make sense of this unexpected scenario, four bare-chested youths sprint along the beach and pick up the bride, lifting her into a horizontal position above the shimmering lagoon shallows.
Cameras click and the bridal party is surrounded by a gaggle of people in sarongs, budgie smugglers, board shorts and bikinis.
No it’s not a set for a commercial.
The newlyweds, Alex and Magdalena Mangovski, from Auckland, are two of hundreds of Australians and New Zealanders whose dream is to tie the knot in paradise.
The Mangovskis exchanged vows the previous day but their dream was to have photographs taken on their favourite secluded beach near One Foot Island.
“We came to Aitutaki for a holiday previously and fell in love with the place. We decided that this was where we wanted to get married,” says Magdalena Mangovski.
Aitutaki’s lagoon has a mesmerising quality that draws people back again and again. Ringed by 15 palm-covered motu, the jewel in the crown for the Cook Islands was visited by John Wayne and Cary Grant while flying in the Solent, the passenger flying boats for Tasman Empire Air Line (TEAL) that refuelled at Aitutaki on its route across the Pacific. Charles Darwin called in on the 1835 Beagle voyage and in the 1850s Aitutaki was a favourite port for whaling ships
Aussies are used to ocean beaches but until you see the lagoon, you really can’t appreciate the amazing changes in the colour.
Pacific Resort Aitutaki
I’m staying at Pacific Resort Aitutaki on the western side of the island.
The resort’s beachfront bungalows, suites and villas all have views of the lagoon.
Mine is a suite right on the beach. I only have to pull on my snorkel and wade into the lagoon to find myself swimming with fish and coral. I could easily spend my days swimming, snorkelling or lazing on a hammock under a tree. But to get to the best snorkelling spots in the lagoon, I decide to join a boat tour to Aitutaki’s more remote motus (islets).
Outside the Aitutaki Sailing Club, the boat appears as a speck against a backdrop of wind-blown palm trees curved around the lagoon. It’s the size of a giant tinny big enough for a dozen passengers, with a canvas canopy overhead, and small enough to drop anchor at some of the lagoon’s best shallow snorkelling areas.
It’s a stunning day on the lagoon.
We rub suntan lotion on our bodies as the boat cruises past swaying coconut palms and white-sand beaches.
Our first destination is a shallow sand shelf near Honeymoon Island in the southwest part of the lagoon. The water is thigh deep and ice-green, so clear I can see the stripes of the scissor-tailed surgeon fish swimming around my legs.
A few kicks away, green becomes blue where the sand bar slopes into deeper waters and the usual multicoloured suspects play hide and seek among coral bommies.
Deeper down is the wreck of the cargo freighter Alexander that sunk in the 1930s.
I spot a large brown eel hiding behind the coral and swim back to the boat to report my find to the captain.
Captain Wonderful flashes a white-toothy smile and says: “Take a picture and send it to your friends in Australia. Just don’t touch.”
At Honeymoon Island, Captain Wonderful drops anchor and leans back in a plastic chair, feet up, arms behind his head, gazing at tufts of cotton candy clouds. Next to the boat, a boy clings to the handles of a kite surf as a gust of wind sweeps it upwards and lifts him out of the water.
On the island, we hunt around the coconut groves for red-tailed tropic birds nesting on the ground. The birds are unconcerned by our presence, although a few anxious mums hover overhead keeping a watchful eye on the chicks in the foliage.
The boat drops us off on a sand bar near the lagoon’s best-known motu, One Foot Island, and where we see the bride and groom, before wading about a kilometre through knee-high water to One Foot Island for lunch.
On One Foot Island, Captain Awesome, from a bigger boat, and his crew are singing, strumming guitars and ukuleles, and banging on drums. Captain Cook is frying fresh fish.
Life on Aitutaki revolves around fishing. On the way back from One Foot Island, we motor past a local family scaling and cleaning a large catch of fish by the water’s edge.
Fishing tournaments occur regularly and we’re lucky enough to be visiting during a tournament.
The atmosphere at the Aitutaki Fishing Club is jubilant and prizes are being handed out to the winners. The competitors have brought in 800kg of tuna, wahoo, mahi mahi and trevalla caught by fishermen on 17 boats. The biggest fish hauled in was a 28kg tuna.
Fishing is also popular with visitors.
You leave with a fishing guide at dawn and bring back your catch for the chef. By lunch time, you’re eating the fish you caught.
With plenty of fresh fish, beautiful beaches and a warm sunny climate, Aitutaki is the perfect South Pacific paradise.
Watch my video here: