Cook Islands Travel Guide

Cook Islands Travel Guide: Rarotonga and Aitutaki — Cotton Cashmere Cat Hair

I’ve been to Hawaii, the Florida Keys, Mexico, and now the Cook Islands…and if I were to recommend a tropical destination that feels authentic and undiscovered, I would hands down recommend the Cook Islands! It truly did feel like heaven on Earth. This guide covers basic information, how to get there, as well as my recommendations if you’re planning a trip (and trust me when I say you should add it to your bucket list!). We are already planning on going back!


THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT THE COOK ISLANDS

  • Location: South Pacific Ocean at approximately 20°S, 160°W in between Tonga and Tahiti

  • Time zone: GMT -10 (same as Hawaii)

  • Language: English (and Maori)

  • Currency: New Zealand dollar (plus local Cook Islands coins)

  • Exchange rate: US $0.65 = NZ $1 approximately

  • Units: Metric system

  • Drive on the left side of the road

  • Get around via car, scooter (must have motorcycle license or take the test at the police station in Avarua), bike, walk, or public bus (NZ $5 each ride; NZ $16 for day pass; NZ $30 for 10-trip pass that can be used by more than one person)

  • When to visit: Anytime of year! Dry season is May–November and rainy/cyclone season is December–April. That is all based on climatology and you can get rain during dry season or nothing during the rainy season; it rained a couple of days during our week-long trip in late September. Check the Cook Islands Meteorological Services for the latest forecast.

HOW TO GET TO THE COOK ISLANDS

  • Direct flights to Rarotonga on Air New Zealand from Los Angeles (weekly) and Auckland (daily)

  • Direct flights to Rarotonga on Virgin Australia from Sydney and on Air Tahiti from Papeete

The Air New Zealand flight from Los Angeles departs on Saturday nights and arrives in Rarotonga just before sunrise on Sunday, and the flight back to Los Angeles departs on Friday nights and arrives in LA around noon on Saturday. The total flight time each way is about 8.5 to 9 hours. We were served dinner and breakfast on both the outbound and inbound flights. The carry-on weight limit is 7 kg (just over 15 lbs), and one personal item is allowed in addition.

Note: Your passport needs to be valid for six months after your departure date. When you arrive on Rarotonga, you’ll need to show the customs agent proof of your return flight.

WHAT TO BRING TO THE COOK ISLANDS

We packed in carry-on bags only (plus personal items). Here’s what I would recommend you pack:

  • Swimsuits

  • At least one hat

  • Reef-safe sunscreen (the 3 ounce bottles can go through security)

  • Mosquito repellent wipes (we used these and also brought these just in case)

  • Aloe vera gel and/or burn/insect bite itch cream

  • Mini first aid kit (or make your own with bandaids, medicine, etc.)

  • Water shoes with a hard sole (I bought these and Korri bought these)

  • Snorkel fin socks (we each bought a pair of these)

  • Snorkel and mask (we didn’t buy our own but may as well bring them if you have them)

  • Waterproof phone cases (we bought these)

  • Dry sack (we borrowed a couple but if not I would have purchased these)

  • GoPro if you have one

We left our laptops at home but brought the iPad just in case we needed it, and we didn’t end up using it. Don’t plan to use the internet unless you really need to; it’s expensive at NZ $50 for 3 GB.

ISLANDS TO VISIT

Rarotonga • This is the main and largest island of the Cook Islands. It’s a rugged volcanic island that features lush tropical rainforest and a beautiful lagoon.

Aitutaki • Located about 160 miles to the north of Rarotonga, Aitutaki is most known for its huge, vivid blue lagoon. It is truly unlike anything I’ve ever seen! Aitutaki features a small, relatively flat main island and 15 motu (islets) dotted around the lagoon.

The local domestic airline, Air Rarotonga, offers regular flights to the other islands in the southern group, specifically Aitutaki, Atiu, Mangaia (the oldest island in the south Pacific), Mauke, and Mitiaro. They also offer occasional service to the islands in the northern group (they are much more isolated). Because air travel is the only way to access the other islands and Air Raro is the only airline that services the islands, plan to pay relatively high prices for flights.

RAROTONGA

Rarotonga features large resorts, smaller accommodations, and a wide variety of holiday homes and AirBnBs. I recommend staying in the Muri area for the multitude of restaurants and activities nearby, but honestly, anywhere on the island is beautiful!

