Nothing puts the Cook Islands into perspective quite like the flight to Rarotonga, the main island in that most colourfully remote of South Seas archipelagos. It doesn’t really matter which side of the Pacific you take off from, it’s a long way out there with nothing below you but an empty vastness of water – 64 million square miles of it, in fact.

Meals are served, movies are watched and naps are taken, all the while as you cruise along at 500mph with nothing to see out of the window but a great blue void of sea and sky. Casting your eyes over the route map in the in-flight magazine for the umpteenth time, you see that thin red line arcing far out into the Pacific and find yourself marvelling that even in an age of GPS and satellite navigation, a plane can be guided with such precision as to pick out a tiny mote like Rarotonga in the middle of a body of water that’s bigger than all of the world’s land masses combined. Finally, many hours after you’ve left behind the lights of an impossibly distant city, you emerge from the plane, groggy and jet-lagged, into the bright, balmy South Pacific sunshine.

Now imagine sailing out here on a primitive canoe, built with tools of stone and shell, and lashed together with hibiscus vines, trying to find this speck without a map, nor any iron-clad certainty there would even be islands out here to find. Yet more than 1,000 years ago, a band of intrepid Polynesian seafarers did just that.

Sailing day after day into those empty horizons, they found not only Rarotonga and the rest of the Cook Islands but every other speck, mote and atoll in the vast reach of the South Pacific. Scores of the most remote tropical paradises on the planet were found and peopled in what was the most remarkable, and most romantic, migration in human history. “They were true adventurers,” says Te Aturangi Nepia-Clamp, a descendant of those early seafaring pioneers and vice president of the Cook Islands Voyaging Society. “At a time when Europeans were unwilling to venture out of sight of land, Polynesians were making voyages of thousands of miles through the heart of the Pacific. And what’s more, they weren’t just sailing as explorers but as colonists, taking their wives and children with them. And all their possessions – tools, pigs, chickens, taro seedlings – everything they would need to build new lives on the islands they fully expected to find out there, and did.”

It is a warm, tropical afternoon at the harbour in Avarua, Rarotonga’s main town, with puffy cumulus clouds building up over the mountains and a creamy surf breaking out on the reef. We are sitting on the deck of the 22-metre-long Marumaru Atua, a replica of a traditional vaka, a double-hulled Polynesian canoe, on which Nepia-Clamp and others recently completed a voyage from Tahiti to the Cook Islands via Samoa, Tonga and Fiji, using traditional means of navigation. It is a beautiful boat, richly evocative of South Seas romance, with its stout masts and mighty oar – although how closely it resembles the craft that was sailed by early Polynesians is a matter of conjecture among maritime archaeologists and historians.

The South Pacific is a jealous guardian of its past. The balmy, damp, corruptive climate of the islands rotted away anything made of wood or fibre, and not a single example of an original Polynesian voyaging canoe survives. Nobody truly knows what the real thing looked like. All the modern replicas are based on oral traditions and drawings made by the early European explorers in the 17th and 18th centuries, a time when the epic voyages of the Polynesians already belonged to the distant past. Having found their island paradises, they had settled down into quiet, sedentary prosperity. The swift and agile canoes that Captain James Cook recorded in his journals, although literally able to run rings around his ship, were designed for use in sheltered lagoons and for making short inter-island hops, not blue-water adventuring on a grand scale.

“I doubt whether they could sail into the wind, at least not very well,” says Nepia- Clamp, “but then I am not sure that would have mattered much to them. They understood how the seasonal winds work in the Pacific and would simply have waited and set sail when the time was ripe.” And as for the matter of locating uncharted islands, he says, there are clues aplenty out there for those who know what to look for: the flight paths of sea birds, the drift of coconuts in the current, even the afternoon pile-up of clouds in the distance can be a pointer to islands hidden well below the horizon.

The great voyaging canoes might not have survived, but the cargo of language, culture and knowledge that they brought to the islands certainly has. We see it in craftsmen such as Michael Tavioni, who turns out exquisitely carved mahogany bowls for traditional family feasts, and beautiful outrigger canoes of the kind that once graced the islands’ lagoons.

His workshop is a couple of miles out of Avarua, a pleasant drive along roads lined with flame trees and coconut palms. There is no sign to mark it, just a sprawl of heavy, dark, tropical hardwood left to dry and age in the sun and a couple of half-finished canoes in front of the open-air shed where he does his work. The ground is liberally covered with sawdust and wood shavings.

One of the canoes he’s working on at the moment, he explains, isn’t his. It’s the handiwork of an enthusiastic young craftsman who was eager to embrace his Polynesian heritage and become a builder of boats, but whose ambition thus far had outstripped his skills.

“It doesn’t float properly,” Michael shrugs, “and he has asked me if I can fix it for him. It shouldn’t be hard.” It is help freely given, he says, for the greater good of encouraging and preserving ancient traditional skills.

Likewise the age-old wisdom of Pa Teuruaa, a soft-spoken, 69th-generation medicine man who, from his home in Rarotonga’s rainforested hills, dispenses the herbal remedies he learned as a child from his grandmother. He gathers the ingredients from his garden and the nearby jungle, gladly sharing his knowledge with anyone who wants to come and learn.

“Not everyone is so keen once they realise how much time and hard work goes into collecting the plants and berries I need,” he laughs. “I have been doing this since I was four years old. I guess I am used to it.” Between collecting pharmaceuticals in the wild, leading nature hikes over Rarotonga’s rugged mountains, and the long meditative swims he takes in the lagoon every morning, he looks – and is – supremely fit. So much so that I find myself sceptical of a claim made on his behalf that he is 60 years old; he moves with the grace of a far younger man.

When I mention this, he smiles and shakes his head. “No, no, no, that’s wrong. I am not sixty. I was born in 1940. I am over seventy.” When I leave, it’s with a sense that I’ve met a man who has found Shangri La.

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.

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.

Most outsiders who visit Atiu come not for beaches and sun, but to see the rainforests, the ancient coral caves and the riot of birdlife, which includes some of the rarest species in the South Pacific, such as the brilliantly plumed Rimatara lorikeet. Once common throughout Polynesia, it was hunted for centuries for its scarlet breast feathers, used to adorn the cloaks of important chieftains, and preyed upon by the rats which were introduced to the islands by human settlers from their boats. By the dawn of the 21st century, with only a tiny population of birds left on the remote French Polynesian island of Rimatara, it was decided to reintroduce the endangered lorikeet on Atiu.

“We were lucky. We never had any rats come ashore here,” says “Birdman” George Mateariki, the island’s resident naturalist. “This made Atiu a safe place to try to rebuild the population, and so in 2007, 27 of them were released here.” After taking me to see the secluded cove where Captain Cook landed, he leads me into the rainforest to point out some of the island’s rarities and to try to find one of these beautiful, elusive lorikeets. It’s cool, dim and damp in here, even a little spooky, the trees far bigger and more primeval than I’d imagined for a Polynesian island. And then we see it, flitting through the branches, a miracle that even Captain Cook’s naturalists arrived too late to see when they passed through at the end of the 18th century. A living descendant of the South Seas birds that provided their feathers for the Tahitian noblemen’s cloaks.

Like these brooding forests, it is a tantalising glimpse back in time. But it is only a glimpse, and before I know it the little bird has flown away.

The article 'A tale of the South Pacific' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Magazine.