AKAIAMI ISLAND – THE WORLDS SMALLEST INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT
The island currently famed for being part of the Survivor television series, is more famous as the Smallest International Airport in the World, with a Gilligan’s island style airport terminal to die for.
International travel was not always triple security checks, narrow seats and unappetising food - there was once a glorious and elegant alternative.
Prior to 1960 the most glamorous air route in the world, the Orient Express of the air was “The Coral Route” flown by flying boats from island to island in the South Pacific. It was among the world's greatest air journeys. This epic trail was truly the stuff of post-war legend, with flying boats ploughed highways in the sky, darting back and forth between yesterday and tomorrow across the Date Line, traversing 4,700 miles of ocean between Auckland, Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, the Cook Islands and Tahiti.
This unashamedly luxurious south Pacific adventure swiftly became a favourite jaunt of the well heeled. The human fascination for flight was at an all time high in the 40's & 50's The world seemed enormous, fragile, newly reborn after the war and flying was a wonder.
The £30 pound ticket was six times the average weekly wage and there was only one class - first class. Travellers that could afford the luxury of air travel were to be envied and admired. Flying boats were the domain of the wealthy, including rich tourists from the United States and Europe and the occasional movie star. Gary Cooper flew it, so did Cary Grant, John Wayne, Graham Greene, Noel Coward and Marlon Brando caught one of the very last flights.
Flying was seen to be very glamorous back in the 1950's, flying over the boundless blue Pacific in the 1950s still had a touch of daring, swashbuckling allure, especially when you were low enough to see the sharks. Pilots were demigods in Ray Bans. hostesses were angels in nifty uniforms. The arrival of the TEAL flight into Papeete harbour in Tahiti was immortalised in the 1962 film “Tiara Tahiti” starring James Mason and John Mills.
Splashing down on pond-smooth lagoons to be met by flotillas of outrigger canoes, the jet set navigators bought gifts and mementos: conches, black pearls, vanity cases made from palm fronds. To add to the occasion passengers dressed in their finery with women in their hats and furs, men in suits and neckties. On rare occasions, when children accompanied their parents, they wore their Sunday best. Passengers, who were accommodated in elegant colonial hotels around the Pacific, were advised to carry their bathing suits as hand luggage so they could take a dip in a lagoon while the plane refuelled. Melanoma had not been invented yet, so nobody wore sunscreen.
TEAL, the fore-runner to Air New Zealand, introduced the Coral Route service in 1951; ferrying passengers from Auckland's harbour across to Fiji, Samoa, Tahiti and the Cook Islands aboard luxury Solent flying boats ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Short_So... ). The journey harked back to the 1930's with the twin deck flying boat carrying a relatively small number of passengers.
The inaugural flight was made in a MK III Solent Flying Boat Short S.45 Solent flying boat ZK-AMO "Aparima" (Captain J.R. McGrane). Following the survey flight of 27 November-8 December the route was Auckland-Suva-Aitutaki-Papeete. The return service commenced on 31 December and returned to Auckland on 4 January, 1952. Solents were used to fly the Coral Route until September 1960, when the world's last scheduled international flying boat service was discontinued. The 50th anniversary of the Coral Route was celebrated by Air New Zealand on the 15th of December 2001.
The route was first charted in wartime when Sunderland flying boats operated by the Royal New Zealand Air Force kept the far-flung island outposts of British Empire connected. After the war, thousands of experienced, superbly trained ex-military pilots gave civilian aviation a global shot in the arm. Kiwi pilots had mastered the art of aeronautical island-hopping. Landing on, but not in, a South Pacific lagoon is anything but languorous. Any pilot who didn’t study his tide charts and know his currents, and exactly how much clearance he could count on over the heads of the coral reef, tended to get wet fast.
At first, it was intended to be just a mail service. But the concept — a scheduled air service, flying boats linking islands scattered over thousands of miles on the South Seas; silver craft putting down oh-so-softly in tropical lagoons — was just too appealing. Before you could say "Gilligan’s Island," the Coral Route became one of the most glamorous, most luxurious air passenger routes in the world. Initially a monthly service, it was increased to fortnightly after just six months due to its popularity and additional Solent flying boats were later added to the fleet. Teal grew into Air New Zealand. It became one of the most glamorous, most luxurious passenger routes in the world. A ticket cost £30, six times the average weekly wage in early 1950s America.
