Cook Islands

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A Polynesian archipelago in the South Pacific, the Cook Islands has 15 islands scattered across the sea. This archipelago is somewhere between New Zealand and Hawaii. Rarotonga is the largest island and you’ll find a number of things to do in Rarotonga while Aitutaki Island is famous for its stunning lagoon.

The Cook Islands were named after Captain James Cook who only visited these islands twice (in 1773 and 1777) and became a British protectorate in 1888. These days, the Cook Islands is a self-governed country with ties to New Zealand. Cook Islanders have New Zealand passports and the local currency is equal to the New Zealand dollar, which is also accepted in the Cook Islands. 

The first Cook Islanders themselves were navigators who arrived in big canoes (Vakas) around 800 AD.

Cook Islands

Most people think of the Cook Islands as Rarotonga or Aitutaki but there are actually 15 islands. Here’s a list of Cook Islands. 

  • Rarotonga
  • Aitutaki
  • Mangaia
  • Atiu
  • Mauke
  • Takutea
  • Manuae
  • Mitiaro
  • Palmerston
  • Nassau
  • Suwarrow
  • Pukapuka
  • Rakahanga
  • Manihiki
  • Penrhyn

Best Time To Visit Cook Islands

jobs in cook islands - tour guide
One of the best jobs in the Cook Islands is the job of a tour guide.

There are two distinct seasons in the Cook Islands – wet and dry – but there’s really no bad time to visit the Cook Islands.

However, when planning your trip the best time to visit the Cook Islands is during the dry season from April to November when the average temperature is around 25C.

The weather is less humid than it is during the wet season but it’s warm enough to enjoy sunshine and activities on the water. 

12 Things To Do In Rarotonga

Most things to do in the Cook Islands are in Rarotonga, which is an island of about 50 kilometres in diameter.

While there are plenty of fun things to do in Rarotonga it’s also worth visiting Aitutaki’s beautiful lagoon to.  

1- Hire A Scooter And Drive Around

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Riding around on a scooter is one of the fun things to do in Rarotonga.

The main road is the 32-kilometre Ara Tapu road, which is a sealed road encircling the entire island with several offshoots leading into the island’s interior.

It takes around 30 minutes to scooter around the island if you don’t stop, but you’ll most likely find lots to distract you along the way.

Driving around the island offers snapshots of local life, swaying coconut trees, beautiful beaches, lush hills and farms with pawpaw, taro, mango and banana trees.

Hiring a scooter for the day costs NZ$15 and if you don’t have a full motorcycle license from the country you live in, you will need to take a driving test at the Cook Islands Police Station.

2- Go Shopping in Avarua

Avarua, the main town, has several galleries and shops where you can buy hand-made gifts, soaps, colourful island shirts, dresses and sarongs.

Muri night markets has stalls selling local crafts along with food stalls where you can fill up on a cheap meal. 

3- Drink Cocktails At Trader Jacks 

things to do in cook islands
Having a drink at Trader Jack’s is one of the classic things to do in the Cook Islands.

Trader Jacks Bar & Grill is the spot on the waterfront with views of Avarua Harbour.

Take some time to reflect on the waterfront and watch the children doing flying leaps and somersaults into the harbour.

It’s one of the many laid-back bars where you can sip cocktails or drink beer while watching the sunset

4- Dine at Tamarind House

cook islands food
The food in the Cook Islands is fresh and tasty.

Tamarind House is a waterfront restaurant located in a colonial home with lovely gardens and lawns.

The home was built in 1910 for the managers of the Union Steamship Company and was used as the residence of the British Consul in 1988.

The menu has fresh, light and dishes that are perfect for the tropical weather such as tuna with coconut risotto and papaya salad.

5- Picnic On The Beach

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Have a picnic on the beach or join a game of volleyball with the locals. The best beaches in Rarotonga include Muri Beach and Aroa Beach.  

Whatever activity you choose, it won’t be long before you’re dripping with sweat.

6- Eat Pineapple Cheesecake at Maire Nui 

Maire Nui Gardens & Café is set in leafy tropical gardens filled flowering hibiscus and banana trees.

The local Atiu coffee is excellent and the lemon-meringue pineapple cheesecake is delicious.

