Oneroa, Cook Islands

Photo: Mangaia Villas

No itinerary. That, along with a good book, is what you arrived with on Mangaia. You knew where you were flying. Air Rarotonga makes the 40-minute flight between Rarotonga and Mangaia three to four times each week. You knew where you were heading. Oneroa, the capital and the largest village, sits on the island’s west coast. You even knew where you were staying. Mangaia Villas, the island’s only waterfront villas, lies northwest of Oneroa along secluded rocks. But that’s about it.

Mangaia is the oldest island in the Pacific Ocean. The volcanic island was formed at least 18 million years ago. It features a central volcanic plateau. That’s covered with lush pandanus and puka trees. It’s ringed by a band of makatea (black fossilized coral). They rise into 70-meter cliffs. It’s also filled with an underground drainage system: caves, sinkholes, and tunnels. They were created by the soluble rocks. You held your breath, but not out of fear, as the plane made its descent.

The island was originally called A’ua’u Enua (Terraced Island) by the Polynesians. Captain James Cook arrived in 1777. Missionaries quickly followed. The island, along with the 14 other Cook Islands, eventually became part of New Zealand. Mangaia is now the second-largest island in the self-governing country.

You begin to learn about Mangaia’s geography and history once you settle into Mangaia Villas. Upon your arrival, you’re greeted with a flower ei (garland) and a coconut to drink. Then you’re shown to your little villa. The self-contained space is made of Mangaia limestone with a sloped thatched roof. A pine tongue-and-groove ceiling, coconut and hardwood floors, a little kitchenette, and a bright bedspread are in the spotless bedroom. But the best part of the villa isn’t inside. It’s the veranda, with a wooden table set and a view of the azure water, from which you can’t take your eyes away. A local fisherman on a vaka (canoe) is just beyond the edge of the fringing reef right now.

A plan is quickly forming in your mind. You want to tour Mangaia’s three villages and visit the white limestone churches and the local markets in each. You want to find a guide to show you burial remains in the caves, the interior Turokopa Track, taro plantations, historic marae (sacred sites), and freshwater Lake Tiriara. Plus you want to find the Tuaati Rock Pools and the Saragossa Shipwreck. So much for no itinerary. This remote island, far from any crowd, has more than enough to keep you occupied. Your book will have to wait.

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