This Cook Island travel guide is filled with tips to help you plan your Cook Island trip! I found it hard to find detailed information in one place, so I hope this guide helps in planning your trip.
Far removed from a fast paced life and tucked away in the expanse of the South Pacific is the ocean’s best kept secret. The treasure trove of 15 atoll islands, known as the Cook Islands, is truly a place to disconnect and experience island life.
The islands attract active travelers and sun worshippers alike, with opportunities to sit in loungers to soak up the sun (and cocktail) or venture out into the lagoons to explore under the sea. The Cook Islands are made up of a Southern Group and a Northern Group for a total of 15 islands. This guide covers the most visited islands; Rarotonga and Aitutaki.
What to Expect
Language: English and Cook Islands Māori are the official languages.
Currency: Both New Zealand dollars and Cook Island dollars are the official currencies. When cruise ships are in port, some places might also accept alternative currencies – check with the establishment before trying to pay in a not official currency.
Credit Cards: Mastercard and Visa are widely accepted on Rarotonga and Aitutaki, usually with a $20 minimum purchase. American Express is not currently. Although not technically allowed, some places will charge a fee for using a credit card. A few popular places only accept cash, so it’s best to check before you binge on delicious food or go on a shopping spree only to find out you need to find an ATM in a pinch. For the other atoll islands, make sure to have cash.
ATMs: There are plenty of ATMS on Rarotonga, usually located in village centers outside major stores. There is an ATM located outside the arrivals terminal at the airport. Aitutaki has 2-3 ATMs and they may not be working. Plan ahead and either check with locals (Trip Advisor’s forums have some extremely helpful folks) or have plenty of cash on hand.
Internet: In one word it’s EXPENSIVE. Unless your hotel offers some free wifi (which is not standard) you are going to pay a pretty penny to check your Instagram or Facebook. If you need access to email while you’re here, you’re going to have to pay. Both Rarotonga and Aitutaki have hotpots throughout the island that you can pay to access.
Island Time: Not unique to the Cooks, but still something to consider. When you are on the islands, you are now on island time. Your transport will be there right on time whenever it shows up. Your dinner will arrive right on time, whenever it is set in front of you. The shop will be open at the right time, when they decide to open it. You get the idea? Not to say everywhere is like this, but things definitely move a little slower here and rightfully so. It gives you more time to appreciate all that surrounds you. When in doubt about hours, call ahead.
Climate: The Cook Islands normally have tropical weather. Aitutaki, and islands in the Northern Island group, is warmer than Rarotonga.
Rainy season (Summer): starts in November and lasts through mid March. You can expect it to be hot, humid, and guaranteed afternoon downpours. Expect more mosquitos this time of year due to the humidity.
Dry season (Winter): starts in April and lasts through October. Humidity is less, as are temperatures and the likelihood of rain.
Getting to the Islands
International: For people coming from the United States, Air New Zealand offers non-stop flights from Los Angeles. The flight is scheduled to last 9.5 hours. Virgin flies from Australia. Make sure you have your accommodation reservation printed and exit ticket information to show as proof you have them. The immigration line is surrounded with displays of tourist maps, adverts etc. Take them, it will help greatly. Especially the map.
Intra-Island: Air Rarotonga provides intra island flights.
Quick Tip: When you arrive, there will be a host of people waiting after immigration asking you where you are going. Normally, I avoid these people. In the Cook Islands they are just trying to help get you to where you need to go. Tell them, and they will smile as they point you in the right direction.
Both Rarotonga and Aitutaki are small and getting lost is highly unlikely as there is one main road on each island. Major rental companies are represented. Island Car & Bike Hire, firstname.lastname@example.org, and Polynesian Rental are local options on Rarotonga. Popoara, email@example.com, located next to Boatshed Restaurantand and Rino’s Rentals are options on Aitutaki
Scooters: Zipping around the islands on a scooter is not only convenient, but fun. It’s riskier than renting a car, but it’s the most popular mode of transportation on both Rarotonga and Aitutaki. Cook Islands require a CI driver’s license in order to rent/ride a scooter. This requires a trip to the police station in Avarua, if you do not have a motorcycle license in your home country, to complete a test. Aitutaki might be a little more relaxed on this rule. There has been talk about making it law for all people that ride a scooter to wear a helmet. The rental agency should provide these if this is the case. Rates on Rarotonga are around $15 NZD/day and on Aitutaki $25 NZD/day.
