Cook Islands

Cook IslandsHeaven is a place where nothing ever happens. It’s hard to imagine that nothing at all could be so exciting, could be so much fun.—David Byrne and Jerry Harrison

We were on our honeymoon on the tiny South Seas island of Aitutaki. Cue white-sand beach, palm trees leaning toward the water; fronds rustling in the breeze. Pan across bathtub-warm ocean water in shades of indigo and turquoise. There was hardly a soul around. The soundtrack was a relaxing acoustic guitar with soft flute strains. We entered our studio suite not far from the beach and like a movie cliché the needle skittered across the record and the music screeched to a halt. There were two twin beds in our room! Not your ideal honeymoon setup! But, since we were only staying a few nights on Aitutaki, we figured we could make it work, knowing that we had a fancier room waiting for us back on the main Cook Island of Rarotonga.

During an intense warm afternoon thunderstorm that trapped us in our room, we made up a game. We each sat on one bed and tossed a balled up pair of my husband’s white tube socks back-and-forth across the little room to each other. We made up rules about whether the walls, ceiling or floor were out-of-bounds and how to score points. We ended up playing this game every day. It was fun in its simplicity. Simplicity was definitely the theme on this remote island. The island being less than seven square miles was easy to walk around. At one point, we tackled a “climb” to the highest point of the island. The almost laughably short hike to this point called Maunga pu, could have been anti-climactic, except for the postcard-perfect 360-degree views of the island and the motus or small reef islands that circled its blue lagoons.

In the nineties, no one seemed to have heard of the Cook Islands. When asked where were going on our honeymoon, we’d explain, “They’re near Tahiti and used to be part of New Zealand. The islands are in a similar position to Hawaii but on the other side of the Equator. As far as tourist development they’re like Hawaii of fifty years earlier.” Even now, it’s not a well-known destination among Americans.

On one of our walks around Aitutaki we came across two rustic soccer goals on a field of semi-wild grass. One goal was not far from the water, so shots in that direction were backlit and framed in gray-blue stripes. We found an old, dingy white ball and started kicking it to each other. Within minutes, as if they emerged from behind banana plants and coconut trees, we were joined by a few barefoot local children. They joined in with big smiles and eager questions. “Where are you from? What do you think of our island? Can we play again tomorrow?” Soon more children came and we had a full-on pick-up game going. It was a pure, joyful game with lots of laughter.

In the middle of the night, the feral chickens that had been faintly comical and picturesque during the day were maddeningly active. Even with earplugs and a pillow on my head, I could hear them scratching and clucking outside our room. Periodically a “Cockadoodle doo!” pierced the humid night air—a terrible way to learn that roosters do not only crow at dawn. Good thing we had plenty of time for lazy afternoon naps on the warm sand to make up for nights of tossing and turning in our twin beds.
When we returned to the main island of Rarotonga, we were surprised to find it bustling and hurried. Everything being relative, this remote place with no traffic lights now felt like the big city in comparison with super laid-back Aitutaki.

Even though it has been nearly twenty years since we were there, I remember well how time felt on Aitutaki: simple and unhurried. You couldn’t even rush into the water if you wanted to. Nearly every square inch of sand in the shallow water was covered with nudibranch mines. You had to tiptoe through the nudibranchs unless you wanted a squishy sea slug beneath your toes.

While it may not have been the ideal honeymoon, with 24-hour party chickens, twin beds, and limited fine dining, I have no regrets about honeymooning in the Cook Islands. It is easy to have a good time and enjoy each other’s company in air-conditioning and high-thread-count sheets. A truer test of a relationship is laughing together when things don’t go smoothly and with little more diversion than each other’s conversation. After returning home, I made a blue ceramic sea star, an Etua Moana, that sits on our bathroom counter. It reminds me to appreciate the beautiful simplicity in life.

About the Author: Marcie Chan has been to all fifty states and has backpacked around the world. She enjoys singing, dancing, reading, writing, and making pottery, though not simultaneously.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter our next Travel Writing competition and tell your story.

