Spread across 1.3 million square miles of the South Pacific, the Cook Islands account for about 150 square miles of landmass, presenting a challenge to visitors who think they want to see all of the islands. First-time visitors usually concentrate their travels in the “Southern Group” of the Cook Islands that includes the two more populated and larger islands of Rarotonga and Aitutaki.
The “Northern Group” of the Cook Islands are only for clients who embrace a more rugged and hearty form of travel. For those looking to stray well off the beaten path, these remote islands are just the place to immerse themselves in true Cook Island culture.
Balancing Culture and Technology
What we found so appealing about Rarotonga was the remarkable balance of traditional Polynesian hospitality with 21st century technology. The islands run with New Zealand graciousness and efficiency coupled with the inherent Cook Island hospitality, creating an atmosphere that genuinely welcomes and treats the visitor very well.
The Cook Islands are well-suited for a variety of travelers. Honeymooners will delight in the tropical ambiance, families with children will appreciate the gentle, low-key atmosphere for spending sun-filled days building sandcastles on pristine beaches and adventure seekers will be ecstatic with the range of water sports and hiking opportunities.
The major Cook Islands, Rarotonga and Aitutaki are about the same distance from the equator as Hawaii so, are similar in climate, with little humidity and pleasant trade winds. November to April is hurricane season; the Cook Islands report one hurricane about every other year.
Unless they are truly seeking a rustic experience, most visitors will spend the majority of their time on the islands of either Rarotonga or Aitutaki. If you travel further away from these two major islands, especially to the Northern group, you will find very small populations and people living a mostly subsistence lifestyle.
The more remote group of Northern Islands especially require advance planning. A visitor must have accommodation arranged before a ticket to these islands may be purchased. Only Manihiki and Penryhn have guesthouses available and need to be reserved far in advance, and the accommodation is far from deluxe with no hot water and limited electricity available.
Sun, sand, snorkeling and water sports. Surrounded by a sparkling lagoon of tropical azure blue water, backed by beaches of bone white sand and lush coconut palms the beaches of the Cook Islands are among the most beautiful and unspoiled in the world. The south coast of Rarotonga is noted for the best beaches and snorkelling spots. Here the reef is generally further out and the sea floor is relatively free of spiny corals and rocks.
But if you think your clients will be impressed by what’s above the water line wait until you hear about the delights below the water. Snorkellers will return raving about the crystal clear and pleasantly warm waters filled with brightly colored exotic fish and corals. Most of the lagoon areas are sufficiently shallow to allow non-swimmers to wade out to the reef and still catch a glimpse of the sea life without gear or fear. Good choices for snorkelling include the channels in Muri Lagoon, Aro’a Beach, Tikioki Beach, and the beach by the Rarotongan Beach Resort.
For serious scuba divers, the Cook Islands are also an excellent choice. Outside of the reef, the water level drops sharply, to depths of up to 12, 000 feet with lots of canyons, caves, tunnels and wrecks to explore. Rarotonga has several accredited diving operators including: Cook Island Divers, www.cookislandsdivers.com; and Dive Rarotonga, www.diverarotonga.com.
For a more leisurely and equally memorable water experience try a lagoon cruise. Glass-bottom boats are very popular on both Rarotonga and Aitutaki. The lagoon at Aitutaki is hard to beat for a viewing experience, filled with giant clams, the ones with the big wavy edges, schools of parrotfish and an abundance of coral.
Castaways By Design
Clients can create their own castaway (but easily rescued) adventure by taking a boat cruise to one of the many deserted “motus” (islets) for a picnic and snorkelling session.
For those eager to do more than lay on a beach, several tour companies offer varied experiences of the Cook Islands. Raro Mountain Safari Tours offers three- hour tours in custom-built jeeps to sweep clients off the beaten paths and into the islands’ rugged mountains and valleys. Visit www.rarosafaritours.co.ck
If clients prefer their viewing experiences to be from the comfort of an air-conditioned bus, Raro Tours operates half-day circle island tours. Visit www.rarotours.co.ck
If clients want to stay on Rarotonga, but experience another island, Air Rarotonga sells daytrips to Aitutaki that include an island tour, lagoon cruise with snorkelling, lunch, and time for swimming and sunning. The cost is about $400 NZ or $300US.
Go to Church
The early Christian missionaries exerted a powerful influence over the Cook Islanders and the locals responded. Most people regularly attend church services and this is far more than a religious ceremony. Locals turn out in their Sunday finery and will frown on those who attend in skimpy attire (a word of caution to clients). Visitors are welcomed to attend as services are filled with music and high spirits.
Separated from most major population centers by thousands of miles of ocean visitors might expect that Rarotonga might not offer the same variety of meal options they have come to expect in more visited destinations. They would be wrong. Almost everything from sushi to pasta, even lattes, can be had here.
