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.
Shopping in The Cook Islands
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.
Specialty shops line the coast of Ara Tapu Road, where more black pearl jewellery and local attire are found. Stamp collectors will be delighted with the special, colourful stamp designs at the Philatelic Bureau next to the Post Office.
Places to Visit In The Cook Islands
The Cook Islands’ landscape varies across different regions – from Rarotonga’s towering volcanic peaks, Mangaia’s and Atiu’s raised coral makatea and the North’s coral atolls.
Rarotonga is vibrant and lively, with verdant greenery that blends into its palm-fringed shores. Its main town is Avarua, where shopping and dining options are aplenty.
You can visit the “Sister Islands” from Rarotonga, like Aitutaki, which is renowned for its sugary beaches and turquoise lagoons. Atiu is another option, with pristine beaches and cave-riddled reefs. Mangaia’s formidable raised coral cliffs, Mauke’s mersmerising coral reef caves and Mitiaro’s subterranean pools and freshwater lakes full of freshwater eels – considered a delicacy by the locals, are also worth a visit.
Away from the wild side of Cook Islands sightseeing, lose yourself in the manicured gardens of the National Cultural Centre, or get another dose of culture at the Beachcomber Pearl and Art Gallery.
Water Activities, Diving & Snorkelling in The Cook Islands
The Cook Islands boast a plethora of water activities for your enjoyment. Cruise languidly along Muri Lagoon and Aitutaki Lagoon, touted as the most beautiful lagoons in the world for windsurfing, snorkelling and scuba diving. Boats are also available for hire if you want to go deep-sea or game fishing.
History buffs can catch a glimpse of the SS Maitai wreckage remnants in the Avarua harbour. Sunk in 1916, its main engine can be seen protruding from a reef.
As for scuba diving in the Cook Islands, the northern reefs are easy to navigate and the five-metre depth also makes the area suitable for snorkelling and safety stops. The Cook Islands’ southern reefs are a burst of colourful, soft corals – a dream come true for photographers with an amazing array of marine life. The East, with its crevices, caves and swim-throughs, is perfect for adventure dive.
Divers at these Cook Island dive spots can feast their eyes on temperate, subtropical and tropical species of fish, rays and eels, as well as octopus, parrotfish, clownfish and other exotic varieties during their diving tours, evaen with a chance of sighting green and loggerhead turtles .
Food in The Cook Islands
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.
Nightlife in The Cook Islands
On Friday evenings, join the Night Life Tours that showcase the hottest nightspots in the Cook Islands, where you can enjoy live entertainment. Major hotels often feature an Island Night Show with performances and an umukai or traditional Polynesian feast. Alternatively, head down to Matutu and Cook Islands Breweries for a unique-tasting, locally-made pint or two.
Going To The Cook Islands
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.
Accommodation in The Cook Islands
Most of the Cook Islands’ hotels and other accommodation options are located on Rarotonga and Aitutaki, where you can choose from five-star hotels, luxury villas, resorts, bungalows to mid-range hotels and backpacker hostels. Advance booking is highly recommended.
For pared down simplicity, visit the islands of Mauke, Mangaia and Mitiaro where most accommodation facilities are not more than two storeys high, due to legislation that prohibits buildings from being higher than the tallest coconut tree. No camping is allowed.
Getting around The Cook Islands
Transport between the Cook Islands is supported by Air Rarotonga, which provides domestic air travel with daily flights to the outer islands. Rarotonga itself is encircled by one main road that is easily navigable on wheels. Cooks Island Buses offers reliable and convenient bus services to anywhere at your request. Other means of transport are motor scooters, bicycles, as well as rental cars and taxis. All drivers are required to possess a Cook Islands driver’s licence, which you can purchase after showing your current passport and licence at the police station.
For the very adventurous, inter-island freighters cater very occasional flights to all inhabited islands. Do look out for details in the local newspapers.
Cook Islands Currency
The New Zealand Dollar is used in the Cooks Islands, supplemented by the island country’s own banknotes and coins, including the triangular-shaped $2 coins, which are a favourite among coin collectors. Cooks Islands currency can only be used in the Cook Islands. Tipping is not necessary, but always appreciated.
To obtain a visa for entry into the Cooks Islands, you must have a passport with at least six months validity remaining. You should also produce proof of sufficient funds, an onward/return ticket and proof of suitable accommodation. Other visa requirements also vary, so do check before making your travel plans.
Cook Islands Weather & Climate
Rarotonga is warm and sunny all year, with occasional trade winds. The average summer temperature is 26ºC from November to April. Prepare for some afternoon rainfall if you travel to the islands during this period. Cyclone season is from November to March, although major ones only occur every five years.