Cook Islands

Travel Guide Oceania Polynesia Cook Islands



Raratonga Blockbusters

Raratonga Blockbusters

© greggers

One look at a map of the Cook Islands and you should have a pretty good idea of what a holiday to the Cook Islands involves: water, beaches and sun. The fifteen Cook Islands are stock-standard tropical paradise material, complete with palm trees lining beaches and sparkling blue lagoons. It's a well-worn formula, but it works.

For travellers in search of at least some variety, the Cook Islands musters up a couple of additional attractions. Rarotonga, the volcanic island which draws the biggest crowds, is blessed with fantastic inland scenery. It also offers fascinating insights into Polynesian culture, be it through the Cultural Village, or through active participation in one of the 'island nights', where beautiful local women dance what may be Polynesia's sexiest dance. Aitutaki, the second most visited island of 'the Cooks' is located 45 minutes by plane from Rarotonga and contains a beautiful lagoon and beaches.



Brief History

The Cook Islands were first settled in the 6th century CE by Polynesian people who migrated from nearby Tahiti, to the southeast.
Spanish ships visited the islands in the sixteenth century. The first written record of contact with the islands came with the sighting of Pukapuka by Spanish sailor Álvaro de Mendaña in 1595 who called it San Bernardo. Portuguese-Spaniard Pedro Fernández de Quirós, made the first recorded European landing in the islands when he set foot on Rakahanga in 1606, calling it Gente Hermosa (Beautiful People). British navigator Captain James Cook arrived in 1773 and 1777 and named the islands the Hervey Islands. The name "Cook Islands", in honour of Cook, appeared on a Russian naval chart published in the 1820s. In 1813, John Williams, a missionary on the Endeavour (not the same ship as that of Cook), made the first official sighting of the island of Rarotonga. The first recorded landing on Rarotonga by Europeans was in 1814 by the Cumberland; trouble broke out between the sailors and the Islanders and many were killed on both sides.

The islands saw no more Europeans until missionaries arrived from England in 1821. Christianity quickly took hold in the culture and many islanders continue to be Christian believers today. The Cook Islands became a British protectorate at their own request in 1888. They were transferred to New Zealand in 1901. They remained a New Zealand protectorate until 1965, at which point they became a self-governing territory in free association with New Zealand. In that year, Albert Henry of the Cook Islands Party was elected as the first Prime Minister. Sir Albert Henry led the country until he was accused of vote-rigging. He was succeeded in 1978 by Tom Davis of the Democratic Party.

Today, the Cook Islands are essentially independent ("self-governing in free association with New Zealand") but New Zealand is tasked with overseeing the country's defence. On 11 June 1980, the United States signed a treaty with the Cook Islands specifying the maritime border between the Cook Islands and American Samoa and also relinquishing its claim to the islands of Penrhyn, Pukapuka, Manihiki, and Rakahanga. In 1990 the Cook Islands signed a treaty with France which delimited the boundary between the Cook Islands and French Polynesia.




The islands are unique in that the Northern and the Southern Islands are not on the same 'rift' in the crust. The Southern Islands geologically are considered part of the region where French Polynesia is located, the Northern Islands were created through a different 'rift' in the crust from the South Islands.

Rarotonga is the youngest island in the Cook Islands Southern group it is physically unlike its other volcanic neighbors where erosion and periodic submersions have reduced mountains to gentle hills. Rarotonga's central massif is the eroded remains of a once mighty volcanic pyramid whose crags now form sawtooth peaks and razorback ridges covered with tropical jungle. These are separated by streams running down steep valleys.

The other islands in both the Southern and Northern groups are atolls, each 'grouping' consisting of a different number of islands.




The 15 islands making up the Cook Islands are split into two regions:






Sights and Activities


Anatakitaki is one of the most famous caves on 'Atiu. Here you can find many caves and 'Atiu is dotted with limestone caverns complete with stalactites and stalagmites. Anatakitaki, also known as the Kopeka Cave is a marvellous place, a large and beautiful cave and is the home of the kopeka. The kopeka is a rare bird which only lives on 'Atiu. Visiting Anatakitaki requires you to take a local guide.