Traditional Cook Island cuisine includes fresh fish, pork, chicken and vegetables. Side dishes quite often include steamed taro leaves, taro and coconut. The ubiquitous island snack, ika mata, similar to a ceviche found in Latin countries, are strips of raw fish marinated in lime or lemon juice and coconut cream can be found in almost every restaurant or snack shop. Advise clients to be cautious of foods containing coconut cream that appear to be anything less than fresh. Coconut cream spoils quickly in the heat and can cause quite a bit of digestive distress.
Accommodations on Rarotonga
Hotel facilities in Rarotonga and Aitutaki are well developed with many, if not more, of the amenities world travelers have come to expect.
As with all tropical establishments, however, the décor will be suited to withstand tropical conditions with materials, woods and fabrics that are climate-friendly to the local environment. There are no mega-sized convention hotels and most of the companies running these establishments are New Zealand-owned, and not globally familiar, brand names. Many smaller hotels in the Cook Islands are reluctant to take children under the age of 12 so be sure to inquire if this is a consideration. Any accommodation with a thatched roof is going to be expensive--memorable and private, but pricey.
The Little Polynesian Resort has been a favorite in the Cook Islands for more than 30 years. There is an elegant simplicity to the accommodations, suited to a tropical lifestyle. The range of rooms includes duplex units, private bungalows and “ares” that extend over the beach areas. All of the accommodations have been constructed with high-pitched roofs that are indicative of traditional Cook Island style. This is truly a romantic and intimate getaway. Visit www.littlepolynesian.com
The Rarotongan Beach Resort & Spa, the largest hotel on the island, is decked out in the Hollywood version of Polynesia complete with tikis and other island paraphernalia. Rates range from $270NZ or $204US for a garden room to $1,965NZ or $1,485US for a three-bedroom villa with private pool. Included in the price are a welcome cocktail and island fruits, daily tropical buffet breakfast, loan of snorkel gear, hammocks, sun loungers, beach towels, and daily activities program. An added bonus is that hotel packages may be shared with the sister resort, the Aitutaki Lagoon Resort & Spa. Visit www.therarotongan.com
The Pacific Resort Rarotonga is an island favourite that manages to combine the personal service style of a small hotel with the facilities of a large property. The 64 self-contained units are set on beautiful Muri beach and a prettier setting is difficult to find. Rates start a $370NZ or about $28US for a garden studio unit and rise to $1,660NZ or about $1,255US for a two-bedroom beachfront villa. Included in the price are airport coach transfers, welcome cocktail, daily island breakfasts, and free use of snorkelling and beach gear. Visit www.pacificresort.com
Club Raro is a reasonably priced resort, with rates beginning at $155NZ per night for a studio unit and rising to $210 NZ per night for a lagoon front room. The décor is best described as Polynesian budget motel with simple, but colourful, furnishings. When booked online the rate includes a daily breakfast. A third person sharing a room is an additional $70NZ per night. Visit www.clubraro.co.ck
Accommodations on Aitutaki
The Pacific Resort Aitutaki is a sister resort to the Pacific Resort Rarotongan, and, if possible, is even more intimate and romantic. Rack rates for a Garden Bungalow runs $470 NZ or $355US; an Overwater Bungalow, $1,285NZ or $971 US. Visitwww.pacificresort.com/Aitutaki
The Aitutaki Lagoon Resort & Spa has 27 beachfront bungalows, suites and villas, all with their own view of Aitutaki’s world famous lagoon. This resort is also the only private island resort in the Cook Islands. This is true luxury, with a price to match. Rates are similar to the Pacific Resort Aitukaki. Visit www.aitutakilagoonresort.com
To experience Aitutaki without spending too much, arrange a daytrip from Rarotonga that includes the lagoon, a cruise and lunch.
Air New Zealand operates direct services from Auckland, New Zealand. There is one direct flight a week, currently on Sunday, from Los Angeles to Rarotonga. Clients originating from the East and Midwest can connect in Los Angeles. Pacific Blue has twice weekly flights from Australia and New Zealand to Rarotonga.
Air Rarotonga has regularly scheduled flights to both Northern and Southern group islands. A flight to Aitutaki takes about 50 minutes.
Flights to the Cook Islands are usually heavily booked; your clients should be prepared to make air arrangements well in advance. There is an airport departure tax of $30NZ or $23US, which is not included in the ticket cost. Rarotonga International Airport, opened in 1974, is the main arrival point for visitors and is less than three miles from Avarua.
Clearly, visiting the Cook Islands requires advance planning, a strong desire to engage with nature, be receptive to a different culture and a commitment to preparing for the trip of a lifetime.
Fast Facts: Cook Islands
Language: Cook Island Maori is the official language but English is widely spoken.
Currency: the NZ dollar runs about $1NZ to $ .75 US
Visa Requirements: None for a stay of up to 31 days provided visitors have an onward or return travel ticket.
Driving: Rarotonga has excellent bus service or you can rent a car, scooter or bicycle. For anything motorized you will need to purchase a Cook Islands drivers license.