Cars: Cars offer protection from the elements and unnecessary injury. They are more abundant in Rarotonga. On Aitutaki they are considerably more expensive, and not readily available. Rates on Rarotonga start at $33 NZD/day and Aitutaki starts around $80 NZD/day.
Taxis: There are taxis. I don’t have experience with them, but read they are expensive and you should negotiate your rate before getting in.
Hotel Transfer: Your hotel will likely offer discounted or free transfer. Best to check with them.
Bicycles: Increasing in popularity, you can hire a bike on either island. Although the islands are small, keep in mind the tropical sun can wear you out quickly, motorists are not very forgiving, and pot holes pepper the side of the road.
Public transportation: Yes, there is public transportation. Rarotonga has a bus line that goes clock-wise and anti-clockwise. It costs $5 per person per ride, or you can buy a day pass or multi-pass. If you plan on relying on public transportation, make sure you are acclimated to Island Time. As of October 2015, two busses circle the island every hour, one in each direction. Schedule with stops printed in TikiTour Island map you can pick up for free while waiting to clear immigration. You can also flag down a bus and it will stop to pick you up if it is safe to do so.
Clockwise Bus: Mon – Thurs & Sat 7am-11pm; Fri 7:00am to 10:00pm; and from 12:00am midnight to 2:15am Sat; Sun 8am-12pm, 2pm-4pm
Anti-clockwise Bus: from Mon – Fri 8.30am – 4.30pm; Sat 8:30am – 12:30pm, Sun does not run.
Night Bus: Clockwise only, see schedule above.
Quick Tip: If you prefer a car – arrange your transport before you arrive to avoid being without a way to get around for your first couple of days. The islands are small, and supply is limited.
Where to Stay
From budget accommodation to luxe living, the islands have it all. But you must book in advance and show proof of your reservation upon arrival otherwise they will deny entry to the country. Camping is strictly prohibited.
Rarotonga is the main Cook Island. With that comes more access to food markets, restaurants, nightlife and accommodation. There are numerous lodging options so I’ll describe the best areas to stay.
Muri: situated on the South Eastern part of the island. It is the most touristy area and home to many of the higher end accommodations (Pacific Resort, Nautilus Resort). Thus, has more shops and options for nightlife. There are a couple atoll islands just off the beach here that can easily be accessed by swimming, kayaking or paddle boarding to. Snorkeling here is good, although the lagoon in this area is currently experiencing a mysterious algae growth. it doesn’t affect visibility and is deemed safe. The water is not super deep here. I could easily stand in most spots (of course, not on the coral).
Titikaveka: located on the South of the island. Had we not stayed here at Rarotonga Beach Bungalows, we might have overlooked it since there isn’t a lot around. Plenty of opportunity for water activities, the lagoon is wide, and the beach is probably the best stretch on the island. Snorkeling here is good and areas can be over 10 feet deep. If you love sunrises and sunsets, you’re in luck because you can experience both here.
Arorangi: on the Western side of the island and home to Black Rock, where there is some good snorkeling, the opportunity to watch sunsets, and spot whales if you are here during whale season (Roughly July to October).
Aitutaki is much smaller, so options are more limited. Many people buy food on Rarotonga There is still opportunity for budget travelers, but you’ll end up spending more on accommodation here compared to Rarotonga.
Amuri: situated on the West side of the island, the lagoon is not as swimmable and snorkeling can be hard unless it is high tide. Most of the island’s accommodations are located in this area. I originally wanted to stay on this side of the island, but the hotel I wanted to book was sold out.
Ootu Beach: located on the Northeastern part of the island, on the west side of the peninsula. The lagoon here is swimmable all day long and all snorkel trips depart from the beach. Aitutaki Villages, where we stayed, is located here.
Quick tip: Some accommodations offer a kitchenette of some sort so if you wanted to save on money, look for one of those and cook your meals.
What to Do
Be as active or laid back as you want, the Cook Islands offers it all. Most activities rely on the lagoon, but there is opportunity for plenty on land, too.
In the Lagoon: Snorkeling, kayaking, Stand Up Paddleboarding (SUP), Kite surfing, sailing. Whether you join a tour or go it alone, there is plenty to do and gorgeous sea life in the lagoon.
Rarotonga considerations – Some accommodations provide snorkel gear, kayaks and/or paddle boards as part of your stay. You can hire (rent) gear in Muri at a number of places. Captain Tamas is a popular snorkel trip.
