Starting in 1951, Tasman Empire Airways Limited (TEAL) operated the Coral Route, a monthly island-hopping extravaganza for some of the world’s glitziest people.
Within six months, demand was so great that the airline doubled its services. But by the end of 1960, it was all over and the islands, touched for a brief period by seaplane magic, were brought abruptly back to normal.
It started with a mail service. In the wake of World War Two, New Zealand found itself with an impressive fleet of pilots, who had learned to wrangle tide charts and coral reefs alike as they came in to land in the lagoons of the South Pacific. And so, in the final days of the British Empire, the Royal New Zealand Air Force ferried mail from one island outpost to the next, everywhere from Tahiti to Fiji.
But, as enthusiast Stewart Haynes writes, “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.”
The seaplanes continued to take mail, but began bringing passengers with them, on a romantic tourist package that left Auckland for the first time in late December, 1951.
The name “Coral Route” came from a TEAL staff competition: the head steward, Eric Mullane, was inspired by both the beauty of the coral islands and the “choral” musical welcome that guests received on their arrival in each spot.
For two and a half days, Coral Route passengers would hop from flying boat to island, and from island to flying boat, on a journey nearly 5,000 miles long. The trip began in Auckland, New Zealand, traveling through to Suva in Fiji, the Cook Islands, and Tahiti. Stops to Samoa and then Tonga were introduced in 1952.
Passengers sat in luxury in TEAL’s Solent flying boats, which were hulled like a boat, but with wings like a plane, allowing them to take off and land on water.
First developed in the late 1940s as part of the war effort, the seaplanes seated up to 45 passengers over two decks, and included a five-strong crew, including a chef.
Like the Zeppelins of just a few decades earlier, passengers enjoyed a full silver service on board, with fresh linen tablecloths and meals cooked to order. The airline’s two Solent boats, named Aparima, after a Tahitian dance, and Aranui, a Maori word meaning “the great path”, cruised at speeds of around 170 miles per hour, in decadent sky-high surroundings. Each guest had paid £30 for their transit, about a third of the annual U.K. salary in the year the service began.
For many passengers, the crowning jewel of the route was the island of Akaiami, an uninhabited islet in the Cook Islands. New Zealand Geographic describes an islet that was almost a parody of a tiny tropical paradise in its deserted perfection: shallow, turquoise waters beset with garlands of tropical fish; coconut palms; glittering silver sands.
The flying boats landed at dawn, before the sun could climb too high in the sky, and drag the thermostat up with it. TEAL staff on the ground had, the night before, marked out a water landing area with inflatable buoys; the flying boats were then anchored in Akaiami Bay, while crew scrambled to fill the plane with fuel using a refuelling barge.
This hectic behind-the-scenes activity was usually kept out of sight of the passengers. Though exhausted (they had taken off from Apia, the capital of Samoa, at 1am), for a few, brief hours, they enjoyed moments of absolute serenity, hundreds of miles from civilization. After being ferried off the flying boat, guests were welcomed onto the passenger wharf, and decorated with sweet-smelling flower leis by people from nearby Aitutaki, one of the Cook Islands.
For the 2,000 locals of Aitutaki, the arrival of the seaplane to Akaiami was a high point in the week. Aitutaki villagers lived an easy existence in huts with wooden walls and roofs thatched with coconut palms. When the flying boat arrived, children stood agape on the beach, trying to spot someone they might have heard of, although Aitutaki was at that time so isolated from the rest of the world that even the most renowned personality would be likely unrecognisable.
This uninhabited island paradise was, for a few years, witness to some of the world’s most glamorous people, including Marlon Brando, who liked Akaiami so much he returned a second time while filming Mutiny on the Bounty, and the Crown Prince of Tonga, who reportedly needed a custom-made seat to accommodate his bulk. Passengers recuperated in the thatched TEAL guest house, splashed in the shallow waters, or simply wandered the two miles along the island’s coast.
As a little girl, Queen Manarangi Tutai, one of Aitutaki’s three high chiefs, remembered often taking a large canoe to Akaiami in the early 1950s with her family, on the night before the plane’s arrival. This was an easy journey of five miles on her father’s sailing canoe, with its mighty cotton sail.
