Cook Island holidays are popular among scuba divers, especially since the protective reef surrounding the islands houses all kinds of coral and marine life, including rarely seen marine turtle and humpback whales.
The Cook Islands were named after Captain Cook, who discovered them in 1770. Formed by volcano activity, all 15 islands have a total land area of 240 square kilometres that are home to flora and fauna, such as land and sea bird varieties and diverse native ferns and flowers.
The southern Cook Islands are made up of nine islands, including the populous capital of Rarotonga, while the older northern Cook Islands are made up of six islands – which are actually coral atolls, formed by coral growth over sunken volcanoes.
The island country lies in the middle of the Polynesian triangle of the Pacific Ocean; Tonga and Samoa to its west, and Tahiti and French Polynesia to the east. The Cook Islands’ defence and foreign affairs fall under the jurisdiction of New Zealand.
A variety of traditional handicrafts, like rito hats (similar to Panama hats), carvings, shell trinkets and musical instruments, may be purchased. Avarua is the largest shopping district. On Saturday mornings, Punanga, the popular local marketplace offers a selection of craft items and tropical delicacies. Quality souvenirs include ukuleles, island CD music, sarongs, local quilts and the infamous Cook Islands Black Pearl. Downtown, Mana Court has ample diving and snorkeling gear for those who need it.
Many Cook Islands restaurants offer international and local cuisine all over the islands. Cultural attractions at Te Vara Nui and the Highland Paradise also serve up sumptuous buffet fare, alongside traditional cultural dancing.
Ask the friendly locals for their recommendations of the best local diners for goods like eke (marinated octopus), ika mata (fish in coconut sauce) and grilled sweet potato, some of which can be found daily at the Avarua marketplace. Travellers who fancy the local equivalent of a farmers’ market where fresh produce and homemade products by the islanders are on sale should go there for a “Go Local” spread which happens every two weeks.
Flights to the Cook Islands land at Rarotonga International Airport, which serves as the main airport for the Cook Islands, serves a small number of international airlines that chart flights to Auckland, Sydney, Fiji and Los Angeles.
Rarotonga is a popular stopover on round-the-world flights and also a regular stopover for cruises, along with Aitutaki. These two are part of the five designated ports of entry if you are coming by cruise to the Cook Islands; the other three ports are Atiu, Penrhyn and Pukapuka.