Lonely Planet Writer

Pathfinder pics: exploring the Cook Islands

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Lonely Planet Pathfinder Jessica Palmer of travelwithjess.com recently spent three weeks exploring the Cook Islands with her young family, feeling the sand between their toes and soaking up the wild, windswept surroundings.

I set out to explore not only the two most visited islands in the Cooks – Rarotonga and Aitutaki, but also two of the most easily accessible but lesser-known islands, Atiu and Ma'uke. In my never-ending quest to find the perfect beach, I was particularly interested in exploring and comparing the coastlines across the different islands.

Along the way, I was fascinated by the geography, intrigued by the lush and totally wild island landscapes, and welcomed by strangers everywhere I went. Here are some of my highlights.

Fossilised coral coastlines

The island of Atiu’s coastline couldn’t be more different to its more visited counterparts if it tried. The difference is in the geographical landscape. Whilst Rarotonga is characterised by a lush, green mountainous centre, Atiu is fairly flat, and boasts a fossilised coral cliff (makatea) coastline as its distinguishing feature. Hidden within this rugged coastline are between 20-30 unspoiled sandy bays, just like this one, that are easily accessible by scooter and completely deserted.

Modern-day shipwreck

The MV Te Kou Maru II, a former cargo vessel, became wrecked on the coastline of Ma'uke in 2010. Despite concerns over the rusting metal adversely affecting the marine life, the ship still remains to this day. Finding this wreck was a bucket list item for me, so it was quite exciting to spot its hulking frame through the coconut trees and overgrown greenery when driving along the circle island track.

Hermit crabs galore

The one thing that doesn’t change across the Cook Islands’ coastlines are the hermit crabs. We spotted this one on the island of Aitutaki, which seems to be home to particularly large ones. They vary in size from teeny-tiny, to big enough to read the Lonely Planet guide! Racing them is popular with kids here (including mine), and we quickly learned that the bigger the hermit crab, the slower he is!

Uncrowded tropical dreams

The main island of Rarotonga (where the international flights land) has a much gentler coastline than the islands characterised by makatea cliffs. There are plenty of idyllic beaches that aren’t fronted by resorts, and with no buildings allowed to be taller than the largest coconut tree, there are splendid views of the island's lush, green, mountainous landscape, no matter which stretch of white sand you choose to sprawl yourself on for the day.

The humbling force of nature

Unlike Rarotonga and Aitutaki, the islands of Atiu and Ma'uke have reef breaks fairly close to shore. It’s a humbling experience sitting in the calm waters on the shoreline, when less than 50 metres away the force of the ocean crashes against the island's reef. I hovered our drone 30 metres above the edge of the reef to take this shot. A wave had just curled over and crashed with momentous force. It was just about to recede back, exposing the coral yet again in preparation for its next assault. Mother Nature really has a way of bringing us back to reality sometimes!

Ma'uke harbour

The harbour on the island of Ma'uke is now officially my favourite harbour in the world! This small harbour has a concrete wall placed into a deep natural break in the reef. This creates a sheltered passage for the incoming and outgoing boats. The harbour forms a kind of natural aquarium, and is a popular swimming spot with the local kids after school and on weekends. I can personally confirm that jumping off the concrete wall into the deep water is just as fun for adults!

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