Atiu used to be called Enua Manu – the land of birds. It is the third biggest island after Mangaia and Rarotonga. Small valleys venture into a raised plateau covering most of the island, with all five villages uniquely near the centre.
This is the island to come to if you like walking and exploring, on your own and with a small range of guided tours. Forget air conditioned buses – the back of a pick up truck is about as fancy as it gets.
Somehow, that’s okay, as you wander past the makatea – an inland coral reef raised millions of years ago as the island grew, polyp by polyp – and the island exudes its own timeless calm.
You can walk for hours and see just birds, chickens, a wandering pig or two and, if you’re lucky, a passing motorbike and a friendly wave. Taking an organised tour exposes you to delights like the trail taken when Captain Cook and his crew in 1777 came ashore while charting the Pacific.
The then chief took a liking to a shipboard dog, and when refused it, kidnapped some of the crew and held them hostage until he was given the hound. At least that’s the way the story goes.
A note of caution – despite the island’s small size it is easy to get lost in dense bush and the coral makatea can be dangerously sharp and is dotted with natural cavities – so step carefully.
Accommodation is mainly of the bungalow variety, with Atiu Villas the most visually appealing being built in coconut and other local timbers.
Atiu Villas are also about the only place to get a restaurant-style meal – and then only if enough people have booked in for a meal. Sounds strange? Sure, but not much sense opening when there are only two visitors on the island.
As often happens, hosts Roger and Kura Malcolm come well seasoned with a salty view of realities on an island paradise and small town politics. For a hair curling theory of global climate change, listen out for Roger – a New Zealand trained scientist – explaining gaps in coral growth over the last few million years or so.
His theory is part of an introductory tour right after landing at the airport, a rather cunning way of decompressing hyper-stressed tourists escaping the bright lights of Rarotonga. There are at least four other options for accommodation, and they all list insect screens for a reason.
There are plenty of mosquitos. This is not a reflection on Atiu. Just take repellent and remind yourself that, thank goodness, not every corner of the planet is as trim and tidy as a city park.