There’s a little-known foodie paradise that’s bursting with fresh and innovative cuisine, nestled deep in the South Pacific. Look no further than the Cook Islands, a sunny country comprised of fifteen islands northeast of New Zealand.
The Cook Islands is a destination renowned for its long-white sand (and uncrowded) beaches and ideal laid back vacations – but did you know it’s also a hidden treasure for food lovers? It has a sizzling food scene centered around tropical ingredients, locally grown fruits and vegetables, seafood treasures, and colourful cocktails. Take your holiday to the next level and tantalize your tastebuds with the fresh, innovative, and inspiring cuisine of the Cooks, where a meal is not just a meal – it’s cause for celebration.
Also, much of the accommodation here is boutique villa-style, so many properties don’t have an onsite restaurant, making dining out a part of the Cook Islands experience. Culinary options range from first class dining rooms to friendly island-style cafes and home meal experiences. Travellers can easily rent a car and drive to a restaurant, while some restaurants offer pick up and drop off services. The food on the islands is a fusion of traditional Polynesian and popular New Zealand cuisine.
I’ve travelled across the gorgeous Cook Islands to uncover the best places to eat, drink and be merry. Here are some of my must-try foodie experiences in Cook Islands as well as those highly recommended by others:
Here are some samples of dining experiences I recently discovered while in Rarotonga, Cook Islands:
Mooring Fish Cafe
Two seafood-loving locals set up this quaint cafe in front of a gorgeous lagoon to serve up freshly caught fish sandwiches. The rest is history. Try a sumptuous sandwich made with fresh-off-the-boat fish and you’ll quickly understand why regulars flock here. For $13NZD you can buy delicious sandwiches made from the local morning catch of the day (usually tuna or mahi mahi), all served with locally baked Turkish bread, homemade mayo, and salad. My personal favourite was the “Tijajuana”, which is tuna seasoned in Cajun spices. For a lighter option, try their fish salads with are approximately $19NZD.
With a sandwich in one hand and a fresh fruit smoothie or coconut drink in another, you’ll be in foodie heaven. The café is only open for lunch, so plan your day accordingly!
For relaxed beachfront dining, the Waterline Restaurant is a great choice! Located on the western side of Rarotonga, this restaurant is the perfect place to watch the sunset while enjoying a meal. Their menu is small but has a good range, including a tasty Paella and decadent tiramisu. You can dine on the sand or on the deck looking over the beach.
For anyone celebrating a special occasion, you must visit Tamarind House. Tantalize your taste buds with world class cuisine in this beautifully restored heritage colonial house on the island of Rarotonga. Set on 2.5 acres of lawns sweeping down to a pristine beach and backed by a stunning mountain view, this hidden tropical treasure is just a three minute drive from the town centre. As a special guest, you will enjoy fantastic fine dining, local style, on the wide veranda overlooking the palm shaded lawns leading down to the ocean. Order the catch of the day or try one of their delicious Island curries. The menu also includes New Zealand rack of lamb and a few dishes offering an Asian flavour such as a coconut fish curry served with chutney and Vietnamese style salad. Take home the Tamarind House South Seas Cuisine Cookbook to recreate the memories of a flavourful Island meal at home!
Nuri Night Market
A great value option for dinner is to visit the Muri Night Market which is held on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays in Muri, on the eastern side of the island. Local vendors set up their stalls selling a variety of dinner plates and snacks ranging from $4-$12NZD. We tried chicken skewers flavoured with barbecue and mushroom sauce and a creamy fish curry with rice. There’s also fresh-made smoothies and homemade donuts. This open air night market doesn’t sell alcohol but you are welcome to bring your own.
Cook Islanders are famous for their love of hosting guests, and you’ll get to chat with homeowners, learn more about the culture and have a delicious meal on this this delightful dining tour through local homes. Held on Thursdays and Saturdays, diners visit three different family homes on the glorious island of Raratoga – one for appetizer, main course, and dessert. You may even meet three to four generations under one roof! Islanders love their music, so be prepared to enjoy some traditional song and dance while enjoying an unforgettable meal. Proceeds from this dining experience go back to the locals.
Be sure to book this tour as part of your Cook Islands vacation – it takes a full five hours and is a cultural and gastronomic experience you’ll be raving about for years to come.
Te Vara Nui Cultural Village Over Water Dinner and Show
Experience Cook Islands culture at its best with a fantastic dinner combined with an authentic cultural performance. Dinner is a delicious island buffet prepared in tandem by local chefs along with international guest chefs, giving you the very best of island and western cuisine. When the sun goes down, you will be treated to an electric cultural show performed by flaming torchlight on floating and fixed stages in the waterfall garden. During the show, you’ll be immersed in the compelling legends of the Maori people, with the resounding beats of drums and rhythms of local song and dance. The show is a powerful display of grace, beauty, passion, colour, and excitement – all with exceptional choreography. It’s one you won’t want to miss!
Samade on the Beach
This legendary Polynesian-inspired beachfront resto bar is famous for its all-day Sunday BBQs. Here, you can dine casually with the feel of the warm, white sand between your toes – it’s that close to the beach! Sip a Blue Lagoon cocktail while taking in the legendary sunsets from your beachfront table. The menu includes fresh fish caught in the nearby lagoon, New Zealand rack of lamb, and many other dishes inspired by local cuisine. The vegan and vegetarian options are great here. For an evening to remember, check out the special Island Night dinner. It features local foods and a colourful native dance troupe who entertains to lively island beats.
To get to the Cook Islands, fly direct from Los Angeles to Rarotonga (once weekly) on Air New Zealand. Alternatively for travellers planning on visiting New Zealand or Australia, the Cook islands makes a great stop en-route. There are daily flights with Air New Zealand between Rarotonga and Auckland, New Zealand and weekly flights to Sydney, Australia.