Aitutaki Lagoon

Aitutaki is one of the main islands and has a lot to offer, including a beautiful lagoon, where you will find numerous sand bars, coral ridges and 21 uninhabited motu (lagoon islets). To add, it is also a good place to enjoy the life of the Cook Islanders. One of the best is Maina Motu which offers great snorkelling on its coral formations. Here you will also find powder-white sand bars. Tapuaeta'i (One Foot Island) also has a huge white stretch of beach, fringed with palms and with turquoise waters in front.

Beach at Titikaaveka

Beach at Titikaaveka

© dadmin

Muri Beach

On the southeastern shore of the island of Rarotonga you'll be stunned by Muri Beach which is on Muri's lagoon. The shallow waters have a sandy bottom where countless sea cucumbers and some coral formations live their quiet life. Further towards the reef are four small islets, called motu in local language. Their names are Taakoka, Koromiri, Oneroa and Motutapu. Taakoka is volcanic while the others are sand cays. It is easy to reach this great place by bus from Avarua.

Other sights and activities

  • Watersports - The Cook Islands are a good place to go swimming, snorkelling, diving and fishing.
  • Hiking and biking - surprisingly, there are some good hiking trails and riding a bike is also a great way to get around: distances are small and most of the surface is (almost) flat.
  • Wigmore's Waterfalls is on Rarotonga although small it has an area to swim at the base. There are more insects here than anywhere else on the island, so take the bug repellent.
  • National Museum of the Cook Islands is in Avarua.
  • Get married - avoid those expensive parties at home with people you don't like anyway, and enjoy your marriage together in a quiet place.



Events and Festivals

For general information also check the Cook Islands Festival Calendar.

Dancer of the Year (Te Mire Ura) Contest

One of the most popular events of the year, the Cook Islands dance-off is held annually at the National Auditorium of Rarotonga sometime in April or May. Bringing together some of the best dancers from across the land, the competition is divided by age group, from juniors to intermediates, seniors, and the “golden ladies.”

International Kite Surfing Contest

Held on Aitutaki in late June, the International Kite Surfing Contest is an annual festival that celebrates the rich natural gifts of the Cook Islands. The event attracts kite surfing enthusiasts and competitors from all over the world.

Whale Watching Season

Those who want to catch a glimpse of the gigantic whales that grace the shoreline should visit between the months of July and October. The waters are swarmed by gentle giants that show-off their aquatic skills, playfully flipping and jumping.

Te Maeva Nui

This cultural holiday on August 4 marks the annual celebration of the Cook Islands’ self-rule, which was granted in 1965. The festival is a fusion of musical and dance extravaganzas, costume showcases, craft and art exhibits, and an exciting array of food that revolve around a different theme each year.

Tiare Festival

The Tiare Festival is an annual flower show held in Rarotonga in October. Among the highlights are the Miss Tiare Pageant and the Young Warrior Contest.

Gospel Days

Gospel Days celebrates the missions that brought Christianity to the Cook Islands. It is commemorated on October 26 with all kinds of presentations and dramatic religious reenactments.


Turama is the local celebration of All Saints’ and All Souls’ Day, which sees family members decorate the graves of loved ones with flowers and candles. People gather in cemeteries and share stories, usually after attending a requiem mass at the Avarua Cathedral. While not exactly a festive occasion, this November 1 event is an important part of the Cook Islands culture.

Vaka Eiva

Vaka Eiva or the Canoeing Festival is held during mid-November. The annual event hosts races around Rarotonga and attracts more than 850 competitors, divided into 100 teams. The winners receive the prestigious Pacific Cup.




