AITUTAKI, Cook Islands -- If Rarotonga is small, Aitutaki is Gilligan's Island tiny. With a population of 1,500, its claim to fame is its uninterrupted stretches of beach.
On Rarotonga, when locals ask if you've been to ''the outer islands," they mean Aitutaki. The impossibly scenic island chain is a triangle of connected islands, or motus, surrounding a central lagoon. The islands are pristine; they filmed the original (British) ''Survivor" here. After a few hours cruising through Aitutaki's lagoon, I was considering marooning myself -- even without the lure of a cash payoff.
With Air Rarotonga's day trip and overnight packages, there's no reason not to go. Basically, for $250, Air Rarotonga makes it all happen, providing air, land, and sea transport and a full day's activities. The view from the one-hour flight provides a nice orientation to Aitutaki. Upon arriving, Aitutaki's airport sets the sparse mood. There is a roof, but no walls, a ticket counter, and one convenience store.
Our guide, Philip Vakatini, herded the group onto a homemade bus. The plywood vehicle looked like as if had been rigged up by Gilligan and the Professor, with two parallel benches, particle-board sides, and a coconut-frond rear panel. With Philip behind the wheel, we headed toward ''town," the tiny congregation of one-story buildings with a bank, cafe, souvenir shop, and growers' market. While I expected the vendors would perk up at the sight of a new batch of tourists, it was refreshing to find that I had overestimated our novelty. Yet, the produce stall owner was happy to transform a young coconut, or nu, into a refreshing drink. It only took a few machete whacks and the brown coconut was both cup and beverage.
On the drive to the boat, Philip was a bundle of energy and talked the entire time. His gregariousness was genuine and his corny humor infectious. Yet, his act was fun partly because it wasn't endless. As promised, he backed off once we set sail in our 40-foot catamaran, knowing that visitors want to enjoy this part of the South Pacific in peace.
There was plenty of peace in Aitutaki, but only after we dropped off a school group on a nearby island. Despite that complaint, it was fun to share a vessel with the children, if for no other reason than to learn that, yes, Cook Islands youth play ''Rock, Paper, Scissors." After they left, tranquillity settled in aboard our metal catamaran. ''James Bond" was manning the bar and ''Captain Cook" (after whom the islands were named) was behind the wheel -- we were in good hands.
A pattern soon developed: We'd land on an impossibly desolate, tropical island and have some time to ourselves. Some people swam, some snorkeled, and some walked on the beach. When the conch shell sounded, however, it was time to sail (OK, motor) to a new paradise.
There's nothing like a good snorkel to work up an appetite. Cook Islanders like their food and the spread prepared by Captain Cook and 007 did not disappoint. Contrary to Philip's joke, our failure to catch any fish while snorkeling didn't mean there was nothing to eat. In fact, the lunch starred fillets of wahoo, grilled at the back of the boat. The plentiful buffet also featured taro roots, banana and papaya pudding, and some of the best coleslaw this side of KFC. And since traditional Cook Islands eating follows the smorgasbord approach, there were some doughnuts sitting in a banana leaf plate. To top it off, Captain Cook and 007 serenaded us with some breezy island songs.
After lunch, we cruised to One Foot Island, which has dueling myths about its name. Legend has it that a father and son foiled pursuers by walking in the same footprints. Then again, the island looks like a footprint if viewed from above. Either way, it's beautiful. Throwing caution to the trade winds, we went back to snorkeling less than an hour after eating.
One Foot Island has a neat little tourist feature, what it calls the world's smallest passport stamping station. Although nobody lives on the island, there is a nice little Post Office/cafe. Bring your passport, if you're into that kind of thing. After another hour of freedom snorkeling on our seemingly private island, the conch was an unwelcome sound. I was prepared to forsake the catamaran, Philip, and the doughnuts and take up residence in the Cooks. I probably got the idea from reading the autobiography of a New Zealander who had done just that. While Tom Neale's ''An Island to Oneself" is the perfect accompaniment for any trip to the Cooks, it can be a bit dangerous.