Surrounded by a sapphire-blue lagoon and fine, white sand, this romantic South Pacific paradise is the ultimate place to unwind. The way of life may be laid-back, but you’ll still find plenty of heart-pumping activities to enjoy.
The island is home to a wide variety of water activities, including scuba diving and snorkeling. There’s also hiking, biking, and kayaking for those who want to explore the island by land. Furthermore, the island’s rainforests, fresh water streams and waterfalls are the highlights of any trek through its majestic volcanic mountains.
Cook Islands: know before you go
The self-governed island nation can be found in the southern Pacific Ocean, just north of New Zealand. There are 15 islands in total, but only four are inhabited: Rarotonga, Aitutaki, Mangaia and Pukapuka.
The Cook Islands are home to one of the world’s largest coral atolls, and the lagoon inside is filled with beautiful fish and colorful sea life. In fact, the Cook Islands are often called the “Hawaii of the South Pacific.” If you’re looking for a tropical paradise with white-sand beaches, turquoise water and warm weather year-round, this is it!
The local currency is the New Zealand dollar, but it’s also possible to use U.S. dollars or Australian dollars. They even have funky, triangular Cooks coins if you’re a currency collector!
You should also know that the Cook Islands have a tropical climate, with average temperatures ranging from 82 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer to 73 degrees in the winter. The islands are located just south of the Tropic of Capricorn, so they experience warm weather year-round.
Things to do in Rarotonga
As you approach Rarotonga from the air, it’s impossible not to notice the strikingly blue atoll that surrounds the circular island.
This exceptional setting is home to a flourishing ecosystem where rainbow-coloured fish, complex coral reefs, and giant clams —not an understatement, at almost a metre wide and 200 kilograms— thrive under the watchful eye of stoic, dumbfounded snorkelers.
Rent a scooter
If you can manage to pull yourself away from the peaceful beaches long enough to explore the island (you are going to have to fill up on sunblock at some point), you’ll quickly notice scooters whirring past on Rarotonga’s sole main road, Ara Tapu.
This is the preferred form of transportation in the Cook Islands, to which I happily obliged; at just $35 for a 24-hour rental, this truly is a no-brainer — all driving-on-the-other-side-of-the-road qualms aside, of course.
Best snorkeling spots in Rarotonga
Aroa Lagoon Marine Reserve
Perfect for a laid-back experience in shallow waters that is mostly suited to novice or inexperienced snorkelers.
This is the best place to see corals in the Cook Islands. If you’re feeling adventurous, rent a kayak or paddeboard to get to Motutapu, the small island across the lagoon. At just $30 for the afternoon, it’s one of the more afforable things to do in Rarotonga. You can even join a night paddle tour to admire the sunset!
There are gorgeous coral columns here, which attracts a spectacular array of fish like puffers, Bluefin Trevally, yellow butterflyfish, convict surgeonfish, iridescent parrotfish, angelfish, boxfish, moray eels, and even the occasional turtle.
However, this is an open lagoon which means that there can be strong south-easterly currents at times. Don’t venture out too far and make sure to wear fins!
Black Rock beach is a calm area to snorkel in the Cook Islands because of the south-easterly winds that usually prevail on the island. Its black volcanic rocks are surrounded by beautiful white sand and offer spectacular views.
Essential stops along Ara Tapu
Knowing that circling Rarotonga doesn’t take more than 45 minutes, I was able to hit the main sights of my Cook Islands itinerary in the matter of a few hours. All of which, evidently, was punctuated with jaw-dropping scenery of both the waterfront and the towering mountaintops that dominate Rarotonga’s silhouette.
