Cook Islands

The Cook Islands destinations

about Fifteen droplets of land cast across 2 million sq km of wild Pacific blue, the Cook Islands are simultaneously remote and accessible, modern and traditional. With a strong cafe culture, a burgeoning organic and artisan food scene, and a handful of bar and clubs, Rarotonga lives confidently in the 21st century. But beyond the island’s tourist buzz and contemporary appearance is a robust culture, firmly anchored by traditional Polynesian values and steeped in oral history.

North of ‘Raro’, the sublime lagoon of Aitutaki is ringed with tiny deserted islands and is one of the Pacific’s most improbably scenic jewels. Venture further and robust Polynesian traditions emerge nearer the surface. Drink home brew at a traditional ‘Atiuan tumunu (bush-beer drinking club), explore the ancient makatea (raised coral cliffs) and taro fields of Mangaia, or swim in the underground cave pools of Mitiaro and Ma’uke. The remote Northern Group is a South Seas idyll experienced by a lucky few.

Which Islands to Visit in the Cook Islands

The Southern Group of Islands includes Palmerston, Aitutaki, Manuae (uninhabited), Takutea, Mitiaro, Atiu, Mauke, Rarotonga, and Mangaia. Rarotonga and Aitutaki are two of the easiest islands to visit and where you will find the most infrastructure.

You will find regular flight service to all of the islands in the Southern group, except Palmerston and Manuae. Mangaia is the second largest island in the Cooks, but it has a very small population of just 500 people. Atiu is known for its limestone caves and amazing diving locations and, like Mangaia, is still very much undiscovered.

The Northern group of islands consist of Pukapuka, Penrhyn, Rakahanga, Manihiki, Nassau, and Suwarrow. These islands are not easily accessible and, therefore, very expensive to visit. This guide will focus on Rarotonga and Aitutaki because they are the easiest to access, yet still off the beaten track for most travelers.

Fronting a pretty bay on Rarotonga’s north coast, Avarua is the Cook Islands’ only proper town. Hardly an urban jungle, Avarua’s largest buildings are barely the height of a coconut tree, and the atmosphere of shops and cafes is extremely laid-back. Avarua showcases the island’s twin harbours, the main market and some intriguing sights, including the National Museum and the Para O Tane Palace.

There’s one main road, the Ara Maire, running through town, and past the shops at the western end of Avarua is the Punanga Nui Market and Avatiu Harbour. This is where interisland passenger freighter ships depart from, and where the Port Authority is based. The airport is 1km further west.


Deep-sea fishing is popular in the Cook Islands, with catches of mahi mahi and tuna (from October to May), wahoo and barracuda (April to October), and sailfish and marlin (November to March). A half-day tour – usually around five hours from 6am – costs around NZ$150 to NZ$170 per person.

Helping Rarotonga’s Animals

You’ll probably spy the cute animals from the Esther Honey Foundation at its stall at Saturday morning’s Punanga Nui Market, but it’s also worth visiting the main location to check out the excellent animal welfare work being undertaken.

Rarotonga has a much lower stray canine population compared to other Pacific islands, and significant credit is due to the Esther Honey Foundation. Dog numbers on the island have decreased from 6000 to around 2000, a reduction managed only by spaying and neutering animals, and the dog population of the Cook Islands is now noticeably healthier and more easygoing than in other Pacific destinations.

Drop by to have a chat with the international crew of vets and assistants, and there’s also the chance to interact with a diverse menagerie of dogs, cats and other animals. Feeding times are in the morning.

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Drinking & Nightlife

The main after-dark action on Rarotonga is centred around Avarua. Raro’s big night out is Friday, but Saturday is catching up in popularity. On Friday most places stay open to around 2am, but doors are bolted shut at midnight on Saturday out of respect for the Sabbath. Most restaurants double as bars, and resort bars are open to nonguests. Check out the Cook Islands Sun tourists’ newspaper for what’s on around the island.

For an organised Friday night out exploring Rarotonga’s bars and clubs, join a Going Troppo tour (NZ$38 per person) with Raro Tours. After-dark tours on Friday nights are also arranged by Rarotonga’s bigger resorts and hostels.

Trader Jacks in Avarua, and the Waterline Bar & Grill in ‘Arorangi, are also good spots for a few quiet ones.


Shops around Avarua sell local basketwork, shell jewellery, necklaces, carvings and musical instruments. Many islands have their own speciality handicrafts, including rito (coconut-fibre) fans and hats from the Northern Group and pupu ei (shell necklaces) from Mangaia. Beware of cheap Asian imports. Most shops are closed on Sundays.

Printed pareu (sarongs) cost around NZ$20 to NZ$30, while handmade ones cost NZ$40 to NZ$50. There’s always a good selection at Saturday morning’s Punanga Nui Market. Great local T-shirts are also sold at the Punanga Nui market and at surfwear shops.

Only the Cooks and French Polynesia produce rarer black pearls. A single pearl costs from NZ$10 to over NZ$2000.

Travel with Children

Always check with the place you’re staying about their policy on children, as some don’t cater for kids under 12. For really little ones, you can hire strollers, car seats and portacots from Coco Tots. Ask at your accommodation or the tourist information office about babysitting services.

The top draw for kids is the island’s colourful lagoon and the spectacular beach that stretches around the island. Good spots for snorkelling are Muri, Tikioki and Aro’a Beach, and smoothies and ice creams are never far away at Fruits of Rarotonga or the Saltwater Cafe.

For an in-depth look at the island’s underwater inhabitants, kids will adore a glass-bottom boat tour around Muri Lagoon from either Captain Tama’s Lagoon Cruizes or Koka Lagoon Cruises. An option to explore the underwater world beyond the reef is on the Raro Reef Sub. From July to October they might be lucky enough to see humpback whales cruising past the island. If they’re really keen on all things cetacean, visit the excellent Cook Islands Whale & Wildlife Centre.

Active kids will love exploring the island’s jungle-covered interior on the Cross-Island Track, or Raro's quieter back roads on a bicycle ride with Storytellers. Alternatively, drop by Ride Rarotonga and rent a funky, go-anywhere beach cruiser with massive, knobbly wheels.

An entertaining jeep ride around the island with Raro Safari Tours will be sure to please, or you can take them for a quad-bike spin if they’re eight years or older, but mum or dad will definitely need to be behind the wheel.

What to do in Avarua

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