Scattered over a vast expanse of empty ocean the size of Western Europe, the tiny Cook Islands is a castaway's dream come true. If you've ever fantasised about escaping to a remote desert island, far from the hustle and hum of the modern world, then look no further than these 15 fascinating islands, where you'll find a thousand years of Polynesian culture sitting side by side with some of the most spectacular natural scenery in the South Pacific. The jewel in the crown is Rarotonga, the largest island - a bewitching blend of craggy mountains, dense jungle and glorious bone-white beaches - but you really need to get out and explore some of the other islands as well. The hook-shaped atoll of Aitutaki, the second most visited by tourists, sits at the top of one of the world's largest coral lagoons, packed with giant clams and technicolour tropical fish, and ringed by smaller uninhabited islets, known as motu, around its outer edges. Then there's the small, rocky island of 'Atiu, with its limestone caves, coffee plantations and bush-beer drinking; the makatea islands of Mau'ke, Mitiaro and Mangaia, where traditional village life still predominates; and the far-flung black pearl fields of Penrhyn and Manihiki, which most visitors never get the chance to see.
But don't plan on doing too much. Time, like most other things in the Cook Islands, has a mind of its own. Days roll by with the island tides: one morning you'll be exploring taro plantations, swimming in underground caves and dancing till dawn with the locals, and the next, a plane will be waiting to take you home. Make the most of it while you can - paradise is a pretty tough place to find.
Best places to stay in Rarotonga
Rarotonga, Samoa & Tonga - Rarotonga & the Cook Islands (Chapter)
With a hip cafe culture, fine restaurants and funky nightlife, Rarotonga lives confidently in the 21st century, but beyond the tourist buzz the Cook Islands has a robust culture, sublime lagoons, deserted islands and underground cave pools to explore.