Pros: The Lagoon, snorkeling, beauty, some locals, climate, isolation
Cons: Limited infrastructure, bleached coral, complete lack of cultural or intellectual activity, expensive
In June, 2003, my wife and I stayed for a full month on Aitutaki, opting to avoid Rarotonga altogether. We chose to avoid the resort experience, and instead tried to immerse ourselves in the local environment as much as possible. We were atypical in the length of time that we stayed there, and went away with a rich array of experiences. It was a unique and wonderful vacation, but we were glad to leave. This destination is best for couples, or unconventional families with children. Most of the other tourists to the island are Kiwis (New Zealanders); Australians; Europeans (mostly Germans or English); Americans make up 8% of the visitors. English is spoken by everyone. The official currency is the New Zealand dollar, so all references to dollar values here are to that.
You can see some photos that we took while on Aitutaki at the following URL: http://community.webshots.com/album/82836954ErZpGH?911
Aitutaki lies 150 miles North of Rarotonga, the main island of the Cook Islands, which is served by Air New Zealand and, more recently, Hawaiian Airways. We took Air New Zealand from Los Angeles, and the trip to Rarotonga was about 13 hours, including a 2 hour stopover in Papeete, Tahiti in the middle of the night. Air New Zealand is not particularly service-oriented, and though we flew in business class, the service was more like coach class. I think that comes down to the egalitarian mentality of the Kiwis. The Cook Islands is loosely affiliated with New Zealand, and therefore, for better or worse, there is a lot of Kiwi influence in the local culture. From Rarotonga, there is an island-hopper (34-seat Saab 340 turboprop) that takes 40 minutes to fly to Aitutaki's coral runway, constructed by American GI's in 1942, and not upgraded since (though it's not that apparent). There is no air traffic control, runway lights, etc. and the pilots seem to "wing it". This is very much the way most things are run on Aitutaki. An open-air bus takes you from the airport to your lodging for NZ$8 per person. The Rarotonga-Aitutaki r/t flight costs about NZ$300 per person. I suggest requesting the two seats that are together in row 1 of the Saab, as that affords the most legroom. The island-hopper flight was smooth, and the aircraft appeared to be well-maintained, though the plane goes through about 24 takeoffs/landings per week. The Saab 340 safety record can be found at this URL: (http://aviation-safety.net/database/type/410.shtml).
A large, high resolution map of Aitutaki can be found here: (http://ortho.linz.govt.nz/cook_island/aitutaki_high_res.jpg)
Aitutaki is located at approximately 20 degrees South of the Equator, so it has a similar balmy climate to Hawaii, which is about 20 degrees North of the Equator. The temperate during June was consistently between 74 and 81 degrees fahrenheit, and the humidity was definitely bearable. We had about 1 week of rain, even though it wasn't supposed to be the wet time of year. Most nights there was a storm with strong winds and some rain, but most days were clear and sunny. We are fair-skinned, and did not get sunburned, even though we were outside all day every day, but that's thanks to sunblock. I used SPF 48 (Coppertone Sport) and found that it stayed effective even after being in the water for extended snorkels. Since it's near the Equator, you only get 12 hours of sun per day. Sunset is around 6 pm.
There is no violent crime on Aitutaki that I know of. There might be some petty theft. Don't leave your wallet outside your hotel room overnight, for instance. There are no terrorists, as there is nothing to get fanatical about.
Accommodation on Aitutaki has two extremes -- budget and deluxe -- with not a lot in between. On one end, you can stay in a $15/night room, or spend over $1000/night for a bungalow. There are only about 150 beds on the island! This is remarkable, because it means that Aitutaki has not become the victim of the big resorts (yet). BTW, previous reviews mention the Rapae Motel; that place is now closed. Stay on the West side of the island; the East side has mudflats and is too far from all services. Also, stay away from the airport area, for the same reason. Staying inland defeats the purpose of being on an island. Here are my personal opinions on the current lodging choices:
Pacific Resort. The most expensive choice on the island. From $710-1225 per night. In a good, central location on the West side of the island. Has about 13 acres of land under lease; took the developers about 5 years to secure it from island landowners. Nice sandy beach, but not an ideal swimming beach due to the abundance of sea cucumbers and generally murky water. The resort has a small fleet of kayaks and paddle boats available for guests, but does not rent to non-guests (a problem, because they are the only source of paddle craft on this side of the island). There is a restaurant, which we hear is not very good, or rather not worth the money. Opened in 2002, reportedly owned by the Church of the LDS, currently expanding with more bungalows on a less desirable stretch of beach, near where a local stream meets the lagoon (with garbage, pig feet, etc.) It's very much a closed, resort atmosphere, with no real opportunity to sample the local flavor, but many people seem to seek just this. With its position on the most exposed promontory on the island, would not be a good place to withstand a typhoon, which you are unlikely to encounter on your visit, though.
