The Cook Islands, a self-governing island state in free association with New Zealand consists of 15 islands scattered over some 2 million square kilometres of the South Pacific Ocean. Its 15 small atolls (and islands) are situated 3,500 km northeast of New Zealand and 1,000 km southwest of Tahiti in the South Pacific, forming a part of Polynesia.

These islands are divided into two groups: The Northern Group and The Southern Group. The scattered Northern Group is the older of the two and is made up of sunken volcanoes that are now topped with coral. These are Manihiki, Nassau, Penryhn, Pukapuka, Rakahanga and Suwarrow. The Southern Group Islands are considered “high” islands and are of volcanic origin and consists of Aitutaki, Atiu, Mangala, Manuae, Mauke, Mitiaro, Palmerston, Rarotonga (the largest island and the capital) and Takutea.

How to Get There

Cook Islands

By Plane

Flights to the Cook Islands are available from many international destinations. Rarotonga International Airport is the main gateway to the Cook Islands, therefore, all flights fly into the capital island, Rarotonga. From there you can explore the outer islands via inter-island flights (via Air Rarotonga) and boats. There are daily services to Auckland (3.5h) and weekly services to Sydney, Fiji and to Los Angeles. The only international airlines at present are Air New Zealand, once-weekly Air Tahiti, and twice-weekly Virgin Australia.

Keep in mind that you must have a reservation for accommodation pre-arranged or you may be sent back (or onward) on the next flight out.

By Boat

Rarotonga and Aitutaki are regular stops for cruises operating from Tahiti. Other cruise companies also stop by occasionally. If you’re planning to sail to the islands you must enter through one of the five designated ports of entry. These are Rarotonga, Aitutaki and Atiu in the Southern group, and Penrhyn and Pukapuka in the Northern group.

How To Get Around

Cook IslandsBy Air

Domestic inter-island service is provided by Air Rarotonga. Although you can book flights through Air New Zealand, it is usually cheaper to do so directly with Air Rarotonga.

By Boat

The intrepid traveller can visit all inhabited islands with the help of inter-island freighters, but remember that these can be weeks apart or worse if you want to get the really remote islands. Details of these services are published in local island newspapers. There are no generally scheduled boat or ferry services between the inhabited islands.

On Rarotonga

Cook Islands transport is primarily provided by the Cook’s Island Bus which circles around the island of Rarotonga throughout the day, in both directions. Although there are official bus stops, the driver has no problem stopping where ever you want him to. Although later evening services are provided throughout the week, these buses do not run on Sundays. This bus service is most cost-effective and convenient so you can choose to pick up either a day pass or a book of ten tickets.

By Car And Bike

It is very common for tourists to rent a scooter or a motorbike; you can find many motorbike and car rental companies who will offer vehicles for hire.  But you need to make a Cook Island driving license as international licenses are not accepted here.

Taxis are also available on Rarotonga and Aitutaki but it is recommended to book taxis in advance as there are a limited number of operators throughout the Cook Islands.

Best Time To visit

Located right in the heart of the South Pacific Ocean, the Cook Islands enjoy tropical weather making it a great travel destination all year-round. However, the shoulder months of April, May, September, and October usually provide the best combination of sunshine and warmth. Also, December through April is their cyclone season so keep this in mind while planning your trip.

Things To See

Aitutaki

Cook Islands
Snorkelling in a tropical lagoon, Aitutaki, Cook Islands

This stunning lagoon with 15 tiny inhabited islets (or Motus) dotting on its outer edge is a South Pacific treasure. The lagoon’s crystal clear waters have excellent visibility for encountering parrotfish, turtles, reef sharks, or eagle rays that live among the colourful hard corals. You can enjoy the brilliant turquoise colour of the lagoon and the islets while kayaking or snorkelling here.

Cross- Island Hike to the Needle (Te Rua Manga)

Cook Islands
Stunning panorama view from a place called “The Needle” on Rarotonga, the main island of the Cook Islands in the South Pacific. The viewpoint can be reached through hiking the “Cross Island Walk”

Take this cross-island hike to the highest point on Rarotonga for spectacular views of the entire island and you can also explore the lush scenery along the way.  This hiking trail will take about 4 hours and runs from end to end of the island while meandering through lush jungle, freshwater streams, the photogenic Wigmore’s waterfall, and the Needle mountain, or Te Rua Manga.

Muri Lagoon

Cook Islands
An aerial view of Muri Lagoon with blue water in Rarotonga in the Cook Islands

Situated on the southeast coast of Rarotonga, Muri Beach or Muri Lagoon, is one of the most popular and picturesque beaches on the island. The clear waters of the lagoon allow you to see colourful coral and marine life right from your board, while four offshore islets, called motu, shimmer on the horizon, enhancing the beauty of the area.

Aroa Marine Reserve

This protected sanctuary by the outlying reef on Rarotonga’s west coast is home to a healthy and diverse marine life, thus making it the perfect place for snorkelling, kayaking or swimming. Boating and fishing are not allowed in the lagoon making it especially safe for swimming and snorkelling with small children. Parrotfish, Moorish idols, wrasse, and angelfish are just some of the species you might spot here while snorkelling. Try night snorkelling here as Aroa Marine Reserve will give you an experience unlike any other!

What to eat?

Cook Islands
Raw Tuna marinated in coconut milk. Cafe Tupuna, Aitutaki (Source: Flickr)
Ika Mata

Ika Mata is a traditional delicacy and it translates to “raw fish” in Cook Island Maori. It’s like a beautiful Polynesian salad, made with a base of coconut cream (or milk), finely chopped vegetables and raw fish (usually, Marora-flying fish). Mixed together it creates a refreshing and delicious treat!

Umu kai

This Cook Island delicacy is a Pacific Island Polynesian Feast fit for royalty. Similar to New Zealand’s Hangi, Umu food is cooked in an “Umu” which is traditional earth oven. This underground oven is filled with firewood and heated stones in which the food, wrapped in banana leaves, is then placed. The result is a magnificent banquet of tender meats and succulent vegetables leaving you with a belly full of goodness.

Curried Eke

Another great Cook Island dish is Curried Eke which is octopus made in a special Island way. The ingredients are extremely simple but they go really well together. The tenderly cooked octopus is reheated in coconut cream, onions, spices, garlic and then, seasoning is added according to taste. This dish with fresh octopus in Pacific style curry is typically served with rice.

Rukau

This incredibly nutritious Cook Island dish is mashed taro leaves, mixed with onions and salt. Rukau or Taro Leaves are cooked three times in coconut cream and caramelised onions. It’s also sometimes served and mixed with corned beef but you can enjoy it just as satisfactorily as a vegetarian dish.

Poke

This is a sweet and creamy thick pudding, cooked in a bit of coconut cream. Most common ingredients used to make poke are overripe banana (purple-brown ) or pawpaw (orange poke).

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