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Our exploration of tropical islands has taken us through Asia to Fiji, and remains in the South Pacific for some of the most stunning beaches we have ever seen. The Cook Islands is where we found the quintessential idea of paradise: snowy white beaches amidst the most jaw-droppingly beautiful turquoise lagoon. But as well as finding paradise we discovered some surprises: skull-filled burial caves, ancient jagged reef rising up to take over the jungle, and some of the most hospitable people on earth.
The Cook Islands are the place to come for absolutely stress-free South Pacific travel. Rarotonga the capital is the largest island, and although it’s home to the country’s largest town (more like a village really), the international airport (where the departures lounge is al fresco) and many upmarket resorts, it is delightfully laid-back.
You can circumnavigate the 32km road around the island on the bus or by moped (don’t forget to get your Cook Islands driving licence!) in less than an hour. We highly recommend staying at the wonderful guest house Are Mango. Everyone starts on Rarotonga, and although there are great beaches, snorkeling and hikes through the mountainous interior, if you don’t venture out to the outlying islands you’ll be missing out.
Aitutaki is the second most visited island, with many honeymooners coming to enjoy the perfect lagoon. Rarotonga’s waters are wonderfully clear, but Aitutaki is on another level and the lagoon rivals Bora Bora in Tahiti, but without the crowds and exorbitant prices. This is where to come for picture postcard paradise views.
Although Aitutaki receives a fair number of visitors the development is still very low key. Most people are hidden in their resorts so when you are out exploring the island you’re more likely to come across one of the 1800 locals than a tourist. It is a very chilled out place with no town and just a few basic grocery stores in the tiny villages. Supplies are not extensive so if you are self catering (recommended to save money) then it’s best to bring what you can from Rarotonga.
Things To Do
The best way to explore the lagoon is on a cruise. Although we aren’t a fan of tours it’s the only affordable way to get to some of the further away motus (small sand islands). Captain Fantastic’s Kia Orana cruise is in small boats of 10 people and takes a different route from the other boats to avoid the crowds. You’ll visit a number of tiny islands with perfect beaches, snorkel with giant clams and have lunch on the heavenly Honeymoon Island.
Kayak to Motus
One day on the lagoon is just not enough, and although you can arrange for a boat to drop you off on a motu and leave you to play castaway for the day, we opted for the energetic (and cheaper) way: kayaking. Kayaking through the crystal waters is astonishing: the lagoon is like a perfect, giant swimming pool where you can see right to the bottom.
We only made it to the motus nearest to Ootu beach (where you can hire kayaks) but we still had them to ourselves.
Another option is to get underwater. Although the coral isn’t as colourful as in Fiji we still saw a turtle, shark, manta ray, lots of tropical fish and an old wreck.
Moped Around the Island
There’s no public transport on the island and everything is quite spread out so you’ll need your own transport. Mopeding around the quiet roads is an excellent way to explore: there’s hardly any traffic and the dirt tracks of the south and east coasts feel far away from it all. As the island is only 18sq km you are unlikely to get lost.
Hike Moungou Po
Aitutaki’s highest hill is not that high but you’ll find great views of the lagoon if you make the effort to walk up it.
Sure it’s touristy, and the risk of audience participation is scarily high, but experiencing the traditional dance and music is worth it. A number of resorts put on these nights.
When To Go
It’s warm year round but the driest months are May to October. You are still likely to experience some rain during this time though, especially on Rarotonga.
How To Get There
First you’ll need a flight to Rarotonga from either Auckland or Los Angeles on Air New Zealand or Pacific Blue. From Rarotonga there are daily flights to Aitutaki with Air Rarotonga. The small plane takes 50 minutes, has wonderful views of the lagoon and costs about US$330 return.
Where To Stay
We stayed at Paradise Cove on the west coast in a beachfront bungalow on stilts with a small kitchen. It cost NZ$120 (US$87) a night. Aitutaki isn’t cheap but it is worth it and you can keep costs down by self-catering.
Atiu is the third most visited island, but in reality very few tourists make it out here. There were nine tourists on the island when we visited, and the numbers rarely get higher than this. It feels really off the beaten track and yet is easy to get to (if a little expensive) and has lots to do. If you want interesting attractions without crowds and a choice of numerous private beaches to yourself, then we highly recommend you make the effort to come to Atiu.
The five sleepy villages are very quiet, with simple colourful houses, bright tropical flowers and palm trees under deep blue skies. The locals are very friendly and eager to chat: in the Cook Islands everyone speaks English as well as Maori. They are likely to tell you how Atiu’s population is dwindling (down to 500 from 1500 five years ago) as the young people all leave to live in New Zealand. Despite this there are bizarrely at least five churches, and nine tennis courts!
There are even fewer facilities here than on Aitutaki, so you really need to bring your own supplies if self catering. In the bare shops you can find pasta and tuna and that’s about it.
