Last updated on March 4th, 2022
Leave the stresses of modern life on the windy tarmac and prepare to visit one of the most beautiful spots in the South Pacific. As your plane slowly descends over the endless blue, the sight of the glorious Aitutaki lagoon will take your breath away. Fill your days with reflection and relaxation, while not forgetting to explore the far reaches of the lagoon, where one dream island after another is just waiting for you to set foot on. When you’re not playing in the lagoon, immerse yourself in local life – ticking at an extra slow place without the need for house keys. This Aitutaki Travel Guide will help you discover the true meaning of paradise!
I spent three weeks in the Cook Islands as part of a six-month backpacking trip across the South Pacific Islands, with one week in Aitutaki. This Aitutaki Travel Guide was written based on my experiences and is meant to help you make the most of this dream destination. The travel guide is geared towards independent travelers, but any visitor will find it useful.
Traveling to the Cook Islands? Start planning with The Cook Islands Travel Guide!
You haven’t been to the Cook Islands until you’ve paid a visit to Aitutaki! Less than an hour away from Rarotonga, Aitutaki feels like a parallel universe. Come here if you truly want to unwind, with hardly any distractions to take up your precious relaxation time. There are no nightclubs, no shopping centers, and in fact – hardly anyone around. The main reason for visiting Aitutaki is its stunning lagoon. Do not miss the opportunity to explore the dreamy uninhabited islets (motu) that fringe the edge of the pristine lagoon. So beautifully wild, they were even chosen as filming locations for the U.S and U.K versions of the adventure reality show Survivor.
All places mentioned in this travel guide can be found on this companion map. Simply click on the image to open in Google Maps.
Aitutaki is a relatively flat island in the southern group of the Cook Islands, lying 264 km north of Rarotonga. The island was first settled in the 12th century by pioneers arriving on outrigger canoes all the way from French Polynesia, more than 1,000 km’s to the east. Its most striking feature is its lagoon, surrounded by the main island and 12 uninhabited small islets called motu.
Europeans first arrived in Aitutaki on the infamous Bounty ship in 1789, captained by William Bligh just days before the famous mutiny. Soon after, missionaries arrived, successfully converting the locals to Christianity by the early 19th century.
During WWII, American and New Zealand forces stationed in Aitutaki built the airstrip which still serves as the island’s airport to this very day. During the 1950’s TEAL, the predecessor of Air New Zealand made refueling stops in Aitutaki as part of the Coral Route from New Zealand to Tahiti.
These days, Aitutaki is the second most visited island in the Cook Islands, with an emphasis being put on boosting the local tourism industry. Only about 2,000 residents call Aitutaki home, suffering a great deal of property damage in a 2010 cyclone which ripped through the island. Island life is peaceful and laid back, with only the sound of the approaching flight from Rarotonga disturbing the ambiance of the ocean waves.
Listed here are specific travel tips for Aitutaki to help in the planning stages of your visit.
For those in search of getting off the grid, you could easily spend your entire Cook Islands vacation in Aitutaki. You’ll seriously have a hard time getting back to ‘reality’ afterward. That said, 3-4 days in Aitutaki should be enough and if you’re seriously pressed for time – you can also visit Aitutaki on a day trip tour from Rarotonga. I personally spent a full week in Aitutaki on my own and was a bit bored after a few days (mind you the weather sucked over the last 3 days).
While there’s not much to do on the island itself, the Aitutaki lagoon is exactly how you imagined a tropical paradise to look like. While Rarotonga kind of feels like a ‘pleasure playground’, with lots of activities to keep you busy – Aitutaki is all about relaxation and exploring the lagoon. So if you’re truly after some peace and quiet, you’ll love Aitutaki – as long you as head out to explore the far reaches of the lagoon.
Have a look at the X Days In Y Packing List for recommended travel gear to the Cook Islands based on my own experience.
There are two ATM’s in Aitutaki. One is just off the side of the road halfway between the airport and Arutanga, while the other is in by the post office in ‘downtown’ Arutanga. Most businesses accept credit cards without any kind of surcharge, though some lower key accommodation do not yet have credit card machines. It’s best to inquire to before.
Here’s a breakdown of costs during my week in Aitutaki. I stayed at two different lodges, went on a lagoon tour and mostly cooked my own meals.
