The Cook Islands:
Secrets of the South Pacific


 

Breathe in fresh, pure air. Wade in cool, calm, turquoise lagoons teeming with marine life. Sun yourself on pristine beaches that stretch as far as the eye can see. In the Cook Islands, nature itself makes for an irresistible holiday. But unlike many of the world’s other paradisical destinations, this one is truly untouched. Beyond the breathtaking landscapes lies a tapestry of vibrant, contemporary, Polynesian culture, not to mention warm, welcoming local people who always sport the widest of smiles. The archipelago nation boasts a fascinating mix of ancient rituals and traditions, and 21st-century island living (including its first-ever Cook Islands Pride Day this year to celebrate its parliament decriminalising homosexuality). This adds an extra level of warmth for LGBTQ+ OutThere travellers (and all others too)… on top of an already unparalleled, respectful spirit of hospitality that’s bound to capture your heart.

Kia orana

Welcome to the Cook Islands! The 15 islands of ‘the Cooks’ lie halfway between New Zealand and Hawaii in the South Pacific, scattered like fragrant frangipani petals floating across 2.2 million square kilometres of ocean.

A holiday here offers rare, natural beauty and an idyllic, warm and sunny tropical climate all year round. Drier months are from April to November, but during the rest of the year “ua” (rain, in the beautiful local vernacular) usually only comes for a few hours a day. The average temperature throughout the year lies between 24°C and 30°C.

While it seems a world away from life as we know it, the Cook Islands are easily reached and are the perfect add-on to a holiday to New Zealand, or Australia. But we extol its virtues as a standalone destination too, with a stopover in one of Oceania’s connecting hubs. If travelling from Australia or New Zealand, you will find yourself crossing the dateline to reach the Cook Islands, therefore ‘going back in time’ … a perfect way to celebrate a special occasion or milestone, twice… or to gain a day of valuable vacation back!

As of 2024, the following carriers fly into Rarotonga International Airport (RAR) in the Cook Islands.

FromAirportFrequencyAirlineFlight time
New ZealandAuckland (AKL)Twice dailyAir New Zeland
Jet Star
Approx 4 hours
AustraliaSydney (SYD)Four times weeklyJetstarApprox 6 hours
USAHonolulu (HNL)WeeklyHawaiian AirlinesApprox 6 hours
TahitiPape’etē (PPT)Twice weeklyAir Rarotonga
Air Tahiti
Approx 2.5 hours

Much of the luxury accommodation across the islands offers laid-back escapism and a true sense of barefoot luxury. Many of the resorts are owner-operated and adult-only and none are built taller than the coconut trees on the islands. From overwater bungalows perched above the crystal-clear turquoise waters of Aitutaki’s lagoon to exclusive resorts on Rarotonga that provide secluded villas with lush tropical gardens fronting white-sand beaches. Private villas often boast private pools, expansive living spaces, and personalized services tailored to exceed every expectation. Moreover, the warmth and hospitality of the Cook Islands culture infuse every aspect of the luxury experience, with friendly staff ensuring that your every need is met with genuine care and attention. Whether you’re seeking a romantic getaway, a family retreat, or a solo adventure in paradise, luxury accommodations on the Cook Islands promise a truly unforgettable experience that transcends the ordinary and embraces the extraordinary.

“Walk in the valley of our ancestors, learn of the history, and marvel at the beauty.” – Old Cook Islands Māori saying

The Cook Islands is a family of 15 main islands with their own atoll groups. The national carrier Air Rarotonga flies daily to Aitutaki and Atiu as well as other sister islands (and offers day tours to Atiu).

Rarotonga is the main island in the Cook Islands archipelago, a kidney-shaped volcanic isle that’s home to the international airport and 10,000 of the country’s just 16,000 islanders. It is just 32km / 20 miles in circumference with only one continuous road, so nothing on Rarotonga is more than 20 minutes away. As such, there are only two buses every hour, timetabled to go around the island, one clockwise and the other anti-clockwise. If you think that’s quirky, it gets quirkier… there are no bus stops, you just flag the driver down whenever you see the bus coming.

The island has 20km / 14 miles of uninterrupted, beautiful public beaches, so you can just lay your towel wherever you want and take a dip in the lagoon surrounding the island. It’s perfect for cooling down after you’ve worked up a sweat from trekking the island’s interior. The untouched volcanic ‘inner island’ can be explored on foot and if you fancy a fresh-water swim instead, there are amazing waterfalls to chase too. If you’d rather traverse the island on wheels, other options include 4×4, Quad bikes and bicycles. However you choose to explore, guided tours and independent itineraries are available for you to enjoy a slice of every day in paradise on Rarotonga.

