Are you looking for a classic South Pacific island paradise? Mountainous islands covered in rainforest fringed with coral reefs? Gorgeous white sand beaches, oceans teeming with sea life and inviting lagoons with turquoise waters beyond your wildest dreams? Look no further than a holiday in the Cook Islands.

Flying in from LA over the Pacific, you catch your first glimpse of the island of Aitutaki. This island is home to one of the world’s most beautiful lagoons, so the view from the air is simply incredible – my heart skipped a beat as the excitement grew! But more of this later, as you arrive into the main island of Rarotonga first.

Rarotonga – the main island

This is the capital and the main island of the 15 that make up the Cook Islands. In the centre, an extinct volcano rises over the rest of the island and is covered in pristine forest. A coral reef surrounds most of the island and again you get simply stunning views as the plane descends to land.

Before arriving, I expected Rarotonga to be attractive but that Aitutaki would have all the show-stopping sights, but I was pleasantly surprised by the main island’s beauty. The beaches are stunning , especially on the West and South coasts which have calm waters because of the offshore reef.

No hotel chains, just locally-owned property
 

One unusual thing about the Cook Islands is that all the Rarotonga hotels and businesses are locally owned by islanders, Kiwis or Australians. There are no international hotel chains and building regulations ensure every property is usually a low-rise single or double storey.

Here you’ll find a friendly, local atmosphere where many boutique hotels flourish and it’s reassuring to know that most of the money you spend will stay on the islands. Manuia Beach Resort is a great example of a family-run, small, boutique hotel on one of the best beaches. Many of the hotels offer self-catering options, so this is great news for families.

Great for snorkelling, diving and watching migrating whales

You’ll find the reef creates great conditions for easy snorkelling, swimming and kayaking. It’s not really a surfing destination unless you really know what you’re doing, as the waves crash on the shallow reef, but the diving is good and there are many spots to visit. The Muri Beach Club hotel has set up a whale environment monitoring program to track the animals as they migrate pass the islands and it has been a huge success in the last 2 years.

Exploring by land

There’s much more to do beside ocean-based activities too. It’s easy to get around and explore the island in all types of transportation.

The clockwise or anti-clockwise hop-on/hop-off bus system around the main island is very easy to use, but you could also hire bicycles, mopeds and cars. Driving around the island (32 km in circumference) is easy and will take a leisurely hour, but you can cycle it comfortably in 3-4 hours.

Exploring by bike
 

To explore the island further, I took a cycle trip with Storytellers Eco cycle tours, where you learn about the nature, history and culture of the islands whilst cycling around. It’s a very relaxed and easy ride, so you don’t have to be particularly fit and more emphasis is on the story of the islands.

Trans-island treks
 

If you’re after a more active option, you can head off on a trans-island hike with an expert local guide. There are many different routes of differing lengths, but make sure you set of being well-prepared for whatever one you choose. Many people make a tough cross-island trek with the legendary ‘Pa’, who grew up on the island and is an authority on the local plants and animals.

Cultural shows

You should certainly try and make it to one of the local ‘cultural nights’ where you’ll get to try local food and see a show put on by locals who all seem to love to sing and dance! Culture and music run deep across this archipelago, so join in the festivities and traditional ceremonies to feel like you’re part of the action.

Getting to Aitutaki and the lagoon
 

There really is so much to do and keep you busy on Rarotonga, you’d have a great trip if you just stayed on the mainland. That said, if you do have the time and money, I highly recommend taking the internal flight to Aitutaki.

The return flights are about £300 and you can just do a day trip which includes a lagoon boat cruise. This full day trip is definitely the ‘main event’ on Aitutaki, so you’ll be taken to different beaches, islands with unique birdlife and a range of magnificent snorkelling spots. You will probably have the chance to snorkel with and maybe even feed ‘George’, a huge Trevally fish.

The last stop on the Aitutaki day trip is One Foot Island – genuinely the most spectacular beach I have ever seen. It’s surrounded by shallow water so you can literally walk into the ocean for hundreds of metres and onto sand banks.

Places to stay in Aitutaki
 

I would highly recommend spending a night or two in Aitutaki. There are two fabulous hotels; Etu Moana or if you really want to splash out; the Pacific Resort Aitutaki is incredible.

If you stay on the island, you’ll have enough time to take a cultural trip, as I did. This takes you to Taro plantations and rural villages whilst you learn about and help to prepare a ‘Hangi’. It’s a pit oven which is used to slow-cook a large amount of food in the ground - simply delicious!

Extending your stay: Aitu and Mangaia

If you have more time to get off the beaten track, why not visit Aitu or Mangaia? Aitu, known as ‘Land of the Birds’ is a nature lover’s paradise covered in forest and limestone caves. Mangaia is one of the most untouched areas in the Pacific and contains dramatic rugged scenery - not for the faint hearted.

All in all, the Cook Islands offer everything you could desire from a Pacific island. There’s plenty to keep you busy on land and in the water, but of course you can also find a quiet beach, kick back and enjoy a well-earned beer or cocktail, in true island time!

Interested in visiting the Cook Islands?

If you’d like a tailor-made Cook Islands holiday or interested in trip ideas, I can arrange your whole trip including international flights (and the domestic flight to Aitutaki), accommodation and tours. The Cook Islands also make an ideal stopover if you’re en route to or from New Zealand.

Contact Chris to book a once in a lifetime Cook Islands trip and discuss your trip.