Here are three ways to save a bit of money in Aitutaki:
By Air: pretty much the only ‘real’ way to get to Aitutaki. Air Rarotonga operates daily flights from Rarotonga to Aitutaki. It takes about 50 minutes and as with domestic flights in French Polynesia, the views from the plane are breathtaking – so grab a window seat!
If you’re pressed for time, Air Rarotonga offers a day trip package to Aitutaki. You’ll leave Rarotonga in the morning, returning in the early evening. Aside from air/land transfers, your package also includes an island tour and a lagoon tour on The Vaka Lagoon Cruise. I personally went on this lagoon tour and I must say that it was by far the highlight of my visit to Aitutaki (read more in the ‘things to do section’).
With the exception of the day trip, flights might get shifted a bit. If flights are empty or maintenance needs to be done on a plane, you’ll get bumped to a later/earlier flight. You will get notified by email but just be sure to notify your accommodation of the change, preferably by phone. I got stranded at the airport by my hosts and had to change accommodations altogether.
Also note that Sunday flights are a bit of an issue in Aitutaki, especially among the more traditional senior folks. It isn’t uncommon to see a small group quietly ‘protesting’ outside the airport terminal on Sundays. This isn’t anything like a labor union strike in France, but just be aware that it is a sensitive issue for some folks on the island.
The main island in Aitutaki is super small, but not small enough to be explored on foot like Maupiti Island in French Polynesia. Here are some options, keeping in mind that the more remote islets in the lagoon can be explored on a hired boat, windsurf or lagoon excursion.
To/from airport: all accommodations that I’m aware of offer either free airport transfers or charge about $10 per person.
By scooter: by the far the most fun way of getting around Aitutaki. Rino’s Rentals, located close to town, rents them out at $20 (NZD) per day with one free day for a week’s rental. Popoara Rentals, located by the Boat Shed Bar & Grill, rents scooters for $25 per day or $20 if you rent for a week. I found the scooters to be in better shape at Popoara. Pro tip: you must at the very least have a temporary scooter license issued in Rarotonga (technically you should have passed your exam by now). If you didn’t take this first step, you will not be able to rent a scooter in Aitutaki. Have a look at the Cook Islands Travel Guide for more info on how to get a scooter license in the Cook Islands.
By car: if you’re not up for riding a scooter, both companies listed above also have vehicles for rent. Prices should be between $70-85 (NZD) per day, with discounts for longer rentals.
By bicycle: if your accommodation doesn’t offer free bikes to use, you can rent one from Rino’s and Popoara for about $15 per day.
By boat: you can hire a boat or windsurf board and head out to one of the dreamy lagoon islets. Inquire locally or just join a lagoon tour like I did (see ‘things to do’ section).
Aitutaki is such a small island that it doesn’t matter all that much where you’re basing yourself if you don’t mind hiring a scooter/car. Accommodations cater to the mid-range / luxury traveler, with a small selection of basic options. I stayed both near O’otu Beach and close to Arutanga. Being close to town means you can walk to the grocery shop, market, internet cafe etc. The beaches on the west side of the island are not that great for swimming. O’otu Beach, on the other hand, is on a more remote part of the island. There are a couple of restaurants, a cafe, and a few resorts and bungalows. The beach is lovely, not great for snorkeling but great for kayaking and finding a small sandbar to chill on. Here are a few recommendations:
My favorite accommodation in Aitutaki, this lovely family-owned business is perfectly situated close enough to town yet far enough. O’otu beach is just a 15-minute ride away, and Rino rents out cars, scooters, and bikes at excellent prices. Calling this place a motel definitely doesn’t do justice with the place. Rooms face a well-kept beach, OK for swimming (as all beaches on this side of the island are) but perfect for long strolls and stargazing.
All units are self-contained, spacious, super clean, and with excellent sleep quality. Free breakfast and filtered water are offered, and you might even be able to connect to a wifi hotspot coming from the shop across the road. Rino also has a few larger apartments nearby that are super popular with large groups. Offering great value for money, I absolutely loved the three nights I spent here. Credit cards accepted, ask for bungalow #9!
