Aitutaki & LAX’s New Service

Kia orana! We left off last week from the South Pacific island of Rarotonga in the Cook Islands. This week, we visit neighboring Aitutaki, which many compare to Bora Bora … minus the French. If you’re looking for a tropical island setting for a family adventure or a romantic escape that’s cheaper than Tahiti, but with the same incredible views and a ton of sea life (though not much human life) and all the comforts of home (Internet, TV, five-star hotel), then listen up. Aitutaki is for you!

AITUTAKI
The name Aitutaki comes from the words God (Aitu) and Led (Taki). Led by the gods. Aitutaki is just three to four miles long and one mile wide with a population of 1,400 people (about the size of my high school). The total land mass is just 18.5 square kilometers (7.1 square miles) and the island is almost completely surrounded by a large, shallow lagoon — the deepest part is 10.5 meters (34 feet).

AIR RAROTONGA
To get to Aitutaki requires a 40-minute (230-kilometer) flight on Air Rarotonga. After my harrowing inter-island flight in Fiji a few years ago, I’m always nervous about getting on small, interisland planes. However, when I showed up at Rarotonga’s domestic terminal, I was relieved to learn the plane wasn’t that small – they use 34-passenger Saab 340 regional turbo-props with two pilots and one friendly, pretty flight attendant. The interior of the plane needed some fixing – the seat in front of me was broken but the flight was smooth as can be. Air Rarotonga flies this route four to six times per day and flights cost around $200 each way. FYI: There’s no security for domestic flights since terrorism is not a threat here, which just adds to the relaxed atmosphere.

AITUTAKI AIRPORT
I was expecting to be landing on a tiny airstrip or even a grass field but that couldn’t have been any further from the truth. Aitutaki’s runways are gigantic and that’s because the American and New Zealand armies built it during WWII. Apart from the long runway, the Aitutaki Airport (AIT) might be my new favorite. It’s so remote and quaint with it’s open-air terminal the size of a house and they welcome visitors with fresh leis and live music. On top of that, the ride to your hotel isn’t going to take longer than 10 minutes. Ours took just seven.

DID YOU KNOW? 
There are no dogs on the island and they aren’t allowed to be brought in. There are a couple of rumors or legends as to why. One legend: dogs were thought to carry leprosy. The other story is that a dog mauled the child of a high chief and he banned them. The one good thing is you don’t have to worry about any dogs darting into the road while you drive unlike in Rarotonga.

PACIFIC RESORT AITUTAKI
I stayed at the island’s nicest hotel, the Pacific Resort Aitutaki. One of the front desks receptionists picked our small posse up at the airport and made the transfer seem seamless. The resort is a member of Small Luxury Hotels of the World and it has just 27 beachfront bungalows, suites and villas – all complete with stunning ocean views. The hotel has won a number of awards and their latest honor is making TripAdvisor’s 2009 Traveler’s Choice Awards list for ‘Best Luxury Hotel in the World’.

PATH TO ROOM
As expected, the property is amazing and the service was, for the most part, fantastic. It was a bit of a walk to my room and I was concerned about what it would be like in the dark. At first glance, it reminded me of the Coconut Beach Resort in the Daintree Rainforest (Australia). That walk to my room at night would freak me out since it wasn’t well lit and there was lots of low-lying vegetation and all manner of poisonous creatures lurking. This place turned out to be the opposite! The path was well groomed and lit and the only poisonous creature I needed to worry about was the stonefish (just wear reef shoes while swimming and you’ll be okay!)

MY ROOM
My beachfront bungalow, which wasn’t even the highest category of room, was stunning. It was 667 square feet, with a comfortable king size bedclean bathroom stocked withBulgari products and outrageously strong water pressure, apatio, an outdoor shower, screens on the door, air conditioning, a TV with four channels (two were CNN) and get this … wireless Internet (cost: NZ$50 for 100 MB usage). It was pretty slow but at least they have it. The rooms also come with bottled water since tap water is not safe to drink on this island; it’s safe on Rarotonga. There were some bugs in the room but nothing scary — mostly little ants going after the flowers and leftover food. Like a fool, I forgot I had two Cadbury Mini Eggs (my favorite) that I missed from a chocolate binge and when I went to grab my phone charger, my hand was covered in tiny ants.

