Scattered across the South Pacific, the Cook Islands consist of fifteen patches of paradise that are rimmed by sand, fringed by coral and tickled by jade green waters. Ancient traditions and diverse interiors give each island unique appeal, creating an irresistible urge to catamaran between them, from the mountains of Rarotonga to the caves of Atiu, and from the lagoon at Aitutaki to the southern outpost of Mangaia.
In some ways, this South Pacific idyll is also defined by what it doesn’t have. In the Cook islands there are no traffic lights, no escalators or lifts (as most buildings are single story) and no hotel chains or internationally branded restaurants - to stay here is truly to step away from your daily routine.
The largest of the Cook Islands and hub of the archipelago, Rarotonga is as laid back as capitals come. Sprinkled with sparkling sands and crowned by saw-tooth peaks, its turquoise waters teem with tropical fish and its interior harbours a treasure trove of medicinal plants. Polynesian culture runs strong and music is part of daily life, so expect rich folklore and traditional ceremonies, string bands and toe-tapping drum beats.
Ride the local bus around the island or drive a scooter to colourful markets stocked with handmade arts and crafts. Fill-up on fresh mango and tuck into tuna steaks, quad bike through the centre and splash through clear streams, or follow the hiking trails and ascend the Needle – the island’s highest peak.
Unplug, sign-out and switch-off when you touchdown on the breath-taking island of Aitutaki – a former setting for the TV series’ Shipwrecked and Survivor. Experience one of the largest and most spectacular coral lagoons on the planet, cruise to the uninhabited paradise of One Foot Island and feel tropical fish nibbling your skin when you snorkel beside bobbing tortoises.
Wake each day to cornflower skies and dive for giant clams or stretch out on sugary sands. Taste paw-paw smoothies, grilled mahi mahi and curried octopus, visit the market place at Arutanga and barter for souvenirs. Trundle along the backroads towards taro plantations, and visit rural villages with coral-walled churches.
Known as the ‘Land of the Birds,’ nature lovers are in their element on Atiu. Draped in forest and riddled with limestone caves, you could explore this eco-hotspot all week and still not see it all. Experience traditional drinking ceremonies and ancient burial grounds, taste local bush beer, drink Cook Island coffee and fall into the gentle rhythm of island life.
To experience more of the archipelago’s dramatic beauty, visit the most southerly Cook Island of Mangaia – raw, rugged and steeped in legend, this island isn’t for the faint-hearted and it truly feels like an honour to visit somewhere so untouched. Said to be the oldest island in the Pacific, fierce warriors once ruled Mangaia and their ancestral bones have been discovered in the island’s labyrinth of underground caves. Follow rock-hewn staircases across towering coral cliffs and trek through the rugged volcanic interior to its freshwater lake.
Which South Pacific island is best for you? Check out our Infographic: Everything you need to know about the South Pacific islands in a (coco)nut shell...