  • Where to stay: Muri

We stayed in a seaview room close to the beach at Muri Beachcomber. Our unit had a separate living space with dining area and small kitchen. Included in the room rates are daily breakfast packs, use of the kayaks/paddle boards/snorkel equipment, and transfers from/to the airport upon arrival and departure. We were across the street from a car hire and a two minute walk from an ATM and 24/7 store with some groceries. The water on the property is safe to drink (not all water on the island is), so we didn’t need to buy bottled water and could fill our reusable bottles with the water from our room. I wrote all about our room and time at the Muri Beachcomber in this post!

We also considered the Moana Sands Beachfront Hotel in Titikaveka but I ultimately preferred the location of Muri Beachcomber with the proximity to eating establishments and fact that airport transfers were included and arranged for us. We would stay here again!

  • Where to eat in Muri: Deli Licious, LBV, Vili’s Burgers, Muri Night Market, The Rickshaw

I wrote more detail about our favorite spots in Muri in this post. Other places on Rarotonga that came highly recommended: The Mooring, Charlie’s, Beluga, Trader Jack’s, and Antipodes. If you’re a seafood lover, this is the place to be, but they had a bunch of other food options available, too. I honestly don’t think there is bad food anywhere on the island!

  • What to do: walk the beach, kayak/paddle board/snorkel in Muri Lagoon, yoga with KiteSUP, massage at Te Manava, island night at Te Vara Nui Village, visit the Maire Nui Botanical Gardens, ride the bus around the island (bonus: stop at the airport runway to watch landings/takeoffs)

I wrote more specifically about what we did in this post. Next time, I’d love to do a lagoon cruise in Muri lagoon (includes snorkeling in the Titikaveka area—one of the best) and the popular cross-island hike from the north side to the south side. I’ve heard that the hike is relatively rugged and somewhat difficult (someone broke their leg on it when we were there) but that the views are worth it. I also might try SUP yoga, and a snorkel tour to see turtles would be amazing!

AITUTAKI

There are not enough words to describe the raw beauty of Aitutaki and its lagoon. Truly, it is one of the most stunning places I have ever been to! It is the definition of paradise. Aitutaki is a lot less inhabited and slower-paced compared to Rarotonga, and because of that, the number of accommodations and places to eat are also more limited.

Because our trip was only a week (six days, five nights), we opted to stay on Rarotonga and booked a day tour to Aitutaki. The tour price included everything—transportation to/from the airport, round trip airfare, a short tour around the main island of Aitutaki, a six-hour lagoon cruise on The Vaka Cruise, lunch onboard, stops at three motu, and snorkeling. I wrote more in-depth about our experience in this post. Overall, I’d say it was definitely worth the money and I would highly recommend visiting Aitutaki if you are going all the way to the islands!

  • Next time…

I want to spend more time on Aitutaki next time we visit the Cook Islands! A day is amazing but simply not enough time to really take it all in. Plus we went on a cloudy day, and I’d love to see the lagoon in full sun. We were lucky to have a few minutes of sun and WOW—unreal.

The most popular (and most expensive) resorts on the island are the Pacific Resort and the Aitutaki Lagoon Private Island Resort. The latter is the only one in the Cook Islands that has overwater bungalows. How dreamy would that be?! Since restaurant options on the island are limited, all the resorts have restaurants on the property.


You can find all of my Cook Islands posts here. Are the Cook Islands on your bucket list now?! I hope that if they weren’t already on your list that my trip inspired you to add them! I cannot recommend the islands enough, and I’m impatiently waiting until Korri and I are able to return. :)

What we did + where we ate in Muri, Rarotonga

What to do and where to eat in Muri, Rarotonga, Cook Islands — Cotton Cashmere Cat Hair
View of Rarotonga from Koromiri, Cook Islands — Cotton Cashmere Cat Hair
Kayaking Muri Lagoon, Rarotonga, Cook Islands — Cotton Cashmere Cat Hair
Blue starfish in Muri Lagoon, Rarotonga, Cook Islands — Cotton Cashmere Cat Hair
Dogs chasing drone in Muri Lagoon, Rarotonga, Cook Islands — Cotton Cashmere Cat Hair

