I can’t believe I almost didn’t go.
Everything I’d read about Aitutaki cited a lagoon cruise as the number one thing to do on the island, but I get seasick and I don’t like organised tours and seawater brings me out in a rash and snorkelling gives me a headache. I decided to skip it because why would I pay to make myself feel like crap?
Like flipping a coin and discovering what you wanted all along, my decision left me flooded with guilt. I changed my mind again, and I’m so glad I did.
My day spent exploring the Aitutaki’s lagoon was one of my best ever.
To say that the lagoon is important to Aitutaki would be a vast understatement. Check out this photo of it from above:
Yep: the lagoon is more than three times the size of the island, so if you remain on land, you’re only seeing a small portion of what makes Aitutaki so special. And having spent four days exploring the island and not being mega-impressed with the beaches there, I can firmly say that you’ll be missing out on the best aspects of Aitutaki by not getting your feet wet. Take a lagoon cruise. It’s so worth it.
I joined the full-day cruise offered by Teking Tours, which takes you to three snorkelling spots and four motus (islets in Polynesia). I opted for Teking because the groups are small (no more than ten people to a boat) and because a percentage of my fee would be donated towards helping conserve and protect the lagoon. Because the boat is much smaller than other tours’, you’re able to access the better snorkelling spots away from the crowds.
Mornings on the water are spent around all things giant: the first stop involves snorkelling alongside giant trevallies and Napoleon wrasses around an old shipwreck, and the second is spent diving down to take a closer look at hundreds of giant clams. Most grow to somewhere around six feet in length and spending time around them was both joyful and terrifying.
Lunches on group tours are uniformly terrible in my experience, which is why I was so thrilled with Teking’s offerings. Fresh fish barbecue with many tuna steaks, lots of rice, potato salad, and tons of fresh fruit. It was all delicious and the best meal I had in the Cook Islands.
More snorkelling is on the agenda for the afternoon, with a whole cluster of purple coral surrounding the next stopping point. The coral here is so vibrant that many of the experienced divers on my trip claimed it to be some of the best they’ve seen.
The trip is rounded off on a high, when you’re dropped off on a sand bar and instructed to walk several hundred metres through calf-deep water to One Foot Island, where there’s a surprise in store for you.
Here’s how my tour went!
Snorkelling a Shipwreck Surrounded by Giant Trevallies
I clambered on to the boat from southern shore of Aitutaki and we set sail for paradise.
Within seconds of the engine juddering to life, I reached for my camera because the colour of the lagoon was already blowing my mind. Our first stop was to the insanely gorgeous Honeymoon island to drop off our lunch for later. It was on this short trip that I took the photo I’ve shared in every post I’ve written about the Cook Islands so far. But have you ever seen anything closer to paradise than this before?
We made our way to a nearby shipwreck, then were directed to remove all of our jewellery so the trevallies wouldn’t attempt to gobble it (or us). Gulp.
I’m not a big snorkelling person, so it takes a lot to impress me when my face is in the water. This did. For the hour I spent swimming around, I was surrounded by thousands of colourful fish, I spotted brightly coloured starfish for the first time in my life, I saw the most colourful coral ever, and I was terrified of the giant trevallies. While they were harmless and left us alone, I couldn’t help but notice their sharp teeth as they glided by.
Swimming through a shipwreck was a particular highlight, as I didn’t think I’d ever get to do so without going diving. This particular wreck — the Alexander — was a freighter that used to bring cargo to the island, until it sunk in the 1930s. These days, it’s teeming with sealife and covered in barnacles.
Giant Clams are Seriously Giant
When we were told we were going to see giant clams, I pictured a foot-long shell in my head and shuddered. Nope! These giant clams were well over three feet in length and there were hundreds of them scattered across the ocean floor. They were vibrant, colourful, and seriously wild to see up close.
Our boat dropped us off next to a cluster of several dozen of them and our captain gave us instructions to swim to a nearby sand bar. We spent the next hour spotting colourful fish, snapping photos of the coral, and marvelling at how psychedelic the insides of the clams were.
I Shouldn’t Have Skipped the Purple Coral
Our final snorkelling stop of the day was all about the purple coral. I skipped it, because my ill-fitting snorkelling mask had given me a pounding headache and I couldn’t face swallowing even more seawater. I’m such a failure at snorkelling! Instead, I stayed on the boat and chatted with the crew about what it was like growing up on Aitutaki, and the changes they’d witnessed as tourism increased.
But when I do a Google Image search for Aitutaki purple coral, I find a ton of photos taken by people on Teking Tours and it looks ridiculously beautiful.
One Foot Island is the Highlight
“Whoa,” I gasped, as I leapt off the boat and onto the sand bar. “Wow.”
“Wow,” someone else echoed as they jumped after me.
“Wow!” somebody else exclaimed.
Our group descended onto the soft sand and said our wows in shellshocked wonder. This was the most spectacular sight I’d ever seen, leaving me feeling as though I was splashing my way through a photoshopped travel brochure.
“Walk over to One Foot Island,” our captain called out to us, motioning to a small island a couple of hundred metres away. “I’ll meet you there.”
It must have taken us half an hour to splash our way across that short distance because we couldn’t stop taking posing and taking photos. I couldn’t believe this place was real.
A Moment to Sit and Contemplate
On One Foot Island island, we were given an hour to do whatever we wanted. Most people ran directly into the ocean to snorkel with a passing fever of stingrays (I love that a group of stingrays is called a fever!), but I decided to stay on the beach instead, burying my feet in the sand.
