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What a glorious adventure it must have been to have sailed into this lagoon more than 1,000 years ago, beholding an Eden never before seen by human eyes. The arrivals settled in, and for the next few centuries they and their descendants had themselves quite a time in their new home. Far too good a time in the view of the London Missionary Society whose representative, the Reverend John Williams, splashed ashore, gospel in hand, in 1821. With two converted Tahitians to assist him, he went to work setting the house in order, establishing the Cook Islands’ first Christian church and persuading the locals to abstain from such pernicious habits as drinking, dancing, casual sex and cannibalism.

“The cannibalism wasn’t for food. It was ritualistic,” says Aitutaki historian and archaeologist Ngaa Pureariki, as we walk among the weathered stones of the Paengaariki marae. It is a sacred meeting place tucked away in a jungle clearing and dates back to 1000 AD. Centuries of feasts, sacrifices and religious ceremonies had taken place here. “The warriors ate the body parts that gave them mana, or prestige and strength: the brain, the eyes, the nose, the fingertips.”

Whatever the reasoning, Williams didn’t care much for the practice and was at pains to stamp it out. He enjoyed much success in the Cook Islands – but alas much less in the New Hebrides, where he was devoured by the food-oriented cannibals on the island of Erromango, known at the time as Martyr’s Island, in 1839.

The seeds that Williams planted in the Cook Islands took strong root and the islands remain devoutly Christian to this day. The white coral church, built in 1828 by the two converted Tahitians he left in charge, is the oldest in the archipelago. Every Sunday it fills with neatly dressed families and elegant-looking ladies in bright tropical dresses, each and every one of them looking as fresh as peeled eggs.

Captain Cook, after whom the archipelago is named, “discovered” many islands in the Pacific, including about half a dozen of the Cook Islands, but Aitutaki wasn’t one of them. That privilege went to Captain Bligh and his not-so-merry men in 1789, only a couple of weeks before his nibs was booted off the HMS Bounty. Nor did Cook ever lay eyes on Rarotonga: he missed the archipelago’s biggest island by 120 miles when he passed through in 1777, landing instead on a pretty tropical backwater called Atiu, which these days, like Aitutaki, is a 50-minute flight from Rarotonga, but this time to the northeast. And on to a very different sort of island. If Aitutaki is the incarnation of every South Seas screensaver, Atiu, with a population of 569, is the old-time Polynesia of hand-tinted postcards: all tropical birds, sandy tracks and taro gardens. There are no resorts here; everyone knows everyone else.

“I believe we have a total of seven visitors staying on the island at the moment,” says Roger Malcolm, owner of the local b&b, as he slings my bags into the back of an old pick-up truck he’s left parked beside the corrugated iron shelter that serves as Atiu’s airport terminal. “We had a funeral here last week and some of the family flew in for it.”

This explains the relative bustle at the airport. Two of the mourners, both elderly ladies, have been waiting to catch the plane to Rarotonga – then on to New Zealand, where most Cook Islanders live these days. Their friends and relatives have come down to see them off and the atmosphere is filled with chatter, the poignancy of departure and the fragrance of gardenias from the leis on the travellers’ necks – all tokens of farewell from loved ones on the island.

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