The Cook Islands are a smattering of 15 stunning islands, just 4 hours from Auckland. They work as a wonderful extension to any New Zealand or Australia holiday and also a destination in their own right. Whether you’re travelling solo, as a couple or with kids, from the moment you touch down in Rarotonga, you’ll feel welcomed like an old friend, and that’s just the very beginning. These islands offer something for everyone; the bustling life of Raro, the romantic seclusion of Aitutaki and the geological wonders of Atiu. The food here is delicious, the people are friendly, and the beaches are paradise - so here are my top 8 experiences.
I flew with Air New Zealand from London Heathrow, via LA. It was a long, but comfortable flight at over 24 hours, but Air New Zealand’s Economy Skycouch made the journey much more comfortable as I could stretch my legs. There’s one direct flight a week from LA, which lands in the Cook Islands on a Sunday, so on other days, you’ll have to transit via Auckland.
I visited in May and spent time on the main island of Rarotonga and two of the outer islands – Aitutaki and Atiu – two of the experiences I recommend while you’re here.
On arrival, everyone single flight of newcomers is welcomed to the Cook Islands by local musicians, which makes you feel like royalty! You’ll receive a beautiful, handmade ‘ei’ – which is a fragrant, floral garland that islanders will place around your neck. Different flowers are used to create each ei, and they have a glorious fragrance.
Cook Islanders are renowned for their hospitality, and I genuinely felt they were some of the most friendly I’ve ever met. As the main island of Rarotonga isn’t a huge place, you’ll probably see your welcoming party out and about - at the busy Saturday market or having a drink in one of the bars. Give them a wave, and they’ll no doubt remember you!
Sundays are sleepy, and islanders treat Sunday as a traditional day of rest. If you go to a local church service, you’ll get a warm welcome, and you’ll have the chance to hear uplifting songs sung in Cook Islands Maori. Even if you’re not religious, I recommend this as a starting point for your time here.
Rarotonga is just 32 km in circumference, and I smoothly cycled around the island on a hired e-bike, stopping at numerous beaches and lunch spots along the way. On my way round, I stopped at a little café called Beluga on the west coast for a caffeine hit. They offer delicious brunch options as well as some quirky gifts you can take home as souvenirs.
If you prefer to be on the water, most hotels and resorts offer complimentary paddleboards and snorkelling gear. The waters here are warm, clear and excellent for snorkelling, straight from the beach. Reefs protect the island which makes for a lovely calm and lazy swim with few currents.
If you’re staying on the glorious Muri Beach on the east coast, I recommend making the most of your jet lag which will wake you early and get up to catch a sunrise. I stayed at Muri Beachcomber, which offers lovely yet straightforward adults-only, self-catering accommodation with direct access to the beach. It’s also right next to the weekly night markets which are worth a visit – they sell a variety of foods and frequented by both locals and visitors.
If you’re looking for something fun and want to experience more of the local culture during your time on Rarotonga, I recommend attending an Island Night. I went to the Te Vara Nui Village show which consisted of an overwater show by firelight and featured dancers and local musicians and included a hearty two-course dinner. For a different experience, before the evening show and as part of the tour, you can also visit a local village to learn a little more about day-to-day domestic life and the history and traditions of the Cook Islands.
Aitutaki is one of the Cooks’ outer islands which you can reach via a short Air Rarotonga flight from Raro. Every passenger gets a window seat, so you’ll be able to enjoy the incredibly scenic views of the atoll as you come to land – the turquoise water is unbelievable.
Like many of the other islands, Aitutaki is encircled by a reef which makes the waters calm, warm and safe for swimming. There is one unusual thing about Aitutaki Island – it’s surrounded by smaller uninhabited islets you can also visit.
I took a day cruise out on to Aitutaki lagoon which is a must-do experience while you’re here. You can jump off the small boat at a nearby sandbank and wade through the warm waters on to an islet called One Foot Island. At this tiny, idyllic little island you can get your passport stamped, or for the romantics amongst you, you can opt for our Signature One Foot Island wedding package and get married here! No wedding for me, but I did borrow some snorkelling gear and went in search of the underwater world.
Back on the main island of Aitutaki, there are plenty of different hotels and resorts. I stayed at Etu Moana which is a small but perfectly formed cluster of luxury villas facing the lagoon and surrounding the pool, where they serve a buffet breakfast every morning.
One of the less-visited islands is Atiu which has a local population of just 420 islanders. On the day I visited, just nine visitors were headed to Atiu on the tiny aircraft from Raro.
It’s less than an hour’s flight, and if it’s possible, this is even more scenic than the trip to Aitutaki. You’ll land on a sandy airstrip at Atiu airport before heading to your accommodation. It is a world away from the comparatively bustling island of Rarotonga, and it’s a brilliant place to explore if you’re interested in birds.
Atiu is an unusual island that’s gradually rising out from the sea from its formation in an underwater volcano 11 million years ago. Dense jungle and caves cover the island’s interior and one of these caves is home to the rare, tiny and timid bird the Kopeka.
I booked an eco-tour with ‘Birdman George’ (a local celebrity in the eyes of the Atiuans), and he drove us around the island stopping to look out for native birds, creatures and plants. He answered all our questions about Atiu and everything ‘eco’ before we finished with a refreshing dip in a cave pool.
As part of the tour, you will have dinner on the beach, and your meal will be cooked in an ‘umu’ (an underground earth oven) – and was even more delicious than it sounds. After dinner, we tried a cup of Atiu’s home-grown coffee. If you love coffee, you can even book a tour around the coffee plantation and taste a cup made with coconut milk and served with pikelets, fresh coconut and jam!
I stayed at the Atiu Villas which is perfect for families and offers a self-catering fully stocked fridge. There’s an onsite restaurant which offers two course evening meals, and it also hosts the Atiu Island Cultural Night.
If you’d like to add a visit to the Cook Islands on to your Australia or New Zealand holiday – talk to us! We can recommend precisely the right hotels to suit your style and budget, and we can arrange all of the tours I’ve mentioned here. If you’re planning a round the world trip, we can show you how to include Rarotonga on your multi-stop ticket. To start planning your trip, call us on +44 1273320580 or request a quote by email.