580998_10151264727900622_1895495667_nIt’s 5 o’clock in the morning and I’m running through waist-high grass toward a pack of frenzied dogs. Their cacophonous barking drowns out the squeals of a wild pig, who’s preparing to pay a price for the crops he and his fellow swine have uprooted.

Sweat drips from my hairline and red mud streaks my bare arms. I’m fighting a slight hangover; it’s a reminder of the night before, a night I spent in a thatched-roof hut with the locals, drinking homebrew from coconut shells, singing to the plink of a ukulele and the rhythm of a twig tapping an overturned bucket.

I’m tired but I’m determined not to let my weakness show. My barefoot guide – a pious man who prayed over this journey before he picked up his machete and loosed his starving dogs– is challenging me to prove my great-grandmother’s blood does in fact course through my veins.

548596_10151264722150622_1488566821_nI’m visiting her island, this place the locals call Enua Manu and the world calls Atiu. It is one of the 15 Cook Islands in the South Pacific – a Polynesian paradise that’s home to one school, a handful of general stores, and 500 of the world’s friendliest people. I’ve been here four days, and already this island has captured my heart.

“Hurry! You reckon you’re brave enough?!” my guide is yelling. He raises his eyebrows in a laugh, but he is not joking. I take the knife from him, inhale, and silence the pig.

When it’s over, I’m smiling. I know it’s macabre, but I can’t help it. I’m new to the concept of living off the land and it makes me feel grounded.

Yesterday, I stood on a shallow reef, up to my thighs in translucent sea, and fished for snapper using live crab as bait. Last night, we paired it with fresh taro and bananas plucked from a tree in the yard, and as the sun dipped low and we ate the fruits of our foraging, we were wordlessly saying the same thing: This is the life.

270430_10151265100925622_1316594917_nThere is something about this island – the rugged masculinity of its caves and cliffs, the promise of adventure in its gnarled jungle, the self-sufficiency of its people – that has wiggled its way into my soul.

Its beauty is jagged in some places and postcard-worthy in others. Its17 square miles accommodate a drastically varying landscape – there is footprint-free white sand retreating into a glassy lagoon and there are frontiers of raised gray coral, sharp and forbidding and hot. There are vast swaths of swampland hosting taro plants green as candy, and there are quiet lakes lapping against a mysterious, prehistoric forest.

And then there are the caves, a subterranean labyrinth hiding the secrets of generations past and the ancestral bones of the Atiuan people. They are vast, full of intrigue, with banyan roots and birds coursing through their damp darkness.

302828_10151264718210622_1436158682_nThis island is at once peaceful and full of adventure. Here, I am free from the suffocation I sometimes feel in the tangle of city concrete, free from the anxiety I sometimes feel within the confines of my cubicle. Here, I am not bound by alarm clocks and Google Alerts and gridlock traffic; instead I am at the mercy of the phases of the moon and the swell of the sea and the creatures of the earth.

In a big and busy world, crowded and contaminated by people and pollution and politics, Atiu is an oasis, a place where I can be close to the land and the people who work it, a place where I am free.

About the Author: Rachel Michele Teana Reeves: I’m a reporter, columnist and freelance writer based in Los Angeles. I recently moved back to the U.S. from Rarotonga in the Cook Islands, where I wrote for a daily newspaper and a local travel magazine. I have an abiding love of travel that’s taken me through the Pacific, Asia, Europe, Mexico, and Aruba.

“Watch out for wasps,” Ngaakitai Pureariki calls over his shoulder as we dive into the underbrush.  My friend and guide has convinced me to accompany him to Te Are Karioi on the island of Aitutaki.  The site, which translates into English as “House of Entertainment,” has never been seen by outsiders.  How could I refuse such an offer?

We crawl on our hands and knees through thickets of low scrub, all the while climbing uphill.  We are on the west side of the atoll, far from human habitation in a densely forested stand of native palms and the occasional hardwood with a nearly impenetrable understory of thorns and brambles.

I answer lamely, “Oh, right.  There’s wasps here?”

“Do you know what to do if they come at us?”

Thinking quickly of other treks through other jungles, I venture a guess.  “Don’t run.”

“Yes. That would be very bad.”

I prefer not to consider the consequences of standing mute in the center of swarming and stinging insects.  We head deeper into the bush.