I wrote a little bit about why I chose an accommodation in the Muri area for our time on Rarotonga in a previous post, and here’s a breakdown of what we did and where we ate in the Muri area! We did a lot more wandering around the island than I anticipated we would, but we ate all meals in the Muri area (save for our trip to Aitutaki) and we also did a number of activities. Of course, this list doesn’t include everything available in the area, and there are a number of things I’d like to do and a number of eateries I’d like to try next time. ;)

We spent a couple of hours on another hot, sunny afternoon kayaking around the Muri lagoon—a popular activity along with paddle boarding and snorkeling. I loaded up a dry bag with towels, snacks, sunscreen, and we brought along our phones in the waterproof cases. We tried taking photos and videos underwater with the cases, which was mildly successful (moreso on Korri’s new iPhone 11). Some of these photos were taken with the cases, which I’m sure are easy to spot since they’re not the clearest. We forgot the GoPro! I wish we hadn’t because we saw such beautiful fish.

I packed my striped rash guard (last seen in Florida) specifically for kayaking/SUP, and it definitely came in handy. A few weeks before our trip, I saw that J.Crew had matching high-rise bikini bottoms on super sale, so I snagged myself a pair. They work perfectly with my cropped rash guard! I wore a baseball cap to keep the sun off of my face and a pair of water shoes just in case Korri tipped over the kayak… ;) ha!

We spent a couple of hours wandering around the lagoon looking for pretty fish in the water and listening to the ocean, hanging out on one of the motu (Koromiri), and watching the dogs swim around. Korri ended up taking one back to the main island since he was looking pretty tired, and I watched a couple more dogs chase a drone flying by. It was such a beautiful afternoon!

Clouds over Rarotonga, Cook Islands — Cotton Cashmere Cat Hair
J.Crew navy striped rash guard and bikini bottoms — Cotton Cashmere Cat Hair
Dog swimming in Muri lagoon, Rarotonga, Cook Islands — Cotton Cashmere Cat Hair
Kayaking Muri Lagoon, Rarotonga, Cook Islands — Cotton Cashmere Cat Hair
Raro dog in the rain on Muri Beach, Rarotonga, Cook Islands — Cotton Cashmere Cat Hair

WHAT WE DID IN MURI

Kayaked Muri Lagoon • Our accommodation, Muri Beachcomber, had bikes, snorkel equipment, paddle boards, and kayaks available for guests to use. I was definitely planning on biking, paddling, and snorkeling at one point but time got away from us so the only thing we managed to do was kayak. Most of their kayaks fit two people, which is nice unless your partner is difficult to paddle with. ;) We paddled out near the reef at low tide, saw gorgeous fish in the water, and stopped at one of the motu for a short break. We didn’t stay out too long because even after applying copious amounts of sunscreen and reapplying, Korri got sunburned pretty bad and I got burned in the spots I missed! It was a beautiful, sunny, hot day on the lagoon.

Walked/lounged on the beach • How can you not when you’re staying on the beach?! :) I loved the view of the four motu and the wide, blue lagoon. Plus you can hear the big waves crashing on the reef in the distance. I only saw a few other people when walking the beach in the morning. Compared to Florida or Hawaii, it’s incredible how few people visit the Cook Islands and how much more secluded the beaches felt.

Yoga with KiteSUP • KiteSUP offers morning yoga on Wednesdays and Fridays in a studio above the Te Ara Museum of Cultural Enterprise. We went on Wednesday morning; I brought yoga stuff with me, so I insisted on us doing yoga at least once! KiteSUP also offers SUP yoga which was tempting but a little too ambitious for us, haha. But it looked fun—especially with those Raro dogs joining in!

Couples massage at Te Manava Luxury Villas & Spa • Te Manava is a little farther south than Muri proper but still within walking distance. This spa was recommended by our accommodation, and we booked a couples massage. (The price was on par with what you’d pay in the U.S.) Our massage included a quick foot scrub, and Korri and I both opted for the deep tissue massage. I had forgotten what a deep tissue massage felt like! My back and shoulders were sore afterward—ha—but I haven’t had much pain since!