On the airport side of Aitutaki, Te Roto Bay (formerly Inano Beach Bungalows) is a 10-minute walk from O’otu Beach, walking distance from a bar/restaurant, car hire, cafe, and wifi hotspot. Traditional thatched-roof units face a lush tropical garden, with a few larger units right on the beach. The beach is lovely for sunsets but not that great for swimming with poor visibility and shallow waters, though the owners have dug into the sand to create what feels like a deep swimming pool. All units are self-contained and the place itself is very (very) low-key, with not much happening (bar/restaurant currently closed) and the owners not really around. Filtered water costs $1 per bottle and credit cards are now accepted. Bring plenty of mosquito repellent as the mosquitoes on this side of the island are ferocious.
Celebrating a special occasion? Want to spark the romance in paradise? Aitutaki boasts several top-notch resorts for those seeking the luxury holiday. On the western side of the island Etu Moana & Pacific Resort are top choices, while over on O’otu Beach, the Aitutaki Lagoon Resort gets top marks. The resort sits on a private little island, with a great spot for swimming or just lazing on the gorgeous beach. You can come here as a day-tripper if you buy lunch.
Aitutaki’s jewel in the crown is no doubt its magnificent lagoon. Its most magical spots are actually on the remote islets at the lagoon’s edge. You can visit those on day trips from the main island, but if you really want to get off the grid – stay at Akaiami Paradise or Gina’s Akaiami Beach Lodge. Keep in mind that while the setting is gorgeous, you’ll have to rely on your accommodation for everything (transfers, food, etc.).
The scuba diving in Aitutaki is said to be exceptionally good, with drifts dives, canyon walls, and lots of sharks. However, it is super expensive and I opted out in favor of more reasonably priced dives in Rarotonga. Bubbles Below and Aitutaki Divers offer two tank dives for about $200 (NZD). That’s a lot of money. Another thing to consider is that outings are prone to last-minute cancellations due to bad weather or lack of a minimum amount of divers. Snorkelers are welcome to join. My advice would be: if you really want to dive in Aitutaki – aim to do this at the very start of your visit and book in advance.
All beaches on the main island are beautiful but not that great for swimming. One exception is O’otu Beach, with the clearest of waters and the chance to walk to a tiny sandbar somewhere off the beach. The story is very different on the small islets at the edge of the lagoon, with beaches that will leave you speechless. You can rent a boat or hire someone to drop you off on one of these islets for the day, windsurf your way there or join a lagoon tour (like I did). Do not miss the opportunity to explore the lagoon.
Aitutaki’s water is supplied by collected rainwater. You should only drink filtered water in Aitutaki. Inquire with your accommodation before rushing to buy bottled water.
At the time of writing this guide, Vodafone was the main (and perhaps sole) Internet and mobile phone provider in the Cook Islands. You needed to connect to their hotspots, which were spread in various places throughout the island. Some resorts may still use the Zenbu prepaid system so inquire before purchasing Vodafone credit. See the Cook Islands Travel Guide for more information.
Arutanga has several small grocery shops, a couple of restaurants and a small fruits & vegetables market open Mon-Sat from 7 am to 1 pm. Apparently, Neibaa’s grocery shop on the eastern side of the island is the cheapest one and where locals do their food shopping.
See the ‘places to eat & drink’ section for specific recommendations.
For general safety tips in the Cook Islands, have a look at the ‘safety’ section of the Cook Islands Travel Guide. As for Aitutaki specific safety tips, I can only warn you about the mosquitos. Especially on the lagoon side, they can be ferocious – so bring plenty of mosquito repellent and pray for some wind.
Listed in this section are Aitutaki’s prime highlights to fit into your itinerary.
Not much happens in the only town in Aitutaki. Arutanga is a place to come to get stuff done: use the post office, withdraw cash from the ATM, surf the internet, do some grocery shopping and… you get the point. While there are a few places for take away food and apparently even a bar (at least that’s what I’ve heard), there’s no need to base yourself as close as possible to town.
On your pit stop in Arutanga, be sure to pay a visit to the local market. Open Monday to Saturday from 7 am to 1 pm, there are usually a couple of friendly women who will be more than happy to chat with you. As for the variety, it’s really a hit or miss. Coconuts are almost always available, but other fruits and vegetables come and go. There are also colorful sarongs on sale if you’ve left yours at home.
