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:
At least one hat
Reef-safe sunscreen (the 3 ounce bottles can go through security)
Aloe vera gel and/or burn/insect bite itch cream
Mini first aid kit (or make your own with bandaids, medicine, etc.)
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 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!
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.
Aitutaki Day Tour with Air Rarotonga (NZ $493 per person)
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!
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. :)