The route and typical flying times were: Auckland - (7.30hrs) - Fiji - (3.45hrs) - Samoa - (5.00hrs) - Cook Islands - (4.05hrs) - Tahiti. Back then, Jet lag was impossible; when it got dark the pilot set down in a lagoon and the passengers were taken to a fine hotel.
The flying boats travelled at only a few hundred feet off the ocean waves, giving passengers a true sense of the distance and seclusion of the scattered islands of the South Pacific. Other than the Union Steam Ship company or a private yacht, TEAL was the only way to reach the Cook Islands prior to the building of the first airstrips in the late 1940's.
When in operation, the aircraft flew more than 4.8 million km over about 143,000 hours, skimming aquamarine runways in island lagoons. The Solents often travelled only a few hundred feet above the waves and could only climb to 10,000 feet. The Solent ambled along un-pressurised at about 220 knots - 400 kilometres per hour. Passengers were always treated to fabulous scenery as the maximum cruising height was only 3000 metres and the pilot often dipped well below this restriction to take full advantage of the view below.
Airtime could be noisy for the four-man crew — pilot, co-pilot, radioman, navigator — but passengers were ensconced in an insulated, upholstered cabin lounge that resembled a set from a Cary Grant movie. The Solents carried around 45 in luxurious two deck surroundings more like high-class restaurants, complete with silver service, tables with linen tablecloths and powder rooms. An onboard chef cooked meals to order. Crew and passengers became life-long friends.
This late 1930s photograph of the interior of a Short S30 flying boat shows the spacious interior. In the foreground is the first-class cabin, with doors through to two more passenger cabins.
Compare this with today’s cattle class in flight experience of packed airplanes, howling children and people dressed like they're coming from the gym.
Before the days of pre-packed airline meals, food for international passengers was prepared on board by a steward. A TEAL steward is shown at work in the galley of a Solent flying boat, about 1951. TEAL took great pride in providing fresh food, which was served on fine china with silver cutlery.
In 1954 a young Queen Elizabeth II undertook an antipodean tour of the Empire accompanied by Prince Philip. They departed Fiji for New Zealand, on a Tasman Empire Air Lines Short Solent IV flying boat 'Aoteoroa II' ZK-AML.
In Auckland and Wellington, crowds would flock down to the waterfront to watch the flying boats arrive and depart. The roar of the four 2040 hp Bristol Hercules engines and the huge plume of sea spray created an exciting spectator panorama. The service would leave from Auckland in the morning and touchdown mid-afternoon at Suva's Laucala Bay (now the University of the South Pacific) in Fiji. A line-up of stately black Daimlers, Australian Holdens, and war-surplus Jeepneys with surrey tops, were on hand to ferry passengers to the Grand Pacific Hotel a refined and elegant British colonial building on the waterfront. Passengers enjoyed afternoon tea, a nap, pink gin, and dinner, followed by billiards, and perhaps by conversation with several Somerset Maugham ghosts lurking in the saloon bar.
Next day the passengers were flying northeast to Samoa, landing on the crystal lagoon off what is now Faleolo Airport. This time they were taken to the legendary Aggie Grey's Hotel - to be met by Aggie herself, a woman who made her millions selling hamburgers to American troops and providing the model for Broadway's "Bloody Mary".
Refreshed by another night of dancing and fine food, passengers were up early bound for Tahiti, the French colony that has lured sailors, artists and writers for centuries.
But along the way they alighted at the world's most magical transit point - Aitutaki in the Cook Islands.
AKAIAMI ISLAND AITUTAKI
The TEAL 'airport' for Cook Islands was located on Motu Akaiami in Aitutaki lagoon. Motu in the local language-meaning island. This was once the only international airport on an uninhabited island, set amidst the legendary Aitutaki lagoon, complete with its Polynesian dancers and cocktails on the white sand, palm-fringed beaches and a 'transit terminal' to die for.
Here the giant Solents landed and then set anchor a short distance off the motu. A clinker built lighter would then ferry passengers to the small wharf, and from there they would walk to the 'Terminal' for a meal and refreshments while the plane was re-fuelled.
