From the air, all you see is a massive, seemingly uninterrupted stretch of the South Pacific Ocean. Staring intently out the window, I'm trying to spot land in this vast blue sea, when, just a few thousand meters from the ground, a smattering of the Cook Islands finally becomes visible.
The largest among them is Rarotonga, its rugged mountains thickly forested with palm trees and tropical foliage. Disembark on the island and that thick, sticky humidity inseparable from the tropics hits you like a wall, announcing undeniably that you've arrived.
As the international gateway to the Cook Islands, Rarotonga is the buzzing metropolis of the Cooks, which only means that this volcanic island has a slightly better infrastructure and more restaurants, hotels and stores than its sister isles scattered to the north and south.
At first glance, you think you're in paradise. Beaches with Netanya-like sand are fringed with palm trees, and the water is pleasantly warm and completely opaque. Brightly colored fish dart between your legs and the water near the reef is that magnificent turquoise that tempts you from tourist brochures and looks too good to be true.
But paradise means different things to different people.
To me, it spells roads less traveled, which is why, soon after arriving in Rarotonga, I boarded another plane, this time headed for the island of Atiu. I'd heard of its burial caves and bat-like birds, and enticed by this mystery, I swallowed my fear of small planes and braced myself for adventure.
Still, it was impossible to prepare myself for the toothy grimace of the cave guardian, a long-dead Pacific Islander whose remains are placed neatly at the entrance to the burial caves, which carry the name Rimarau. With its limbs laid neatly beside it, the sight of that first skull took me by surprise. It just seemed too Indiana Jones-like to belong in 2006.
As recently as 200 years ago, the Atiuans were extremely cannibalistic. Highly aggressive warriors, they were known to journey to neighboring isles like Mauke and kill off the entire population. Sometimes, perceived enemies were cooked in the umu, a traditional underground oven, and feasted on for the next meal. It wasn't until 1823 that British missionaries ventured cautiously to Atiu. Within a year, they'd persuaded the island's warriors to abandon their cannibalistic ways and become the devout Christians they remain to this day.
THE DAY I arrived, we hiked to Rimarau through the thick tropical foliage that grows with such abandon on Atiu's volcanic soil, the air around us heavy with the scent of wild fruit trees. Hunger is no problem out here, where guavas and breadfruit grow vociferously and coconuts litter the forest floor.
A massive banyan tree marked the entrance to the cave, its tendrils stretching from the uppermost branches some 40 feet high into the ground. At first, it looked like any other banyan. But as we neared it, we noticed the darkness of a crevice that extended from its trunk deep into the earth.
It seems an appropriate place for Rimarau, where about 50 skeletons sit in the darkness, some with ax-shaped holes in their skulls suggesting that their final moments of life were anything but pleasant. Occasionally, there's light in the caves, when Marshall Humphreys, a British immigrant to Atiu, guides flashlight-bearing visitors through them.
Rimarau means burial place of 500, but Humphreys is skeptical. In his three years of guiding tours in this cave, he's never counted more than 50 skeletons. Then again, the temptation of venturing into the narrow, black depths of this cave are minimal. Once inside, your voice is reduced to a whisper that acknowledges the sacredness of this site and the history it contains. No one knows exactly how old its skeletal remains are. They could have sat for just 200 years. But they could also have been there 2,000.
"Visit Atiu and you're going up in the world!" quips Roger Malcolm, our host at the Atiu Villas and a resident of the island for the past 26 years. A wealth of knowledge about the natural formation of the island, Malcolm explains how the rest of the Cook Islands are gradually sinking back into the sea. For some inexplicable reason, Atiu is the only one that seems to be rising. It started as a coral-covered mountain sitting on the ocean floor, that over thousands of years was gradually raised to the surface. Today that coral sits on the surface of the land, dating back 120,000 years, while new coral, only 8,700 years old, grows around the periphery of the island.
Hiking through the thick, tropical undergrowth that's still dripping from the last rainstorm, we spot the fossils of impeccably preserved giant clams and razor-sharp coral now covered with moss, lichen and ferns. This time we're en route to the Anatakitaki Caves, home to 400 swift-like Kopeka birds that are indigenous and unique to Atiu.
A bird with bat-like characteristics, the Kopeka flies readily in Atiuan skies, but lands only in the depths of the Anatakitaki Caves, which it navigates by sonar.
"They fly for up to 14 hours without landing once, until they return to this cave," says Humphreys.
We've turned off the torches and are standing inside the caves, listening intently for the sound of a Kopeka. Below us the rocks are slippery from the humidity, and small cockroaches scuttle around our feet. Our bodies are sweaty from exertion in the 32-degree heat, and weary from the effort of moving cautiously over the rocks in the dim light of a torch. But finally, we hear the sharp, clicking noise of one lonely bird as it finds its home in a crevice of the cave.
BACK IN TOWN, it's hard not to notice that the town center is almost entirely devoid of traffic and people. In part, that's because the overall island population has dropped from 1,500 in the early 1980s to less than 500 full-time residents today. Most glean what they need from the land, fishing off the rocky shores of Atiu for their protein. They raise pigs and grow taro, a potato-like vegetable, as well as guavas, bananas, avocado and other fruits.
Quiet though it is, Atiu is a paradisiacal home to some. Humphreys, for one, cannot forget how, when he moved to Atiu with his Cook Island-born wife in 1992, local chief Moetaua Boaza welcomed him with gifts of banana trees and kumara cuttings that would be the genesis of his farm. Today he makes a living guiding cave tours, offering home-stay accommodation and selling several varieties of sundried banana to stores in Rarotonga.
Malcolm, too, would wish to live nowhere but here.