1) Hiking at Te Are Karioi

Te Are Karioi was famous in this region of Polynesia during pre-contact times, before the arrival of Europeans, as a place where men could find refuge from their wives and families and dance the nights away in the company of young women.  The location has been carefully guarded over the years since missionaries would have ordered the destruction of its locale and memories.  Why I have been chosen as the first traveler to see the ruins is a curious question.  Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that I have been communicating with Ngaa, as he prefers to be called, via email for several months since meeting him during my first visit to Aitutaki, and have asked him to show me unusual “attractions” upon my next arrival.

Soon the brush thins.  We are ascending now on the remains of an ancient trail that was once paved with coral stones brought from one of the motus, or small islands, that outline the Aitutaki atoll.

2) One of the motus from which coral was brought to the island in the old days

The land seems to have been terraced and where the ground was shaped nothing grows except a kind of grass.  But we still have to pick our way through the  undergrowth.  Mercifully the sun cannot penetrate the canopy but the temperature still hovers near 35 degrees Celsius.  I wonder if my sweat will attract wasps but decide there is nothing I can do but keep watch and pray they are too sleepy in the heat to mount an attack against human interlopers.

The track levels on a small plateau.  “Here we are,” Ngaa says.  I blink, not comprehending.  But my vision adjusts to the leaf clutter and makes out a long foundation of basalt stones.  Ngaa exclaims, “This is much bigger than I remembered.  Wow!  And it’s not a marae.  It’s a pai-pai.”

“What does that mean?”

“A marae is a meeting place, sacred.  Pai-pai is a house.”

“Did you think this was a marae, then?  Before today?”

“I was not sure.  All the local people call it a marae, but they do not know their own history and most have never been here.  So now we know.”

3) Stone foundations of Te Are Karioi

Around the foundation are stone fire pits.  Ngaa reaches down and picks up an object.  “Look, Kit, a stone adze.”  He hands it to me, a relic of the distant past.  I put it in my shoulder bag.

4) Fire pit

We hack with machetes around the perimeter of the house.  It measures roughly twelve by six meters.  Inside the remains of the structure are thousands of tiny coral rocks.  “Why did they haul this stuff up here?” I say.

“Fertility,” is the quiet answer.

We walk around some more and Ngaa tells me what little he knows about the history. “When the missionaries came they forced us to forget our culture.  Everything.”

“Your people don’t even have oral traditions?”

“No.  We are trying to relearn our past.  Our culture has been destroyed.  This is why I work to uncover what our ancestors built here.”  Ngaa is the director of the Paengariki Marae Archeological Project, an ongoing excavation that he supervises with Mark Eddowes, a field anthropologist from French Polynesia. Ngaa enjoys only the partial and sometimes reluctant support of Aitutaki’s residents.

Paengariki Marae is one of the most important sacred “meeting places” in the Cook Islands, with standing stones that have been dated to around 1300 AD.

5) Excavating at Paengariki Marae, 2009

We stand at the House of Entertainment, listening to lorikeets twitter in the trees, trying to imagine a way of life that vanished over two hundred years ago.  We find traces of cooking, with pieces of discarded sea snails and clams.  “A lot of people stayed here,” Ngaa says.  “This must have been a beautiful place.  And all now has been ruined; all is lost.”

6) The stones at Te Are Karioi; broken coral brought here from the motus is clearly visible – such coral would not have occurred inland naturally

“Would the building have had walls?” I ask.

“Yes, made of wood.  So there is nothing left.”

Nonetheless the stonework remnants are unique.  Clearly this was a site of great importance.  I tell this to Ngaa.  “There is a legend we still have,” he replies.  “Long ago a man came here from Tahiti to stay at Te Are Karioi. Since he did not return to his home island, his wife suspected he was here on Aitutaki and she crossed the ocean to find him. This is very strange, because women were not taught how to navigate.”

“Perhaps she listened to the men talk about sailing and picked up her knowledge that way.”

“No.  Navigation was only discussed at the marae, which were taboo to women. They were not allowed to attend the gatherings there and what men talked about during their meetings was secret.”

“So what happened at the marae stayed at the marae, I said, referencing Las Vegas TV advertising in the States.