Pearl Beach Resort. The second most expensive place. Located near the airport, which means very far out of the way. People we knew who stayed here felt very isolated. They have "over water" bungalows, which may or may not appeal to you.
Are Tamanu. Good location. Near the Pacific Resort. Nice beach, but shares the same problems that other places have: sea cucumbers, murky water (though this is probably due to the abnormal amount of rainfall that we had in June). This resort has a stone wall around it. Only one beachfront unit. LordBalfor's review covers the Are Tamanu in depth, as he stayed there, and I'd refer you to his review for a more accurate assessment. We almost stayed here, but the staff did not reply consistently or quickly enough to e-mail inquiries.
Sunny Beach Lodge. This is where we stayed for the entire month. This is a small, family-owned 'self catering' lodge (more accurately, deluxe motel) that is exceptionally clean, with friendly and helpful staff, and spacious rooms, nearly all with screens and ceiling fans (which is fine, because air conditioning wasn't needed at all). We had the best room of the 5 they offer, unit #4. It faces the beach, and has windows in 3 sides. The rooms all have full kitchens, private bathroom, a small dining room, and a double bed and one or two single beds. We had no mosquitos in our room, and had two 'pets': geckos that ate errant insects. A large cockroach lived under the fridge area, and armies of small ants were nearly everywhere, but no place on the island is without these. The maid, one of the most cheerful people on the island, changes the towels daily and the bed sheets regularly. They even washed our clothes weekly, and line-dried and folded them. We highly recommend this place. It's about NZ$80/night. The name of the woman who handles the reservations is Aroha.
Website: None. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Vaikoa Units. Nice, friendly woman runs this budget place. On same stretch of beach as Are Tamanu resort (above). Rooms are about $40/night. Very spartan and basic, but a good choice for the budget traveler. She will rent a reef canoe (on any day but Sunday) for $10, but be careful because her models take on water with more than one person in it. And though they have an anchor, it's very tricky to get back in once you're out (e.g. after snorkeling near the reef). Get the sole unit that's on the beach, if you can!
Website: None. E-mail: None. Phone: 682 31145
Matriki. Did not see the inside of these thatched huts adjacent to Are Tamanu, but met a Kiwi couple who were in one and said it was very small. Also, bathrooms are shared. Good location, though, and inexpensive.
Website: None. E-mail: email@example.com
Traditional island cuisine seems to be dying out, in favor of New Zealand cuisine, which is like English cuisine. Bland, un-imaginative, and generally unhealthy. About 1/4 of the main supermarket is dedicated to ice cream, and most of the islanders demonstrate this fact. However, if you like seafood, and if you go in mango/pineapple season (October-December), then you'll have some choice. Outside these months, you can still enjoy some of the "perennial" fruits: bananas, breadfruit, coconuts. There is not much choice, nor variety, though, among restaurants (especially if you want something more than fried food). Avoid the Chinese restaurant (Me-Jo's?). We stuck to "Tauono's Garden Cafe'" (about a 5 minute bike ride from the Sunny Beach Lodge), and close to the Are Tamanu resort. More detail on this directly below...
Tauono's Garden Cafe'. Run by a 60'ish island native named Tauono, and his wife of 8 years, Austrian-born Canadian emigree Sonja, this is a two-picnic-table organic restaurant situated in a garden under a monumental, beautiful Puka tree. The entire time we were there, Tauono and Sonja were on vacation, though, and the place was being looked after by a charming Kiwi couple. Rumors are that Sonja's portions are quite small, but we are unable to comment on that. She also sells organic fruit and vegetables, and "European cakes", during the day. We bought from her on two occasions -- spinach, herbs, garlic grass, spinach, star fruit, passion fruit, bananas, bell peppers -- for about $20-25 each time.
