Escape to the Cook Islands and Live Like a Local in Paradise

Romance & Beaches

Young woman relaxing on a deserted tropical island in Aitutaki Lagoon, Cook Islands

The Cook Islands remain some of the best-kept secrets in the South Pacific. As tropically blissful as Tahiti or Fiji, but with fewer crowds, the Cook Islands present a perfect opportunity to embed yourself in an island culture and live like a local in paradise.

It’s not that the Cook Islands don’t represent plenty of opportunities for the kind of beach resort getaways you fantasize about during downtime at the office, when the promise of white-sand beaches and turquoise waters seem like the perfect antidote to beige-and-grey cubicles. They do, and there are many luxury resorts ready to cater to your dreams for romantic getaways or idyllic snowbird breaks. It’s just that unlike certain other South Pacific destinations, the Cook Islands also let you sink into the rhythms of the islands and experience local life if you wish to.

Switch Your Clock to Island Time

Smiling Boys in Rarotonga, Cook Islands
Smiling faces in Rarotonga

The Cook Islands are a series of 15 islands in the South Pacific, halfway between Hawaii and New Zealand. The nation is a self-governing state under the domain of New Zealand, which annexed it in 1901. However, despite the use of New Zealand dollars, the Cooks are essentially independent. The vast majority of the population is Cook Island Maori, and they retain their traditional rhythms while having blended their culture with the Christianity brought by missionaries in the 19th century.

If you’re visiting the Cook Islands and want to blend into the local rhythms, stay on Rarotonga, the largest of the islands. However, there is something you must absolutely do if you are to experience the Cooks properly – stop rushing. Change your internal clock to island time. Enjoy the sun and the ocean breeze. Cook Islanders take their time and enjoy every moment of the day. If you want to experience the authentic Cook Islands, slow down and take in everything that these wonderful islands have to offer.

Most Cook Islanders get around by scooter or bicycle, so rent one to travel around Rarotonga or the smaller Aitutaki. It’s very possible your guesthouse will supply you with a bike during your stay. If you spot a particularly gorgeous lagoon off the coast or one of the island’s many white coral and limestone churches, stop and take a photo. Talk to the local groundskeeper to learn about the church’s history or stroll along the beach to see what else the water reveals to you. Strike up a conversation about the best spots to swim and you might find yourself invited for a home-cooked meal and a night among new friends. Travelling by cycle or scooter lets you move at your own pace and experience the Kia Orana spirit of the Cooks.

Father and kids biking in Rarotonga, Cook Islands
Biking in Rarotonga

Island Nights are a Highlight

Arts and dance are also hugely important to the Cook Islander Maori, so take in local performances and visit the markets to admire crafts if you want to get a feel for ordinary Cook Islands life. As well, Island Nights are perfect opportunities to embed yourself in the local culture and learn how to celebrate like a Cook Islander.

If Hawaii is known for luaus, Cook Islanders are known for Island Nights. During these occasions, families and friends gather together to feast and celebrate with song and dance. It’s likely that you’ll meet some locals within the first hour of visiting the Cook Islands, as the locals are notoriously friendly. In fact, many of the older locals wait around the airport to ensure that visitors make it to their correct destinations safely and to give folks a hearty welcome to their island nation. Cook Islanders demonstrate a whole new definition of hospitality.

If you get to know the locals during your stay, it’s likely you’ll enjoy an Island Night and a chance to see Cook Islanders show off their impressive culture. While Cook Islanders are some of the friendliest people you’re likely to meet, they also take great pride in their artistic accomplishments, and Island Nights are an opportunity to share this with the world. The Islanders are some of the best artists in the Pacific, and their wood carvings, tattoos, and tapa clothes are sure to inspire you.

If you want a more in-depth look at the Cook Islander Maori culture, head to the Highland Paradise Cultural Centre, on Rarotonga, during your stay. This place will educate you on the island customs and practices prior to western contact, and paint a clear picture of how the culture has developed over the past millennium.

Highland Paradise Cultural Centre Tour, Rarotonga, Cook Islands
Highland Paradise Cultural Centre tour, Rarotonga

Idylls on the Beach

Of course, the gorgeous waters of the Pacific are central to many aspects of Islander life. Luckily, there are plenty of spots in the Cook Islands where you can take advantage of the warm waters of the Pacific Ocean. On Rarotonga, head to Muri Beach, and the sands around Titkaveka and Vaimaanga, to enjoy the best of beach life. The Muri Lagoon is a gorgeous area surrounded by four islets, and the waters are relatively free of coral heads, allowing you great room for swimming. The beaches around Titkaveka and Vaimaanga have more coral, but the sands are equally gorgeous. The coral in the water attracts plenty of sea life, so these beaches are great snorkeling bases.

Black Rock Beach on Rarotonga’s west coast is another great spot to swim or snorkel. As well, the beach is covered in large black slabs of stone. Throw down a towel and make the rocks your temporary home or lay directly on the rocks themselves and soak in the captured warmth of the sun. If you’re staying on Aitutaki, you’ll have no shortage of great spots to enjoy the water. The lagoon is often considered the most beautiful in the world and a tour of its highlights is essential on any trip to the Cook Islands, whether you’re staying for a week or a month.

No matter where you stay, you’ll want to snorkel the reefs and explore the bounties of these crystal-clear waters. Take a canoe out on the waters and feel like you’re recreating the epic voyages of the Maori adventurers who discovered the islands over a thousand years ago.

Rarotonga Aerial View, Cook Islands
Aerial view of Rarotonga
Aerial View of Aitutaki, Cook Islands
Aerial view of Aitutaki

Tips Before You Go

There are some things you need to be aware of before you begin to live like a local on the Cook Islands. While the exchange rate to New Zealand dollars is generally favourable for Americans and Canadians, be aware that many things are expensive on the Cook Islands. This island nation is thousands of kilometres from the nearest continent, so the cost of transporting food and goods is high.

Food in grocery stores will run more expensive than at home, and don’t be surprised by a lack of fresh produce and meat in stores. However, while grocery stores are pricey, markets offer a more local and affordable option for food during your stay. The Punangi Nui Cultural Market runs Monday to Friday from 8am to 4pm just outside Avarua, Rarotonga’s largest town. Goods and food are local, so shopping at the market will help you adjust to the local lifestyle. If you’re not big into cooking, you’ll find enough restaurants on the islands to satisfy you during your stay. The prices are relatively affordable when compared to grocery shopping, so you won’t be breaking the bank if you decide to go this route.

Tamarind House Rarotonga Cook Islands Feat
The Tamarind House in Rarotonga

Also, be aware that Wi-Fi is virtually non-existent in the Cook Islands. While it is available, prices will likely cost you around $10 per 100MB, so consider switching off the cellphone, ignoring emails, and shifting your focus to the here and now and the bountiful pleasures of the natural environment.

Whether you’re travelling with your family, a partner, or going solo, you will find the Cook Islands endlessly accommodating. Rent an apartment or stay in a guesthouse for several weeks and explore these islands at the rhythm of local life. There are few better places to call home than the Cook Islands, even if only for a few short weeks.

Suggested Itinerary:
13-Day Live Like a Local: Cook Islands
15-Day Live Like a Local: Cook Islands incl. Airfare

Rarotongo sunset, Cook Islands
Rarotonga sunset