Cook Islands travel guide

August 16-31st, 2018

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Cook Islands travel map

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Once you hear about the "Cook Islands" for the first time, you may just wonder where this place is located, as the Cook Islands are not so frequently mentioned among news or travel web sites. Well, the Cook Islands are located in South Pacific Ocean, within the tropical zone, not far from the international date line change and roughly 4 hours flight from New Zealand or 9 from Los Angeles. The Cook Islands are actually an archipelago of many small islands scattered on a water surface as big as 8 times the size of the United Kingdom, and count also an infinity of islets or "almost islands" made of coral reefs just "touching" the surface of the ocean. The Cook Islands are a country freely associated with New Zealand, but with its own government, and have a total population of about 20,000, most of which concentrated on Rarotonga (the main island of the country) and its capital Avarua. Only a small part of the population is located on very remote islands, connected just by a few flights per month. The Cook Islands economy is mainly based on tourism, on black pearl farming and on contributions coming from New Zealand. Most tourists visit the Cook Islands especially for the beautiful beaches and for the incredible seascape dominated by vast turquoise lagoons which represent the perfect "postcard" when dreaming a tropical paradise.


Now that you know where the Cook Islands are located, you may instead wonder how to get to such remote place. Not mentioning complicated ways by private yachts or by cruise ships visiting the archipelago from time to time, the easiest, cheapest and fastest way to get to Cook Islands is by plane. The only airport in the Cook Islands that handle long-range planes is located on Rarotonga island, not far from the capital Avarua. Rarotonga airport is served mainly by Air New Zealand, with almost daily flights from Auckland, several weekly flights from Australia (Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne) and weekly flights from Los Angeles. There are also additional airlines flying to Cook Islands, again from New Zealand and Australia, but also occasionally from French Polynesia and Fiji, although direct flights from other South Pacific islands are usually seasonal and not always confirmed from year to year. Therefore, if you live in Australia or New Zealand (or even near Los Angeles), getting to Cook Islands will not be long or difficult, but any other passenger from the rest of the world, will have to transit and connect in either Auckland, Sydney, Brisbane or Los Angeles. For European tourists the route via Auckland is the longest, but also the cheapest and that offering a higher number of flights per week (by connecting from Europe via Los Angeles, the flight will be several hours shorter, but there are only very few flights per week).


The major tourist attractions of the Cook Islands are mainly the beaches, the immense lagoons where visitors can swim or snorkel, and the deserted islands ideal to organize a picnic among breathtaking seascapes looking like a perfect tropical postcard. It should be noted that the Cook Islands are becoming an increasingly popular destination for tourists from all over the world and it is becoming difficult to find truly unspoiled and uncrowded places like Niue, Tonga, Kiribati or New Caledonia, to name a few. The influx of tourists is however certainly justified not only by the beauty of the places, but also by the quality of services probably higher than the other Pacific islands mentioned. There are in any case also several islands, such as Atiu or Manihiki where visitors can still find more authentic and less frequented locations than the more popular Rarotonga and Aitutaki. But now let's see what are the most important things to see in the Cook Islands in order of popularity:

  • Rarotonga: the main island, with its capital Avarua, will be almost certainly your first contact with the Cook Islands, as it hosts the only international airport of the country. The whole island of Rarotonga can be traveled by car, scooter or bus in less than an hour, or, for who is better fit, the bicycle can be an excellent way to explore the most hidden corners in silence. The island is of volcanic origin and has an ovoid shape. The inner region is dominated by hills and mountains covered by dense tropical vegetation, while the coast is almost entirely surrounded by a beautiful turquoise lagoon protected by a coral reef, sometimes accessible by just swimming or kayaking from the nearest beach. The beaches are coralline and are present in large number all around the island. Rarotonga is the most touristic and popular place in the Cook Islands.

  • Aitutaki is a huge atoll, among the largest in the Pacific Ocean, with an immense turquoise blue lagoon that occupies the central part, and a series of motu (small islands) rising at the edge of the outer coral reef. Most of the accommodation facilities are located on the main island of Aitutaki, where the capital Arutanga is located and where a hill more than 100 meters high offers a spectacular 360° view over the whole atoll. Honeymoon Island, One Foot Island and other deserted islands along the edge of the lagoon, are among the most beautiful places we visited in the Pacific and can be reached within a few minutes by water taxi from the main island of Aitutaki, agreeing with the driver both time and location where to be collected later. Aitutaki is the second most popular destination of the Cook Islands and is located about 45 minutes flight from Rarotonga.

  • Atiu is instead a "raised" atoll, so defined because the tectonic thrust has pushed the island up from the sea by roughly 50-60 meters. A beautiful turquoise blue lagoon surrounds the whole island, while powerful waves crash with a great uproar along the coral reef not far away. White sand beaches are located among numerous coves protected by dramatic cliffs, while a dense tropical vegetation dominates the central part of the island. A dark cave full of stalactites and stalagmites hosts a swallow quite unique in the world, which can fly into the darkness via Eco-localization (while outside the cave normal eyes are used). The main town on Atiu hosts less than 500 people living in houses surrounded by lush gardens full of flowers and tropical plants with colorful leaves. Among the tourist destinations in the Cook Islands, Atiu is the least visited and is located about 45 minutes flight from Rarotonga.