Maina Trader's Super-Store. When we weren't eating at Tauono's, we cooked for ourselves. This was a real challenge. There is fruit growing everywhere on the island, but you cannot buy anything but New Zealand apples at the local supermarket! The supermarket only stocks food that arrives by supply boat, along with some white bread that is locally baked. Canned and boxed food is the norm, and the quality of the packaged food is quite low (the brand "Pam's" predominates). I strongly recommend bringing your own supply of food, as much as is practical (given that the weight limit on luggage for Air Rarotonga is 16kg per person). Otherwise, you'll be eating cabin bread with peanut butter and honey for breakfast and lunch.
Angelo's. This is not a restaurant or a supermarket. It's instead an eccentric Italian guy in his 60's who lives in the hills with his islander wife. He has a huge garden and plantation, plus a number of chickens and pigs, and he grows Italian salads (rucola, radicchio, etc.), tomatoes, etc, which he also sells. Hygiene is not his strong suit, so if you go up there, don't look too closely, but his produce is good and supposedly organically grown. Bring bug spray with you, as mosquitoes abound up there. Just ask anybody in town where Angelo lives; he's the only Italian in the Cook Islands.
Farmer's Market. Every day but Sunday, at the Aruntanga wharf. Come at 7:00 am. You'll have to use your elbows to get by the local women, who will push you out of the way to get the choicest fish or fruit. You can get coconut cake and tapioca here, too.
What is food without water? Well, you can't drink the tap water, as it's completely untreated. Fresh water is a scarce resource on Aitutaki, and the ground water is unfortunately contaminated by agricultural chemicals, among other things. In the tropics, especially, you have to keep hydrated, so what to do? We bought about 6 1.5 liter bottles of spring water each day as part of our daily ritual. Note that each bottle costs $2.90 at the SuperStore, and $3.90 down the street at the "Heineken" convenience store. So we spent $17.40 a day on drinking water alone.
If you're like the islanders, and prefer not to move a muscle, then you can rent a moped or car at many places on the island. We found the best way to get around was by bicycle ("push bikes" they call them), and rented mountain bikes from the Sunny Beach Lodge for the duration of our stay. Walking is not practical for daily things, since while the island is not large, things are spread apart.
I don't recommend getting sick while you're on Aitutaki. There is a hospital (clinic), but they seem sorely lacking in supplies and the hygiene is not that high. I saw a doctor for an infected cut (North American antibiotic ointments will not make a dent on tropical organisms), who wore a baseball hat with the embroidered words "Bad Boy". The entire visit, including wound dressing and antibiotics, came to $30. A follow-up visit was free.
Most tourists who rent mopeds on the island end up with 2nd degree burns from exposed mufflers, so you may be going to the hospital for that if you're not careful.
If you have a toothache before you go to Aitutaki, see your dentist, since there are no dentists at all on Aitutaki. Remember what happened to the character Tom Hanks played in 'Cast Away'.
When swimming or snorkeling, don't touch, step or brush against the coral. It's razor-sharp, and is covered with an oozy film that is actually bacteria.
Don't drink the water. I ate salad that had been washed in tap water (not rain water or spring water) and got to spend a lot of time in the bathroom. I wouldn't even recommend using tap water to brush your teeth.
Watch for stone fish. Do a search in Google images for "Stone fish" and see a picture. They are about the only dangerous thing (after Moray Eels) in the lagoon, and you don't want to step on their hypodermic-needle-like spine. The cure is rather simple, and consists of keeping your foot immersed in very hot water for a while. Locals will talk about treating "poison with poison", but you should smile politely and ignore them. Note that in our entire month there, we did not see one stone fish.
Be careful if feeding fish. The Sergeant fish and Butterfly fish have a liking for old white bread and donuts. You can hand feed them. But watch for lurking larger fish. A grouper appeared out of nowhere while I was feeding a massive school of Butterly fish at One Foot Island, and left a circular mouth incision on my arm. Unfortunately, it didn't scar, so no souvenir.
Bring your own over-the-counter and prescription medicine (also sunblock, earplugs, noseplugs, whatever you need), because you won't find it on the island. You will find bandages, though, which you'll probably need.
Dengue Fever exists on the island. We met someone who had it last year. It's spread by mosquito bites. We didn't hear of any problems with malaria, but it's best to make yourself unattractive to biting insects. We occasionally used Natrapel instead of products containing DEET, and had no problems. There weren't that many bugs out during June.
If you bring your own "triple antibiotic" ointment, it won't do much good in the tropics. They have much stronger antibiotic ointment that you should buy if you get a cut. Personally, I got a blister from a pair of water sandals, and though I treated it aggressively, it festered and became infected, resulting in a course of antibiotics (not good to take in a sunny location!) and the aforementioned antibiotic ointment.
