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The old Polynesian ways live on in dozens of everyday ways, perhaps best on display in the energetic open-air market held along the roadside in Avarua every Saturday morning. Here the air is fragrant with barbecue smoke and filled with amiable chatter in English and Cook Islands Maori, as a gregarious mix of visitors and locals browse among the stalls. Taro, mangoes and bananas grown in home gardens are for sale, as are homemade tropical fruit preserves and strings of beautiful silver flying fish, caught by hand in the lagoon the previous night. At a stall near the bandstand a woman from the Penrhyn atoll weaves creamy straw hats – the Panamas of the South Pacific – for which the Cook Islands have been famous for generations. There are racks of floral shirts and bright silk sarongs, sweet-scented leis (necklaces of flowers) and garlands of flowers to wear on the head – and these are by no means for tourists alone.

“I’ve worn flowers in my hair every day that I can remember,” smiles an elderly lady named Takau Moekaa, who sits beside her flower-decked stall reading the weekend newspaper in the sunshine. “My ten-yearold granddaughter is learning how to weave them. Styles have changed a little over the years. In the old days we used more frangipani. Now it’s mainly gardenias. But whatever the type of flower, I wouldn’t feel dressed going out without wearing them.”

Legend has it that people from Tubuai, in what is now French Polynesia, discovered the Cook Islands. Convinced that their island had become too crowded, they bundled themselves and their belongings aboard the mighty voyaging canoe Ngapua-Ariki and, with legendary navigator Ru-Enua at the helm, set off on a bearing of west-southwest. Days later, after a storm-tossed passage, they came to Aitutaki, considered the loveliest of the Cook Islands.

It is a 50-minute flight by turboprop plane from Rarotonga to Aitutaki and, like the navigators of old, you find you’re able to develop a sense of the island long before you see it – before the plane even leaves the ground, in fact. Strapping themselves into the seats of the Air Rarotonga turboprop for the flight to Aitutaki this morning are a feature writer for a glossy wedding and honeymoon magazine in the UK, two newlywed couples from North America and a photographer with a pair of models in tow, the latter here for a fashion shoot on the island’s vast white-coral-sand beaches.

The Cook Islands have an industry in producing postage stamps – limited supply makes many of them collector’s items – but stamps alone aren’t enough to support an economy in the 21st century, not even a tiny one in the South Pacific. After a foray into the world of offshore banking (a clever little money spinner which earned the Cook Islands pariah status with the world’s tax authorities) it decided instead to cash in on its virginal loveliness. It repositioned itself as the aspirational South Seas hideaway – for romantics, that is, not money.

In Aitutaki they possess a rare treasure that routinely tops travel writers’ lists of the planet’s most breathtaking idylls. Take a motor launch from the wharf at Arutanga out to one of the uninhabited islets that dot the lagoon and it’s all there, the incarnation of every tropical paradise cliché there is: translucent waters of palest turquoise, dazzling white sand, the brilliant greens of the rainforest and arching coconut palms casting patterned shadows on the beach beneath the blue vault of sky.

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