Atiu: A quick snapshot

Let’s start with the basics. According to, Atiu Island, also known as Enuamanu (land of the birds), lies 115 miles (187 kil.) northeast of Rarotonga Island in the Cook Islands.  


Cook Islands colorful bird

Many visitors come to discover the numerous bird species that inhabit Atiu. Image by Luis Ortiz-Catedral, PhD, World Parrot Trust


Atiu island measures approximately 660 acres. Due to limited resources and supplies, it’s not an easy place to live. For this reason, the island population has been steadily declining, with a current count of under 400 as of 2023.  


Cook Islands Atiu Green Forest

The five villages of Atiu are spread out across the plateau formed atop this volcanic island


Unlike most of the islands, where the majority of residents live within a short walk to the ocean, Atiu’s five small villages, Teenui, Mapumai, Tengatangi, Ngatiarua and Areora, all of the villages sit on top of a flat plateau, which is approximately 220 ft above the sea. This plateau takes up a large section of the island.  


Cook Islands Atiu Coral Rock and Beach

Image courtesy of Air Rarotonga


Surrounding these villages are two levels of farmland which ring the island. Below that are the maketau, or coral reefs. Volcanic rock gives way to 26 unique beaches and a number of hidden caves. Approximately onehalf of these beaches are protected by an outer reef, while the other half heads directly into deep ocean. 



How do you get to Atiu? 

Rarotonga, the commercial and governmental seat of the Cook Islands, is where you would land when flying in from anywhere else in the world. A handful of people come by boat – but it is highly doubtful you would actually sail directly to Atiu, due to limited access through their reef. So one way or the other, a short flight will be in your future. 

To travel to Atiu, you would then jump on a tiny propeller plane through Air Rarotonga. It is here that your adventure begins. It’s not a new plane. In fact, it’s a bit rickety, but it somehow passes all of the safety inspections and makes this flight numerous times in the week – mostly for supplies and trips back and forth by island residents to shop, visit family, or see a doctor (currently none are on the island, but they do have a hospital!). 

It is at this point you may be wondering what you’ve gotten yourself into. I’m here to tell you that the main goal of this trip will be to reconnect with the simpler things in life – a life without modern conveniences, constant noise, interruptions, pollution, and complications. If you let go and trust the process, you may very well experience that exhilarating feeling of absolute freedom you left behind in your childhood. 


Cook Islands Atiu Airport

A local delegation is greeted at the Atiu Airport


Arriving at Atiu 

The moment you land you will be warmly welcomed with a flower ei (sounds like the Hawaiian word “lei”, but without the “l”) and a warm hug. If you’re staying at the most famous of the lodges, Atiu Villas, the person giving you that warm welcome will be the lovely Jackey, a delightful woman who expertly manages both the villa and the curious people who come to visit it. She is definitely a part of the experience, and you will be well served to take the time to get to know her better. 


The fabulous Jackey of Atiu Villas is an amazing source of information


As your bags are gathered, you will be shown to a truck with a plank bench in the back. Depending on the number of fellow passengers, you may well be invited to ride inside the cab or in the back. Now is a good time to shake off all of the burdens you normally carry around and sit in the back where the wind messes your hair just enough to give you that wild look of freedom. 


Church in Cook Islands Atiu

One of the many local churches


Exploring Atiu’s Villages

After a circuitous road trip that takes you up and around the various levels of volcanic rock, jungles, and farmland, you’ll be taken through the villages. You will see old family houses, that hospital discussed earlier, governmental buildings, small businesses, and many churches. The established faiths on this island are well supported and revered, adding to the charm and kindness of the residents you meet along the way. As a side note, you will meet the calmest dogs you’ve ever seen in your life. You can learn more about that in our companion blog: Dogs of the Cook Islands.


Cook Islands Scenic View

The back porch of these individual cabins is a wonderful way to rest after a day of exploration


What is the Atiu Villas experience?

It becomes apparent as soon as you open the door to your cabin that Atiu Villas is not for the prissy. It will immediately remind you of summer youth camp. The accommodations are old and slightly dusty. Your bed will be comfortable, but old fashioned – like it was visiting Grandma’s farm each summer. I dare say, some of the décor looks like it may well be from about from that same era. And you will smile and remember warm thoughts. “What is this feeling?”, you’ll think to yourself. It’s called nostalgia. If you were lucky enough to have such a childhood, it will remind you of the moment you snuggled into bed at Granny’s, surrounded by sun-dried sheets that smelled like summer flowers. 


Cook islands Atiu entrance to Cabin

The enchanting entrance to one of the cabins at Atiu Villa


It will not take you long to start exploring the gardens sweeping across the villas. You will discover jungle canopies, floral walls, and secret gardens around every corner. You’ll find yourself staring at tiny blossoms that look like a cross between tiny roses and clover blossoms no bigger than your fingernail. It may remind you of the days you spent hours staring at lady bugs, blowing on blades of grass for musical instruments and pondering the complexities of the universe with the innocence of youth. 


