Ann Rickard continues her two-part series on the Cook Islands.
SOMETIMES you are lost for words. Looking out to the sapphire waters of Aitutaki's lagoon in the Cook Islands is one of them.
How do you describe water so luminously blue it almost hurts the eyes? How can this much beauty be real? Is it the cloudless blue of the reflecting sky that makes this water so vivid? Or the contrast of the pure-blue water with the patches of clean white sand? Who can tell?
All we know - the 60 or so of us on board Titi-ai-Tonga with The Vaka Cruise company cruising three islands in this, surely the world's most beautiful lagoon - is that this is an experience like no other in our collective travels. The number of phones and cameras capturing pictures tell the story - palms bending gracefully towards soft sand, water so azure and inviting and dazzling you simply can't believe its authenticity. Yet there you are, stepping off Titi-ai-Tonga's prow into that irresistible water to float, swim, snorkel, to look down into its intensity and marvel.
You want to call this place paradise even though you know that word is carelessly over-used. But these tiny unspoilt islands in the South Pacific really are paradise - pure, without a hint of tourism's razzle, islands out of fantasies, islands to dream of being a castaway, to make you yearn for romance.
Aitutaki's lagoon is simply mind-bendingly gorgeous. Our six-hour cruise has taken us to three islands including the famous One Foot Island, with each stop outdoing the one before for intense beauty and engulfing radiance, each offering snorkelling among large trevally and tiny technicolour fish.
The cheerful crew grilled tuna on a barbecue to serve with bounteous salads while we played in the water, and then presented it generously with New Zealand wines from a cash bar. Then, when it was reluctantly time to sail back to shore and reality, they entertained with music and song and a bit of sarong-tying technique (they made it fun).
Aitutaki, just a 45-minute flight from Rarotonga in the South Pacific, is tiny with a population of just 1500. Laid-back is too casual a word to describe its pace.
No one hurries here, they know what they have, and value it. When they are not at church singing (does everyone in the Cook Islands have a melodic voice?) or celebrating any occasion with family and friends over feasts, they are in that glorious water.
At Tamanu Beach Resort with its swinging hammocks on bungalow verandas and fresh petals on the bed, we breakfasted on tropical fruits at its feet-in-the-sand restaurant before our cruise. Then, after such a thrilling experience in the lagoon, we became acquainted with the cultural side of Aitutaki at the Punarei Cultural Centre the following day.
On a grassy hill in a replica village built to the original design of a traditional island village, we drank straight from coconuts and plaited our own plates from pandanus leaves for a lunch cooked in an umu, (earth oven) beneath the ground.
Into the earth over hot coals and banana leaves went chicken, pumpkin, bananas and local fish. While it cooked, we visited one of the 12 sacred sites on the island, sites that comprise simple stone structures which appear ordinary to the tourist's eye but have great significance to the keepers' of Cook Island tradition.
A few days on Aitutaki is not nearly enough, but it had to do us. But if you have more time, this is the place to linger, to renew all that may be jaded in you.
The writer was a guest of Cook Islands Tourism. More information and full details of everything happening in the Cook Islands at sale.cookislands.travel.