7- Go Diving

With a sloping plateau that drops off into an abyss 4,500 m deep, the waters around Rarotonga are abundant with coral.

10 minutes by boat is an underwater world of caves and a kaleidoscope of marine life with diving posts suitable for a range of abilities.  

The waters of the Cook Islands are protected by the Cook Islands’ Marae Moana Act, which covers an area more than four times the size of California. 

8- Enjoy Watersports on Muri Lagoon

Kitesurfing Cook Islands
One of the things to do in Aitutaki and Rarotonga is to go kitesurfing.

Grab a kayak or paddleboard and head out into the Muri Lagoon, which is usually calm and perfect for sailing.

Adventurous travellers might want to try kite surfing as the Cook Islands is one of the best places in the world to experience this sport. 

The best time is from May to October when the combination of trade winds and the passing low-pressure systems create ideal conditions for kitesurfing for all skill levels.

9- Go Fishing

things to do cook islands
One of the things to do in the Cook Islands is fishing.

Life on Aitutaki revolves around fishing and all around the Cook Islands you’ll see local families scaling and cleaning a large catch of fish by the water’s edge.

Fishing tournaments occur regularly and if you’re lucky enough to be visiting during a tournament, it’s fun to see.

The atmosphere at the Aitutaki Fishing Club is jubilant and prizes are being handed out to the winners.

The competitors bring in hundreds of kilograms of tuna, wahoo, mahi mahi and trevally caught by fishermen on many boats.

Expect to see fish as heavy as 28kg. 

10- Attend a Church Service

If you’re visiting any of the islands on Sunday, make it a point to attend a local church service to see the locals dressed in their Sunday best. 

Missionaries brought Christianity to the Cook Islands during the 19th century and put an end to cannibalism. 

Since the first missionary, Reverend John Williams of the London Missionary Society (LMS) arrived in 1821, Christianity has grown to become part of the culture of the Cook Islands.

Women wear fabulous hats and the subject of the sermons can be rather interesting too. 

11- Take An Aitutaki Day Tour

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It’s easy to fall in love with Aitutaki as the lagoon has a mesmerising quality that draws people back again and again.

Ringed by 15 palm-covered motu, the jewel in the crown for the Cook Islands was visited by John Wayne and Cary Grant while flying in the Solent, the passenger flying boats for Tasman Empire Air Line (TEAL) that refuelled at Aitutaki on its route across the Pacific.

Charles Darwin called in on the 1835 Beagle voyage en route to the Galapagos Islands and in the 1850s Aitutaki was a favourite port for whaling ships

Until you see the lagoon, you really can’t appreciate the amazing changes in the colour but to get to the best snorkelling spots in the lagoon, join a boat tour to Aitutaki’s more remote Motus (islets).

Aitutaki is a 45-minute flight from Rarotonga and can be visited as a day tour.

Outside the Aitutaki Sailing Club, the boat appears as a speck against a backdrop of wind-blown palm trees curved around the lagoon.

It’s the size of a giant tinny big enough for a dozen passengers, with a canvas canopy overhead, and small enough to drop anchor at some of the lagoon’s best shallow snorkelling areas.

Rub suntan lotion on as the boat cruises past swaying coconut palms and white-sand beaches.

Your first destination is a shallow sand shelf near Honeymoon Island in the southwest part of the lagoon.

The water is thigh deep and ice-green, so clear I can see the stripes of the scissor-tailed surgeonfish swimming around my legs.

aitutaki lagoon resort & spa011

A few kicks away, green becomes blue where the sand bar slopes into deeper waters and the usual multicoloured suspects play hide and seek among coral bommies.

Deeper down is the wreck of the cargo freighter Alexander that sunk in the 1930s.

Look out for brown eels hiding behind the coral.

Captain Wonderful flashes a white-toothy smile and says: “Take a picture and send it to your friends in Australia. Just don’t touch.”

At Honeymoon Island, Captain Wonderful drops anchor and leans back in a plastic chair, feet up, arms behind his head, gazing at tufts of cotton candy clouds.

Next to the boat, a boy clings to the handles of a kitesurf as a gust of wind sweeps it upwards and lifts him out of the water.

