Like its pricier cousin, the Cook Islands exude a warm and welcoming Polynesian hospitality. But instead of the French influence, the islands have strong ties to New Zealand. Raratonga and Aitutaki are the main tourist magnets. Other more remote islands attract adventurers, anglers, pearl farmers, and real-life Robinson Crusoes.Rarotonga, the visible tip of a volcanic cone, is the largest of the Cook Islands and its friendly capital, Avarua, is the commercial and cultural center of the islands.
Shopping for souvenirs such as black pearls and local perfumes is a popular pastime here. Around the lush peaks of the interior lies a coastal plain where coconut palms, papaya, bananas, and coffee plants flourish. Coral reefs ring the island, enclosing a narrow lagoon that offers excellent swimming and snorkeling opportunities.
Aitutaki, the second most visited island, is the Bora Bora of the Cook Islands. Dotted with 21 tiny palm-fringed islets or motu, its sublimely beautiful lagoon is the star attraction. Accommodations here range from affordable guesthouses to luxury resorts with over-the-water bungalows. Fishing, beachcombing, kayaking, snorkeling, and swimming are favorite things to do throughout all the islands, as is meeting the friendly locals who welcome everyone with warm smiles.
Aitutaki's main attraction is the large picture-perfect lagoon with translucent turquoise water. Twenty-one small islands (motu) dot the outer edge of the lagoon, some of which can be visited on cruises or tours. Kayaking is also a great way to explore these tiny islets. The small island of Maina in the southwest corner of the lagoon offers excellent snorkeling opportunities and is home to a beautiful sandbar known as "Honeymoon Island".
2.Tapuaetai (One Foot Island)
Fringed by gently curving coconut palms, beautiful Tapuaetai, or One Foot Island as it is more commonly known, is the most visited of Aitutaki's motu, and for good reason. This stunning island is worthy of most people's wildest tropical fantasies. Beach-lovers can bask on its beautiful white sands, wade and snorkel in the turquoise lagoon, and even get their passport stamped at the tiny post office.
On the southeast coast of Rarotonga, Muri Beach or Muri Lagoon, as it is sometimes called, is one of the most popular and picturesque beaches on the island. Crystal clear shallows stretch into dreamy shades of aquamarine, and snorkelers can see coral and many species of tropical fish. Four offshore islets, called motu, shimmer on the horizon, enhancing the beauty of the area. After a day in the sun, hungry beachcombers will find many dining options in the nearby resorts and restaurants.
On the southwest coast of Rarotonga, pretty Titikaveka Beach and lagoon is one of the island's best areas to swim and snorkel. The water is often so clear that swimmers need only stand in the lagoon to spot colorful fish. Snorkelers will find a plethora of marine life around the many coral heads, and the lagoon is dotted with blue sea stars. It's also great for kayaking. In the small settlement nearby, sightseers can visit the coral stone Cook Islands Christian Church dating from 1841.
5.Cross Island Walk (The Needle)
The cross-island walk is a great way to explore Rarotonga's lush scenery. The trail leads from the north coast up to the pinnacle rock Te Rua Manga and then via Wigmore's Falls to the south coast. The falls are beautiful after heavy rain with a pool at their base, but the cascades slow to a trickle during the dry season.
The hike takes about four hours and leads through dense forest climbing to the base of "the Needle", a steep bald rock, which juts straight up into the air. From the base of the Needle, hikers can enjoy beautiful views over the coast and surrounding forest. (Climbing the Needle is only for the serious rock climber.) The trail then continues on past Wigmore's Falls to the opposite side of the island. Hikers can also start at the north end of the trail, hike to the Needle, and return back to the same starting point.
Arorangi is a small village on the west side of the island. It was the first missionary village on Rarotonga. Today sightseers can visit the Cook Island Christian Church dating from 1849 and view a monument to the island's first missionary, Papeiha. Arorangi Beach is a beautiful spot to bask on the sand by day and watch the sun sink into the sea at dusk.
Situated on the north coast of Rarotonga, Avarua is the capital of the Cook Islands. This relaxed little town has a friendly feel, and visitors will find shops, restaurants, and several tourist attractions here. On Sunday mornings, the sweet strains of Maori hymns waft from the CICC (Cook Islands Christian Church). Dating from 1853, the church is made of coral, and some of the island's most famous people are buried in its graveyard, including the first prime minister of the Cook Islands. The Cook Islands Library and Museum Society houses a collection of rare books on the Pacific, and the museum offers a glimpse of the cultural history of the islands.
A must-see is the vibrant Punanga Nui Outdoor Market on the waterfront. Mountains of mangos, pineapples, and passionfruit beckon from the stalls as well as fragrant tropical flowers, vegetables, clothes, and crafts. Most of the action takes place on Saturday mornings. Just south of Avarua, the Perfume Factory sells perfumes and colognes scented with local flowers and is a great spot to pick up some gifts.
8.Cook Islands Cultural Village
Encompassing five acres of lush tropical gardens, the Cook Islands Cultural Village gives visitors a feel for traditional island life. Coconut husking, cooking, fishing, dancing, carving, weaving, and Maori bush medicine are just some of the activities visitors can learn about on the Cultural Village Tour. The packages include a meal and dance show.
9.Aroa Marine Reserve
Sheltered by the outlying reef on Rarotonga's west coast, the crystal clear waters of the Aroa Marine Reserve are excellent for snorkeling. Parrot fish, Moorish idols, wrasse, and angelfish are just some of the species snorkelers might spot here, and the lagoon is off-limits to motorized boats making it especially safe for swimming and snorkeling with small children. Kayaking is also a popular pursuit. After a day exploring the underwater life, visitors can relax and watch the sunset from the beautiful beach.
Dotted with mango trees and hibiscus flowers, sleepy Arutanga is the main settlement on Aitutaki. Tourists will find a few craft stores here as well as a quiet harbor. One of the town's main attractions is the Cook Islands Christian Church. Built in 1828, it's the oldest in the Cook Islands and one of the most attractive with stained glass windows and colorful carved wooden accents.
At 124 m, Maungapu is the highest point on Aitutaki. A short 30-minute hike to the top affords spectacular views over the lagoon and lush, palm-studded landscape. A sign on the road opposite Paradise Cove marks the trailhead, and the track is marked on the free maps available on the island. Bring plenty of water, insect repellent, and a camera.
North of Muri Beach, at the town of Ngatangiia, Avana Harbour is a popular mooring spot for yachts. This is also where the Maori's launched their twin-hulled canoes in the 14th century for the journey to New Zealand. Today visitors can view a historical plaque and monument in Ngatangiia commemorating the voyage. Cook Islanders request that visitors refrain from swimming here due to the site's historical significance.