Cultural tour and island night with buffet dinner at Te Vara Nui Village • We had a two-hour tour, learning about Cook Islands history and culture prior to the buffet dinner. Our food was beautifully presented and featured lots of different options, including vegan and gluten free options. After dinner, there was a show on the stage in the center of the property and over the water, and after the show, they served dessert with an array of different varieties. Island nights cater primarily to tourists, but we had fun nonetheless! (If you’ve ever been to a luau, this was similar to that.) The folks at our table were from Australia and Switzerland, and it was so cool to talk to them!

Te Vara Nui Village, Muri, Rarotonga, Cook Islands — Cotton Cashmere Cat Hair
Breakfast at Deli Licious Cafe, Rarotonga, Cook Islands — Cotton Cashmere Cat Hair
Vili's Burger Joint, Muri, Rarotonga, Cook Islands — Cotton Cashmere Cat Hair
Smoothies and hot chips at the Muri Night Market, Rarotonga, Cook Islands — Cotton Cashmere Cat Hair
Sunrise over Muri Lagoon, Rarotonga, Cook Islands — Cotton Cashmere Cat Hair

WHERE WE ATE IN MURI

BREAKFAST / LUNCH

Deli Licious Café • We went here for breakfast every day except for one day, where we tried a different place for breakfast (LBV below). This was our favorite spot. It was a little spendy and sometimes we had to wait a little while for our food, but the food was really tasty and the folks there so nice. We saw a lot of locals here which is a good sign! Korri always ordered the eggs benedict with a mocha, and I tried pineapple pancakes with bananas and eggs and hashbrowns during our time there. My go-to drink was a chai that didn’t taste much like a chai (not a spicy chai at all) but was still so good and sweet.

Le Bon Vivant (LBV) • We decided to try this place on my birthday; it’s right across the street from Deli Licious. I ordered a salad that looked delicious but had cilantro which is my least favorite herb, so that was a bummer. We also ordered fries with a garlicy butter that was pretty good, and I had an amazing peach smoothie. This meal was also fairly spendy comparatively. We enjoyed watching the chickens bully the little birds around, haha. I’d eat here again but we loved Deli Licious so much that we just kept going back there!

LUNCH / DINNER

Vili’s Burger Joint • The reviews for this place are outstanding, and having this place nearby was one of the main reasons why I picked Muri as our home base. It lived up to the hype! The burgers were the perfect size and so delicious. Korri and I both ordered the ‘Muri’ burger, which has cheese, bacon, lettuce, pineapple, and the special Vili’s sauce. Yum! The prices are super reasonable, too. On my birthday, we ordered drinks from the place next door and two drinks cost more than our two burgers and fries, haha. But they were delicious as well!

DINNER

Muri Night Market • The night market happens on Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday nights starting at 5 pm, and it was right next to our accommodation which was super convenient for us. People drove in from all over the island to eat at the night market! We ate here three of the four nights because we loved it so much. There is a wide variety of freshly prepared food for sale by locals. We loved the taco stall the best! We ordered the beef taco (just one large taco) multiple times and also tried the nachos (made with nacho Doritos, haha). From other stalls, we tried chicken skewers (weren’t a fan of the sauce) and noodles with veggies. We also loved the stall in the back with fresh, hot chips (fries!) and the most amazing smoothies (super mango tango was our favorite).

The Rickshaw • I wanted to try someplace new for our last night on the island, so we wandered down the road hoping to eat at La Casita (Mexican), but it was closed so we went next door to The Rickshaw, which offers a variety of Asian cuisine. We both had fried rice (I had a small portion of veggie fried rice, and Korri ordered a regular portion of chicken fried rice; my portion was perfect!). The food was good, but the service was really sluggish…after we finished eating, our server took our plates and then never returned with our check or to ask if we needed anything else, and we couldn’t hang around and wait because we had to catch our ride to the airport. Korri went up to the counter to pay so we could leave.