The Cook Islands have a tropical climate, meaning warm and humid weather year round but with constant sea breezes bringing some relief on the hotter summer days. November to April are summer months when it is around 28 °C during the day on Rarotonga and a bit warmer on Aitutaki which is more to the north. Temperatures at night are usually just 5 °C cooler or so. These months also have the most rain, with some tropical downpours during the afternoon, followed by sunshine again. Sometimes, several rainy days are possible. This is also the time that hurricanes are a possibility, although these don't strike every year of course. Wintermonths are cooler, especially on the most southern islands (around 25 °C during the day) but also drier and sunnier. Aitutaki has smaller differences between summer and winter regarding temperatures and the northern islands even less so.



Getting there

By Plane

Rarotonga International Airport (RAR) is 3 kilometres west of Avarua. There are only a few airlines flying to the Cook Islands and their routes are subject to change.

By Boat

There are no regular ferries to and from the Cook Islands. The only option to get here is by taking a cruise (cruise season is May to October) or buy your own yacht or get a place on one.



Getting Around

By Plane

Air Rarotonga operates domestic flights to Aitutaki, Atiu, Manihiki, Mauke, Mangaia, Mitiaro.

By Car

There really is no need to rent a car, but several companies on Rarotonga and Aitutaki offer the opportunity to rent one if you prefer a car instead of renting a scooter or bike. Fourwheel drive cars are the best and can get you to some more remote parts of the islands. There are also organised 4wd tours you can take on both the islands of Rarotonga and Aitutaki. Be sure to go to the police station in Avarua to get a licence which you need when renting a car or even a scooter. These cost $20. If you don't have a scooter or motorcycle licence, you can take an instant test, riding round the block, cost $5.95. Driving is on the left side and maximum speed is 40km/hour.

By Bus

On Rarotonga, there are two public bus routes that travel around the island. One goes clockwise, the other travels anti-clockwise. Tickets are $4.00 wherever you want to go and $7.00 for a round trip. They originate and terminate in Avarua and you can flag one down everywhere along the road or get our everywhere as well. Buses don't run on Sunday and only half a day on Saturdays.

By Boat

The only way to get to almost all islands by boat, is by taking the local freight carriers. If you have time, this is a very adventurous way of getting around. Timetables can be found in local newspapers most times. Be prepared for sometimes long journeys and be very flexible regarding time as schedules change and delays are common. Think months, not weeks to make trips by ship.

Two shipping companies provide inter- island passenger and cargo services for the Cooks and both travel from Rarotonga to all of the populated islands and are based at Rarotonga's Avatiu Harbour and offer information, schedules and booking services. Generally, there's only limited cabin space and some ships have no cabins at all. You can bring your own food or pay for it beforehand. Showers and toilets are available to all passengers.

Mataroa Shipping ([email protected]) sometimes travels within the Cooks, and their office is inside a large building straight ahead as you approach Avatiu Wharf. A much better option with more frequent services is Taio Shipping ([email protected]). It is the main inter-island shipping company in the Cook Islands and has regular schedules between all the major outer islands and Rarotonga. The office is near Punanga Nui Market near the Avatiu Wharf.

It takes approximately a day for ships to get from Rarotonga to any of the other Southern Group islands. A one-way trip costs NZ$65 per island and for example the total Rarotonga-Mangaia-Ma'uke-Mitiaro-'Atiu-Rarotonga round trip takes about four days and costs NZ$260. The ships rarely travel to Aitutaki. It takes about 3½ days for ships to get to the nearest island in the Northern Group. One monthly service goes from Rarotonga to Manihiki, Rakahanga, Penrhyn and back to Rarotonga taking around 10 to 12 days and costing about NZ$700 to NZ$900 return.



Red Tape

A valid passport and sufficient financial means are required. When you book a flight to the Cook Islands you must also book your onwards ticket. The Cook Islands issue entry permits, not visas. On arrival a visitor is granted a 31-day entry permit that may be extended up to a maximum of 6 months by application to the Cook Islands Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Immigration. You are not permitted to work if you are in the Cook Islands as a visitor. Departure tax is included in your outwards fare and no tax is paid at the point of departure.