BEACH
The first thing I did when I got in my room was drop my bags, grab the snorkel gear out of the closet and don my bathing suitand reef shoes (provided by the hotel). The water looked so amazing, I just couldn’t wait. Unfortunately, the water out back is really shallow — too shallow for adults because it’s hard to stand up without touching the ground with your hand. And you don’t want to do that, just in case there are any stonefish, though I didn’t see any nor did anyone else. The water was a bit cloudy (there had just been a storm) but there were tons of harmless banana slugs and a few colorful fish. The resort does have a good swimming area – it just wasn’t near my room – they also have a beautiful poolNote: The mosquitoes (mozzies) are fairly ferocious at dusk so bring bug repellant.

DINING
Children are welcome at the resort and I did see one family but the few guests I saw or met were on a romantic holiday. There were lots of honeymooners. One of the best aspects of the resort is the food. It begins with the setting. Most meals are in the Rapae Bay Restaurant (but there are other places including a special set-up on the beach) but the view from Rapae Bay is insane! I couldn’t hold a conversation because all I could do wasstare out in amazement at the lagoon, thinking – holy cow! Seeing the palm tree shadows in the crystal blue water was truly unforgettable.

BREAKFAST
The restaurant opens at 7am and I only know this because it was so good I just couldn’t wait to get there. For starters, I had orange mango juice (many kinds available). They had all kinds of entrée choices but I fed my Buddha belly with coconut pancakesaccompanied by cooked bananas and baked beans as my choice of a side order. Yeah baby! I love baked beans. I also had fresh tropical fruit and homemade breads. The only thing you need to be warned about is that the waitress and chef are slow. So if you’re in a hurry, order well in advance. They don’t seem to grasp the concept of eating and running to make a flight or scheduled tour.

ISLAND BUFFET
Just before the resort’s Pacific Night Island Buffet and Dance Show, it poured … and I mean poured. The storm came out of nowhere but it only lasted 10 minutes and then the skies cleared and the stars at night were simply amazing. It was as if I could reach up and touch them. The dinner buffet was tasty. The first portion had fresh fish, sashimi, oysters, sushi followed by vegetarian dishes of pasta salad, veggies, and really good localspinach cooked in onions and coconut cream. Next up was meat – chicken, beef, lamb and pork. Dessert was delivered to the tables and was a sampler: chocolate cake, cheesecake, fruit (kiwis and star fruit) with berry compote on the side. The show wasentertaining but nothing to really write home about. Pacific Resort Aitutaki, Amuri, Aitutaki, Cook Islands; Telephone: +682 31720.

AITUTAKI LAGOON RESORT
I also went to another island buffet, this time at the Aitutaki Lagoon Resort & Spa (their sister property was the Rarotongan, which I wrote about last week). It was about a 10-minute drive from Pacific Resort. And since it’s on an island, it requires a two-minute boat ride across the lagoon. There’s no waiting because the hotel staff know you’re coming: you’re either a guest or have pre-arranged for a day pass to access their beautiful beaches and equipment like snorkeling gear, kayaks, outrigger canoes, windsurfers and bicycles. The resort offers guests anunforgettable greeting and setting with a ton of open space and countless palm treesOne of the lodging options are overwater bungalows, which makes this place the only hotel in the Cook Islands to offer them. They are nice but not as glamorous as French Polynesia’s (there are no glass floors). The sunset was spectacular and their island show (Thursday night) was fun but abit too long.

AITUTAKI LAGOON RESORT NIGHT
For dinner, we ate at the Bounty Restaurant, which overlooks Bligh’s Beach and is named in honor of the HMS Bounty. That ship carried the first Europeans to Aitutaki just 17 days before the infamous mutiny. Dinner began with bruschetta, which should be illegal to make in the South Pacific; it just doesn’t belong here and they don’t make it properly. I had the beef, which is flown in from New Zealand and that plus the fresh fruit dessert made the meal fantastic. On the way back to our resort, I just couldn’t get over the sky. The stars were so bright they looked fake and the Milky Way looked like a cloud. What’s crazy is the sky was so bright that I saw a guy lying on the side of the road about three feet in, in the high grass. I didn’t know if he was dead or what. It turned out to be a drunk local who our driver knew. He said he was too tired to make it all the way home so we gave him a ride and he was really friendly. When we got out to help him, I noticed the island has huge land crabs the size of small Frisbees.

