Paradise awaits at Aitutaki in the Cook Islands

Time is a concept that’s as remote as the chilled-out paradise at the luxury retreat of Aitutaki in the Cook Islands, where the palm trees sway, the beaches are sandy and the water turquoise.

Reading under palm trees laying in a hammock at the beach
  • Justine Costigan
  • August 2018

“Always check for brown coconuts before you park your car,” warns Misepa Isamaela, my guide for the morning as we take a leisurely drive around the pretty villages that dot Aitutaki, the South Pacific island ringed by a reef that’s even more stunning than the postcards would have you believe. Brown (old) coconuts are likely to drop suddenly and a dinged rental car and travel insurance claim is a quick way to holiday stress. And that’s not what the Cook Islands are about, judging by the blissed-out tourists snorkelling in the lagoon or drinking tropical cocktails at beachside bars as the sun goes down.

Turns out coconuts are a popular theme in the Cook Islands. Growing wild across the islands and prettily lining the roads and beaches, their leaves and husks are used in myriad practical ways, from traditionally woven dinner plates to roof thatching and even the rope that helps the locals jump up the trees to harvest the fruit.

Cook Islander man holds desiccated coconut fruit.Coconut is a complete food as it's rich in vitamins, minerals and calories.
Coconuts are very much part of daily life in the Cook Islands.

Every part of the coconut is put to good use on the 15 islands that make up this South Pacific nation. As well as eating the flesh and drinking the juice, coconuts are cooked up for oil. It’s no wonder the plant is often referred to as ‘the tree of life’.

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The Cook Islands is the definiton of paradise

Rapota Motu Viewed surrounding with beautiful sea and blue sky from Moturakau in Aitutaki Lagoon, Cook Islands
Rapota is one of 22 islands in the Aitutaki atoll.

Locals make oil for their own use but also to sell in the markets and shops. Misepa tells me it’s common to use rich and nurturing homemade coconut oil on your skin and hair, and mothers use it to massage their babies. Making oil is a slow process, so few locals sell it commercially, but at the Aitutaki market I spy small brown bottles with handmade labels for sale, made by local women. On Rarotonga, the Cook Islands’ capital, local oils feature in the shopping centre and island perfumery. But it’s not just coconut oil that’s an ingredient in these beauty products. Commercial producers of local oils also include extracts from Cook Island plants known for their healing qualities. Australian company CIMTECH is now producing a bioactive oil using Cook Islands plants that is used and for sale in many island spas and local boutiques.

Paradise island. Fine white sand, casuarina, palm tree and turquoise water.
The concept of time disappears on Aitutaki.

It’s this locally sourced Te Tika oil that Erena, my therapist at the Pacific Resort Aitutaki’s Tiare Spa, is using for my healing massage, a 50-minute treatment designed to ease every last bit of city tension from my body. After a chilled lemongrass tea – made from the property’s own plants – Erena talks me through the treatment, checking for any sensitivities and areas that need extra attention. Set high up on the side of the hill overlooking the resort’s lush tropical garden, the spa is built with a nod to traditional island architecture and includes a shady verandah for post-treatment relaxation. It’s the perfect secluded spot for a bit of me-time.

Tropical food served outdoor Aitutaki Lagoon Cook Islands
Mouth-watering tropical fruit awaits your arrival on Aitutaki.

Only a few hours after landing, any post-flight stiffness and tiredness is gone thanks to Erena’s firm, sweeping strokes and perfectly calibrated pressure. The oil leaves my skin feeling soft and supple. Apart from a very subtle herbal aroma, there’s no overwhelming fragrance or greasy residue. As a fast-track to holiday feel-good vibes, it’s an excellent start.

Island time is the name that locals give to the relaxed approach to timetables and deadlines in this chilled-out paradise. But it’s also a state of mind. By the time I’ve slowly eased myself away from the massage table, donned a robe and settled myself by the pool with a chilled coconut for refreshment, time is a concept that’s as remote as my location in the middle of the Pacific.

*Justine Costigan was a guest of Cook Islands Tourism