See also Money matters

The currency of the Cook Islands is the New Zealand dollar (NZD). 1 dollar is divided into 100 cents. There are 10c, 20c, 50c, $1 and $2 coins. Bills are issued in $5, $10, $20, $50 and $100. To add, the Cook Islands also have some own banknotes and coins, including the unusual $3 notes and the triangular $2 coins. These are not valid in New Zealand by the way, only in the Cook Islands. There are even two versions of the $3 note. One is the Aitutaki pink one and ther other is a Rarotonga green one, which are only valid on the islands.
There are Westpac, ANZ and Bank of the Cook Islands banks on the island of Rarotonga. Banks usually are open between 9:00am and 3:00pm, until 12:00pm on Saturdays. There are ATM machines at each branch in Rarotonga, at the airport and several others across the island.




Non-residents, even New Zealanders, require work permits. The Cook Islands has a problem with people of working age leaving the islands. Jobs are generally available in the tourism and hospitality sector.

There is also a possibility of volunteer work, in education and care.




See Cook Islands Maori Phrasebook

There are five living languages in the Cook Islands with English and Cook Islands Maori the official languages. Cook Islands Maori is called Rarotongan after the capital island and is the most widely spoken version of Maori in the Islands. Others are Penrhynese, unique to the Northern group island of Penrhyn and rapidly disappearing, and Rakahanga-Manihiki, spoken by about 2,500 Cook Islanders, only half of whom on the two islands from which it takes its name.

On the remote Northern group island of Pukapuka, the islanders have a unique language of their own called Pukapukan of which there is no written version. It is more like Samoan, and some of it cannot even be understood by other Cook Islanders. But even there, English is spoken, albeit not widely. Children, though, are taught it in school.

At the very least, the visitor will quickly learn the usual greeting, "kia orana" which means "may you live long".





  • Ika Mata - fish marinated in lemon and coconut cream
  • 'Umu kai' - a traditional island feast cooked in an earth oven heated with stones
  • Rukau – Cooked taro leaves in coconut milk





There are loads of accommodation options on the Cook Islands, especially on Rarotonga and Aitutaki. Check a few of the following general websites, which all offer a range of resorts:




There are two microbreweries in the Cook Islands – Matutu and Cook Islands Brewery, located in Rarotonga, both of which produce a range of delicious beers. Imported beer, spirits and wine are available from major supermarkets Foodland and CITC Liquor, both located in the main town of Avarua – expect to pay a premium price. There are a number of bars and restaurants in Rarotonga and, to a lesser extent, in Aitutaki serving up beer, wine and delicious fresh cocktails. Options are extremely limited on all other outer islands.

Matutu Brewery is situated in Tikioki, Titikaveka on the south side of Rarotonga and they welcome visits. Beer can also be bought by the litre at the brewery if you bring your own container.




See also Travel Health

There are no vaccinations legally required to travel to the Cook Islands. It's a good thing to get your vaccinations in order before travelling to the Cook Islands. The general vaccination against Diphtheria, Tetanus and Polio (DTP) is recommended. Also a hepatitis A vaccination is recommended and when travelling longer than 2 weeks also typhoid. Vaccination against hepatitis B is also sometimes recommended for stays longer than 3 months.

Dengue sometimes occurs as well. There is no vaccinations, so buy mosquito repellent (preferably with 50% DEET), and sleep under a net. Also wear long sleeves if possible.

Finally, other possible health issues include diarrhea and other general travellers' diseases like motion sickness. Watch what you eat and drink and in case you get it, drink plenty of fluids (to prevent dehydration) and bring ORS.




See also Travel Safety

There are no major hazards in the Cook Islands. There are no poisonous wild or marine life in the Cook Islands other than sharks in the far northern island groups. Crime is rare but does occur most likely in the form of petty theft. Police are contactable on the emergency number 999.

