Once you’re in a South Pacific Island paradise, it is easy to assume that every island has the same Polynesian culture. Right? Well, that’s incorrect.
In particular, the Aitutaki culture of Cook Islands includes some very unique customs I’ve never seen anywhere else in the world.
The people of Aitutaki have distinctive ways and customs. Here is a bit of the unique Aitutaki culture that I observed and learned about while staying in this beautiful lagoon island.
Hope this list will help prepare you for your Cook Islands visit if you head to Aitutaki.
Christianity is the center of the Aitutaki culture
As soon as you step onto this island nation, you’ll discover right away that Cook Islands is a very religious nation.
Even more than Rarotonga, Aitutaki’s religious culture feels even more rooted in Christian beliefs. Aitutaki was the first island to accept Christianity in the Cook Islands, and they are proud of this significant history.
Sunday is definitely a day for rest, and residents are expected to attend one of the several churches throughout the island. While most establishments are closed on Sundays, the few stores that are open are not permitted to sell alcohol that day.
Don’t be surprised if any of the activities you participate in, including regular tourist activities, start with a prayer and a blessing.
It is often led by the tour operators or tourist leader themselves.
If you are not a believer, no problem. Just respect the culture here and observe in silence. This happened during my Tamanu Beach Aitutaki Island buffet night and right before the Vaka Lagoon Cruise.
No flights on Sunday in Aitutaki
Recently, Air Rarotonga, the only airline that serves Aitutaki, resumed its daily flights to Aitutaki airport. They also include Sunday flights, and this has become a topic that clashes with Aitutaki culture.
Residents responded with a huge objection. They organized a large campaign against Sunday flights to Aitutaki.
If you fly to Aitutaki on Sunday, you’ll be greeted by protesters who welcome Sunday flight visitors with sit downs and huge banners.
You can even see the handmade signs posted in residents’ front yards.
As of May, 2018, the campaign continues.
Everybody knows each other here
As in many small towns and islands around the world, Aitutakians live in a very tight-knit society. Everybody knows everyone on the island, and this is an important part of the Aitutaki culture.
While staying in my Airbnb, the neighbors next door got to know me. And in my absence, kept a close eye on my house and belongings.
To arrange a pick up for my lagoon cruise with Vaka Cruise, I only had to tell the company my hosts’ names – they knew exactly where to find me.
Is it safe in Aitutaki?
Not surprising in this kind of closely-knit community, Aitutaki is a very safe place. In general, locking anything away never crosses anyone’s mind.
Cars and homes are never locked.
People leave their keys in place when they leave scooters on the side of the road. Crime is exceedingly low here. Locals told me that there are only three police officers on the whole island.
Neither of them has much to do.
Everywhere you go and look on the Aitutaki, you will find chickens roaming around freely.
Chickens almost outnumber the population. Restaurants and other establishments often post signs telling tourists not to feed the chickens.
This is an effort to discourage chickens from hanging out around your dining table, as well as from being aggressive towards you and your food.
If you drive around Aitutaki, watch out for the proverbial chickens crossing the road. And, on some occasions, roaming pigs, goats, and even giant wild crabs.
As for true wildlife in Aitutaki, bugs are plentiful. Thanks to the European settlers who brought mosquitoes here (or so I am told), the Cook Islands now have a serious mosquito problem.
Restaurants with outdoor seating, as well as your hotel and Airbnb hosts, often provide bug repellant to protect guests from mosquitos.
At night, beware the “whiskey bugs” – small nocturnal brown bugs. While they are generally harmless, their bodies consist of an acid-like fluid that can leave you with a nasty burn on your skin, if exposed.
You need to wear a helmet or googles if you drive your motorcycle at night or at dusk to avoid them getting to your eyes.
Trust me. It happened to me.
Pets in Aitutaki
Next, let’s talk about domesticated pets of Aitutaki – specifically, cats and dogs.
