Beach beds under coconut palm trees with an ocean view, Rarotonga, Cook Islands

Top 5 Day Trips in the Cook Islands

When you’re heading on vacation to an idyllic island, you’re probably planning to spend your time relaxing on the beach, enjoying a cocktail in the resort lounge, or snorkeling through the lagoon to see what sorts of colourful fish call the waters home. When you head to the Cook Islands, it’s no different. The Cook Islands are home to a wonderful, warm climate, long stretches of both white-sand and black-sand beaches, and incredibly friendly people who’ll make you think twice about leaving once you sink into the island rhythm.

However, even when you’re relaxing on Rarotonga, you might want to mix up your schedule with some day trips. Day trips are a great way to get acquainted with the islands, experience their culture, and explore their gorgeous water and inland terrain.

The following are five great options for day trips in the Cook Islands. These excursions are sure to spice up your stay and make your vacation to the Cooks even more unforgettable.

Explore the famous lagoon of Aitutaki

The Aitutaki Lagoon is often considered the most beautiful lagoon in the world. The lagoon’s turquoise waters and long stretches of palm-fringed, white-sand beaches are the sort of tropical sights people dream over. As such, visiting the lagoon is a must-do experience on a Cook Islands vacation. If you’re staying on Rarotonga, taking a full-day tour to explore Aitutaki and cruise its lagoon is a great option.

To start your day trip, you take a short 45-minute flight to Aitutaki and visit the main township of Arutanga, where many of the island’s 2,000 inhabitants live. After seeing Arutanga, you’ll head inland to the small villages of Tautu and Vaipae, which give you a taste of traditional life in the Cooks and the rhythms of people away from the resorts. After surveying the mainland, you’ll start the best part of the tour – a cruise across the famous lagoon.

Aerial View of Aitutaki, Cook Islands
Aerial view of Aitutaki

On board the traditionally designed catamaran, Titi Ai Tonga, you’ll take a slow cruise across the lagoon to survey this natural wonder for yourself. You’ll see the tiny motus and sand bars that are permanently raised above the high tide mark, as well as have a chance to snorkel through the water and see numerous tropical fish. You can even feed the fish by hand; don’t worry, their nibbles are more playful than you might fear.

After a lunch on board the catamaran, you’ll head to One Foot Island, the most famous islet in the lagoon and home to one of the most famous beaches in all of the South Pacific. You’ll enjoy a few hours on the beach where you can swim in the warm waters or even walk along the sand bar that sometimes appears far off the shore, before heading back to mainland to return to Rarotonga.

Suggested Day Tour:
Rarotonga: Aitutaki Full Day Tour

Beautiful beach in One Foot Island, Aitutaki, Cook Islands
Beautiful beach on One Foot Island, Aitutaki

Cruise across Rarotonga’s lagoon in a glass-bottom boat

Aitutaki might be home to the most famous lagoon in the islands, but that doesn’t mean that Rarotonga is lacking for tropical highlights. A half-day cruise across the lagoon is a great way to explore Rarotonga and experience some of the aquatic highlights of the main island in the Cook Islands.

On this half-day cruise, you’ll board a glass-bottom boat, which will let you observe the underwater happenings in the lagoon. On your journey across the lagoon, you’ll see shellfish crawling across the ocean floor, manta rays floating through the waves, and even the odd reef shark or sea turtle to make things really interesting. During your journey, you’ll also see the bright coral reef that attracts all these animals to the waters around Rarotonga.

After cruising the lagoon, you’ll stop at Koromiri Island, where you’ll enjoy a BBQ lunch of local fish and experience a demonstration of local traditions like pareu tying. Try your hand at tying your own before heading back to the mainland.

Suggested Day Tour:
Rarotonga: Captain Tama’s Lagoon Half Day Cruise

Lagoon cruise in Rarotonga

Immerse yourself in the local culture and traditions

The natural wonders of the islands might be the highlight of a Cook Islands vacation, but the people and their culture are absolutely incredible too. The Cooks have a long tradition of Polynesian culture and you’ll be able to engage with centuries of tradition and history at the Highland Paradise Cultural Centre on a half-day tour.

