The South Pacific island of Atiu has one bonafide hotel, a haunted burial ground, and a unique, well-preserved, booze-related tradition. The place is irresistible to the adventurous. Contributing editor Lanee Lee spent a few days in the Cook Islands to bird watch, cave crawl, and get her bush beer on and came back with a few unqiue anecdotes.
ATIU, Cook Islands – On my quest to taste every cultural drink on the planet, I traveled to an island smack-dab in the South Pacific. Atiu (pronounced exactly like a sneeze — At-choo!) is home to a tradition called Tumunu, or bush beer school.
Twelve of the fifteen Cook Islands are populated, but Atiu is the only island still practicing the two-century-old Polynesian drinking ceremony. After missionaries introduced oranges to the Cook Islands in the mid-19th century, locals learned the fermentation process from neighboring Tahitians and started to make bush beer. Missionaries quickly banned the brew, but family recipes handed down from generations of speakeasy-style secret meetings kept the beer alive. Now, each of the six Tumunu drinking establishments has their own riff on the drink.
By the time I got to my Tumunu wood shack, bush beer class had been in session for hours. Yet, tradition demands that when a new person joins the circle, formal introductions must be made. Women were not allowed until very recently. Ladies, best to have a local male escort make the proper intro.
The Tumunu chief cleared his throat. All went silent. He welcomed me warmly, and introduced himself and the brew master. I followed suit, making sure to say my full name and profession as expected.
As the newest to the circle, I got the first cup. The fermented brew was dispensed in a small, coconut shell (tumunu actually means hollowed base of a coconut trunk) from a plastic bucket by the bush beer bartender in the center of the circle. It tasted like some sort of cider: Fruity, sweet, slightly fizzy, and refreshing. All eyes were on me (everyone drinks from the same cup, one at a time) to see my reaction. Looking straight at the chief, I smiled and said, "Good!" Loud cheers and chortles went up and the cup was offered to the next person beside me. I indulged, but if you don't want to drink another round, simply put up your hand in the "stop" gesture.
It went on like this for the next hour: passing the cup, singing, and telling stories. Now, that's my kind of school. It was a priceless opportunity to share an authentic slice of Atiu life.
CRAFT AND COFFEE
"You're the craziest white papa we ever met. You pay us to pick the beans and then you pay us again to throw most of them away," says German expat and tour guide Juergen Manske-Eimke (in a Werner Herzog-like cadence) as he recounts teaching locals the difference between quality and quantity when harvesting coffee beans. That's just one of the interesting coffee growing stories told on his two-hour Atiu Coffee plantation tour. My favorite part was trying the two different roast varietals at their house. His wife, Maria, runs Atiu Fibre Arts Studio, a super hip gallery from home dedicated to both local art (especially masterwork quilts) and her own contemporary installations and jewelry.
Known as Birdman George, he's like the horse whisper of feathered fowl. He whistles and makes loud kissing sounds to call birds out, and even has conversations with them like, "Come on mate, say hello!" He's dedicated to a lifetime of preserving the island's wildlife, like the endangered Rarotongan Flycatchers and Rimatara Lorkeets, and offers an in-depth nature tour. While riding in the back of his pick-up truck to bird habitats around the island, you'll learn nifty stuff about native plants, their medicinal properties, and Atiuan history. And of course, there are lots of birdwatching ops.
An afternoon with Birdman ends with a picnic lunch overlooking the ocean. Dig in (sans silverware) to a gorgeous spread of fresh coconut, papaya, rukau (taro leaves and coconut) served on banana leaves, and pork cooked in a traditional, below-ground oven.
Marshall Humpreys leads a three-hour excursion to see rare, endemic Kopeka (Maori term) birds that ends with a cool dip in a candlelit grotto. There are only 500 or so of the tiny bat-like birds remaining, and they're a special sight to see. They eco-locate and nest in the pitch black exclusively in the Anatakitaki Kopeka Cave. The 30-minute hike on jagged coral rocks is tricky in spots. Wear rugged hiking shoes and insect repellant-treated clothing (long sleeves and pants are best) to ward off the maniac mossies.
RIMARAU BURIAL CAVE
If you've never seen a grave with human bones outside a museum, it's spooky surreal. And these aren't just any bones. They're from a sacred burial ground of ancient Atiu islanders. Don't even think of disturbing them.
Years ago, a Mormon missionary couple took a skull and the wife died on her return trip home. It was promptly returned. Consequently, proselytizing Mormons are banned on the island. The family of the ancestor's bones has given Marshall Humphreys exclusive rights to lead outsiders on Rimarau Burial Cave tours.
WHERE TO STAY
Atiu Villas, the "5-star resort" of Atiu and the only bonafide hotel on the island, was everything I wanted in a remote village stay. An island-style chalet built of local wood from mango and acacias trees, a fully stocked fridge (grocery stores are few and far between) and a spacious lanai set amidst lush, tropical flora and fauna. To boot, there's a swimming pool, grass tennis court, free Wi-Fi, and a restaurant bar. When the six rooms are full or there 's a special guest in town, Atiu Villa hosts "dinner and a show" nights featuring live Atiuan musicians and Polynesian-style dance.
Get down with the locals and stay in the home of Marshall (known as the island caveman) and his artist wife Jeanne. They run Atiu Bed and Breakfast. Rooms are clean and conversation, peppered with Marshall 's dry English wit, is fascinating on all things Atiu.
PLAN YOUR TRIP
FLY: From Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), it's a skip and a hop. Air New Zealand operates the direct nine-hour flight to Rarotonga Airport (RAR) once a week. From there, catch the Air Rarotonga 45-minute flight to Atiu every day except Sunday.
DRIVE: There are no rental cars on Atiu but you can rent scooters at Atiu Villas. Also, the tour operators, mentioned above, are happy to pick you up and take you where you need to go. Both Atiu Villas and Atiu Bed and Breakfast offer transport to and from the airport.
TUMUNU: Hours for the ceremony vary among establishments, so ask Roger at Atiu Villas, Marshall at the Bed and Breakfast, or Birdman for the deets. It 's free to join, but a donation of $5 NZD or supplies to contribute to the next batch, like fruit and sugar, are appreciated.
TOURS: Tour details, prices, and contact information is available on Atiu Island tours. Information on the Rimarau Burial Cave tour is available on the Atiu Bed and Breakfast tour page. No online booking available. The island is really lo-fi, so best to call or email to book.
QUICK TIPS FOR THE COOK ISLANDS
The Cook Islands has its own distinctive notes and coins, not for legal tender outside the islands. The three-dollar note is rare, but a worthy pursuit for a souvenir. New Zealand currency is accepted as well.
ATMs are only available on Rarotonga and Aitutaki. Best to get some NZD in the airport before arriving in the Cook Islands as the ATM fees and exchange fees on Rarotonga are higher than in the States.
For most U.S. cell carriers, forget about a data plan. Wi-Fi is available for purchase on Rarotonga and Aitutaki from your hotel or Internet cafe. Interestingly enough, Atiu is the only island with free Wi-Fi at Atiu Villas.
Unlike Rarotonga and Aitutaki islands, Atiu is not for beach lovers. It 's surrounded with a coral reef wall that makes swimming nearly impossible (and painful if you run into the reef). If surf and sun is a must, head to a favorite local spot: Taungarora Landing.