Here are the things I recommend you do:
Lagoon Cruise/Snorkeling. Skip the big, jaded operators like Bishops, and instead go with "Kia Orana Cruises". This is run by an ethical, hardworking island guy named Andrew (who calls himself "Captain Fantastic") who has the nicest, newest motorboat on the island. He can accomodate 10 people ($55/each), but I STRONGLY recommend chartering him for the day, as we did, for a few hundred dollars. It's well worth it, especially when you consider how far you've come, and this is the closest you'll get to experiencing paradise (I do not exaggerate). He'll pick you up at 9:30, and will drop you back at around 4:30. I recommend he takes you first to snorkel at the Maina reserve. This is the best snorkeling in the area, and you'll have it largely (or completely) to yourself. He'll anchor the boat in a shallow area, and you can swim out from there off a sandy "wall" into deeper water. It's crystal clear out here, and the fish are large and abundant. We saw a large octopus, too, and turtles have been spotted here. Large Picasso Triggerfish, Parrotfish, Morish Idols, and other wonders await you here. After that, have him take you to Honeymoon Island, where he has exclusive rights to a beach hut. He prepares an extensive, fresh buffet of local food (and is sensitive if you're a vegan or vegetarian), unlike anything we had the whole month on the island. Honeymoon Island itself is the kind of place where every picture you take is an instant postcard. After digesting and wandering around Honeymoon Island, return to the Maina snorkeling spot for some more snorkeling, and before you know it the day will be over. Two days of this were the highlights of our trip. And don't forget to bring a QUALITY underwater camera, like the Canon Elph Sport, if you want quality photographic memories from your snorkeling. Also, I highly recommend investing in good snorkel/mask/fins.
Another option is to go out on a Hobie Cat with a German guy named Matthias (co-owner, with wife Riki, of "Matriki"). Matriki is adjacent to the Are Tamanu resort, and offers budget accommodations (shared bathrooms, small thatched huts), massages, boat tours, and basically anything else that can fit on the sign outside their place. Matthias is a man of few words, and lives a pretty hand-to-mouth existence, from what I could gather. One day, we went with him in his Hobie Cat to Maina Island. He dropped us off there, and came back a few hours later. I wish he had provided us with more (read: any) information about the place, because we were left to bake on a very long sandbar for hours, and nearly had heat exhaustion by the time he returned. Though it's a few dollars less than Kia Orana Cruises (above), I don't recommend going with him.
One Foot Island. There's a rustic 2-level plywood house with a veranda on beautiful One Foot Island that you can rent for around US$120 per night. We stayed there for two enjoyable nights. You'll have the island to yourself from about 4pm to 9am, after the day tourists leave. It's run by the Kit-Kat Cruises people, who some islanders say are "crooks", but within the limits of this trip, we didn't have any problems with them. Note that a 'barbeque' lunch is included each day you stay on the island, since the Kit-Kat people come there each day with day-trippers on their lagoon cruise. Beware, though, because they do re-use old food from day to day; they kept the grilled tuna on grill from one day to the next while we were there, and covered it with a plank of wood, ultimately re-heating it and serving it up to the people on the next day's cruise! There is a resident, sweet and hungry cat named Lester who will keep you company, whether or not you like it. He has the notable ability of being able to vault himself up to the veranda if you have closed the doors and windows. He was put there to fend for himself and live off chicken eggs; yes, there are roosters even on uninhabited One Foot Island, alas. There is running water (cold only), shower, and a flush toilet. There are also numerous mice who will leave droppings all over the kitchen, regardless how clean you keep it. The house doesn't have screens or glass on the windows, so it's open air, which is quite nice. A mosquito net was in place when we were there, but double-check that one is in place before you go, as you might need it depending on which way the wind is blowing. The setting is spectacular, and despite the rustic nature of it all, it's definitely worth doing and you'll kick yourself if you don't do it. Book well in advance, though.
Nightlife. There's a church on every corner, it seems, and the competing influence of the different denominations has made the island a very... pious place. Meaning that apart from islanders who drink too much home-brew, you're not going to find anything remotely decadent on Aitutaki. The "island nights" showcase local dancers, and tourists are invited to join in, but being contrarian by nature, we decided to skip the island night thing entirely. If you think such things are quaint, though, it may be for you :-) Rumor has it that the Blue Nun, at the Arutanga wharf, has the best island night.