Things To Do
Even if you aren’t usually interested in tours it is worth taking one of the many fascinating tours available on the island. They are very untouristy: usually just you and your guide, and perhaps a few others, and provide a unique insight into island life, taking you to places you can’t visit alone. Atiu Info is an excellent site with detailed information about the island and the activities on offer.
One of the interesting features of Atiu is the makatea. The island is actually rising and ancient coral has risen from the sea to emerge amongst the dense jungle of the island. It’s quite a sight, and makes for treacherous jungle walking on this sharp, jagged rock.
Marshall Humphreys guided us through this unique environment until we reached the Anatakitaki Cave. Besides the beautiful stalactites and mites, the cave is home to the kopeka, a rare bird that emits a unique click sound to find its way in the dark, just like a bat. We also took a chilly, candle-lit dip in the underwater pool.
Rima Rau Burial Cave
Marshall also took us to his family’s burial cave. As we scrambled on our hands and knees, squeezing through tight gaps in this underground cave in search of ancient skulls and bones, I thought how such a trip would be impossible elsewhere. It’s one of the delights of Atiu that there is no commercialisation of the attractions or health and safety rules rendering them tame, sanitised experiences. This felt like real exploration.
Coffee Plantation Tour
Excellent coffee is grown on the island and you can visit two of the plantations. We chose the Atiu Island Coffee Tour where friendly Atiuan Mata Arai showed us how she still processed coffee by hand in the traditional way, just like her grandmother did. At the end of the tour she feeds you pikelets, coconut cream and of course fire roasted coffee, as she chats about island life.
Choose Your Private Beach
Atiu is unusual in that all five villages and the farmland are in the centre of the island. This leaves the coastline deserted and you can take your pick of your own private beach. The many small, secluded coves have beautiful white sand and turquoise waters but aren’t ideal for swimming. Hire a moped, go easy on the very bumpy dirt roads and explore…
Drink at a Tumunu
A tumunu is the Cook Islands local pub: a shack in the jungle where the local men go to get drunk on bush beer, sing songs and put the world to rights. It originated when the Christian missionaries outlawed this ‘devil’s brew’ and these secret drinking clubs were the locals’ response to the persecution.
Visiting a tumunu is a great experience. A coconut shell full of the orange based brew is scooped out of the barrel and passed around to all the guests. The men are very welcoming: discussing the upcoming US election and financial crisis felt rather bizarre in the jungle of a remote South Pacific island. The only problem is that the brew keeps coming around and we were rather tipsy by the time we left.
We aren’t religious but with this many churches on the island, and nothing else happening on Sundays, we thought we’d go along. The ceremony is in Maori so it gets a little boring but it’s worth going to chat with locals, listen to the glorious singing and see the women in their Sunday finery and extravagant hand-crafted hats.
When To Go
It’s warm year round but the driest months are May to October.
How To Get There
You will need to fly on a tiny 8 seater plane with Air Rarotonga: you can see right into the pilot’s cockpit. You can fly from Rarotonga or Aitutaki and prices start from about US$100 each way. The weekly flight from Aitutaki – Atiu is often cancelled but you’ll be rerouted through Rarotonga and you’ll save money this way.
Where To Stay
We stayed at the most expensive option: Atiu Villas. A handful of lovely wooden chalets are spaced out around the wild tropical garden with gorgeous jungle views. There’s a swimming pool, grass tennis court, and amazingly, wifi in the restaurant. Chalets with kitchens cost about US$110 a night, but there are cheaper options on Atiu from US$50.
There are many other islands to explore in the Cook Islands that only a handful of travellers get to. We’d love to go back and explore Mangaia, Mauke and Mitiaro.
This is the final part of our tropical island series but keep the recommendations coming for where we can find slices of paradise like these in Latin America. We have a serious tropical island craving!
My wife and I were in Fiji back in 1989 and just loved it. We also enjoyed a 3 night Blue Lagoon Cruise which was a blast. Can’t wait to return and visit the Cook Islands and Tahiti. What a great post and photos, thanks for taking the time to share it with us!
Hi, I’m Andrea, I just ended up your supercool site and found out that you too guys fell in love with this paradise. I’ve spent a month in Aitutaki last year, I stayed at Matriki beach huts, close to paradise cove ( it’s a cheaper and more spartan alternative, but still a great place to stay with wonderful hosts).
I’m travelling in Thailand right now and I’m reading all of your posts …I’ m trying to find a beautiful island to go for a couple of week in november but I wanna stay away from the big mass of drunken people. Both koh mak and Koh lanta seems to be good choices. Which one is the best one for scuba diving?
Thank you for sharing your experience, I will follow for sure
We didn’t dive in Koh Mak but Koh Lanta would be a great option and you’d have more choice of dive shops there. We did a great dive with Scubafish who were very professional: http://www.neverendingvoyage.com/scubafish-koh-lanta-review/
Wow, the first photo is incredible! Cook Islands are unquestionably one of the most beautiful tropical countries in the world. Thanks for your guide – very useful.