There’s never been a better time to discover a little paradise that is still—mostly—unknown to North Americans. Whether it’s to escape the icy blast of winter, skip out for summer vacay, or grab a great deal during the shoulder months, escape to the romantic beauty of the Cook Islands, in the heart of the South Pacific.
Where are the Cook Islands?
The Cook Islands are some of the most remote islands on Earth. Each one is tiny (the largest, Rarotonga is a mere 26 square miles), yet they’re spread over a massive 850,000 square miles of ocean. If you were to stand at their southernmost point, gazing out over the Pacific, there’d be nothing but ocean between you and Antarctica. Visiting the Cook Islands is the ultimate ‘do not disturb.’
Why the Cook Islands are a hidden paradise
Self-governed in free association with New Zealand, the Cook Islands have long stayed under the radar of international tourism, eschewing big chain resorts in favour of a more laid-back, local island experience. That doesn’t mean a lack of amenities, since the Cook Islands have luxury offerings to compete with any in the world. But it does mean enjoying a more boutique experience at any time of year, whether travelling for romance, a family getaway, to snowbird, or just to leave life’s stresses behind.
Resorts in the Cook Islands also tend to be more affordable than their counterparts in more familiar island destinations, while offering many of the same experiences, including that famed South Pacific hospitality. Staying a month or two in the South Pacific can burn through your cash quickly, but these islands offer a range of accommodations tailored to a longer stay. It’s the perfect way to get to know the local community and understand Cook Islands life away from the resorts.
Which of the Cook Islands is for me?
The two most popular islands in the Cook Islands offer two very different experiences. If you’re coming in search of an island paradise and don’t mind spending a little more, you can’t go past Aitutaki. This tiny, jaw-dropping atoll curves around one of the most beautiful lagoons in the South Pacific. Dotted with boutique resorts, it’s ideal for honeymooners or anyone looking to elevate their Cook Islands vacation with a little luxury away from it all.
For a more immersive cultural experience, Rarotonga has everything you need. More than half the country’s population lives on the island (that’s just over 10,000 people, so don’t worry about crowds), which also offers a wide variety of activities, cultural experiences, restaurants, nightlife, and accommodations at various price points. It’s also the easiest place to dive into the islands’ history and mix with locals. Pristine beaches are still plentiful, and there are more opportunities for exploring the Cook Islands’ rich Polynesian heritage
Both Aitutaki and Rarotonga offer a great family vacation, but you might find more to keep the kids busy on Rarotonga. Other islands like Atiu and Mangaia each have their own delights, but be prepared for fewer tourist amenities the further you stray from the popular spots.
Best things to do in the Cook Islands
The Cook Islands offer all the best elements of an island vacation, including white sand beaches, inviting blue lagoons, mouthwatering local dishes, thrilling traditional culture demonstrations, and lush tropical hinterland. It just does them all a little differently. The ocean tempts you with snorkelling, fishing, diving, and much more. You can also explore inland via 4×4, mountain bike, or on your own two feet with a range of hikes yielding fantastic views.
Then, there’s arguably the islands’ main attraction, the warm hospitality of the Cook Islanders. After a few hours here, you’ll start to wonder if (sorry Disney!) you’ve found the happiest place on Earth. Key to this is the Cook Islanders’ refusal to rush through life. Consider a Cook Islands vacation your chance to slow things down.
Set out to explore on Rarotonga’s preferred mode of transport, the scooter! A single ring road called Ara Tapu connects all the settlements on the island. You can cover it in less than an hour, but don’t rush. Give yourself time to visit the many sights, communities, and beaches along the way. Note that there are no traffic lights anywhere in the Cook Islands. They simply aren’t necessary.
Cook Islands Culture, Arts & Cuisine
Today’s Cook Islands are a melding of Polynesian and European influences, rich with stories of the sea. The call of the drum is a vital part of this, bringing Cook Islands heritage to life through drumming and dance. Each generation has brought their own updates to this tradition, fusing it with gospel and electronic influences, but its heart remains the same.
Also rooted in Polynesian culture are many local crafts, including wood carving, tapa cloth, basket and hat weaving, and tattooing, all of which are still honoured today and make popular souvenirs, depending on the visitor!
Cook Islands Attitudes & Social Norms
One aspect of Cook Islands culture that stands out is a devotion to church, which is as much a social and celebratory occasion as a religious one. If you’re comfortable doing so, attending a local church service in the Cook Islands is a great way to experience a joyous and very musical part of life for many locals. The islands have also adopted New Zealand’s love of rugby, and enthusiastic locals are more than happy to introduce foreigners to the game.
Even with the prominence of its churches, the Cook Islands have a ‘live and let live’ attitude when it comes to LGBTQ+ visitors, and the country’s parliament overwhelmingly voted to legalize same-sex relations between men in June 2023. Open displays of affection however may be frowned on regardless of orientation. Just follow the locals’ lead, and you’re unlikely to turn those famous Cook Islands smiles upside down.
How do I get to the Cook Islands?
Remote as they are, the Cook Islands are easier to reach than ever. Hawaiian Airlines has a weekly service from Honolulu to Rarotonga connecting the Cook Islands from 15 continental U.S. gateways. The Cook Islands can also be reached via New Zealand and the Islands of Tahiti. When you arrive in Rarotonga, you can easily connect to Aitutaki or one of the lesser-known islands to extend your stay, or pair your Cook Islands escape with a few days in your layover destination of choice.
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