OUTFIT DETAILS

J.Crew rash guard / old; similar (on sale!)
J.Crew bikini bottoms / exact (on sale!)
Speedo water shoes / exact
Everlane hat / exact style
Le Specs sunglasses / exact style
Linum Home Textiles towels / exact

Tropical foliage at Maire Nui Gardens

Maire Nui Botanical Gardens, Rarotonga, Cook Islands — Cotton Cashmere Cat Hair
Path of greenery at Maire Nui Gardens, Rarotonga, Cook Islands — Cotton Cashmere Cat Hair
Madewell brown belt bag casual summer outfit — Cotton Cashmere Cat Hair
Tropical foliage on Rarotonga, Cook Islands — Cotton Cashmere Cat Hair

As one would expect since they’re located in the tropics, the Cook Islands are full of beautiful tropical foliage! There are, of course, palm trees everywhere, and I’m a huge fan of hibiscus flowers so I loved seeing huge blooms at nearly every turn. There were a number of plants I wasn’t expecting to see in the tropics, such as trees that looked more like conifers/evergreen trees. I wish I knew what all the species were but alas…I’m terrible at plant identification and biology in general. ;)

We caught the bus to visit the Maire Nui Gardens in the Titikaveka area of Rarotonga and spent some time wandering around, checking out all of the beautiful foliage, and trying to avoid spider webs! Some of those webs were gnarly. Luckily, most of them were up high and not in the walking path. Whew. The entry fee is a suggested donation of NZ $5 each, and we didn’t see anyone else there the whole time until the very end. There is a café, but it was closed when we were there and I’m not sure when it will open back up. I do wish the plants had been identified with little cards since I had no idea what anything was! I think I was able to identify the plants in the photos we got with Google.

Lobster claw tropical plant in Rarotonga, Cook Islands — Cotton Cashmere Cat Hair
Tan cardigan, white tank, denim shorts, belt bag casual outfit — Cotton Cashmere Cat Hair
Banana palm tree on Rarotonga, Cook Islands — Cotton Cashmere Cat Hair
Hibiscus flowers at Maire Nui Gardens, Rarotonga, Cook Islands — Cotton Cashmere Cat Hair

We visited the gardens on what ended up being one of the only really sunny days of our week on the island, and boy was it hot when that sun was out! We were there right over the vernal equinox (autumnal equinox in the northern hemisphere) so the sun was high in the sky but not quite at its highest point. Still, though. Whew! I forgot how brutal full sun is in the tropics. It got cloudy shortly after we left the gardens—of course—and we were very thankful for that. ;)

I have to admit that it was super weird to have the sun to our north instead of to the south! This trip was my first time (well, and Korri’s first time) south of the equator, so I felt like I was hyperaware of all the differences, haha. It was really cool. I will note that the toilet did not flush the other direction…actually it didn’t swirl at all. I didn’t see one toilet with a bowl like the ones we have in the U.S. This post went in a weird direction…oops! Ha.

Uniqlo Airism UV cardigan casual summer outfit — Cotton Cashmere Cat Hair
Bird of paradise at Maire Nui Gardens, Rarotonga, Cook Islands — Cotton Cashmere Cat Hair
Maire Nui Tropical Gardens, Rarotonga, Cook Islands — Cotton Cashmere Cat Hair
Casual summer outfit at the botanical gardens, Rarotonga, Cook Islands — Cotton Cashmere Cat Hair

Anyway...! I mentioned in a previous post that I only brought one pair of pants (these amazing beach pants) and one pair of shorts (seen here) to mix and match throughout the week. I planned to spend a lot of time in swimsuits and coverups, and I didn’t feel like my one pair of pants and shorts got too dirty in just a few days. I’m really glad I didn’t overpack the bottoms (I just brought one more top than I needed). I also didn’t probably need my belt bag as much as I enjoyed wearing it on this day! And my navy Salt Water sandals were only worn on this day, too. I suppose next time I can only bring a couple of pairs of sandals; I brought three, one of which was my old pair of Teva flip-flop type sandals that I ended up wearing more than I thought I would because it rained so much.

I purchased this Uniqlo cardigan with this trip in mind. It has UV protection, which was perfect on the hot, sunny days. It was actually a little bit too warm to wear when the sun was out but I liked having the extra light layer when the clouds appeared. And my arms and shoulders never burned with it on, so that’s good! I love wearing long cardigan with shorts so this was an easy combination. I wore this combo one other time on our trip with my white tee and baseball cap, and I’m sure I’ll pull it out again for future trips to warm destinations.


OUTFIT DETAILS

Uniqlo cardigan / exact style (limited sizes)
Everlane top / similar by Karen Scott
Madewell shorts / exact (also available from Nordstrom)
Salt Water sandals / exact
Madewell bag / exact (last seen here)
Le Specs sunglasses / exact style
Dior Lip Glow in pink / exact