Though the locals often go barefoot (they are experts at it) it's not recommended beyond sandy beaches due to the sharp coral rocks. Use caution when climbing stairs that connect the lower parts of an island near the sea to the upper part above the cliffs. Some do not have railings on the edge, including platforms. Only the most acrophobic would be uncomfortable with this (they're plenty wide enough and not vertically "open"), but for children, the blind, and someone who's had too much to drink, the risk is extreme. On the platforms, avoid getting too close to the edge, especially if you need a rest from climbing.

Motorcycle and scooter accidents have caused injuries and fatalities in the past. Driving after dark has additional hazards due to poor visibility due to inadequate lighting and road condition. Driving/Riding is especially dangerous on Friday and Saturday nights where drunk driving is prevalent. Always wear a helmet even though the locals may not.



Keep Connected


Internet connections on Rarotonga work at only 256k speed and there are public access points. Many, but not all, resorts and hotels offer an internet connection. These are timed and currently nobody offers unlimited time. The main reason for this, is that internet connections on the island are measured by download volume. There are some wireless wi-fi access points in the main town and a number of the cafes around the island offer internet access, either wireless of more likely on their own machines.

The Telecom office in Avarua is open daily from 7:00am to 11:00pm. There are internet computers available for use, plus a wi-fi node. The office can sell pre-paid wi-fi cards, which are based on multiples of 50Mb download and priced from NZ$15. Once a card is started, it will expire after 30 days.

Zenbus offer the largest coverage of WiFi hotspots on Rarotonga and is priced at NZ 0.30c per MB.


See also International Telephone Calls

The cheapest way to make international calls is to buy a Kia Orana Card from the Telecom office. Available in units of NZ$10, 20 and 50, calls can then be made from any landline telephone or public phone box. There are also telephones which can be used at the Telecom office, which is open 24 hours a day. The Kia Orana card offers calls to New Zealand at a rate of NZ5 per hour and to Australia, Fiji, Canada, the USA and the United Kingdom for NZ$10 per hour.

Using a public telephone box and a credit card is the most expensive way to make calls, with rates in the region of NZ$10 per minute to the United Kingdom.

Cellphone cards can be purchased at the Telecom office, but your phone will generally need to be unlocked. SIM cards are NZ$25 and you can top up in multiples of NZ$5 up to NZ$100.

Gradually, Telecom are adding international roaming and several options exist.


The post office on Rarotonga is situated in Avarua. The office is open from 10:00am to 4:00pm Monday to Friday. The Telepost office also in Avarua is open the same hours, plus Saturday mornings and offers stamps plus postcards. Postage is quite cheap (in comparison to New Zealand). A postcard to NZ costs NZ$0.80c to Europe NZ$0.90c



  1. 1 Air Tahiti Website (Sourced:Feb 10, 2011)

Quick Facts

Cook Islands flag

Map of Cook Islands


Self-governing Parliamentary Democracy in free association with New Zealand
Christianity (Protestant, Catholic)
Cook Islands Maori, English
New Zealand $
Calling Code
Cook Islander
Local name


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Cook Islands Travel Helpers

  • nigelpeaco

    I live on Rarotonga (2011). Feel free to ask some questions and I'll answer if I can. Kia Orana!

    Ask nigelpeaco a question about Cook Islands
  • Triki12

    I have kitesurfed Muri Lagoon on Rarotonga, Cook Islands and go there quite often.
    Happy to help out with Rarotonga primarily.

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  • dbchase53

    Travelled there regularly over the years - ask me questions

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  • maorigirl

    Can recommend tips and info on following places: Cairo, Sharm el sheik, Luxor, Rarotonga, Aitutaki, Gold Coast Australia and some of North Island NZ.

    Love the Cook Islands and can recommend tips on what to do, accomodation and general advice. If you love FISHING then I can hook you up with the best fisherman on the island (he cleans up at every yearly fishing contest on the island so its not an exageration!).

    Ask maorigirl a question about Cook Islands

    Spent 2 months there in 1998 on Rarotonga, Aitutaki, Mauke and Mangaia, can give advice on these and local customs. This is a lovely paradise with very friendly people, a very safe place.

    Ask SLOAN a question about Cook Islands

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