Charlie’s Cafe and Beach Hire in Titakaveka has delicious food and gear for rent. Open Daily from 10 am (12 noon on Sundays). Call 28055 to see if they are open. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Aitutaki considerations – Some accommodations provide gear as well, double check before you leave though. Ours did not provide snorkel gear and we couldn’t find snorkel gear for hire. Although, the best snorkeling is with tour operators. Bishops Cruises offers a variety of snorkel trips, http://www.bishopscruises.com/. Another popular option is with Teking Lagoon Cruises.
Aitutaki Village on Ootu Beach hires kayaks and paddleboards.
Outside the Reef: If you want to dive or deep sea fish, you will have the opportunity to do so on an arranged trip. Akura Game Fishing Charters and Dive Rarotonga are the highest TripAdvisor rated on Rarotonga. On Aitutaki the highest rated on TripAdvisor is Black Pearl Charters for fishing.
Hiking: Both islands offer the opportunity for some hiking if that’s your style. Rarotonga’s Cross Island Trek takes you to the Needle and back down. You can do this on your own if you are an experienced hiker or with Pa’s Trek. Hike to the highest point, Maungapu, on Aitutaki to view the lagoon from above.
ATVing: Rarotonga offers ATV (Quad) tours through Coconut Tours.
Biking: Rarotonga offers guided bike tours with Storytellers.
Island Nights: Similar to a luau, it’s a must do when on the islands. Rarotonga has more elaborate shows where Aitutaki has more of a hometown feel. Te Vara Nui and the Highlands Cultural Center are the most popular on Rarotonga.
Progressive Dinner: This is the one thing I am super bummed we didn’t get a chance to do when on Rarotonga. It was sold out :(. On Monday and Thursday nights, you go from house to house of locals and sample food. Groups are made up of locals and some tourists, but it’s a great way to meet some Cook Islanders and enjoy island cuisine. Book before you get to the island! You can book through Cook Islands Tours, email Temu to inquire, email@example.com.
Markets: Punanga Nui Market in Avarua from 6am – Noon. Many shops close during this time as they have a booth at the market. Come here to peruse local crafts, goods, and cuisine. It’s big so plan accordingly.
Muri Night Market – On Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday from 5pm enjoy local musicians and local cuisine for cheap.
Quick tip: All beaches are public up to the high tide line (you can see where the waves hit in the sand). Just don’t try to access the beach from someone’s private property unless they give you their permission.
Where to Eat & Drink
The food in the Cook Islands is nothing short of amazing. Be prepared to pig out on healthy and not so healthy options. Ika Mata is a traditional dish that you must get if you eat fish. Order a Matutu Lager or Pale Ale to rinse it down. Keep in mind reservations are strongly suggested or required at restaurants. The places below are the locations I dined at and would recommend. There are plenty more options on Rarotonga. AItutaki is more limited. It is also possible to self-cater if you book lodging with a kitchen.
Vaima Polynesian Restaurant & Bar – ph: 26123: One of my favorite meals of the trip, Ika Mata and Coconut Curry. I swear the musicians here need to get a record deal stat. Location is great and they will provide transportation from and to many accomodations.
Charlie’s Cafe – ph: 28055: Delicious fish sandwich large enough to share between 2-3 people.
Muri Night Market: Samplings from a variety of local eateries at a nice low price.
Shipwreck Hut Beach Bar: Offers a weekly BBQ (did not partake), beers, and cocktails right on the beach on the sunset side. Live music courtesy of the same guy that welcomes you at the airport with sweet ukulele music.
The Hula Bar at the Islander: Great place to grab some drinks before your flight home, or if you want to drink on the cheap. Seriously cheap drinks here.
Aitutaki Village: They offer great food and a nice, close view of the lagoon from Ootu Beach.
Koru Cafe: Great for breakfast and lunch (closes at 3pm). You can order take away food or a take away BBQ (this option requires 24 hours notice) then paddle out to a motu for a private lunch.
Boatshed Bar & Grill – ph: 31739: Yes, the same as the scooter rental. You’ll notice business diversify their offerings here. The food is decent, and it’s convenient to Aitutaki Village (5 minute walk).
Rapae Bay Restaurant at the Pacific Resort – ph: 31720: The resorts grounds are gorgeous and the menu is made up of unique fusions.
Tauono’s: Organic food grown in the garden of Sonja’s garden. Hours are posted on the chalkboard at the end of her driveway.
Want even more in-depth info? Jasons.com has a comprehensive guide to the islands.
Have questions? Comment below and I’ll try my best to answer them!
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