Cook Islands Travel Guide
Situated at the same latitude in the Southern Hemisphere as Hawaii in the North, the Cook Islands are often referred to as Hawaii Down Under. While their volcanic peaks are less lofty than their cousins to the north, this archipelago does its reputation justice with beaches lifted straight out of the daydreams of someone commuting to work in a snowstorm.
It isn’t all hedonism here, though: the local Maori culture tells a compelling tale of life on an archipelago in the midst of an impossibly empty ocean. Missionaries, secret breweries, and lively performance art is just a taste of the stories and experiences that await you in this gorgeous corner of Oceania.
Currency: New Zealand Dollars
Languages: English, Maori
What To Do
Start your time in the Cook Islands by taking in a cultural show at Te Vara Nui Village. Aside from the singing and dancing in the performance itself, you’ll get a chance to interact with islanders who have called this archipelago home for countless generations.
When the time does come for the entertainment to begin, though, you’ll get a chance to witness the island’s best performers against a stunning backdrop while enjoying a delicious buffet dinner.
Next, get directly involved in the local culture by attending a service at a Cook Island Christian Church. While they have congregations all over the archipelago, make an effort to take in Sunday Mass at the beautiful whitewashed church found in Avarua, the capital city of the Cook Islands.
Founded in the early 19th century by members of the London Missionary Society, it has since grown beyond the islands, following the diaspora of Cook Islanders to New Zealand, where several churches of this sect exist in centres like Auckland.
A lively affair where familiar hymns are sung passionately in the Maori language, it is a travel experience worth having even if you don’t believe.
Want to sample an intoxicating slice of life in the Cook Islands? Head into the bush to have a few drinks with locals at a Tumunu. Pubs which were hidden deep in the bush once missionaries imposed Prohibition laws which stayed in place until the mid-80s, it was a place where native islanders could unwind away from the disapproving eyes of administrators.
The best ones are found on the island of Atiu, where many residents don’t have the money to afford expensive imports. They do, however, have the land necessary to grow the ingredients to produce some truly powerful suds.
While there are many tumunus about, The Walking Dead is one of the most famous, as its brew has sent many customers home with that vacant look reserved for those who have had a few too many.
Feel like going for a hike? Lace up your boots and head up the slopes of Te Rua Manga. Roughly translating to ‘The Needle’ in Maori, this challenging trek will put your stamina to the test. Scrambling up steep slopes covered in thick tree roots will become increasingly necessary the higher you get.
The last stretch to the top should only be attempted by those with technical skills and the equipment to scale/rappel a near vertical wall. It is a short distance, though, so if you have some experience mountaineering, it should be a piece of cake to summit.
Of course, no journey to the Cook Islands could be considered complete without spending time on some of its dreamy beaches. The Aitutaki Lagoon gets the bulk of the attention (and deservedly so), as its shallow, electric blue waters are the stuff of fantasies.
If you do not want to pay a small fortune to stay at the only resort allowed to sit on the edge of this lagoon, taking a boat tour is your best bet to experience this amazing place.
You won’t just get to admire its visual beauty – the operators will take you to snorkelling spots which will blow away any experiences you have had before. Lunch is often provided, and with stops on deserted isles like One Foot Island, you’ll be tempted to stay behind.
Looking for an Instagram friendly place to spend an unforgettable day on Rarotonga? Titikaveka Beach should be at the top of your list. With a coral reef located close to shore, you’ll be able to see plenty of amazing formations and exotic sea life here without having to pay for a tour.
With soft white sand, dense stands of coconut palm trees, and plenty of food outlets close at hand, those who choose to stay ashore will still have a memorable time.
What to Eat
Cuisine on the Cook Islands has a diversity which needs to be experienced in order to be appreciated. Start by having some Rukau, a dish which is focused around cooked taro leaves. Baked in the ground with onions, bananas, breadfruit, and coconut cream, it is a vegetarian-friendly dish, although carnivores can be accommodated by adding fish or meat.
Located well out in the South Pacific, it is not terribly surprising that seafood dominates the menu in the Cook Islands. Nonetheless, Ika Mata stands out among many of the dishes served here, thanks to this fish salad’s mix of herbs, chiles, coconut cream, and spring onions. Cured in lemon juice, the raw fish provides a meaty, citrusy kick that will have you coming back for seconds.
Many people in the Cook Islands love to have Poke for dessert. No, they don’t have raw tuna as an after-dinner sweet – it’s their name for a cooked banana dish which is baked with coconut milk, arrowroot, sugar, and cow milk.
It is a guilty pleasure you’ll indulge in more than once, so don’t feel bad if you have it multiple times during your stay in the Cook Islands.