The Cook Islands
Awarded Top 10 country to travel to in 2022About Best In Travel 2022
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.
The Cook Islands: Voted Top 10 Country as Best in Travel 2022
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout The Cook Islands.
Aitutaki’s stunning lagoon, brimming with marine life and ringed by 15 palm-covered motu (islets), is a South Pacific tearsure. Maina (Little Girl) offers superb snorkelling and is home to the red-tailed tropicbird, once prized for its crimson feathers. Nearby is the wreck of cargo freighter Alexander, which ran aground in the 1930s. Tapuaeta’i (One Foot Island) is the best-known motu, fringed by white beaches and divided from its neighbour, Tekopua, by a deepwater channel that’s teeming with tropical fish.
With its four motu (islets), Muri is the most beautiful section of Rarotonga’s encircling lagoon. The blue water is packed with tropical fish, especially around the motu (Taakoka, Koromiri, Oneroa and Motutapu), and out towards the reef. Taakoka is volcanic while the others are sand cays. The swimming is wonderful over sparkling white sand. Water-sports equipment and lagoon cruises are available from Muri through Captain Tama’s and Koka’s Lagoon Cruises. Other attractions include kitesurfing, paddle-boarding and good restaurants.
Avarua’s white-washed church was built in 1853. The graveyard contains the graves of author Robert Dean Frisbie, and Albert Henry, the first prime minister of the Cook Islands. The main church service is at 10am on Sunday, and visitors are invited to stay for morning tea.
An 18km-long circular road negotiates Ma’uke’s secluded coves and beaches, which are among the island’s main attractions. One of the nicest is One’unga, on the east side, and Teoneroa and Tukume on the island’s southwestern side are also delightful. Anaraura and Teoneroa have sheltered picnic areas that are popular with the island’s pigs. Kea’s Grave is on the cliffs above Anaiti, where the wife of Paikea (the Whale Rider) is said to have perished while waiting for her husband’s return.
Eerie Anatakitaki is ‘Atiu’s most spectacular cave, a multichambered cavern surrounded by banyan roots and thick jungle. It’s also home to the rare kopeka, or ‘Atiuan swiftlet – listen for its distinctive echo-locating clicks.
This historical building was once an LMS missionary school. These days it houses an excellent art gallery, gift shop and courtyard cafe.
After you’ve been to Rarotonga, Arutanga, Aitutaki’s only town, seems astonishingly quiet, with few signs of life even on weekdays when the shops are open. The island’s main harbour is by the Orongo Centre. The lovely weather-beaten CICC church near the Administration Centre was built in 1828, making it the oldest in the Cooks. Beautifully restored in 2010, the church has lovely stained-glass windows, fine carved-wood panelling and an old anchor precariously suspended from the ceiling.
High above ‘Arorangi, Highland Paradise stands on the site of the old Tinomana village with panoramic views over the west and south coasts. Members of the Pirangi family, descendants of Tinomana Ariki, take visitors on guided tours including weaving, dancing and drumming exhibits. It's also possible to explore the sacred site on a self-guided basis from Monday to Friday. On Monday, Wednesday and Friday, fabulous sunset Island Nights are held. Bookings are essential and transport is included.
A real highlight in this region is the deep sparkling-blue Vai Nauri, Mitiaro’s natural swimming pool. Local women used to hold gatherings known as terevai at Vai Nauri and at nearby Vai Tamaroa, where they met to swim and sing the bawdy songs of their ancestors. With Mitiaro’s declining population, the terevai tradition is now largely limited to holiday periods like Christmas and New Year when islanders return to Mitiaro from their homes in Australia and New Zealand.