“Exactly.  Now we must ask, how did she navigate a canoe hundreds of kilometers across the Pacific from Tahiti to Aitutaki?”

“She must have been a brave woman. And very much in love.”

Ngaa sighs, although I am not sure if this is an expression of sympathy or one of frustration with womanly obsessions.  But he continues to relate the legend.  “They say she arrived in Aitutaki at the beach below us.  She climbed to the pai-pai and called for her husband.  He was here but he hid and did not answer.  In her grief and with a broken heart she returned to the beach, climbed a tall palm tree and threw herself to her death on a rock in the ocean.

7) The rock where the woman from Tahiti allegedly threw herself on and died (Ngaa showed me this place later)

Now we are silent.  I ponder the similarity between ancient Polynesian culture and our own values today.  The same emotions and motivations inhabit the human species everywhere, I conclude.

“Would you like to see the valley further inland?” Ngaa says. “It is the most fertile part of Aitutaki.  My forefathers lived there and grew everything they needed.”

“Of course.  Let’s go.”  We both climb trees to get our bearings.  As I scramble up a tangle of branches I think, I’m too old for this.  Finally I reach the top.  Poking through the forest I glimpse the highest point on the island, Maungapu.  “I see the mountain,” I say to Ngaa, who scans from his own perch for familiar landmarks.  “Yes, and I see houses,” he replies.  “We must go that way.”  He points in the correct direction.

We descend and tread carefully through the forest, coming upon curious meadows where again nothing grows but grass.

8) Walking to the valley

“I can’t believe how much coral they hauled up here,” Ngaa comments.  Then he sees a group of chestnut trees.  “These trees tell us there is underground water nearby.”

Soon we come to a field of tall grass.  We walk to the far side and come upon a small farm that belongs to Peter Petero, the owner of the cabin that my wife and I are renting on the other side of Aitutaki.  Peter evinces no surprise at our unexpected appearance from the forest and shows us his orchards and gardens.  Pigs follow us dutifully, hoping for a hand-out.  We continue further inland.  Shell middens attest to the domestic activities of the old inhabitants and also to the size of the island’s pre-contact population.

9) Inland shell midden

We pass fresh-water ponds, dug by the ancients and used to raise fish. Today the land is dry, the streams are parched, and the water in the ponds is stagnant.  The only aquatic life we see are eels, writhing on the surface of the water.

9) Ancient fish pond

“Do the locals eat these eels?” I say, thinking of sushi back home.

Ngaa makes a face.  “No way.”  he points to the base of the mountain, where we spot a grove of old-growth forest.  “Mahogany trees,” he says.  ‘We are lucky they were never cut down for the timber.”

10) Maungapu in the distance, with mahogany trees at its base.  Disturbed shell midden in foreground

“Yes,” I agree, knowing that most of Aitutaki’s forests were logged in the nineteenth century by thoughtless white me who saw only profits to be extracted and not the natural beauty of the land.

The sun is now directly over our heads and the heat bears down like a blanket.  It is time to return to the road from where we began our hike.  “We will walk through the forest again,” Ngaa says, “like the old ones would have done.”  I don’t say anything.  As we make our way a last time through Te Are Karioi he says, “I wish I was alive in the time of my ancestors. I would give anything to have been here and to live as they did.”

“The past is gone,” I say, “and we can’t bring it back.  But at least we can feel the spirit of the old days.  Not even missionaries can take that away.”

Finally we return to our cabin on the beach.  My wife Diana is waiting there and she is happy to see us.  She hands out glasses of cold water to quench our formidable thirst.  As Ngaa rises to leave, I reach into my bag and produce the stone adze.  “Here, this belongs to Aitutaki, not to me.”  Ngaa takes the artifact and we shake hands.

11) A similar adze to the one we found, this one from Paengariki Marae


In October 2011, George and I were the hosts for Meet Plan Go Los Angeles, part of 17 cities hosting events about Career Breaks, Mini-Retirements and Long Term Travel. We had traveled for nearly a year in 2008-9 and this month we left again for at least a year. Meet Plan Go National recently posted this article about our second career break: NOT WASTING TIME!

