Who among us isn’t curious to taste a slice of paradise? I’m not usually a beach person (with this exception) but I’d heard such great things about the Cook Islands that my interest was piqued. And in many ways it lived up to or surpassed my expectations. So following our trip last year, I wanted to pull together a Cook Islands travel guide to share all my research and help others plan a dream Cook Islands getaway!
Cook Islands Travel Guide
Before you book
What to expect
- The scenery. Being out on the Aitutaki lagoon and landing on the sand bars really feels like something from a dream. The natural beauty is just staggering.
- Relaxation and lack of connectivity. Beautiful surroundings, minimal activities available for distraction and pricey wifi = a recipe for taking quality time out.
But be prepared for:
- The less idyllic parts. Parts of Aitutaki are run down and dilapidated. Rarotonga less so, though it’s more touristy than I’d like. (As a tourist, though, I have no right to complain!)
- Expensive food. The supermarkets on Rarotonga are perfectly fine, but on Aitutaki they’re pretty small and produce is thin on the ground towards the end of the day. Everything is a bit more expensive than you’d find in New Zealand, as it’s had to be imported.
- Mosquitoes, barking dogs (on Raro) and cacophonous roosters. One of the most unpleasant parts of my holiday was getting eaten alive by mosquitoes (the window mesh had gaping holes in our first accommodation). I encourage you to do everything you can to stave them off. The loud animals weren’t such a big deal for me, but if you’re a light sleeper consider yourself forewarned that ear plugs might be a good shout.
The Cook Islands is made up of 15 different islands, strewn across 1.85 million square kilometres of the central-southern Pacific Ocean. In the Northern Group there’s Manihiki, Rakahanga, Penrhyn, Pukapuka, Nassau, Suwarrow and Palmerston and in the Southern Group is Rarotonga, Aitutaki, Atiu, Mitiaro, Mauke, Mangaia, Manuae and Takutea.
Here’s a brief glimpse into three of the 15:
- Rarotonga – ‘Raro’ is the largest, principal island. Most international flights arrive here. It’s busy and touristy, but that means it’s better equipped with restaurants, supermarkets and other facilities than the other islands. Aitutaki has superior ‘idyllic’ appeal in my view, but Rarotonga still has its share of enchanting beaches and views.
- Aitutaki – 264 km and a 50 minute flight from Rarotonga, Aitutaki is an ‘almost atoll’ with the most wonderful lagoon dotted with sand bars and small islands (motus). The lagoon tour is as close to paradise as I think I’ll ever get! Aitutaki itself is much smaller than Rarotonga, so the facilities and activities available are limited. The main village is Arutanga, in the south west – that’s where to head for the internet cafe and souvenir shops. There are daily flights from Raro to Aitutaki with Air Rarotonga. The airline also runs day tours to the island, which includes return flights and a lagoon cruise all in one fare.
- Atiu – Atiu’s laid back atmosphere and ecology are its main draws, especially its coral limestone caves and unique birdlife. (The cave-dwelling kopeka uses echo-location to navigate caves in the dark.) Read more about Atiu and its attractions here.
Currency & Visas
In case you were curious, the Cook Islands was formerly a New Zealand colony but as of the 1960s the relationship is a “free association”. The Cook Islands has its own autonomous government, which administers its affairs and sets its laws, but the currency is the New Zealand Dollar (plus some very cool Cook Island coins, above) and its citizens are New Zealand citizens.
As a visitor (visiting the islands for recreation), you are able to visit without a visa for 31 days. You simply require a passport and an onward or return ticket. New Zealand citizens are permitted to stay for 90 days. Read more about visa requirements at this site.
How long to visit
The deciding factors for the length of our visit were:
- Cost – the Cook Islands can get pretty expensive, especially with an internal flight to Aitutaki in the mix.
- Activities – we planned to lounge and relax, with only a handful of key activities thrown in (and hence didn’t want to stay too long and grow bored).
- Wanting to see two islands – I knew very early on that I wanted to visit both Aitutaki (a smaller, somewhat quieter island with an extraordinary lagoon) and Rarotonga (the ‘main’ island, busier but with a bit more to see). I wanted to experience each as fully as I could, given the cost and effort to get there, and not feel too rushed.
For these reasons, we settled on 10 days (11 including travel days). That worked really well for us. Obviously if you have a different budget, want to see more islands, or engage in more activities than we did in the itinerary below, you’ll have different considerations.
TO THE COOK ISLANDS
We flew from Auckland to Rarotonga. We went with Jetstar because they worked out cheapest when we were looking. The flight time is about 4 to 4.5 hours.
Sydney (6 to 7 hours) and Los Angeles (9 to 10 hours) are the other main choices for direct flights. Flights from Tahiti (2h 45) are another option. See this helpful website for more info!
Important Note: Flying from New Zealand (or Australia) to the Cook Islands is basically time travel as it requires you to cross the International Date Line. We left on a Saturday evening and arrived at 1am on the same Saturday. (Naturally on the way back, you’ll lose an entire day.)
I mention this not only for the novelty factor, but also because it means you have to be really careful with accommodation bookings. We had to book an Airbnb for Friday night in Rarotonga (even arriving at 1am, it’s still considered Friday night), despite spending that same Friday night at home in New Zealand and flying out of Auckland on Saturday night.
FROM RAROTONGA TO AITUTAKI
The hop across to Aitutaki is with Rarotonga Airlines. They have a captive market, so it’s not cheap. Our flights cost us almost as much as the ones from Auckland!
The flight prices do decrease significantly as you approach the day you’ll fly, but it’s up to you whether you prefer to book ahead and play it safe or leave some of your itinerary open and try to nab last minute tickets for a reduced price.
