While most people have heard of the Cook Islands, far fewer people know exactly where they are, and why they are so wonderful. They’re a little bit of a mystery and nobody really considers them as a stopover, let alone as a single destination for a holiday.
In June this year, I was able to go and experience the islands myself as a single destination from the UK, and although the journey is long, it is entirely worth the trip! I put together a guide to planning holidays to the Cook Islands from the UK, hoping this will inspire more people to go.
The Cooks are a group of 15 islands located in the South Pacific. These are split into Northern and Southern groups with the south geared for tourism, and the North entirely remote and hardly inhabited. Their closest known neighbour is New Zealand, and there is a heavy influence of New Zealand everywhere you go. The locals speak English, as well as a variation of Maori (simply known as Cook Islands Maori), the currency used is New Zealand Dollars, and the people are just as friendly (perhaps more so) as their Kiwi counterparts. In terms of where tourists would go, you would want to visit the three largest islands: Rarotonga, Aitutaki and possibly Atiu.
Like many of the islands in the South Pacific, the climate is steady all year round, ranging from 25 – 30°C. However, there’s a definite wet season from November to February, when it’s often hot and humid. For that reason, I’d advise travelling in the drier period from March to October, when it’s warm and sunny. I visited in their winter, in June, and sunbathed quite happily!
The most direct route from London to Rarotonga is with the weekly Air New Zealand service via Los Angeles. It’s a great route with a great airline; each leg being around 10 hours each, and a comfortable stop in LA of about 4 hours.
We decided to travel in Air New Zealand’s award-winning Premium Economy cabin for some extra comfort, and I’m so glad we did! 34’’ seat pitch, 3-course dining (the same menu as Business Premier Class), a comfortable extended recline, a much smaller cabin, and the best service in the industry in my opinion! We also enjoyed the premium check-in service in London and Rarotonga, saving us a good hour’s queueing time.
For other routes, you could consider adding the Cook Islands to an Australia or New Zealand itinerary, as there are regular direct flights to Sydney and Auckland as well. A good round the world route might be London – Singapore – Cairns (overland to) Sydney – Christchurch (overland to) Auckland – Rarotonga – Los Angeles (overland to) San Francisco – London, for example.
My itinerary involved visiting all three of the islands geared for tourism, and if you follow the structure of my trip, you’ll really make the most of your time here. It’s very easy to travel between the islands on regular air services with Air Rarotonga, and we can book these flights for you when you book your accommodation with us.
Rarotonga, or “Raro” as it’s known by the locals, is the largest of all the islands and is where everything happens. It’s not large, and you can easily circumnavigate the island in a few hours. I would highly recommend giving a day to exploring the island. You simply cannot get lost, as there’s only one road that goes around in a circle, so either go clockwise or anti-clockwise and just keep going!
There are many ways to do this, including car and scooter hire, or taking the local bus. In our case, we decided to do this by hiring e-bikes, which I would recommend as it means you can go at a slower pace, spotting sights or beautiful beaches, and stop for photos without bothering other traffic. The “e” (electric assisted) bike is a marvellous thing, letting the bike do the work so you can just gently pedal along – bliss! It’s also far more environmentally friendly than a motorbike, and I always aim to do my best to lessen my impact on the area when travelling.
We stayed at the Moana Sands Lagoon Resort in Muri, which I’d argue has the best beach on Raro. The resort itself is great, with a good-sized pool, nice restaurant, and an onsite spa (we tested – trust me, it’s worth it). The rooms here are huge, and unusually, all of them have a sea view which is a bonus.
Raro is great for everyone, but probably holds the most appeal for families, as it’s a simple “fly and flop” option, without the need for further transport. It also has the most amenities and services, and hotels here cater well for families. Couples and singles will enjoy it just as much though.
This is the second largest island, and is home to the Blue Lagoon, a stunning area of the clearest, bluest sea I’ve ever seen. It’s a 40-minute flight from Raro, and it is entirely worth it. I think every visitor to the Cooks should make time to visit Aitutaki. The beaches here are stunning, and the resorts are of a high standard.
