Guide to visiting the Cook Islands
Spanning 2 million square kilometres of rich seas, rugged mountains, pristine beaches and dazzling coral reefs, the Cook Islands is a true Polynesian paradise. The country encompasses 15 individual islands including Rarotonga, which houses the nation’s capital, and is a playground for adventurers, honeymooners, beach bums and travelling families.
Whether it’s exploring world-class scuba sites, winding hiking trails, or just the catch of the day at the resort buffet, you’ll find your own perfect adventure just a stone’s throw from New Zealand.
In this guide to travelling in the Cook Islands, we dive into the sights and sounds of Rarotonga and beyond, look at the rich culture and cuisine of the Islands, and offer some helpful hints for travelling from New Zealand.
Rarotonga, or “Raro” as the locals call it, is the beating heart of the Cook Islands and just a 3.5-hour flight from Auckland. It’s the largest and most populous island in the country and the centre of most tourism, for good reason.
Dramatic green mountain peaks jut from its centre, blanketed in a forest teeming with biodiversity, cave systems and breathtaking hiking trails. Around its perimeter, countless bays and beaches glisten with blues that hide thriving coral communities beneath the surface.
Rarotonga’s natural splendour is matched by its cultural richness, with lively local markets, restaurants and townships housing famously friendly locals to welcome you with a “Kia Orana!” (hello).
Don’t be fooled by its popularity - you won’t find any traffic lights or fast food chains on Raro. The island is just 32 kilometres in circumference and leaves travellers with a calming sense of tropical isolation.
Raro is blessed with a pleasant and warm climate year-round, with slightly cooler days through winter and slightly warmer days through summer. The summer months generally experience more rainfall and the occasional cyclone.
If you’re hoping to catch the whale migration, July to October is your best chance to spot humpbacks from the shore.
4 things to do in Rarotonga
We’ll get to the other islands the country has to offer shortly, but first, let’s take a look at four great activities to try in Rarotonga.
1. Scuba diving
No list of Rarotonga’s attractions would be complete without describing its world-class scuba diving. Because the island lies within a sheltered lagoon, divers of all skill levels can enjoy Raro’s underwater ecosystems. Gently sloping reefs, dramatic drop-offs, coral gardens and even a few shipwrecks are teeming with sea life, with favourable water temperatures and visibility throughout the year.
Insider tip: Scuba is one of the most popular activities on Rarotonga and there is no shortage of dive shops to meet the demand. Ensure you book with a reputable and PADI-certified instructor.
Raro’s incredible snorkelling sites give travellers the chance to appreciate its vibrant marine environment while staying closer to the surface. Popular areas like the Aroa Lagoon Marine Reserve, Muri Lagoon, Fruits of Rarotonga and Black Rock each boast easy access, warm turquoise waters and abundant sea life.
Insider tip: Some of Raro’s snorkel sites are exposed to certain wind directions, which can ruffle the water surface and cause mild currents, so ask your hotel or dive shop for advice on where to go on any given day.
For adventure travellers, not all of the action happens underwater. The island’s mountainous centre offers serene hiking trails in all directions, dotted with cave systems, wildlife and breathtaking lookouts. The Cross Island Track is one of the island’s most famous, with a challenging trail that passes through cascading streams, dense forest and the iconic Te Rua Manga (The Needle) - a rocky peak reaching for the sky.
Insider tip: If you’re embarking on the Cross Island Track, remember to pack mosquito repellant, sturdy footwear and supplies to last you around four hours.
4. Local markets
When you’re not diving below the surface or climbing above the clouds, Rarotonga’s many local markets provide free entertainment, fresh food, fun for the family and gifts for the friends back home. Be sure to check out:
- The Punanga Nui Market in Avarua (mornings until 12pm and Thursday nights from 5pm to 9pm).
- The Muri Night Market in Muri Beach Village (evenings on Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday).
Insider tip: The markets are cash only, so don’t forget to bring your Cook Islands coins or New Zealand Dollars.
Exploring other regions of the Cook Islands
Rarotonga is just one of the country’s 15 gorgeous islands. Smaller but no less beautiful adventures await in places like Aitutaki, Atiu, Mitiaro and Mauke in the Southern Group, and Manihiki and Rakahanga in the Northern Group.
Air Rarotonga, the national airline of the Cook Islands, offers regular flights to Raro’s surrounding islands, and even offer day trip tours to Aitutaki; a 50-minute flight north.
Let’s take a look at three other regions to explore in the Cook Islands.
Commonly referred to as “heaven on earth”, Aitutaki is the second-most popular destination in the Cook Islands after Rarotonga. Blinding white sand beaches fringed by gin-clear waters and breezy palms make you feel like you’ve landed straight into a desktop screensaver, and the area boasts the world’s most beautiful lagoon, according to Lonely Planet founder, Tony Wheeler.
Aitutaki is actually a collection of small islets known as motus, which are scattered across the region’s dazzling lagoon. Exploring untouched beaches by kayak gives you the chance to find your own hidden gems.
For the travellers unafraid to venture off the beaten track, Atiu promises a unique adventure into an ancient paradise. About half the size of Rarotonga, Atiu is home to just 400 people and has few of the creature comforts of its neighbour. But if it’s rare birdlife, ancient cave systems and truly secluded beaches you crave, Atiu could be exactly what you’re looking for.
Atiu is renowned for its birdlife, including the rare native Kopeka, and exotic varieties of Tavake, the Brown Bobby, Blue Kingfisher and more.
Known as the Garden Island, the volcanic Mauke is blessed with incredibly fertile soil that reveals itself in plumes of vibrant flora. It’s also home to some of the Pacific’s most impressive freshwater caves, with deep clear pools sheltered by awe-inspiring stalactites. Vai Tango, Moti Cave and Motuanga Cave are three must-sees.
A two-night tour from Rarotonga is a great way to experience Mauke’s beauty and can be arranged with Air Raro.
Tips for travelling in the Cook Islands
Accommodation in Rarotonga and the Cook Islands
The Cook Islands has accommodation options to suit all budgets, and according to their official tourism website, there is “no building taller than a coconut tree.” In Rarotonga, you’ll find a blend of upscale resorts, family-friendly hotels, smaller guest houses, apartments and bungalows. There are also eco retreats like the award-winning Ikurangi, which offers luxury glamping tents.
Getting around Rarotonga
You won’t find any bustling intersections or traffic jams in Raro, so getting around the small island is a relaxing activity in itself. The Island Bus is an easy and affordable option, but a rental car can give you even more flexibility. Scooters are the most popular mode of transport among tourists and locals, just ensure you hold an international driving permit and follow local driving laws.
Cook Islands time difference
The time difference between the Cook Islands and New Zealand has caught travellers by surprise in the past. Despite being under a four-hour flight, the Cook Islands is actually 22 hours behind New Zealand! So when booking your hotel, don’t be fooled thinking it’s just a two hour time difference; you don’t want to be caught not having booked enough nights’ accommodation.
As you can see, the Cook Islands holds equal parts of excitement and relaxation that is sure to please all kinds of travellers. And with an easy flight from New Zealand, why not make it your next adventure?
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