Snorkeling from the island. You need to get away from land for the water visibility to clear up. If you can, get a local (like Tauono from the synonymous Cafe) to pole boat you out to the reef. Otherwise, your only hope is to snorkel on the motus like Maina or One Foot Island.
SCUBA. We didn't do this, but heard that it's quite good indeed.
Bicycling. The island is somewhat fun to bike around though after doing it once you will have seen everything. Along the way, you'll see a large grove of Banyan trees, which have their roots in the air (deriving moisture from the humidity). Traffic travels on the left in Aitutaki ("the right way", as any Kiwi will tell you), which takes some getting used to, especially at intersections. The drivers are very courteous, and will give you plenty of room. The speed limit is 25 kph, but most people go double that. You won't find any islanders on bicycle. Mopeds are the vehicle of choice.
Swimming with dolphins. One guy, David from Safari Tours, took people out to sea on a small boat to watch Spinner Dolphins. But one weekend while we were there the boat was capsized by a large wave as they were returning through the reef passage, and people got hurt, so he may not be doing that anymore. If he is, you might want to consider that there are risks associated. Remember, too, that there is no Coast Guard or other organized rescue teams available, so Aitutaki isn't suited to extreme sports (unless you are so extreme you don't need a Plan B).
Sunsets. Nearly every day has a beautiful sunset on the West side of the island at around 6 pm.
Beachcombing. Good opportunities to find old coral and shells exist on Honeymoon and Maina Islands, but also on Aitutaki itself (though its beaches are more combed).
Church. Missionaries had a high success rate on Aitutaki, and religion is big. There are more churches than any other type of building (except houses, of course). On Sunday, everything is closed. It's worth going to the historic church in Arutanga to hear the singing. The islanders have lovely singing voices. Afterwards, you'll be invited to join the churchgoers for cups and cakes.
Sleep. Sleeping is a good thing to do on Aitutaki, since you should be exhausted from getting the most out of the 12 hours of sunlight, and there's nothing to do at night anyway (unless you're into the "island nights"). You'll also need to go to bed early, since the roosters (more on them below) are silent only from 7pm until 1am.
Culture. Apart from the island dancers, there are no cultural activities. There is no library, bookstore, music store, community center, coffee shop, or other distractions. So bring whatever you need to keep your mind active.
Internet. Journey back to 1993 by visiting the Internet Lounge, on the road between Arutunga and Amuri. There you'll be able to access the web with a 28.8 modem connection, and pay $0.60/minute for the luxury. I suggest setting up a free yahoo.com email account for your trip, so you don't waste money downloading and filtering spam from your regular account. The guys who run it, Jimmy and Savage, are friendly and helpful; it's not their fault that telecom is inefficient out there.
The Islanders. I have read elsewhere how friendly the islanders are. I find it hard to agree wholeheartedly with this. Our experience was that there is a minority of islanders who are, by nature, joyful and talkative; but the majority seemed to carry a large chip on their shoulders regarding white people in general, and go out of their way to avoid interaction. On two occasions, while bicycling around the island, we were called the Maori derogatory term for white people. Most of their "stuff" seems to be directed at the Kiwis, though. There is no violent crime against white people, so safety isn't a concern; there's just a simmering resentment beneath the surface of most encounters. We had hoped to get to know islanders during our one month stay, but felt very much "frozen out".
Keep in mind too that the population of Aitutaki has now dwindled to about 1,500 people. There are more Cook Islanders living in New Zealand than in the Cook Islands. So the ones who are left behind are either not skilled enough to go abroad, or are back home for good after living in NZ. The latter group seemed to us to be the most industrious, and includes Rata, the owner of the Sunny Beach Lodge; and George, the "Captain Fantastic" of Kia Orana Cruises.
The female children on the island are particularly shy, and on one occasion a young girl said she would get in trouble with her father if she were seen talking to foreigners. But young boys tend to be boisterous, often surprising me by starting to pummel the back of my legs with their small fists. There is a strong current of machismo on the island, but only boys under the age of 6 are tolerated to express it in public, apparently. As we were waiting for our flight to leave Aitutaki, we witnessed a 5-year old boy strutting around, generally terrorizing the other passengers (apart from a young American couple who somehow found him "cute" and gave him sips from their Coke bottle). One old man was walking on a cane, and the boy kicked the cane away, nearly causing the man to fall. The boy's mother, who works in the souvenir shop, turned a blind eye to the boy's antics.