On the island, we hunt around the coconut groves for red-tailed tropicbirds nesting on the ground.

The birds are unconcerned by our presence, although a few anxious mums hover overhead keeping a watchful eye on the chicks in the foliage.

12- Honeymoon In Cook Islands

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The boat drops you off on a sand bar near the lagoon’s best-known motu, One Foot Island, and where you might be lucky enough to spot a bride and groom.

It’s a picture-perfect island paradise of soft sand, swaying palms and blue skies.

The scenery is everything you’d expect from a gorgeous day in the South Pacific.

the cook islands

Cameras click and the bridal party is surrounded by a gaggle of people in sarongs, budgie smugglers, board shorts and bikinis.

No, this is not a set for a commercial (but it could be!).

Each year, hundreds of Australians and New Zealanders whose dream is to tie the knot in paradise, head to the Cook Islands to exchange vows.

The dream is to have photographs taken on a secluded beach and One Foot Island is just the place. 

Then you wade about a kilometre through knee-high water to One Foot Island for lunch.

On One Foot Island, Captain Awesome, from a bigger boat, and his crew sing, strum guitars and ukuleles, and bang on drums while Captain Cook fries fresh fish. 

aitutaki lagoon resort & spa

Cook Islands Resorts

Pacific Resort Rarotonga

accommodation cook islands
Accommodation in the Cook Islands is fantastic.

The best beach on the island is Muri Beach and where Pacific Resort Rarotonga is located.

The reason it’s the best beach because it’s protected from the ocean by a reef on three sides and three tiny uninhabited motu.

From the resort, roads lead inland towards the mountains in and the Avana Valley where you can take a hike into the jungle.

There are birds, butterflies, wild goats and pigs but Rarotonga has no snakes, poisonous insects or predators.

The beach is a popular luxury escape for families and the board outside the resort has a list of activities like swimming, sunbaking, snorkelling and paddling canoes.

Fishing tours are popular with visitors.

You leave with a fishing guide at dawn and bring back your catch for the chef. By lunchtime, you’re eating the fish you caught.

With plenty of fresh fish, beautiful beaches and a warm sunny climate, Aitutaki is the perfect South Pacific paradise.

Pacific Resort Aitutaki

Pacific Resort Aitutaki, on the western side of the island, has beachfront bungalows, suites and villas with views of the lagoon.

Choose a suite right on the beach for easy access to fantastic snorkelling. 

All you have to do is pull on your snorkel and wade into the lagoon to swim with fish and coral.

The resort is in a perfect position for swimming, snorkelling or lazing on a hammock under a tree. 

Pacific Resort Aitutaki won the “World’s Leading Boutique Island Resort” at the World Travel Awards in 2008 and 2009.

Currency In The Cook Islands

currency in the cook islands
The currency in the Cook Islands is the New Zealand dollar.

The New Zealand dollar is the International currency used in the Cook Islands, along with local notes and coins.

The local currency can’t be used outside of the Cook Islands unique local coins and notes are not negotiable outside of the Cook Islands but are keenly sought by collectors worldwide.

ATMs are conveniently located around Rarotonga and Aitutaki and EFTPOS is available at most hotels and stores. Western Union has an office in Avarua offering money exchange and transfers.

Flights To Cook Islands

  • Virgin Airlines flies from Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane to Rarotonga (via Auckland).
  • Air New Zealand flies from Sydney and Auckland to Rarotonga. 
  • Jetstar flies from Auckland to Rarotonga. 
  • Air Tahiti flies from Tahiti to Rarotonga. 
  • Air Rarotonga flies from Auckland, Sydney, Tahiti and Los Angeles with to Rarotonga with daily connections to Aitutaki and flights to other places in the Cook Islands. 
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I'm a writer, photographer and video blogger based in Queensland, Australia, when I'm not on the road. I've lived in three continents and my career as a travel journalist has taken me to all seven continents. Since 2003, I have contributed travel stories to mainstream media in Australia and around the world such as the Sydney Morning Herald, CNN Traveller, The Australian and the South China Morning Post. I have won many travel writing awards and I'm a full member of the Australian Society of Travel Writers.

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