Before you go
Where to stay
Accommodation is often location, location, location, and that’s true to an extent here. This USA Today article has a good summary of which areas are best for different priorities (water sports, sunsets/whale spotting, the best beach, shopping).
I largely agree with that piece, especially that Titikaveka has the best beach. The lagoon opposite Fruits of Rarotonga is jaw-droppingly blue (see below image). I couldn’t take my eyes off it every time we drove by!
But bear in mind that Rarotonga is only 20 miles (32 km) in circumference. So if you have your own transport (see below), it’s not far to travel everywhere else.
Where we stayed in Rarotonga
We found a good range of Airbnb options online and were really happy with the two different ones we chose. We were near the airport for our first night and then near Aroa Beach (near Rutaki on the above map) for the rest of the time.
Aitutaki is much smaller than Rarotonga so the same argument applies. No matter where you stay you’ll never have to travel far to get around. As far as I can tell, most accommodation is on the west coast between Amuri and the airport. This is where we stayed and, though I can’t recommend the specific accommodation we chose, the location was right on a lovely stretch of beach. There are also some hotels/rentals out towards the end of the long arm in the north east, close to (and on) Akitua.
Neither island is enormous, so it’s a very real option to rely solely on walking and, in Rarotonga, the bus. (Here’s the timetable. There are only two buses, a clockwise and an anti-clockwise, which I imagine makes it very straightforward!)
For Aitutaki, we just walked everywhere. We paid for lifts from and back to the airport from our accommodation, and then went by foot. We were happy with this. It is a minor inconvenience that trips to pick up food or go to buy souvenirs seem that much more effortful on foot (especially in the heat). But when you’re spending your days lazing around on the beach you definitely can’t complain!
For Rarotonga, we hired a small car. This was definitely the right decision for us, as we wanted the freedom to drive around a bit more, both to explore and to hunt down restaurants where I could eat (I’m have tricky dietary requirements). We also wanted the security of knowing we could keep our valuables/documents locked in a car if we went snorkelling. There are some places that have lockers for this purpose, but not everywhere.
A very popular option is to hire scooters. If your licence doesn’t already include motorbike driving, you’ll need to pay for and pass a driving test at the Police Station to get a visitor motorcycle licence. We decided against this because neither Ben nor I have experience riding a motorbike/scooter. I was also put off by stories about the “Rarotonga tattoo” – a burn on your calf from the exhaust pipe if you’re not careful!
Shopping & Amenities
We visited the CITC Supermarket in Rarotonga a couple of times and I was impressed with the range there. I found it to be of a similar standard to many New Zealand supermarkets. There are multiple souvenir shops in Avarua, along with speciality shops if you have a particular interest in, e.g., pearls or perfume.
On Aitutaki we used the Aquila shop and Heineken Store, both small grocery shops. The produce available varies a lot depending on the time of day and whether or not there’s been a recent shipment, but we were able to get dried and tinned goods, along with some fruit and veg. For souvenirs and internet we headed into Arutanga itself.
- Small range of fast food available: fish and chips, pizza, burgers etc.
- More expensive restaurants at resorts (but to my eye even those didn’t have great looking menus)
- Cook for yourself if in self-catering accommodation (our choice, supplemented by bits of fast food)
- Far more proper ‘restaurants’ in addition to fast food, though not every cuisine is represented (we searched in vain for an Indian we’d heard was good but it had closed!)
- We tried a handful of places, but kept coming back to New Place in Avarua. Le Rendez Vous near the airport was another favourite.
What to pack
What (and how much) luggage you bring is such a personal decision, so I’m not going to give you a comprehensive packing list. These are just suggestions based on my own experiences of “I’m so glad I brought X” and “I really wish I’d brought Y”.
Obvious but important:
- Insect repellent (I would add anti-itch cream, too, in case you get bitten. You can buy it in a pharmacy there but I wished I’d brought my own)
Good for snorkelling:
- Snorkel/mask/flippers if you prefer to use your own (these can usually be borrowed or rented from your accommodation or bought)
- UV-protective long-sleeved rash shirt or similar (I heard some people have got seriously burnt being out in the Aitutaki lagoon all day, and most materials won’t protect from the sun when wet)
- Sand shoes, if you’re going out to snorkel
- Antibacterial gel (one of the places we stayed had a shared toilet)
- Moisturiser (I deemed this non-essential and left it behind, but the water and sand made my skin really dry and I wished I’d brought some).
- Face wipes (another one I wish I’d brought, to refresh, quickly clean off sunscreen in the evening and clean sand off random stuff)
Our 10 day Cook Islands itinerary
Day 1 (New Zealand time): Fly to Rarotonga and arrive 1am, overnight accommodation near airport
Day 1 (Cook Islands time) to Day 5: Internal flight to Aitutaki, stay on Aitutaki
We made the lagoon tour a priority and booked it towards the beginning of our stay in case we got inclement weather and needed to rebook. The rest of the time we spent in relaxation mode – trying out snorkelling near our accommodation, reading and snoozing on the beach, walking Maunga Pu, wandering along the beach and to and from town, taking photos. This whole trip was very lazy by our usual standards!
Day 6 to Day 10: Internal flight to Rarotonga, stay on Rarotonga
Rarotonga was only a little less languorous than Aitutaki. We still passed many lazy hours reading, but we also mixed in a handful of activities. We ate out, visited a museum, botanic garden, cultural centre (for an island night) and a weekend market. Plus we made sure to check out some more stretches of beautiful lagoon.
Day 11: Early hours flight back to Auckland
Things to do in the Cook Islands
I’ve covered all the stuff we got up to on both Aitutaki and Rarotonga over at this post.
Over to you
Is there anything you’re wondering about that I’ve missed in this guide? Comment below or drop me a message and I’ll do my best to advise!