The people seem to languish around all day, or else zip around on their motor scooters. Paradoxically, nothing seems to go on, but the people are punctual. The houses, though seemingly run-down, are kept quite clean. Safety is not a big priority, as the most common passengers on the back of mopeds are infants, hanging on to their driver with one hand, helmetless.
The islanders are a homogenous bunch, and there is not much, if any, ethnic diversity among the population. They are convinced that they live in paradise, and some openly blame white people for their problems (which isn't too far from the truth, when you consider the problems that pesticides and herbicides have caused the island's ecology). But this attitude is also mixed with ignorance (hey, there is no formal education beyond grade school, no libraries, no book stores, etc.), and "island wisdom" can get a bit trying to listen to, unless you have an infinite tolerance for unfounded beliefs.
All land is "family land" and real estate cannot be bought freehold. It can only be leased. We knew of no non-Cook-Islanders who had a house or vacation property on the island. We did meet a German guy, and an English woman, who had lived there for years -- but they were each married to a local. There is one American guy living on the island full-time, named Larry. Apparently he is allowed to live there year-round because he volunteers his time at the local school. At first, I envied him; by the end, I pitied him :)
There is a strong Kiwi influence on Aitutaki, which is both good and bad. Good, because it means people are punctual, polite, quick to laugh, honest, and tidy. Bad, because they can be rigid, stingy, culinarily challenged, and rule-oriented (not creative problem-solvers).
Roosters. There are thousands of roosters and hens roaming free on the island. The islanders use the roosters for cock fights. They make an unbelievable racket all night long, as well as during the day. Expect to be awoken many times at night, or bring earplugs.
Coral bleaching. The coral is 99.9% colorless in the lagoon. Someone said that this was due to the pesticide dumping that went on until the island's banana export business failed 25 years ago; another person said that it has been like that for the past 50 years. Whatever the cause, the coral itself is a disappointment.
Air quality. Would be great, if only the locals didn't burn their trash in their yards. Plastic and everything else imaginable gets burned for your respiratory pleasure.
Night sky. Spectacular, Milky Way visible most nights. No city lights for hundreds/thousands of miles around.
Island time. Nothing seems to get done on Aitutaki. If you stay there long enough, you may lose your edge, too. Some people find this complete lack of human industry appealing; others find it mind-numbing.
Some tips on things to bring to Aitutaki.
Flashlights. With 12 hours of darkness per 24 hours, and no street lights, you need some illumination.
Plug adapter. If you're taking an electricity convertor, then you'll need to buy the "South Pacific" type plug adapter, as most standard kits do not have it. I bought two at magellans.com, one ungrounded, one grounded:
PRODUCT NUMBER/ (SEE QUANTITY QUANTITY UNIT
DESCRIPTION BELOW) ORDERED SHIPPED PRICE
EA235E 1 1 1 2.85
ADAPTOR PLUG E
EA23MEG 1 1 1 6.85
SO PACIFIC ELECT PLUG - GROUND
Energy bars. Good for breakfast or snack.
Multivitamins. Because Aitutaki white bread isn't fortified with vitamins and iron :)
Hydration powder. I brought a supply of "GU Hydration" powder, available at most bike supply companies (performancebike.com) to make sure I replaced electrolytes that were lost after hours of snorkeling.
Earplugs. Since you'll be doing a lot of snorkelling, and don't want "water ear". You can't get these on the island. I got silicone earplugs from Campmor.com
Sun screen. Because the Sun is stronger in the tropics.
Sun shirt. Long-sleeved shirt that you can swim in and avoid excessive exposure to Sun. Patagonia has some, as does Campmor.com.
Swiss Army Knife. We needed it on a daily basis.
Underwater camera. Invest in a housing for your 35mm camera, or get a Canon Elph Sport. You're doing yourself a disservice if you get a cheap disposable.
Snorkel gear. Because you want to be using it daily, and "renting" used equipment is a hit-and-miss affair on the island (only the cruises rent it, and they're pretty grungy). We followed recommendations from Rodale's Gear Buyer's Guide at scubadiving.com on masks (Cressi-Sub "Big Eyes"), fins (AERIS Velocity), and snorkels (I recommend getting a brightly colored one to be better seen). Remember to get mask defogger, too, like Sea Gold.
Reef Shoes. Get yourself a couple of $10 reef shoes, such as the 'Rafters Orlando Watersports Shoes' at Campmor.com. You'll need to wear these inside your snorkel fins, and it's also helpful to have footwear that won't give you blisters (which in the tropics can easily get infected).