Time is now the currency. We earn it and spend it. The rich can live forever and the rest of us? I just wanna wake up with more time on my hands than hours in the day. – In Time (2011)

In Time is a movie that really spoke to me. In the movie, the main character, Will, is falsely accused of murder and must find a way to bring down a system in which time is money. While the wealthy can live forever, the poor have to beg, borrow, and steal enough minutes to make it through each day. At one point, a character gives his time to Will and tells him, “don’t waste my time.

How many times have you been in a pointless meeting thinking what a waste of time it is? So many of us waste time every day. We casually think that there will be time later. One of my strongest memories of seven years working on cruise ships was speaking to a widow who said, “we always planned to come here to Alaska together but there was always something that got in the way.” I heard over and over again, “don’t wait to make your dreams come true” or “you are so smart to travel like this while you are young.” I often felt like a character who had borrowed against time and was running to spend my time wisely traveling.

When my company went bankrupt after September 11, 2001, I thought I would never travel again.


Our year journey in South East Asia started July 2, 2012. When we were gone for eleven months in 2008, one of the common questions was, “How can you spend so much time together?”

We were recently  interviewed about Traveling as a Couple by Travelinksites:

Today we have the fine pair behind the super blog We Said Go Travel.  With well over 100 countries tucked away in Lisa and George’s repetoire, these guys are experts!  Their blog is full of videos, info and tales from far flung places so make sure you check them out. But first, let’s hear how they travel successfully as a married couple…


1.  Could you briefly introduce yourselves and your site?

Hello! We are a traveling couple. I worked for seven years at sea for Princess Cruises, Royal Caribbean International and Renaissance Cruises in the youth program and as cruise staff and went scuba diving and traveling on six continents. My husband George lived in Paraguay as part of the Peace Corps Program and traveled around South America. Both of us had been to nearly 100 countries (by Traveler’s Century Club count) before we met.

2. Tell us the story!  How did you guys meet and what made you choose to write a travel blog?

George found me online—and we started traveling together almost immediately. Our first journey was to Fiji and Vanuatu. In Vanuatu, we went to a village, met a Peace Corps worker and I had my first bucket bath. When we started our first year-long journey, we wrote a newsletter every month. After we got married, we went from our “He Said, She Said” to our website: We said Go Travel.


Thank you to for choosing us as a Traveling Couple for their site! We hope to share more about how we do it while we are gone this year!

Happy Independence Day! We hope you find a way to make all your dreams come true and feel INDEPENDENT this year!


My first trip to Aitutaki was for our honeymoon two years ago. George and I had wanted to visit there before but it was the first time the dice of price allowed it to happen! Our two weeks in the Cook Islands included kayaking, hammock swinging and two trips to the incredible jewel- toned Aitutaki Lagoon with Teking Tours.

Kit Herring of the Backpacker’s Handbook was recently there for a glorious third time and offered to share his historical knowledge of this spectacular location. Enjoy!

A Concise History of First Contact inAitutaki and the South Pacific
The area near Arutanga today

When Captain William Bligh let go the anchor of the Bounty off thewest coast of Aitutaki a few days before the famous mutiny, he beheld an islandand a culture far different than we can possibly understand today.  He didnot visit the whole island, but rather only the area loosely termedArutanga.  Always a meticulous diarist, he recorded some interestingfacts.  Of the natives in Tahiti he had written, “Inclination seemsto be the only binding law, marriage in this country for a woman will get her ahusband if she pledges…”

He continues about the inhabitants of Aitutaki, “The people are justthe same as those of the…Isles…  but are more docile and inoffensive.”
The account from his logbook of the discovery reads as follows:
“At daylight however we discovered an island of a moderate height witha round conical hill…A number of small Keys were seen from the mast.”

Maungapu, the tallest hill on the island

“They were all around with trees and the large island had a mostfruitful appearance.  The shore was bordered with flat land, withinnumerable Cocoa Nut and other trees.  I saw no smoke or any sign ofinhabitants.”

