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Cook Islands - Off the beaten track


School children in traditional costume on Rarotonga island

Atiu

Άtiu may be the best kept secret in the Cooks, with its beautiful scenery, excellent beaches and few other visitors. The island itself is a geological curiosity: surrounded by ring of raised fossilised coral a kilometre wide - a feature known as a makatea - it has a flat-topped, 70m (230ft) hill. As a result, the island resembles a very low-brimmed hat with a flat outer rim.

Aside from Taunganui Harbour, where the water's deep and clear, there isn't much in the way of swimming, though Atiu's beautiful beaches are great for strolling and sunning. Many beaches are a short walk from the coastal road, though you'll have to push through the bush to get to some of them. Oravaru Beach, on the western coast, is thought to be Captain Cook's landing spot. Between Tarapaku Landing and Oneroa Beach on the northeastern coast are the Three Grottoes, which can only be visited when the sea is calm on the eastern side of the island. Oneroa itself is a great spot for finding seashells - or finding old shoes, which seem to wash up in large numbers. At low tide, the lagoon between Takauroa Beach and Matai Landing drains out through sinkholes, which are then good for snorkeling. You can also walk out from the beach along the reef at low tide to the Coral Garden, which is filled with trapped tropical fish.

The steep road between Tarapaku Landing and Tengatangi Village passes through plantations, taro fields, pawpaw trees, makatea, littoral forest and a long wall called the Vairakai Marae, constructed from 47 large limestone slabs. When you reach the top, you can make the circuit of the island's five villages, all within a kilometre of each other. A highlight of Άtiu's village life is the Fibre Arts Studio, located in Teenui in the north-west. The studio specialises in tivaevae, the colourful patterned bedspreads that are among the most famous handicrafts of the Cook Islands. You can custom order a quilt or buy one of the many other hangings, handbags and other accessories available.

Toward the southeastern corner of the village circuit is the Άtiu Island Coffee Factory, where you can watch the coffee beans being hulled, roasted and packed. You can also tour the coffee plantation and sample some island brew. Back down on the makatea there are dozens of caves, many of which can be explored. You may want to take a guided tour, though, as it's easy to get lost.

There are several daily flights between Άtiu and Rarotonga, and inter-island passenger freighters sail regularly to Άtiu.

Suwarrow

The atoll of Suwarrow is one of the best known in the Cook Islands due to a prolonged visit by one man: New Zealand author and recluse Tom Neale. His six years as a hermit on Suwarrow yielded the South Seas classic, An Island to Oneself. Neale's room is still furnished just as it was when he lived there. Visiting yachties record their stay in the logbook in Neale's room. Pearl divers from Manihiki also visit occasionally.

Suwarrow is especially popular among yachties because it's one of the few atolls in the northern Cooks with an accessible lagoon. Although the lagoon is large, the islands of Suwarrow are very small and low-lying. Hurricanes have sent waves sweeping right across even the highest of the islands and in 1942 author Robert Dean Frisbie and his group survived by tying themselves to trees.

Today the island is populated only be a caretaker and his family. The only way to get there is on the extremely infrequent shipping services, or by private yacht.



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