RENTING A SCOOTER OR CAR
There’s not a lot to do on Aitutaki; basically just relax and snorkel. You can rent a car, scooter or bicycle to drive around and explore the island and supposedly getting a license here is much cheaper and easier than on Rarotonga (no driving test required). And the license is good throughout the Cook Islands.FYI: Taxis are expensive on Aitutaki and rates are based on how far you go.

LAGOON TOUR
The best activity to do is to arrange for lagoon day tour. We were supposed to go aboard the Titi-Ai-Tonga-Vaka boat but my guide arranged for another smaller one because he heard the Titi-Ai-Tonga-Vaka was out of petrol. That indeed was the case the day before but the monthly gas supply (along with frozen food, beer …) had come in from New Zealand so it was up and running. It actually worked out better because this way, we got to experience both boats. The larger boat was more comfortable and it had a toilet but I liked the smaller boat better. Maybe because I just got to know our crew better, which was very cool: self proclaimed “Captain Awesome” and “Captain Cook” (the chef) and since it was so small we got to meet everyone. The other passengers were from Denmark, England, Sweden and Chile.

AKAIAMI
The ride to the first motu took about 45 minutes and it was calm and the colors were outrageous. The water didn’t splash over the sides at all and the plastic chairs were set up in a 2×2 configuration but guests can move them anywhere they want. We didn’t see any other boats out there but the Titi-Ai-Tonga-Vaka so it was like we had the ocean to ourselves. Our first stop was Akaiami which was made popular in the 1950s when it was used as a refueling stop for Tasman Empire Air Lines (TEAL), when they flew the Coral Route (Auckland, Fiji, Samoa, Cook Islands and Tonga). The only remains are the remnants of the concrete jetty. These days there’s one simple, rustic lodging on this island and it was used for the contestants voted out of the Cook Island’sSurvivor. They were sequestered in these cabins (free of charge!) for 39 days until filming wrapped. And you thought I had a tough job?

RAPOTA TO SNORKEL
The other islands we visited were Rakau, Rapota and Tapuaetai (One-Foot Island). One of them was renamed Shark Island for the popular British show Shipwreck. Most of these islands are volcanic filled mahogany trees. Basically, our day went like this: Captain Awesome dropped us off at a motu for 20 minutes or so, so we could exploreswim and chill while he dropped Captain Cook off to prepare lunch on One Foot Island. We then went to Rapota to snorkel. The Titi-Ai-Tonga-Vaka boat was anchored there as well and the big attraction, besides the coralcolorful fish, were the giant clams. The water is so warm in the Cook Islands that there was no need for a wet suit; it had to be 83 degrees or higher! In fact, the Danish guy actually thought it was too warm but I thought it was perfect. When one of the girls in our group complained that the water was stinging her eyes, I thought she was a nutcase but sure enough, it did for the first few seconds – it must have high salt content. The water wasn’t deep in most spots so you could stand on the soft sand (not on the reef) and there were no worries of stonefish here.

ONE FOOT ISLAND
For lunch, we went to Tapuaetai, otherwise known as One-Foot Island. Captain Cook had an elaborate and tasty lunch all set up. We had sliced fresh fruit like coconut, star fruit (it’s so sweet here), papaya and guava. Potato salad, coleslaw, donuts, bread and fresh tuna on the grill, which he called Kentucky Fried Tuna. They have a bar in which they sell drinks (they don’t offer drinks on the boat either so bring water): beer $5, water $4, soda $3 and a post office with Aitutaki stamps (NZ $0.90) hats and postcards. They even offer to not only stamp your postcards with a huge barefoot stamp but your passport. I passed as I’m pretty sure it’s illegal for an island (not a nation) to stamp your passport. Isn’t it? After lunch, we walked around the island (took about 45 minutes) and then went for a swim before heading back.