We stayed at Tamanu Beach Resort, which was a great choice, right on the beach. It had plenty of facilities on-site, including an excellent restaurant which hosted an Island night and a Sunday BBQ, both of which were well attended by guests and locals and a lot of fun! If you want some luxury, you should head to the Pacific Resort Aitutaki, where you’ll get your own villa with guaranteed beachfront, and it was a definite 5-star resort with all the amenities.
While you’re here, you MUST go on a lagoon cruise. There are several operators, but they always book out in advance (we met some disappointed guests who couldn’t book a seat), so make sure to book it with us before you depart. We had a fantastic time, with several snorkelling stops before heading to One Foot Island, where we had a barbecue lunch waiting for us on arrival. We also had plenty of free time to swim, sunbathe or explore the island. Being a uni student of the early 2000s, I was personally super excited to see the real-life location of the Channel 4 series “Shipwrecked”. We sailed past both “Shark” and “Tiger” Islands, and I was able to take lots of photos.
The third island we visited is also the third largest. Atiu is a 40-minute flight from both of the larger islands. The island feels a world away as there are no paved roads, no resorts, no cruises and no restaurants. It really is a back-to-nature experience, and the best island for meeting the locals.
There is only one hotel, Atiu Villas, and it’s worth mentioning that from the outset, it’s rather basic. There are six villas, all of a good size with a bed and private bathroom, and outdoor terrace, but don’t expect hotel standards – there simply isn’t the resources to do this. What you do get though, is a fantastic welcome from Jackie, the Manager (by far the most hardworking person on the entire island), who will bend over backwards to ensure you are enjoying and making the most of your time there.
As we were travelling in a group, Jackie decided to summon the village together and host an ‘Island Night’ at our dining area, where over 40 people came to sing and dance for us – a fantastic experience. Our small donation made a huge difference to them and it was incredibly heart-warming.
While visiting Atiu, I highly recommend the cave tour, a super visit to discover some stunning caves in the interior. This is also the only place in the world where you can see the Kopeka bird, a small, dark bird in the swift family. These birds live in the dark in the caves and navigate by their own sonar.
While in the cave, you can also go cave swimming. Be warned, this trip can only be done with reasonable levels of fitness: we were clambering over rocks and vegetation, with some small climbs too. Closed shoes and insect repellent are a must.
In the evening, you should ask to be invited to a local Tumunu. This is the local meeting house where men (women are also allowed) gather to discuss events and have a drink of their own brewed “Bush Beer”, a two-century-old tradition that used to be illicit. It was a great experience, but I’ll keep the secret as to what the drink is made from or tastes like!
Outside of tours, you can hire a bicycle or scooter to explore the rest of the island. The beaches here are rugged, but with an estimated average of 12 tourists on the island at a time, you’re sure to find your very own private beach.
Atiu won’t be for everyone, and it’s certainly not suitable for families or less-able travellers, as there just isn’t the support or services for them. But if you’re feeling adventurous or active, and like a local “off the beaten track” experience, you will love it here for a couple of days.
We returned to Raro for a final two nights before our journey home. It is essential that you allow at least a one-night stop in Raro after visiting Atiu, as flights from the island are regularly delayed or cancelled.
Our second stay in Raro was at the Manuia Beach Resort, on the west side of the island. Another great resort with a super restaurant and award-winning chef. The added bonus of basing ourselves in a different part of the island for our second stay kept the visit fresh and interesting.
Before my visit to the Cook Islands, I worried whether it would be worth the long flight to get there, but I can happily say they really are worth the trek. The Cooks are a paradise destination and rank right up in the league of the best beaches in the world. Couple this with the friendliness of the local people and the fun experiences we had, and I would easily say it was one of the best trips I’ve taken. I’d happily encourage anyone thinking of making the trip to do it!
So if you’re planning holidays to the Cook Islands from the UK, get in touch. Whether you’re planning a full Cook Islands holiday or looking to include them in a multi-stop ticket or as a side trip while visiting Australia or New Zealand, I can help. I’ll advise on the best islands, hotels and activities, and can tailor-make your trip based on your interests. Contact Graham at Travel Nation.