Join locals at Punanganui Market every Saturday morning, a great place to meet Rarotongans and make new friends; this has been the social hub of the island for centuries. Here you will find an array of keepsakes and souvenirs, from stunning lagoon Black Pearls to colourful pareos and clothing, to Polynesian local handicrafts. And with the New Zealand Dollar (NZ$) as currency; retail therapy couldn’t be easier!

If you visit between July and September, you could spot Hump Back Whales close to shore. There’s no need to head out on a boat to see them, simply sit on the beach, or paddle out a little to watch the whales beyond the reef.

By night, the island comes alive. Proud of their Cook Islands and Polynesian heritage, locals will show you how to celebrate life in their own ways. OutThere travellers will get under the skin of traditions, from food (try an Umu (underground oven) feast) to partaking in ancestral storytelling through the moves of Cook Island dancers.

Aitutaki (also known as Araʻura, or Utataki) is one of the most heavenly lagoons in the world, containing some 22 islets and atolls. Just a 45-minute flight from Rarotonga, it’s easy on the eyes (and Instagram for that matter). Here you’ll find One Foot Island (known locally as Tapuaetai), home to what is arguably Australasia’s best beach. In this turquoise-blue lagoon, you’ll find otherworldy giant clams and the elusive Giant Trevally, making it a fine destination for snorkelling.

Ātiu (those in the know call it Enuamanu, meaning ‘land of the birds’) is over eight million years old and the third largest island in the Cooks. It’s a nature lover’s dream and a place that inspires adventure. You may have heard of places to get away from it all, but Ātiu wins when it comes to unadulterated serenity and escapism.

Clockwise from top: Island life on Rarotonga comes with beaming smiles; Aitutaki is one of the many picture postcard islands in the archipelago; Stunning places to stay pepper the islands, from private villas to small hotels, but all are owner-operated and never taller than a coconut tree; the freshest produce contribute to delicious cuisine on the Cook Islands; Polynesian culture often tells ancestral stories of old; Adventures of all kinds await in the Cook Islands

Kia Orana… what does it really mean?

Kia Orana is the essence of the Cook Islands Maori people and their culture. It shares what it means to be an islander, their personalities, ways of life and aspirations for the future. Translated literally, it means ‘may you live a long and fulfilling life’… so saying it infers far more than just a hello, but a blessing for life, love and peace.

These values are steeped in a culture that is life-affirming, positive, welcoming and authentic. It’s based on a firm knowledge and admiration of their ancestors, history and pre-colonial Polynesian heritage but reflects a modern way of life as well. It is the very nature of everything that happens on the Cook Islands, as well as its sustainability credentials and its approach to diversity.

Perhaps that’s why the Cook Islands is so welcoming to tourists… for example, whichever island you choose to stay on is considered as ‘one resort’… everyone works together and there are no big chains here. All Cook Island hotels are owner-operated and hospitality is exceedingly personal with eco-friendly and community-centric practices that have been in place for decades. As with many cultures, food is central to life on the islands and is seen as a way of bringing people and communities together. There are over 100 cafes and restaurants in Rarotonga alone – amazing considering its size – and the world-famous Muri Night Market is home to some of the South Pacific’s fab places to eat, run by small stall holders offering fresh produce plucked out of the sea or home-grown.

Perhaps these values go a long way to explain its spirit of inclusion of all members of the community. The big news is that in 2023, the Cook Islands made a landmark decision to overturn the draconian anti-LGBTQ+ laws brought in by its past colonisers. The decriminalisation of homosexuality acknowledges the local rainbow community’s value, importance and rightful place in society, but it is also a resounding welcome for LGBTQIA+ travellers and their friends to visit. So, whatever your background, you will find comfort and friendship in Cook Islanders who celebrate people’s differences and welcome individuals from all walks of life.

It holds its first Pride celebration in April 2024 – in what hopes to become an annual event – as part of a week-long programme of inclusion during the Anuanua (Rainbow) Festival. It culminates in the inaugural Cooks Islands Pride Day. It’s not just a reason to celebrate the local LGBTQ+ community, but to celebrate how far the Cook Islands has come and what the future holds over and beyond the rainbow.

See you there!

www.cookislands.travel

Photography courtesy of The Cook Islands Tourism Corporation. Map illustrations by Leo Morgan.



This article is in partnership with The Cook Islands Tourism Corporation.

www.cookislands.travel





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