TITI-AI-TONGA-VAKA
On the way back, we took the Titi-Ai-Tonga-Vaka so we could try it out. The captain had his crew play music and games including one that taught people how to tie sarongs properly (supposedly there are over 400 ways). We left the island at 3pm and got back in the car at 4:18pm so we were a good ways out but what a way to spend a beautiful day in Aitutaki!

AITUTAKI TO RAROTONGA
The flight back to Rarotonga left 10 minutes early and again was smooth and not crowded (that’s because we took the morning flight). What’s interesting is the resort had a special waiting area in the airport. In Rarotonga, there are no signs to pick up checked luggage and no visible carousel at the domestic terminal so I just followed one of the other passengers, hoping they had checked a bag. It turns out they bring the bags around onto the street in a cart in the front of the airport. What a trip! Later that night, I flew home to the States aboard Air New Zealand. This time I didn’t get upgraded (space available upgrades cost $600 USD). The line to check in at the Business/Premier line took 25 minutes. Prior to checking in, passengers need to pay the departure tax: adults NZ$55, children 3-12 years NZ $15.

RAROTONGA AIRPORT
The agent at the security check busted me for my over-the-limit bottles of OFF and sunscreen, which was surprising because they never catch me at home. The agent said, “Your country made the rules!” It was actually England; I was in the airport the day it happened. For international flights, they have the same tedious rules as we do: shoes off, computer out and belt off. There are a few little stores in which to buy knickknacks and snacks. I bought water for $2.

FLIGHT HOME
The Air New Zealand flight crew were as friendly as they were on the way down and the food was just as good, even in coach. I had chicken lasagna for dinner and pancakes with Manuka honey for breakfast. They offered the same entertainment system, just on a smaller TV and I watched an unedited copy ofThe Wrestler. I didn’t realize there would be some risqué scenes in there and when Marisa Tomei was stark naked, the guy next to me looked at me like I was watching porn. I kept trying to cover my screen up with a pillow. Flight time was a quick 8 hours and 25 minutes and we landed an hour early. How do you like that? Air New Zealand is offering a deal right now for roundtrip tickets from Los Angeles to the Cook Islands for $978(USD) roundtrip. Tickets must be purchased by July 15, 2009 for travel commencing August 16 to September 27, 2009. To book, please visit AirNewZealand.com.

VIDEO
Here’s a four-minute Johnny Jet video of my trip to Aitutaki. We also have all the Johnny Jet videos ever made on YouTube.

NEXT WEEK
? Stay Tuned!

LAX NEW SERVICE
I’m back in L.A. and a few major announcements took place this week at my home airport of Los Angeles International (LAX) that might be of interest to you. First, Continental just announced they’re launching weekly nonstop service to Havana, Cuba. Unfortunately, at this time, only Cuban-Americans (100,000 live in California) can travel there as well as government officials, journalists, researchers and other groups.

VOLARIS
Another new service comes from Mexico’s leading low-fare air carrier Volaris, which began its first international route with service from LAX to Toluca (outside Mexico City) and Guadalajara. They will also soon be flying those routes from Oakland and to Tijuana, all on a modern fleet (average aircraft age is 2.5 years) of Airbus A320s. At Tuesday’s press conference, they stated that beginning next year, Southwest Airlines will be in a code share agreement. What may matter to you, besides their low introductory rates, is that they’re offering an on-time guarantee like nothing I’ve ever seen before. According to the CEO, Enrique Beltranena, if the plane arrives 30 minutes late, they’ll refund the amount you paid for the flight — even if it’s due to a weather delay. I will believe it when I see it but I bet they’ll be padding those flight times!

NEW SERVICE TO AUSTRALIA
The last bit of news is that Northwest has finally shifted all of their departures and arrivals from Terminal 2 to 5 (my cousin Willem was on their second to last flight out of T2). Also, Delta is launching nonstop service to Sydney today, making the fares even cheaper to Australia. So now, travelers have four choices of nonstop service: Qantas, United, Delta and V Australia. Round-trip tickets can be had for as low as $710 R/T including taxes and fees. I just flew V Australia this week and their plane and service were simply amazing (more later). Good on ya, mates!

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