Sad news for dog lovers – no dogs allowed here! Aitutaki has banned dogs for many years and there haven’t been any dogs on the island since the early 1900s.
However, there are plenty of domesticated outdoor cats that roam the neighborhoods. Amazingly, the majority of Aitutaki cats have distinctive striped fur markings that I’ve never seen before.
My Airbnb had three cats who always tried to get all up into my personal space!
Driving etiquette in Aitutaki culture
As soon as I stepped into my host’s car at Aitutaki Airport, I donned my seat belt. It’s a habit with me and I just do it automatically.
Manea, my host, looked at me and laughed – “No,” she said, “We don’t need to do that here.”
You don’t need to wear seatbelt while driving in a car. You don’t even need to wear a helmet while riding a motorcycle (though you still should!)
While there are no traffic lights in Aitutaki, and for that matter in the entire Cook Islands, it is very rare to to see accidents here.
A very normal part of Aitutaki culture while driving is to wave or nod to anybody who passes you. They will do that to you, and you are expected to do the same.
If you plan on getting a Cook Islands drivers license, you may notice that you can get it cheaper in Aitutaki. Just go to the main government building in the town center.
It’s behind the post office and the banks and police station.
Need gas/petrol in Aitutaki? There’s no self-service here. An employee will do it for you. There are four gas stations on the island.
Shoes off at the front door
One of the most important parts of Aitutaki culture is to never bring your footwear inside the house. Of course, this is a part of a lot of cultures around the world.
But it’s worth mentioning to many people in the west who simply wear their shoes everywhere – even in the house.
The only people who wear so-called “proper” shoes here are tourists. Aitutakians simply wear flip flops. But whether you’re wearing regular shoes or flip-flops, they come off before you enter the door and they stay outside.
Cemeteries and graves
As far as I understand, there is no public cemetery in Aitutaki. You will find graves and stones along residential streets, as Aitutakians lay their departed ones in their own family homes’ front yards.
Again, this was something I was told there. If you know differently, please let us know in the comments!
Americas connection to Aitutaki culture
The South Pacific Islands witnessed some of fiercest battles during the second world war. American troops built several bases throughout the region, and Aitutaki was one of the most important.
It was such an important place that even the First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt visited Aitutaki and stayed for several weeks.
US Troops and Aitutakians remain great friends long after the second world war.
The Village of Vaipae is nicknamed “Hollywood” for a reason. After the war ended, U.S. troops would return to Aitutaki in the 50s and 60s to bring supplies and new Hollywood movies.
They set up a huge screen and projector and played movies on the Vaipae soccer field for all to enjoy.
Aitutaki Lagoon Cruise
The most popular thing for tourists to do in Aitutaki is the famous Lagoon Cruise. I highly recommend the Vaka Cruise, a group of professionals who’ll take you to some of the most beautiful islands in the world.
While enjoying the beautiful scenery and glowing turquoise water, they’ll entertain you with traditional Cook Islands songs, entertainment, and stories.
You’ll learn and appreciate more about Aitutaki culture after this cruise.
Even better, you will be able to taste some traditional Cook Islands food, along with barbecue dishes that will be familiar to you.
On the Vaka Cruise, you will snorkel in one of the most beautiful lagoons in the world. Here, you will be able to see endemic giant clams and giant trevallies.
One thing to point out: the salt concentration in Aitutaki Lagoon is quite high, so you’ll be a lot more buoyant than you would be in regular salt water!
Don’t forget to bring your passport in order to receive your novelty One Foot Island passport stamp at the post office or on the boat.
Whatever your reason for coming to Aitutaki, knowing a bit about the culture will help you enjoy the trip even more and understand the people who live here.
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Our Aititaki Lagoon cruise vlog
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Halef moved from Indonesia to the US nearly two decades ago to go to college here. He hasn’t looked back. He’s been to over forty countries and doesn’t plan on stopping anytime soon. He’s a Landscape Architect in Atlanta, GA.