I couldn’t stop blinking. Ahead of me was bright white sand, untouched jungle, a cyan-blue lagoon filled with sea life. I kept blinking because I was certain I was dreaming, and because I thought that if I did it enough times, I’d be able to capture how incredible it felt to be sitting there so I could revisit it in the future.
And it did feel incredible, because — and excuse me while I get a little sappy here — it was on this cruise that I finally began to feel like myself again. During my anxiety-filled 2015, there were times when I felt as though I’d plummeted to the bottom of an unclimbable well, convinced I would never feel well again.
My South Pacific trip showed me how life-changing solo travel can be, and how important it is for me to break away to be alone every few months. I don’t know why travelling alone removed my anxiety, but my daily panic attacks melted away on this trip, and it was on One Foot Island when I realised I hadn’t experienced one in an entire week.
A smile spread across my face. A genuine smile. One that left my jaw aching for the rest of the day.
Let’s Talk About My Passport…
Here’s the thing: when I was researching cruises, I read a lot of excited reports about how you could get your passport stamped while you’re on One Foot Island, home to the world’s smallest post office. And it was tiny. It was essentially a tiny shack on the beach, where its only purpose is to stamp tourists’ passports.
Anyway, I dutifully shoved my passport into my bag when I left my guesthouse, and after we arrived on the island, handed it off to be stamped.
And guys. Um, I kind of hate it. Look at the size of that thing! I have a giant foot in my passport! It’s big and ugly and conspicuous and I’m convinced it’s going to result in me not being let into a country somewhere down the line. Ugh!
And Then the Boat Broke Down
I can’t write about my trip without mentioning that our boat broke down. Given my string of bad luck in the Cook Islands, the news that we were stranded in the middle of lagoon produced little more than a knowing smile from me. Of course our boat had broken down!
It was somewhere between one and two hours before another boat came out to rescue us. And despite the rocking boat and the encroaching sunburn, there were far worse places to be stranded. We spent our time paddling in the knee-deep water that surrounded us and then hiding under towels to protect our skin.
It wasn’t the best end to a beautiful day, but the staff were apologetic and I get that these things happen.
A Final Treat
We arrived back on dry land as the sun was starting to set, salty and sweaty, and desperate for a cold shower. Teking, the tour company owner, met us off the boat to apologise for our other one breaking down, then made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. Rather than taking the minivan back with the rest of the group, he could drive me back to my guesthouse on the back of his motorbike. Just another benefit of being a solo traveller!
I hopped on the back and grinned — motorbikes make me happy. Teking asked how much I’d seen of the island and, when I told him I’d cycled around the shoreline but hadn’t made it to any of the viewpoints, he wheeled the bike around and drove me up the nearest mountain. We stopped at the main viewpoint, and I took a ton of photos, and then Teking took me to his favourite spot on the island — one that few people know about.
On the way back to the guesthouse, we chatted about his life in the Cook Islands: why he decided to start a tour company, his family, his tentative plans to move to Honeymoon Island, and more. I was thrilled to gain a local’s insight into Cook Island life, and exploring places I wouldn’t have otherwise seen was the icing on the cake. The perfect end to a mostly-perfect day!
The Takeaway: This Was One of the Best Experiences I’ve Ever Had
There’s no doubt about it: this was a travel highlight that’ll stay with me for a long time. I’d rank it in the top ten experiences of my travels over the past five years, even with the boat breaking down and my chronic seasickness. That should tell you how good it was!
If you’re planning a trip to the Cook Islands, you have to go to Aitutaki, and you have to go on a lagoon cruise. I’m not sure I’ll ever visit anywhere more beautiful in my life and I can’t recommend it enough!
- I booked through Teking Tours, where a full day cruise comes in at 110 NZD (75 USD). I thought it offered fantastic value for money and would spend it again in a heartbeat!
- I was the only solo woman on the boat. Like my time throughout the Cook Islands, I was the lone backpacker in a crowd of loved-up couples and families. On my boat, there was a British couple on a round-the-world honeymoon, a French family with a kid, and a British family with two teenagers.
- Bring water or cash with you: I assumed that water would be provided on board, but it was only available for $4 a bottle. I stupidly didn’t bring any money with me because I didn’t think I’d have anything to spend it on and ended up massively dehydrated by the end of the tour.
- Don’t wear any jewellery: Giant trevallies are seriously attracted to jewellery, so you won’t want to wear any for the tour. I kept my belly bar in and was fine, but one of the women in my tour group had a trevally circling her after she left her wedding ring on.
- Re-apply sunscreen every hour: I applied my factor 50 sunscreen before the trip and after every snorkelling stop and still ended up sunburnt. The sun is strong in the Cook Islands, especially if you’re spending a full day out on the lagoon.
- It’s worth investing in a dry bag if you don’t already have one: After having my boat take on a hole in Koh Lipe and almost sink, I don’t go anywhere near water without my dry bag. On the cruise, I kept my camera, clothes, GoPro, and passport inside, safe in the knowledge that none of them would get wet. Bonus: if you seal it with air inside, the bag floats, so if your stuff happens to fall overboard, you won’t lose everything. I use and recommend this one from Sea to Summit. I’ve used it for four years and it’s still going strong!
- If you want to visit Aitutaki on a budget, I recommend staying at Gina’s Garden Lodges. I tried out several inexpensive accommodation options on the island and this was by far the best. For $50 a night, I stayed in a garden bungalow that sleeps five, with a decent kitchen, and a free airport transfer.