The Highland Paradise Cultural Centre is designed to give travellers in the Cook Islands a taste of what life was like on the islands prior to European contact. During a visit, you’ll see prehistoric worship sites, head through buildings that have been reconstructed to show how Cook Islanders lived in past centuries, and learn how to cook in the traditional manner, whether that means grilling fish or cooking meat in an underground oven, or umu.

Best of all, you’ll enjoy a drum and dance show that highlights the bright colours and energy of the islanders. You might even be able to join in the show and learn how to drum, dance, and weave colourful islander patterns yourself. Don’t let your trip to the Cook Islands end without an experience of the islands’ culture, so be sure to head to the Highland Paradise Cultural Centre to get your fill of local customs.

Suggested Day Tour:
Rarotonga: Highland Paradise Cultural Centre Guided Half Day Tour

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

Enjoy three courses at three different family homes

It won’t take you long on your Cook Islands vacation to realize how friendly the locals are. In fact, you’ll probably be greeted with a warm, oversized welcome within a few seconds of walking off the plane. Lots of older ladies wait around the airport in the Cooks to make sure that travellers find where they’re getting to and it’s likely that your hosts at a resort or hotel will go out of their way to make sure you’re comfortable and feel right at home. This welcoming culture is part and parcel of life in the Cooks and experiencing it is one of those special things about visiting these islands.

If you want to experience the friendliness of the locals, take part in a Progressive Dinner on the island of Rarotonga. This dinner event offers you three difference courses in three different family homes on the island. It allows you to join in the local rhythms and experience a typical dinner for a Cook Islander.

There’s no better way to get to know someone than around the dinner table, and this Progressive Dinner lets you sit around the dinner table with three different families, letting you enjoy their food, learn about local ingredients and ways of preparing food, and talk about ordinary life among new friends. If you’re a big fan of avoiding typical tourist experiences on your travels, this Progressive Dinner is a must-do. It’ll let you connect person-to-person with the locals and enjoy a taste of life as a Cook Islander.

Suggested Day Tour:
Rarotonga: Progressive Dinner

Progressive Dinner Rarotonga Cook Islands
Progressive dinner sample plate

Ride the Ancient Coral Road alongside a local storyteller

You might want to spend most of your time in the water, but be sure to explore the mainland of Rarotonga on your Cook Islands vacation. Exploring the island in the company of a local storyteller is a great way to experience the local highlights and learn the ins and outs of the island.

Most people in the Cook Islands get around by motorized scooter, or cycle. On this tour, you’ll hop on the back of a scooter and ride the Ancient Coral Road around the island in the company of a local guide. This storyteller will introduce you to the highlights of the island and show you how to discover hidden valleys or little hideaways that are missed by larger tour groups. You’ll stop by local villages and some small attractions that are only known to locals, as well as hear stories you’ll never find in a book.

At the end of your tour, you’ll enjoy a lunch and stop off at a secluded beach for a cool-down swim. It’s a great way to end a day of exploration, and the entire tour is a wonderful way to see the island of Rarotonga through the eyes of a local.

Suggested Day Tour:
Rarotonga: Storytellers Eco Cycle Explore Tour with Lunch

Typical roadside shot in the tropical Polynesian island of Rarotonga, Cook Islands
Typical roadside shot in the island of Rarotonga

These day trips are sure to add some variety and new experiences to a vacation filled with warm weather and relaxing afternoons at the beach. We know that the climate, the water, and the long days free of daily worries are what attract people to the Cooks, but don’t let your Cook Islands vacation end without having some of these experiences. You’ll be glad you didn’t.

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Aren Bergstrom
Aren Bergstrom

Globetrotting Editor - You might say that Aren was destined to become a Globetrotter after his family took him to Germany two times before he was four. If that wasn’t enough, a term spent in Sweden as a young teenager and a trek across Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand confirmed that destiny. An independent writer, director, and film critic, Aren has travelled across Asia, Europe, and South America. His favourite travel experience was visiting the major cities of Japan’s largest island, Honshu, but his love for food, drink, and film will take him anywhere that boasts great art and culture.

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