He writes that, “(T)hey called this island Whytootackee, ” andthat upon his first meeting with the natives, “I was however agreeablysurprised by a visit from four men in a single canoe… Two of the men had eacha large Mother of Pearl shell hung on their breasts… On being told I was theErree (chief), the principal person immediately came and joined noses with meand presented me his shell and tyed it around my neck… Notwithstanding theysaid there were no Hogs, Yarros, of tarrow… they called them by name, and Irather inclined to believe they were imposing upon me… The Chief of the canoetook possession of everything I had given… a knife, some nails, Beads and alooking glass.”

He goes on to say that two locals wished to overnight on his ship. Apparently some of his crew took the idea of immediate friendship in a ratherliberal sense.  “After the natives were gone I heard that some of myjohns had engaged to bring women off in the morning, and it was therefore thereason perhaps that two of them designed to sleep on board.”

Modern cultivation of yarrow (manioc)

We have no reason to disbelieve his observations.  Any navigator whosailed in an open boat, as Bligh did after the mutiny, over several thousandsof miles of the unexplored open Pacific to safety at the nearest Europeansettlement, Batavia, now the capital city of Jakarta in Indonesia,deserves respect and validation. Regardless of the circumstances that resultedin his being tossed from the Bounty with scant provisions by a crewthat had become enchanted with the terrible beauty of Polynesia, he was a manwho set forth to record all he saw.

But life on this tranquil outpost of Oceanic civilization received the firstof its death blows at his hands, although Bligh could not have understood thetragedy about to unfold when he touched shore. The story of the coming of themissionaries in 1821 is well known and does not need to be repeated here. The tales of forced conversion, the bringing of diseases and epidemics that the”Christians” blamed on the Polynesian gods, the later blackbirding ofthe population and the relentless efforts of the Europeans to stamp out the oldways — these stories are horrific and yet accepted today as a matter of course.

With their bodies’ physical beauty covered by the whites in heavynineteenth-century civilized clothing, the essence of the pre-contact nativeswas smothered irrevocably.  Today no oral traditions remain of that firstcontact, and the missionaries did nearly a complete job of eliminating the oldspirituality and the old ways.

Sydney Harbour from Montagu Roadstead;
Cook missed it but found Brush Island and Botany Bay

Photo by: John Porter

The author Jared Diamond has noted that perhaps the biggest mistakehumankind ever made was to quit the hunter/gatherer way of life and settle intotowns and cities, where manipulative leaders were then able to force stiflingsocietal rules and repression on hapless clans of formerly free people.

Whether or not this generalization holds much truth is still a matter ofdebate, but in Aitutaki the answer is painfully obvious.

Perhaps the wisest response we have to First Contact comes from the log ofJames Cook. Upon encountering the indigenous inhabitants of Australia for thefirst time, he recounted that they shouted at the English sailors anincomprehensible phrase. At the time no one in the explorers’ party understoodthe meaning of the words.  Later theywere found to impart a simple message: “Go away!”

Thanks for reading and for all your comments on our blog! 
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Our Honeymoon in the Cook Islands
December 20-January 4

After our direct flight from Los Angeles to Roratonga, Cook Islands, we met Diana and Kit from The Backpackers Handbook who are Aitutaki veterans. Following their recommendations, we spent an amazing day on the gorgeous lagoon with Teking Tours. The tour is the BEST thing on the island. We loved it so much we went AGAIN with Kirsten and Stuart from New Zeland and there were 3 other couples out with Teking again. He varies the tour if you have already done it once so you snorkel in 4 new locations. The views, the lunch, the entire day was amazing. After seven years working onboard for Princess Cruises, it takes a lot to impress me on a snorkel and lagoon tour. This is one of the best in all the seven seas!
Another highlight was the village dancing and “telethon” for the holidays, one village dances in all the other villages to raise money for town repairs. More Cook Islanders live in New Zealand than on the islands and they all come home for the holidays.
This dream destination was a perfect honeymoon. We took in New Year’s Eve at Sails Beach Club at Muri Beach complete with Fireworks over the water! Happy New Year! We hope all your dreams come true.

We enjoyed meeting Kirsten and Stuart and his great idea to always bring Kirsten flowers!

To see all the adventures from our trip, click the link for our photobook:

Enjoy our photos! Lisa and George