White Flower Blossom on Atiu Cook Islands

The secrets of the universe may just be contained in the perfection of a tiny blossom


Spending time with others 

The people on the island, including the staff at the villas, are warm and welcoming. You soon find yourself waving madly at everyone you see, because their smiles are so genuine. Your reserve will continue to break down at the communal evening meal, held in Atiu Villa’s dining hall. First you you’ll have the opportunity to order drinks at the bar followed by a satisfying dinner (Note, this is an optional add-on for guests – but why wouldn’t you?).  


Cook Islands bar in Atiu

Atiu Villas humble bar area


You just might become instant friends with the other guests as you share how each of you ended up on this small island in the middle of the South Pacific. Your evening will be relaxing, informative and filled with laughter. Jackey will keep the conversation fresh and entertaining, so even if you’re not a talker you needn’t worry. The food, prepared by Anna Katu, a quiet woman with the skills of a Michelin star chef, will delight you. Around 9 or 10, with a full tummy and sleep just down the walkway, you may ask yourself how a casual dinner can be so entertaining. These are strangers, after all. The answer is simple. You are connecting to others in a place where status, money and fame has little consequence. 


Moped parked in greenery on Atiu, Cook Islands

The freedom to explore at your leisure is certainly one of the main perks of a visit to Atiu


Day Two in Atiu is filled with easy decisions 

Hopefully after a restful night’s sleep, you can chow down on some of the fresh fruit left in your room, and warm up a cup of tea. Next you will start to consider what you might actually do with your day. Easy answer – Atiu Villas has low-cost mopeds and bikes to rent, so you can simply take off to explore every nook and corner of the island (note: first come, first serve basis). A map is helpful, but not completely necessary. You simply get on the road and follow it. If you get lost, you only need to remember that there is one road that goes around the perimeter of the island. Every other road from there will eventually take you back to the villages.  


Cook Islands Atiu Beach Sign

Which way will you go?


You will discover multiple beaches, each one filled with that amazing turquoise water. You will find country roads that meander through jungles, farms, and villages. Mind you, many of these roads turn to dirt, and some to mere ruts in the grass – but all of them are grand adventures.  

“What time is it” your companion may ask, as the sun arches towards the west. “Who cares?” you’ll shout with the joy that comes from complete freedom. The kind you tell your friends and family no longer exists in your life. And yet, here it is. 


Image courtesy of Cook Island Tourism Website


Atiu has tours available 

If you’re hankering for more formal activities, you might want to join the famous Birdman George for an opportunity to go birdwatching. If you feel energetic, you can join a hearty trek to a hidden cave that contains an underground pool, Kopeka birds who use their tongues like sonar, and an encounter with some of crazy (and harmless) creatures called coconut crabs.  


Coconut Crab on Atiu Cook Islands

You may run across these rather large, but totally harmless coconut crabs in the forested areas


On certain nights there is an activity called the Tumunu a literal bush beer school. This is a local get together where you sip on homemade beer while learning about the history and culture of Atiu in little shacks tucked somewhere in the woods 


Hiking along green trail in Atiu

Hiking trails are plentiful throughout the island but be aware that the land is privately owned by the local families, so always use a guide


Other activities include fishing, diving, snorkeling, hiking, and making crafts. So, if you aren’t entertained, it’s your own fault. 


What you won’t find on Atiu

Although there are a handful of grocery stores, you will not find a ready supply of convenience items such as shoes, sunglasses, over-the-counter medicines or even lip balm. Many items must come all the way from New Zealand or beyond, so even if one can find them, the price can be shocking. This is all part of the experience of visiting a remote island in the middle of the big, blue ocean. The answer is to prepare ahead of time, and to be ready to improvise. 


Your first and last views of the island may well be from the bed of a truck


Taking the best part of Atiu with you

Within a couple of days most guests head off to visit one of the other islands, such as Aitutaki with its beautiful lagoons, or back to Rarotonga with its coastal hotels and restaurants.


Cook Islands Atiu Airport Sign

The humor of Cook Islanders is reflected the moment you enter the airport


But if you’ve been paying attention, you are going to find yourself making a promise that you will not forget your time here. It’s amazing how accustomed you will become to this little island paradise. You are going to miss what you were able to rediscover, but hopefully the memories will help you to reframe your priorities and seek simplicity in the years to come.  



Bio of Nina S. Jones, Blogger for the Polynesian Culture Center

blogger for the Polynesian Cultural Center

Nina Jones, a mainland gal from way back, is now a transplanted Islander. With her husband of over 45 years, she volunteers at the Polynesian Cultural Center. Her hobbies include swimming, traveling, studying and writing about what she is learning from the various Polynesian cultures. Her blogs focus on their history, beliefs, practices and – as an added bonus – delicious food! To her, Polynesia is not just a place to visit, it is a way to live and she is very honored to be able to be a part of their amazing world.