This is our latest blog post exploring the beautiful atolls that make up the Cook Islands. This week our focus is on Manihiki, or the Island of Pearls as it is commonly known. This triangular atoll sits 1,160 kilometres (720 miles) north of Rarotonga and has a population of around 500, it is also believed that Polynesians have lived on Manihiki since at least 900 or 1000AD. The island is one of the smallest in the Cooks, measuring just 4 square kilometres in area.
Manihiki is also one of the most remotely inhabited places on earth. During its lifetime, Manihiki has gone by many names from sightings by ships passing by; when spotted by the US Good Hope, the island was gifted the name Humphrey Island , whereas the whale ship Ganges took a much more self-righteous stance and called it Great Ganges Island . Other whaling ships chose the names Liderous, Gland, Sarah Scott and Pescado. However, throughout all of this, Manihiki has always managed to maintain its traditional aboriginal name, to which we now know.
The heart of the pearl industry
Manihiki is at the heart of the Cook Islands’ pearl industry and with its title as the Island of Pearls. The glorious profusion of green, blue, purple, gold and silvery hues which mirror the colours of the islands’ lagoons are what create the perfect black pearls (which are in fact anything but black) and cause many a female heart to flutter with desire.
Rare and precious black pearls
Rare, precious and only grown in the Pacific, black pearls are not easy to harvest. They require daring feats of voyaging, remote island survival and diving to world record depths; risks that reap a very small, precious reward of perfection.
Tens of thousands of black lipped pearl shells are fished from the waters each year. From cleaning and caring for the black lipped oysters, diving or collecting the spats, to the final harvesting of these lushly beautiful jewels of the sea, this is the Manihikian way of life.
The pearls must spend at least 18 months in the water for first seeding and 12 months for successive seedlings to provide consistently deeper nacre. The thick nacre provides higher lustre, adding extra resilience for jewellers to work with and a more durable investment. These pearls are rare and beautiful; a glorious treasure.
Geography of Manihiki
Manihiki sits atop an underwater mountain rising 4,000m above the ocean floor. The stunning 10km wide lagoon is very deep and laced with 60 tiny motu (islands) strung along the reef. This deep and wide reef is the perfect playground for snorkelers and swimmers alike, and is home to many colourful, tropical fish. Manihiki is also a great place for divers, although anyone wanting to scuba dive must acquire a permit first.
There are two main villages on Manihiki; the larger village of Tauhunu, which is located on the western rim of the atoll, and the smaller community of Tukao, which is on the northern tip of Te Paeroa motu.
Getting there and away
Getting to Manihiki is not cheap, but as it is widely regarded as the most beautiful of all the Cook Islands, it is definitely worth the trip if you are looking to get off the beaten track. A journey of 3.5 hours by air, Air Rarotonga fly from the capital to Manihiki every Tuesday. A standard return flight will cost you around NZ$1,600 and once you are out there, you can also look to explore the islands of Penrhyn and sister island Rakahanga.
Be aware when planning your trip that flights to the more remote islands can get cancelled at short notice due to a lack of passengers or enough fuel at the destination airport.
Where to stay
The main place to stay on the island is the Manihiki Lagoon Villas which are located in Tauhunu. Here you’ll stay in a basic but adequate beach front villa with uninterrupted views out to the lagoon. All meals, airport transfer, kayaks and snorkelling gear are provided, but you are advised to bring along your favourite snacks, as groceries are virtually non-existent on the island. Make sure you pack cash too – plastic is not accepted and there are no ATMs.