  • Mitiaro, Mauke, Mangaia are raised atolls geologically similar to Atiu. They are located less than an hour flight from Rarotonga and are the least visited destinations in the Cook Islands, but no less fascinating. They have a beautiful lagoon that surrounds the whole island, fossil coral cliffs and small white sand beaches hidden among coves accessible only on foot, while the inner part of the islands is dominated by a dense jungle. As for Atiu, accommodation facilities are few and flights are not available for every day of the week.

  • Northern Atolls. The islands of the Northern Atolls group are the most remote and least accessible of the country. Manihiki, Penrhyn, Pukapuka and Rakahanga are the classic flat atolls of the Pacific Ocean, surrounded by numerous motu (islets) typical of our imagination when we dream far away paradises. These atolls are more than 1000 kilometers north of Rarotonga, therefore much closer to the equator compared to the other Cook Islands, and are only served by small turboprop aircraft a few times a month or just on request. The flight from Rarotonga to any of these islands is several hours long and only few passengers are accepted due to weight issues and total fuel needed. A few times per year, the islands are also visited by cargo ships. Incredibly, these atolls have a resident population that lives mainly on black pearl farming, copra production and fishing. There is only one facility in Manihiki that can accommodate less than 10 tourists, while in Penrhyn, Pukapuka and Rakahanga, it is necessary to find accommodation with a family. Air Rarotonga offers, usually once a year, an expensive air safari to visit all these islands in just 4 days (in our opinion a really too short time) stopping one night on each of them: the tour can be booked directly from the airline's website or through an operator.

  • Deserted islands and reefs: scattered here and there in the middle of nowhere, some uninhabited atolls can only be visited with expensive cruises or private yachts after obtaining the relevant permits (some of these islands are national park protected for their biodiversity and for the colonies of some birds). One of these atolls is for example Manuae, a paradise visible from the right-side window when flying from Atiu to Aitutaki.


Since you will hardly want to limit your trip to the Cook Islands only to the main island of Rarotonga, you may be wondering how to get around in the Cook Islands and how to visit more atolls and islands. Well, let's begin to see how to get to Aitutaki, Atiu and other closer islands once you have arrived in Rarotonga on an international flight. The inter-island flights from and to Rarotonga are offered by Air Rarotonga through small turboprop aircraft: tickets can be easily purchased directly from their web site. The island having highest number of flights per day is Aitutaki, with options to connect also with most international flights (thus eliminating the need to stay in Rarotonga, which is, anyway, a place that should not be missed from your itinerary). Atiu is instead served only by a few flights per week, while, the islands belonging to the Northern Group (Manihiki, Penrhyn, Pukapuka) are those with the lowest number of flights: only a few per months or on demand. The tickets for internal flights can be usually purchased also together with a complete travel package to the Cook Islands, sometimes saving quite a lot of money comparing to purchasing them separately. Once on the island, moving around is simple by using scooters, rental cars, bicycles or even bus (major islands only). Vehicles to be rented are sometimes available directly at the property where you are staying, otherwise, they can be hired at various locations of the island (in high season it is good to make a reservation at least a few days before the intended use). To get to remote motu (islets) on Aitutaki, there are water taxis operating on demand from and to any location. Instead in Rarotonga there is a transportation service provided by 2 buses which, every hour, ride respectively in clockwise and anticlockwise direction for the whole island. Instead, transfers to and from the airport are almost always offered, sometimes for free, by the property where you will stay.


This is a really good question, because usually booking every service separately may give more flexibility, but may be also more expensive, since accredited tour operators selling complete travel package to the Cook Islands, usually have access to better fares. Choosing to go to the Cook Islands by your own or by tour operator is really up to you, depending on budget, travel itinerary and how much flexibility is required. We should add, anyway, that most tour operators will still let some degree of flexibility over the standard travel packages: for example, if the proposed travel package has 3 nights in Rarotonga and 4 in Aitutaki, usually you may add or remove any number of nights from either island, or even add other islands to the itinerary. Some travel agency will also let to choose the accommodation on each island, depending on preferred location and budget (five star resorts, where available, could be really very expensive). For our trip to Cook Islands, we booked everything through Island Hopper Vacations by just communicating our budget / preferred accommodation type and the intended itinerary among Rarotonga, Atiu and Aitutaki. In just a few hours we got the total price, airfare included, which was lower compared to book everything on our own (and we also saved lot of work).