A definite highlight is the local Catholic church (CICC). This beautiful whitewashed church is the oldest in the Cook Islands, built in 1828 and looking like something straight out of a movie about a distant paradise.
If you happen to be in Aitutaki on Sunday, do not miss the opportunity to attend church service – whether you’re a believer or not (Service starts at 10 am for ~ 90 mins). Watch as locals wearing their Sunday finest sweep into the church with a huge smile, and feel totally welcomed as the Pasteur switches from Maori to English. The local choir breaks out in beautifully timed hymns acapella style, affording you one of those authentically local experiences that you’ll cherish forever. If you won’t get the chance to attend Sunday service in Aitutaki, you can give it a chance in Rarotonga.
The best beach on the main island, the waters of O’otu Beach are usually too shallow to afford good swimming or snorkeling, but the lagoon colors are simply spectacular. Until you’ll head out to explore that far reaches of the lagoon, this is as close to paradise as you’ll feel.
During low tide, you can walk far into the lagoon, stopping on small sandbanks for a ‘pinch me I’m in paradise’ break. The best part of the beach is freely accessed through a resort, where you can also grab some food or drinks. For even better swimming, head across the channel to the Aitutaki Lagoon Resort – which already faces the deeper side of the lagoon.
O’otu beach is also a popular spot for kayaking, with a couple of resorts nearby to rent equipment from.
The best way to explore the main island is on a scooter (see the ‘getting around’ section for more info). Paved roads in Aitutaki are in good condition, and even the unpaved roads cutting from east to west and down south can easily be traversed on two wheels with only fallen coconut branches getting in the way.
Aitutaki has several ancient temples known as marae. On a mini road trip around the main island, I managed to find Marae Tikanga Rangi and Marae Te Poaki o Rae – two of the most important ancient temples. To get here, ask for directions in town and expect to get lost several times. The temples are hidden in a small forest that covers the bulk of the island’s south side. If you don’t know the story behind these temples, they’ll seem like mere piles of rock. They are definitely not as impressive as the marae of French Polynesia, but they do hold deep ancestral meaning to local islanders.
Not much happens in Aitutaki’s southern and eastern sides, and that’s part of the charm. Drive through a giant banyan tree and get off the paved road, riding through a maze of narrow dirt paths crisscrossing coconut plantations. You might have to put your ‘figure-eight’ skills to good use, avoiding fallen coconuts as you explore this remote part of the island. While the beaches aren’t great for swimming, you’ll have them all to yourself – perfect for a break or a deep reflection on life.
The only bit of hiking you can do in Aitutaki, the 20-minute hike to Mount Maungapu is the best place in Aitutaki for panoramic views. Pick up the steep track across from the Paradise Cove Resort, and walk to the top of the hill at 124 meters.
From up here, you can continue on another trail to Piraki Lookout, but you can drive up there as well. The view from here is not as impressive as the view from the top of Maungapu.
You’ll quickly learn that pretty much all Cook Islanders love to sing, dance and play with fire. I kind of already had a feeling about that after visiting Samoa, but in the Cook Islands – they really take it up a notch with legendary ‘island nights’. An island night includes a buffet dinner of traditional and Western dishes, along with a dance performance showcasing the exotic local culture. While the most extravagant island nights are in Rarotonga, the Tamanu Beach Resort puts on the best island night in Aitutaki every Thursday ($65 not including drinks, reservations essential).
You’ll get here at around 6:30 pm and enjoy a delicious buffet dinner. Among the ridiculously huge variety, there’s of course the ikamata – the ‘national dish’ consisting of raw chunks of tuna in coconut milk.
At around 8 pm the show begins, with dancers that you may recognize from Sunday church service putting on a show, with their exotic costumes and huge smiles. The women shake their hips and the men twist their knees much better than Elvis ever could. Guests will have their shot at grabbing the spotlight as well, so don’t be shy!
The climax peaks with the fire dancing show, as the boys put on a shockingly impressive display to the heavy sounds of the beating drums. Overall, it’s a great night out, especially for couples seeking a romantic evening but also for families with children. If you didn’t get the chance to see an island night in Rarotonga, don’t miss the opportunity in Aitutaki.
