Thunderstorms had delayed my flight. By the time the plane landed, Cook Islands Queen Manarangi Tutai had been waiting at the airport for three hours.
"Don't worry. We're on island time," she said cheerily. Clearly, I had left L.A. behind. Gridlocked freeways, scowling faces and diesel-scented air faded as Queen Tutai hoisted my bag into the back of her well-worn utility truck. In the Cook Islands, I soon learned, there is no traffic, people smile at one another and the air is scented with plumeria. Plus, for $53 a night, any guest can receive a royal welcome.
The 15 atolls and islands that make up the Cooks — named for 18th century explorer Capt. James Cook — are strung across 850,000 square miles of ocean midway between South America and Australia. It's a part of the world that is sometimes subject to violent tropical storms and cyclones during the rainy season, November to March. Earlier this year, in a little more than a month, five major cyclones swirled through the islands, a record. But "we took precautions and were prepared," the queen said. No one was killed or injured, and despite the pummeling the islands took, the welcome sign is out once again. During balmier periods, the Cooks — which are part of Polynesia — are known for their sparkling lagoons, swaying palm trees, powdery white beaches and pleasant, gracious people.
Unlike their famous neighbor French Polynesia, about 600 miles east, the Cooks have no McDonald's restaurants and no large hotel developments. They differ from Tahiti in another way too: Everyone speaks English.
Though easily accessible, the islands are relatively undiscovered. Last year, 83,000 people visited — about the same number that arrived in Hawaii in a 12-hour period. That's all the better for travelers seeking a fantasy island experience. It's easy to find an isolated beach to call your own or to stake claim to a private island.
Most U.S. travelers arrive the way I did, on an 8 1/2 -hour Air New Zealand flight that originates in Los Angeles, stops for an hour in Tahiti and continues 90 more minutes to Rarotonga, site of the Cook Islands airport and Avarua, the capital.
Although some visitors see only the beaches and craggy mountains of Rarotonga, about 20% visit the slower-paced Outer Islands, particularly Aitutaki, which is known for its lagoon. Adventure and travel guides have called it one of the most beautiful in the world.
It's easy to understand why. It's the blue lagoon that resides in your daydreams, the one that stalks you on a dreary afternoon when the boss is glaring at you, the water heater has sprung a leak and you can't stand the thought of another long commute.
I saw it first from the air, after a 40-minute flight from Rarotonga. It was striking, a turquoise triangle outlined by waves crashing against a barrier reef. Outside the triangle, the water was cobalt blue and looked deep; inside, it was so shallow and clear that the sandy bottom was visible in some places. Sheltered inside the lagoon was the lush, green island of Aitutaki and more than a dozen of the sandy islets called motu.
Cruising the lagoon
The next morning, I explored the lagoon more closely from the cabin of a 24-foot cruiser. Queen Tutai and her husband, British expat Des Clarke, let me ride along as they took a Danish family to the queen's beach lodge at a semiprivate island in the lagoon. (My cottage at Gina's Garden Lodge — she named her two inns for her daughter Georgina — cost $53 a night; the Danes paid about $170 a night at Gina's Beach Lodge, including transportation and rustic accommodations.)
As we skimmed across the water, Clarke joked about the boat. "It's the queen's Navy," he said, "along with a 16-foot fishing boat."
Queen Tutai's title is primarily ceremonial and cultural. She is a member of the Aitutaki House of Ariki, Maori chiefs who once ruled the islands.
The Cooks are now a self-governing, parliamentary democracy; they receive some assistance from New Zealand, which handles defense. The House of Ariki provides advice and consultation.
The Ariki may not have governmental authority, but they are influential. Queen Tutai, 58, takes advantage of this whenever possible.
One of her favorite crusades is preserving the environment, a difficult task in the face of an expanding tourism industry.
"Tourism offers economic liberation," she said. "But there are drawbacks. Our forefathers had no money, but they had the land and the sea. What part of our environment are we willing to give up to make money? We must preserve the dream that others travel across the world to see."