Since during a trip to Cook Islands you will spend many hours outside, in close contact with nature or swimming in some lagoon, surely you will want to choose only the best season to go to Cook Islands. Well, the best time to visit Cook Islands is during the austral winter, roughly between June and September, when the temperatures are milder and when the rainfall is slightly lower than the rest of the year. The worst time to visit the Cook Islands is during austral summer, between November and April, when the rainfall is higher and when there are more chances of a cyclone (although these events are really very rare). Regardless of the season, so even during the dry season, we recommend to always add a few spare days on each island as a reserve in case of bad weather, also keeping in mind that on Sundays and national holidays it is more difficult to organize excursions, as many local operators and water taxis will not work. In addition, it is good to avoid periods when there are sports competitions, such as kite-surfing (generally once a year in August at Honeymoon Island) to make sure you will find a quieter environment.


  • How is the food on Cook Islands? Apart from a limited variety of fish and local tropical fruit, most of the products are imported from New Zealand and Australia, with a lot of canned food. Most hotels have a small restaurant facility (which usually needs to be booked even if you are staying in the same hotel) at prices higher than most other countries. If the room where you are staying has a kitchen, you might consider buying something in some supermarket and cook on your own: this will give additional flexibility, no need to book and will be slightly cheaper.

  • Cook Islands power plugs Cook Islands power sockets are the same of New Zealand and Australia, therefore with 2 (or 3 including ground) slats (type I). The standard voltage is 230V and the frequency is 50 Hz.

  • Smartphone on Cook Islands: most overseas mobile phone operators have roaming agreements to offer service in Rarotonga and Aitutaki (more difficult on minor islands). The roaming rates are usually high, so it is advisable to buy a local SIM that can be purchased at Rarotonga airport (in the arrival hall) and in some stores throughout Rarotonga and Aitutaki. Internet connection in 3G or 4G has acceptable speed in Rarotonga, but is much slower in Aitutaki. Accommodation facilities offer their own wifi, or they just rely on Bluesky, a local mobile phone operator which offers also wifi hot-spots in many locations of Rarotonga and Aitutaki (once again, the speed is acceptable only in Rarotonga). The smaller remote islands do not have a mobile network and outside communication is possible only via satellite phone (Iridium) or radio.

  • Are there mosquitoes in the Cook Islands? There are many mosquitoes in the Cook Islands, active and annoying also during the day. It is essential to bring a good repellent containing at least 25% of DEET and to dress long for as much as possible, especially when hiking in the jungle and when dining outside.

  • What is the currency of Cook Islands? Are credit cards welcome? The official currency of the Cook Islands is New Zealand dollar (NZD). Some coins minted in the Cook Islands are valid only in the archipelago and cannot be changed abroad (it is then better to spend all of them before leaving the country). Most of the accommodations accept credit cards, but will apply a minimum of 3% on each transaction. To pay for excursions, water taxis, to shop at the supermarket and to pay in smaller restaurants, cash is preferable. ATM's are available in Rarotonga and Aitutaki, but they are rare or absent in smaller islands. In the capital Avarua there are some banks where you can exchange foreign currency at honest rates, alternatively you may change to NZD before leaving your country (if you will transit through Auckland, you may change at Travelex counters in the airport, but they are very expensive and therefore suitable only for very small amounts of money).

  • What is the official language of Cook Islands? All the inhabitants of Cook Islands speak English perfectly.

  • How to dress on the Cook Islands? During the austral winter, the best time to go to Cook Islands, the evenings can be cool with some breeze and it is therefore suggested to wear long trousers and a light fleece. During the rest of the day, hat, shorts and well-breathable T-shirts are perfect, but always taking care to protect yourself from mosquitoes and strong tropical sun (which should be never under-evaluated, even if you are in the shadow or during cloudy days). The holiday can be spent entirely with sandals, unless you decide to try some challenging trekking in Rarotonga or Atiu, where a robust pair of hiking shoes is required. A light and compact rain gear may be instead useful during excursions, even to protect your phone and camera.

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Rarotonga island Rarotonga <<-- GO
Rarotonga is the main island of the archipelago and houses the capital Avarua, the only place in the Cook Islands served by international flights. The island is surrounded by a beautiful blue lagoon dotted with many beaches and has a dense jungle in the inner parts.
Atiu island Atiu <<-- GO
Atiu is a raised atoll rarely visited by lot of tourists, with deserted beaches, beautiful seascapes and a dense jungle hiding caves and lot of natural treasures. Atiu is home to an endemic bird which flies by Eco-localization in the darkness of a cave, but uses normal eyesight when outside.
Aitutaki atoll Aitutaki <<-- GO
Aitutaki is the classic flat atoll when people dream about a tropical paradise. It has an immense turquoise lagoon surrounded by numerous "motu" (islets) which are often a day trip destination in full "Robinson Crusoe" style picnics.
Honeymoon Island Honeymoon Island excursion <<-- GO
Honeymoon Island and nearby Maine Island are an incredible tropical paradise where a kilometer long sandbank leads to a palm grove hosting a colony of tropic birds. An immense turquoise blue lagoon is an excellent spot for swimming.
One Foot Island One Foot Island excursion <<-- GO
One Foot Island is an ideal destination for a day trip and picnic on a deserted island. Walking for about half a kilometer in the turquoise waters of the lagoon, visitors can get to a vast sandbank where some palm trees are just starting to grow.

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