On occasion, and to the delight of all but the most anxious business traveller, weather further ahead on the Coral Route would demand that a flying boat spend the night on motu Akaiami. A message would be relayed back to the main island of Aitutaki and a small flotilla of canoes and supply boats would set sail for the motu. On board would be the makings for an island feast, complete with young hula dancers to entertain the stranded passengers and crew while the food was prepared.
There was one famous flight when the plane was coming back from Tahiti bound for Auckland and one of the Solent's four engines failed, forcing the plane to leave 40 passengers behind while it returned to Tahiti. The passengers were furious and upset, but nothing could be done.
They were forced to loiter for several days on a deserted beach with little to do but beach comb, swim, and enjoy French claret and New Zealand brie by candlelight.
Said the captain at the time: "At first (the passengers) wanted to lynch the crew. By the second day they'd all calmed down. By the end of eight days, when a relief plane arrived, it was impossible to get any of them to go aboard."
It doesn't quite compare to 24 hours on a seat in Gatwick waiting for air traffic controllers to call off their strike.
STAYING ON THE ISLAND
Sadly the glamour and adventure of the Coral Route has long since passed, but there still exists a last vestige of those heydays, where for a very reasonable sum you too can live the life enjoyed by the Jet-Set of the 50’s and 60’s. A delightful Robinson Crusoe Chic resort is available to those with a thirst for adventure and their own private tropical island.
There are two resorts on the island. The first is run by Tutai, affectionately known as “Aunty Tutai” but whose full name is Manarangi Tutai Ariki o Vaipaepae-o-Pau, Paramount Chief of the Eastern side of Aitutaki Island.
The second resort is on the site of the old TEAL lodge.
Akaiami Lodge offers one hand-crafted lodge finished to immaculate taste. The lodge can sleep up to six people, has a separate kitchen, hot-water shower and chef on request. You will find a quality double kayak, use of which is included in your daily rate. This is a unique opportunity to spend some time alongside one of the most exquisite beaches and swimming lagoons in the Cook Islands. Welcome to paradise ...
Akaiami Lodge offers a distinctive class of accommodation and has been carefully hand-crafted using local timber with brass fittings, keeping to the original design of the old Teal terminal building. The lodge is set about 15 metres back from the beach within the coconut grove with an unobstructed view of the lagoon and offers one enclosed bedroom with queen size bed, one large open-plan room (picture below), a fully equipped kitchen, bathroom, entrance porch and covered outdoor seating area with BBQ.
The Lodge is a spacious building, 8 x 16 metres (approx. 24 x 48 feet -- nearly 1200 square feet) with a fully equipped kitchen, including refrigeration and separate bathroom with hot-water shower. It very comfortably sleeps four, though extra beds can be arranged.
The Lodge has electrical lighting, ceiling and bed fans (all solar powered) as well as kerosene lamps.
Other than that, you will find no TV, no video, no radio; in fact, no gizmos of any kind are here to distract you from what you came to enjoy - peace and quiet on the most spectacular, crescent-shaped, white sand beach on Earth.
THE LAST FLYING BOAT SERVICE IN THE WORLD
In May 1954 DC-6 aircraft replaced the four Belfast-built Solents on the Auckland-Fiji leg but TEAL retained the Solent IV Aranui for service on the Coral Route until September 1960, which marked the end of the world's last scheduled international flying boat service.
Ray Gasparich, president of the Flying Boat Society in New Zealand said the Solent was noisy for the crew, but not for the passengers, and he laments the domination of Pacific routes today by land planes.
"The seats were extremely comfortable, and you had good onboard service. They're marvellous aircraft, flying boats, and just as viable today."
More recently, Air New Zealand senior vice president sales and distribution Norm Thompson said the development of the Coral Route set the airline "on a path of international route expansion".
"The Coral Route not only created a fund of goodwill among South Pacific peoples by providing them with regular communication links, but above all it created a unique tourist experience no other airline could match, and this began building an international reputation for TEAL,"
Contact Mrs Tearuru Carl Marsters: +682-31185
Contact Sydney Marsters: +682-50954