The highlight of your visit to Aitutaki and perhaps of your entire Cook Islands holiday, a day spent exploring the magic of the Aitutaki lagoon is a day you’ll never forget. I joined a full day lagoon tour with The Vaka Cruise, who have been cruising these pristine waters for 20 years.
Your tour begins with a welcome drink aboard the 21-meter catamaran named Titi ai Tonga (meaning “wind from the south”). At the sound of the conch shell, you’ll depart on a short cruise to your first stop Akaiami Island. En route, the friendly crew will serenade you with a trio of ukuleles – a perfect way to start a perfect day.
Akaiami Island is simply a dream of an island. It’s the kind of place you pray to get shipwrecked on, and in fact, there are two lodges that allow you to do exactly that (see ‘where to stay’ section).
The island also has some historical significance, serving as a refueling stop on the legendary TEAL Coral Route that flew from Auckland to Tahiti way back in the day. Small seaplanes were used for the long voyage, with frequent refueling stops in remote islands. Passengers would get a few hours of beach bumming in Akaiami, while the plane was refueled. The only remaining evidence of what must have been the best ‘layover’ in history is this old jetty.
Sadly, you’ll have about 30 minutes to enjoy this little paradise – giving you just enough time to stroll along the soft sand and take a refreshing dip. Not to worry though, this isn’t the highlight of the day.
The next stop Motu Rakau, a little island with a beautiful beach on one side and a rugged one on the other. The motu is also a prime spot for birdwatching, so walk quietly through the forest and wait for everyone else to concentrate on the beach.
Now it’s time to really hit the water. Put on your snorkeling gear and explore the coral garden. The visibility was some of the best I’ve ever seen – simply magic. There is no blue like the Aitutaki blue.
Look out for giant trevally fish that like to hang around the boat, giant clams and all those colorful tropical fish you’ve been dreaming about in those cold winter days back home.
As you get back on board, a BBQ lunch is served. Considering we were out in the middle of the lagoon, the variety of food on board was extremely impressive. There’s plenty of it, it’s delicious and you’ll be coming back for seconds (alcohol can be purchased onboard).
The tour reaches its climax after lunch, with a visit to One Foot Island. As you’ll near the island, the azure waters will simply blind you. Floating in those waters are sandbars of pure white sand – exactly like that photograph of paradise you’ve seen in travel magazines or screen savers.
You’ll land on One Foot Island and have well over an hour to explore, relax and admire one of the most beautiful islands in the South Pacific – and believe me, I’ve seen a few dozen of them.
The snorkeling is nothing to write home about, but the clarity of the water is worth rolling off the beach. Look out for what looks like the underwater version of a silkworm. Eating its way along the endless seagrass, this odd-looking creature was something I’d never seen before.
As you get back on board, don’t forget to stamp your passport and prove that you actually made it to paradise and back! As you cruise back to the main island, your crew will teach you the millions of ways to tie a sarong (I didn’t know there were so many) and a few lucky guests will learn a thing or two about Cook Island dancing.
Logistics: tours depart at 10 am (returning at 5 pm) from Monday to Saturday just off the Aitutaki Village Resort, with tickets costing $125 for adults and $62.50 for children (NZD). Bookings are essential as you’ll also be joined by daytrippers from Rarotonga. Bring with you: sunscreen, a hat, plenty of energy, and your passport! Everything else is supplied. Note that The Vaka Cruise visits three of the twelve lagoon motu. Other tours might visit more islets over the same amount of time, maybe even stopping near the wreck of the Alexander. In my opinion, you would likely feel a bit rushed, and I’m pretty sure most operate small boats.
Here are a few places to try:
Groceries: there are a couple of shops in town that sell everything you need for self-catering.
Boatshed Bar & Grill: a lovely little place just after the airport. The maritime theme cannot be missed and the food is excellent. I loved the ikamata, served inside an actual coconut.
Tamanu Beach: the place for ‘island nights’ every Thursday (see ‘things to do’).
Koru Cafe: on the way to O’otu Beach, it’s the best spot for breakfast in Aitutaki, though a tad overpriced in my opinion.
O’otu beach resorts: you can grab food and drinks in all the luxury resorts around O’otu Beach.
I hope you’ve found this Aitutaki Travel Guide useful. Here are a few more resources to help make sense of your visit to the Cook Islands and to Aitutaki.