“On school holidays, Papa would sometimes like to go out to Akaiami to see the seaplane land. He liked to travel the day before, and spend the night there on the island. Often our whole small family would go – Mama, Papa, my brother and sister, and myself. We have land on Akaiami, and we would anchor our big canoe just to the northern side of the TEAL wharf, where we had our property and a small thatched coconut hut. Mama use to pack some food and water and we would have a lovely picnic under the stars.
“On school holidays, Papa would sometimes like to go out to Akaiami to see the seaplane land. He liked to travel the day before, and spend the night there on the island. Often our whole small family would go – Mama, Papa, my brother and sister, and myself.
“I remember still those nights, sitting on a coconut log besides our little camp fire, with the old black billy hissing and bubbling on the tripod. We seemed so isolated, so remote, and yet, for a brief instance the next day, Akaiami would be the only place in the whole Cook Islands where we would be so very close to the outside world. We were, for a very short time, an international airport.”
At 9 a.m., Tutai recalled, the plane would make radio contact with TEAL staff on the ground. “A shout would go up, and everyone would man their stations,” she wrote.
“The big seaplanes usually landed early in the morning around 9 am not long after sunup. They had been traveling through the night from Samoa. The TEAL staff would be on the alert. And when the first radio contact was made with the aircraft a shout would go up, and everyone would man their stations.
“We all would strain our eyes to see her, vying to be the first. Then, there she was, a speck , gradually becoming larger and larger – then a huge seaplane lining up with the water landing area in the lagoon. Lower and lower she would come, until she appeared to be just skimming the wavelets.
“Then, like a big graceful swan, she settled on the water and gently losing speed, taxied up to the mooring bouy. In the peace of Akaiami, I can still remember the deafening roar of those big engines, and the silence that followed when they were stopped. It just seemed to make the stillness much greater somehow.
“We all would strain our eyes to see her, vying to be the first. Then, there she was, a speck, gradually becoming larger and larger, then a huge seaplane lining up with the water landing area in the lagoon.” The plane flew lower and lower, until it was just skimming the surf, before settling on the water and taxiing over the buoy.
The travellers were an exciting addition to island life, providing a brief glimpse at the outside world, far from the South Pacific, and welcomed accordingly with celebration and singing. In Papeete, in Tahiti, every boatload of disembarking guests was greeted with a dance called “Soirée de TEAL.” The night before, the village’s restaurants and bars displayed blackboards outside, which proclaimed: “L’avion TEAL arrivera demain” (“The TEAL plane is coming tomorrow”).
Bars put on special parties to welcome them, and Solent crew and passengers alike treated like stars. Often, they were.
Despite its popularity with both passengers and Pacific Islanders, in September 1960, the service ceased. TEAL had inherited landplanes from a British airline, and the Solents were slowly phased out. First, they vanished from TEAL’s Tasman Strait crossings between New Zealand and Australia. Then, after a new international airport was built at Papeete, land planes took over the journeys between the Pacific Islands, bringing the Coral Route to an end.
By 1965, TEAL was rechristened Air New Zealand, and the service all but forgotten. A glorious chapter in aviation history had come to a close. After a decade of welcoming strangers from far away to their sandy homelands, the islanders, and their islands, went back to the way things had been before.
Today, the remains of the old passenger wharf are still there. Passengers were ferried ashore by means of the TEAL launch, welcomed on the wharf and bedecked with flower ei, and they then rested in the small TEAL guest house, until the time came to board the plane again. Many swam, went for walks along the pristine silver sand, and marvelled at the multihued turquoise of the lagoon. Travellers were enchanted with the isolation, and at the opportunity, even if only for a few short hours, of being able to explore an exotic uninhabited coral island. In its own sweet Polynesian way, it was one of the world’s great classical travel experiences, like a voyage on the Queen Elizabeth, or a journey on the Orient Express.
Note: This article originally appeared on AtlasObscura.com. Reprinted by special permission, © Atlas Obscura Inc. Extra information and photos and photos added to the article were supplied courtesy of Gina’s Garden Lodges on Aitutaki.