The Cook Islands – Your Winter Escape Plan

Landmarks & Icons

Enjoy the Cook Islands

In follow up to July’s feature article “Is this the year to escape the entire winter for a warmer climate” focusing on the Sunshine coast in Australia, this month we are shining the light on a different tropical island within the Cook Islands. The main island of Rarotonga affectionately called “Raro” by the locals, is in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, 10 hours flight from Los Angeles or a 5 hours flight from Auckland, NZ. Air New Zealand has one flight a week from North America and numerous from Auckland. So, it goes without saying that the Cook Islands is often combined by travellers with New Zealand and/or Australia, but it can easily standalone as a destination worth visiting.

As with our article last month, we’ve compiled a list of what to do, but the Cook Islands are definitely known for accommodating travellers for long periods of time, you’ll have time to do everything below! Having said that this is very much a destination for those that are most comfortable slowing life down to simply enjoy the weather, catch up on your reading and escape the winter.

1. Beaches
Ofcourse, as a tropical South Pacific Island, the beaches here are phenomenal. I’ve visited them all, and can promise you, you can’t go wrong. But below, I’ve broken down some of my favourites by area.

South-East
Muri Beach, on Muri’s lagoon on the south-east side of the island is my personal favourite. The sandy bottom of the shallow water is covered with sea cucumbers, bright blue star fish and some beautiful coral formations. Towards the reef are four islets, Taakoka, Koromiri, Oneroa and Motuapu. Taakoka is volcanic but the other three are sand cays. The Sailing Club there has kayaks, hobie cats and snorkel equipment available for rent. Snorkeling is great with some amazing coral reefs to explore as you swim around the islets. You can also catch a lagoon cruise along the coast which offers half-hour cruises. The surf is generally calm in the mornings making it a wonderful spot for windsurfing, sailing or kite surfing.

South Rarotonga
If you are looking for a more laid back beach spot, the south coast is perfect with a white sandy beach stretching from the village of Titikaveka to Vaima’anga. It is one of the quietest beach areas with small bungalow properties, private houses and a couple of great beach-front restaurants making it the place to be for couples.

West Rarotonga
This beach is a bit coarse as it is a mix of sand and coral particles, it runs the entire length of the west coast. To the north, close to the airport, is a launching pad for jumping into the lagoon at high tide called Black Rock. The lagoon also offers snorkeling as well as reef walking at low tide. This beach attracts its swimmers for the great sunsets as it is in the perfect location for a stunning sunset experience. Towards the south-west, the beach gets a bit softer making it better for swimming and kayaking.

Pa is a 'legendary' nature guide in the Cook Islands
Pa is a ‘legendary’ nature guide in the Cook Islands

2. Tracks and Trails.
The Cross Island Track is a three to four hour hike from the north to south coasts is one of the most popular walks on Rarotonga. It passes through the island’s most beautiful and impressive natural scenery. You will need hiking boots and plenty of drinking water as you embark on this wonderful journey, as well as a healthy coating of mosquito repellent. This hike is a moderate to challenging one so be prepared to get a little bit dirty and for a good work out. Well worth the views! Guided tours for the walk are available it is also possible to do the walk alone, it’s totally safe, and totally worth it.

Aitutaki's lagoon is considered one of the finest beaches in the world
Aitutaki’s lagoon is considered one of the finest beaches in the world

3. Take a day trip to Aitutaki – or even a couple of nights.
The neighbouring island of Aitutaki’s lagoon is absolutely stunning, live with marine life and surrounded by 15 palm covered motu, it truly is one of the treasure of the South Pacific. It consistently ranks as one of the finest beaches in the world. Some of the best snorkeling spots are offered in Maina and is home to the red-tailed tropic-bird. The wreck of cargo freighter Alexander is close by, interesting to check out. Akaiami is the area where the old TEAL flying boats would land to refuel on their Trans-Pacific Coral Route between Fiji, Samoa and Tahiti.

Black Pearls
Black Pearls

4. Markets and shops
The Punanga Nui Cultural Market otherwise none as the Farmers Market is a weekly highlight and well worth the early rise on Saturday morning to arrive by 7:30am. There is lots of local produce to choose from and favourites such as mango’s and passion fruit sell out early. A market treat is “Nu”, juice of a young coconut and sells for about $1.
The Beachcomber Gallery is one of the best on the island, it has a vast selection of jewelry, carvings, pearls, craft-work and paintings all of which have been made locally in the islands. Visit the workshop and see how the black pearl jewellery and shell carvings are made, I find it quite interesting. The gallery itself is located in a historical building constructed in 1845 as a Sunday school, but is a beautiful colonial structure. The structure was on the verge of being torn down before its restoration in 1992, but worth seeing even if you aren’t a shopper.

5. Dining
There are numerous small locally run restaurants dotted all over the island to choose from. We have highlighted two of our staff fav’s…

  • Viama Polynesian Bar and Restaurant– recently resurrected after a fire, this restaurant still offers great food, is a Certificate of Excellence winner on Trip advisor, is ranked #1, and all for good reason. Our staff love it, and rave about the personal service, the generous portions, the homemade cheesecake and the take away pizza for those nights you don’t want to cook or go out!
  • The Mooring–a great lunch spot, huge portions, fantastic fresh seafood and veg salads and sandwiches, delicious soft and fresh rolls and scrumptious lime mayo, fresh young coconuts (Nu), good location in Muri Beach, and reasonable pricing and rave reviews, a must visit.

Cook Islands6. Go to church
Yes! Religious or not, of any denomination, we recommend travelers checkout a few churches while in the Cooks, being a great snapshot of their real lives. Missionaries flocked to the island over a century ago, but as a result there are dozens and dozens of different churches on these tiny islands all competing, and the trick it seems is to have the most fun. It’s lovely to witness hand-holding families wearing their Sunday best, singing on their way to or from church, or cycle past church doors flung open as arm-in-arm churchgoers sing and sway to music. For a treat, the first Sunday of every month see’s everyone wearing all white. The Cook Island Christian Church is a nice old white building built in 1853 when Aaron Buzacott was the resident missionary. There is an interesting surrounding graveyard that’s worth a slow browse. You will see the grave of the first Prime Minister Albert Henry, it’s hard to miss as there is a life size bust of the man himself. You might also see the grave of author Robert Dean Frisbie.

If you’re dreading the colder months, the arrival of snow and the falling of leaves… consider your escape plan. When it comes to ‘long stay’ vacations, the only real places for that are trailer parks or…Florida or Arizona! But the Cook Islands might be the ultimate escape plan, it’s a paradise to start, it’s value for money is tremendous, it’s people friendly and laid-back culture infectious.