From the mirrored horizon of Aitutaki's lagoon to the snorkel-friendly Rarotonga, the Cook Islands are brimming with beaches worthy of a few relaxing days' attention.

But this South Pacific nation – easily reached on direct flights from New Zealand, Australia and the United States – also offers attractions stretching beyond leisurely afternoons in the shaded lee of an arcing palm tree.

View from The Needle on Rarotonga @Wallix/Shutterstock
View from The Needle on Rarotonga © Wallix / Shutterstock

Outdoor adventure

Circumnavigating the road hugging the lagoon-trimmed Rarotonga coastline by scooter takes only around 45 minutes, but the small island is packed with opportunities for active adventure. Mountain biking tours offered by Storytellers Eco Adventures explore the island's backroads. Leisurely trips include stopping off to meet friendly plantation owners, while more challenging ones involve conquering forested switchbacks and rocky jungle streams. Cultural and historical information is seamlessly woven into the half-day trips, usually concluding with lunch and a well-earned swim.

Four-wheeled adventures include negotiating a bright yellow off-road vehicle – an easy-to-drive cross between a beach buggy and a go-kart – on a rollicking outing with Raro Buggy Tours. Waterfalls, fording tropical rivers and spectacular surf breaks all come with warm Polynesian humour on a jeep trip with Raro Safari Tours. A highlight of their half-day adventure includes exploring the Arai-Te-Tonga marae, the island’s spiritual hub and legendary meeting place for the great chiefs of pre-missionary Rarotonga.

For an immersive experience into Rarotonga's mountainous, forested interior, embark on the Cross-Island Track. Commencing on Rarotonga's northern coast, the three- to four-hour moderately challenging hike traverses forest and narrow river valleys via the impressive 413-metre summit of Te Rua Manga, the bush-clad peak known locally as the Needle. The track is well-signposted for independent hikers, but the Cook Islands tourist office in Avarua can hook travellers up with local guides well-versed in the natural history and culture of the island.

Tropical flavours

Begin the discovery of one of the Pacific's best food scenes at Saturday morning's weekly Punanga Nui Market in Avarua, the languid and low-rise capital of this island nation. Stalls selling traditional foods like ika mata (raw fish marinated in lime and coconut) and rukau (steamed taro leaves) sit next to organic baked goods and smoothies crammed with local fruit, and there's usually a steady queue at family-run spots selling hot roast pork rolls or ocean-fresh tuna sashimi.

Tropical fruit for smoothies @Brett Atkinson/Lonely Planet
Tropical fruit for smoothies © Brett Atkinson / Lonely Planet

More laid-back market dining is on offer at the Muri Night Market, a humble collection of stalls selling massive servings of coconut-laced cakes and desserts, or seafood-packed pasta and curries.  Local ocean produce is also the highlight at The Mooring, a friendly cafe operated out of a simple shipping container near Avana Harbour. Enjoy the fish sandwiches heaping with slabs of wahoo or mahi mahi in the sheltered forest-lined lagoon while watching the colourful vaka – traditional Polynesian ocean-going boats – that are often anchored there. Visit mid-afternoon and you might see co-owner Captain Moko returning to harbour with the day's glistening catch.

Beyond the focus on local flavours, the Cooks' main island of Rarotonga also offers a surprisingly cosmopolitan food scene. Many Cook Islanders have returned home from the bright lights of Auckland or Sydney, and echoes of the wider world infuse local restaurants and cafes. Team a wood-fired pizza  or octopus curry with a local Matutu craft beer at Cafe Salsa in Avarua. Enjoy the doughnuts at the LBV bakery in Muri Beach, which are deservedly famous across the Pacific, especially when paired with a coffee made with locally-roasted beans.

Vaka in Avana Harbour @Brett Atkinson/Lonely Planet

Island traditions

Despite being a cosmopolitan and modern nation, authentic Polynesian culture is still easily accessible by visitors to the Cook Islands. Traditional weaving crafted from the sinuous fibres of coconut palms is sold at Saturday morning's Punanga Nui Market – usually to a soundtrack of loping ukulele beats from local musicians. Venues around Rarotonga offer 'island nights' where the multi-talented residents entertain with an energetic mix of dance, song, drumming and storytelling. The most spectacular location is the Highland Paradise Cultural Centre, reached by a winding forested road and with horizon-stretching views along Rarotonga's tranquil coastline.

More beautifully interwoven island harmonies also feature at churches on a Sunday morning, especially amid the simple, whitewashed perfection of the Cook Islands Christian Church on the northern island of Aitutaki. Built in 1828, and featuring hilltop views of Aitutaki's sublime lagoon, the CICC is the nation's oldest church, but much earlier history also lingers amid Aitutaki's rolling interior. Jeep excursions with Aitutaki Punarei Cultural Tours explore the island's pre-Christian history, visiting an ancient marae and enjoying lunch of a traditional umu kai (food cooked in an earth oven).

Woman at Punanga Nui Market @Brett Atkinson/Lonely Planet
Woman at Punanga Nui Market © Brett Atkinson / Lonely Planet

Around 220km southeast on the island of 'Atiu, a compact coral and lava destination reached by direct flights from both Rarotonga and Aitutaki, caving trips with Atiu Tours explore subterranean caverns concealed by thick jungle and framed by snake-like vines and banyan trees. After swimming in underground pools and exploring the tight squeezes of ancient burial caves, a final Cook Islands cultural experience is to attend a tumunu (bush beer session). Christian missionaries in the 19th century forbade the drinking of the local tipple of kava (a root with mild sedative and euphoriant qualities) on 'Atiu, so enterprising locals concocted a 'bush brew' made from oranges. Look forward to a zingy and refreshing tipple with quite a kick, and another warm Polynesian welcome on the Cook Islands' smallest outpost.

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