It all started with an air-mail service – but soon the famous Coral Route was carrying passengers on romantic (and expensive) tours across the South Pacific.
For many passengers during that golden age of air travel, the crowning jewel of the trip was the motu Akaiami in Aitutaki, Cook Islands.
American actor Marlon Brando loved his trip to Akaiami so much that he returned a second time, while filming Mutiny on the Bounty.
Now, Louis Alphonse from Wallis Islands and Olivier Bôle from French Polynesia are planning a new airline based in French Polynesia, to link the South Pacific islands – once the Covid-19 travel bans are lifted.
Not just focusing on the French-speaking territories, there are plans for the airline Fly Coralway to link Samoa, Tonga, Fiji, and the Cook Islands, from next year.
Any proposals for air links between the east and west of the Pacific would be welcomed, said Cook Islands Tourism Corporation.
Chief executive Halatoa Fua said air links between east and west Pacific had always been widely discussed, and Cook Islands will welcome any proposal.
French Polynesia Government President Edouard Fritch and selected government members have met with Pacific Aero Consult aeronautical consultant Olivier Bôle to discuss the new airline service.
The discussion showed that with the links to the named Pacific Islands, this would be an opportunity to improve regional integration.
The French Polynesia government said the objective of the regional air service project is to develop air connectivity in the region and strengthen air links between pacific island states and territories.
According to the airline, it is looking at an Airbus or Embraer aircraft, jets fit for regional mid-range island-hopping, carrying 100-130 passengers.
The airline plans to start flying by the middle of next year.
Air Tahiti has also run scheduled flights between Papeete and Rarotonga, up until this year’s travel ban. It’s not yet known if or when those flights will resume.
From silver screen to Blue Pacific
At 9 o’clock in the morning, the radio would crackle into life in the TEAL airline depot at Akaiami Bay, Aitutaki. “A shout would go up, and everyone would man their stations,” she wrote.
The Solent flying boat would arrive shortly after, while the day was still cool. Staff on the ground had, the night before, marked out a water landing area with inflatable buoys.
The flying boats would then anchor in Akaiami Bay, while crew scrambled to fill the plane with fuel using a refuelling barge.
The crew and passengers would be welcomed onto the passenger wharf with decorated flower ‘ei by people of Aitutaki. They would enjoy a swim or a stretch under the palm trees.
The giant seaplane was first developed in the 1940s as part of the war effort.
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.
According to AtlasObscura, 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.
The newly-fitted out plane seated up to 45 passengers over two decks. It included a five-strong crew, including a chef, Islands Week recounted.
New Zealand-based Tasman Empire Airways Limited (now Air New Zealand) operated the aircraft on a 30-hour milk run around the South Pacific, from late December 1951.
For two and a half days, Coral Route passengers would hop from flying boat to island on an 8000km journey.
Passengers would sit luxuriously in the seaplanes, which were hulled like a boat, with wings like a plane, allowing them to take off and land on water.
The trip began in Auckland, New Zealand, travelling through to Laucala Bay in Fiji, Satapula in Samoa, Akaiami in Cook Islands, and Papeete, French Polynesia.
The Coral Route was the first scheduled air service through the islands of the South Seas. Using four-engine Solent flying boats, it flew into the jet age, becoming the world’s last long-haul flying boat route.
For the 2000 Aitutaki locals of Aitutaki, the seaplane’s arrival was a high point in the week. Children stood agape on the beach, trying to spot a star of the silver screen like John Wayne or Cary Grant. The Crown Prince of Tonga 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 with her family, the night before.
“Mama use to pack some food and water and we would have a lovely picnic under the stars,” she wrote.
“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.”