"Who wants to be a public servant working in a head office in the capital city of New Zealand when there's the opportunity to live in the untouched natural splendor of Atiu island?" he asks.
It's a no-brainer, I'm thinking, as I fall asleep in one of his villas, which he built by hand using the timber grains of mango, pacific mahogany, coconut and many other local island trees. On Atiu, there's no sense of urgency to get things done, no relentless drive to accomplish and make money that motivates many of us in our respective cities around the world. Atiuan locals enjoy their lives, live off their land and focus on their relationships with family and friends and on helping one another survive.
And that, after all, is what life really should be all about.
If Atiu is about adventure, Aitutaki has everything to do with romance. The second largest of the Cook Islands with a population of 1,400, Aitutaki is a peaceful place, not noted for its busyness.
On an average weekday I walk along a white beach fringed with palm trees, fish swimming around my feet in the cool, clear water. The sand is empty but for the slow migration of a few hermit crabs, and the sky is a picture-perfect blue, punctuated only by the occasional appearance of white terns fluttering near the shore.
Anywhere else in the world, this beach would be crowded with hawkers, sunbathers and loud tourists. Only in Aitutaki could you find an island this pristine, and yet utterly deserted and as a result, deliciously private.
Every day feels like Sunday, there is no place to shop and even the few convenience stores that are open are low on supplies.
"Sorry, no bread today," reads a sign outside one. A scooter zooms past and we look up in interest, surprised at the sound of traffic.
IN AITUTAKI, serenity rules. In a place like this, you can lose yourselves in days that stretch lazily from dawn to dusk with no regard for work hours whatsoever.
A blessing to some and a curse to others, there's really not much to do on Aitutaki. We rented a scooter and spent a morning zooming along the country roads. Locals snooze on their patios, and passers-by raise a hand in greeting, a gesture considered completely normal on this island, where everyone knows everyone. The harbor area, which doubles as the town center, is empty as we sip our drinks, and though we're the only customers for miles, nobody seems to care.
One activity on Aitutaki that's become mandatory for all the 25,000 visitors who venture this way each year is the lagoon cruise, a day-long excursion that takes you from Aitutaki's shores to some of the other islands nearby. There's snorkeling around patches of coral we pass along the way, and a barbecued lunch served between island stops.
We pause at Moturakau, an island that once served as a leper colony, and take a walk around the circumference of this magnificent island, stepping carefully over the sharp rocks that border its coral fringe.
"I could stay here forever," I think to myself, "survive on coconut milk and fresh fish caught straight from the lagoon."
Truth is, I'm not the first person to entertain this thought. At some point, the directors of reality shows like Survivor and its British counterpart, Shipwrecked, had precisely the same idea. In December 2005, Shipwrecked was filmed here, leaving its temporary village site and a few shells collected by lonely survivors as the only evidence of its presence. In April 2006, the Survivor crew will follow suit, paying NZ$3 million for the privilege of taking over Aitutaki for three months of filming, and assuming occupancy of some of the idyllic deserted isles that dot the South Pacific nearby.
TELEVISION SHOWS like these are helping to place the Cook Islands more visibly on the world map. For now, though, they remain peaceful, serene and pleasantly rural. Come to Aitutaki today and you abandon yourself to the luxury of reading a good book in the shade. The average temperature is in the 30s, a humid warmth that slows you down and gives your skin a healthy, brown glow within hours of arrival.
When the heat gets too intense, you retreat indoors, in our case to the luxurious Pacific Resort, a distinctly Polynesian-style establishment that opened just three years ago. Each villa opens to a patio that's literally a step from the lagoon, which means you get to fall asleep to the soothing sound of water lapping against the shore.
We were grateful for a refreshing dip in the swimming pool at the end of each day, and for the Island Nights the hotel hosts each week, where visitors are treated to a sumptuous buffet and a compelling display of sensuous Cook Islands dances by a local dance troupe.
They say when in the Cook Islands, do as the islanders, so on Sunday morning we donned skirts and blouses and headed to church. Since we had no comprehension of the Maori language, the service was mostly inaccessible to us, but the singing we heard that day in church was not.
With soaring voices, sopranos and altos of all ages dressed in bright Polynesian-style garments sang their hymns with reverence, conviction and pleasure. The rain came down in torrents that morning, cooling the simmering asphalt and beating down on the church roof. But still, they sang, undeterred, thanking God for their families, their health and their peaceful, paradisiacal island, a small dot barely discernible on the world map.
The Cook Islands boasts a serenity that clears the mind of clutter, fosters a slow, relaxed quality of life and allows the luxury of focusing on what really matters in life. When you're on holiday, that's the essential ingredient.
If You Go:
* The Cook Islanders use New Zealand currency, however on Atiu, you will need cash for most purchases. For general information on the islands visit www.cook-islands.com
* For information or reservations at the Pacific Resort visit www.pacificresort.co.ck.
* Israeli travelers need to fly to London Heathrow before catching one of Air New Zealand's three weekly flights via Los Angeles and Tahiti to Rarotonga. Air Rarotonga (www.airraro.com) flies between Rarotonga and Atiu four times a week, with one way fares costing NZ$133.
* Atiu Villas offers comfortable accommodation with well-stocked refrigerators, mopeds for rent and an on-site restaurant featuring dinner exclusively by reservation. The villas range in price from NZ$110 to NZ$130. For an extra $8, proprietor Roger Malcolm will add airport transfers. For more information visit www.atiuvillas.com or call (682) 33777.
* Atiu Tours offers three excursions: an island tour, a visit to the Rimarau Burial Cave and an island tour. Prices range between NZ$15 and NZ$35 per tour. For more information e-mail Marshall@atiutours.co.ck or call (682) 33041.