- Admire the view at Black Rock, especially striking at sunset
- Hike near Papua Waterfall
- Stop at Te Ara Cook Islands Museum of Cultural Enterprise for a history lesson
- Go to Highland Paradise for a traditional and authentic dance show
- Visit Arai-Te-Tonga Marae, the ruins of an ancient royal court that have become the island’s most important marae site
- Stop at Aroa Beach for easy-access snorkeling
Hop on a Cook Islands cruise
- Half-day Muri Lagoon BBQ lunch cruise including snorkeling
- Turtle sightseeing eco-friendly cruise
- Glass-bottom boat cruise in Muri Lagoon
- Koka Lagoon cruises with giant clams
Maire Nui Gardens
The green, lush capital island (a strict law prohibits the construction of structures higher than trees) is dotted with sizable expanses of rainforests comprising tall banana, palm, and papaya trees as well as fragrant gardenia and frangipani; a veritable tropical paradise where the modernities of the 21st century and the robust Polynesian traditions truly are simultaneous.
Don’t forget to grab a bite to eat at the expansive, luxuriant flower garden over at Hidden Café inside the garden grounds.
Punanga Nui market
Visitors to the island should make it a point to visit Punanga Nui Market on a Saturday morning for its cultural significance and unique Cook Islands’ atmosphere. The market is a good place to buy souvenirs, crafts, jewellery and traditional food. You can also find old stamps and coins at Punanga Nui Market. The market is held every Saturday between 7 and 11:30am.
Head to the markets to buy iridescent shells, sarongs and jewellery made from the region’s distinctive black pearls, or watch as the local women practise the art of quilting, known here as tivaevae.
Restaurants in Rarotonga
- Tamarind Restaurant (the traditionally Cook coconut lime ika mata is pretty much mandatory and a must on any Cook Islands itinerary)
- The Mooring Fish Cafe
- Cook Islands Coffee Company
- Beluga Café
- Mama T’s Takeaways
- The Pacific Fish & Chip Shop
Day trip to Aitutaki
But as idyllic as Rarotonga might be (and trust me, it is), a trip to the Cook Islands just wouldn’t be one without a getaway to neighbouring Aitutaki, a mere 50-minute flight away, where the pace is a tad slower and the landscapes almost intact.
Aitutaki is home to approximately just 1800 people and consists of 15 stunning islets.
Prevalent with Aussie and Kiwi honeymooners, the prawn-shaped atoll is one of the South Pacific’s best-kept secrets. It’s home to the only overwater bungalows in the country, if that’s your thing, and vast patches of blindingly white sand beaches where the only footprints I could see were my own and that of the numerous hermit crabs going about their crab business.
I want to hint at the word paradise, but somehow it feels over-commercialised and not persuasive enough to properly convey the sheer amazement found in this lagoon.
Truth be told, there are very few things to do in Aitutaki besides the typical beach-and-water-related undertakings. Granted, though, it will be the absolute best snorkeling, kiteboarding, kayaking and stand-up paddling of your life.
Snorkelers and divers will particularly appreciate the colourful corals and tropical fish species such as butterflyfish, parrotfish and angelfish.
Humpback whales migrate to the South Pacific ocean between July and October, where they rest after their long journey—and give birth to calves in warm waters. It’s even possible to book a swimming expedition with humpback whales! This really is a once in a lifetime experience with these gentle giants.
If you’d rather stay over-water, there’s a fun lagoon cruise with Teking Tours as well as fishing expeditions.
One Foot Island
Standing on the deserted seashore of One Foot Island in the outer edge of a 18-km2 archipelago part of a country claiming a whopping two million-km2 of the Pacific Ocean, staring at the open aquamarine sea, had me feeling like I literally was on the edge of the world.
And that, precisely, is why you should come to Aitutaki and the Cook Islands for: the sense of being truly alone in one of the few remaining unspoilt places on Earth.
You can even can get your passport stamped at the world’s smallest post office!
Getting to Aitutaki on a budget
The only way to get from Rarotonga to Aitutaki is via Air Rarotonga, and the prices are high.
But there is a way to minimise the cost: book the second you decide you want to visit, because the prices will only increase the closer you get to your dates!
The best hotels in the Cook Islands
There are plenty of options to choose from when it comes to accommodation in the Cook Islands. Some of the most beautiful South Pacific resorts are based here, including the famed overwater bungalow type or the affordable hostel. Here’s a list of my favourites.