Located in the South Pacific between Fiji and Tahiti, the Cook Islands is nothing short of a tropical paradise. The self-governing island nation, which has close ties to New Zealand, is made up of 15 islands which have a total land area of only 240 square kilometres. The largest island is Rarotonga, which is home to stunning mountainous terrain and is surrounded by equally impressive beaches, lagoons and reefs. The peak on Rarotonga, known as Te Manga, sits 658 metres above sea level.
However, each of the islands have their own unique scenery and each is arguably more amazing than the previous one. If you are looking for a unique tropical getaway, look no further than the Cook Islands. The best bit is it is closer to Australia than you might think.
The islands that make up Cook Islands
The Cook Islands consist of 15 different islands in the South Pacific, collectively making up a self-governing nation.
The largest of the Cook Islands, this is also the most populated island and is where the nation’s capital – Avarua – lies.
Rarotonga’s peak, Te Manga, reaches 658 metres above sea level, with the mountains of the island providing some great hiking opportunities.
On Rarotonga you can also find waterfalls, some great beaches and pristine lagoons for swimming and snorkelling.
This is the second-most visited island within the Cook Islands and is about a 40-minute flight north of Rarotonga.
Home to a little under 2000 people, the peak of the island is a hill known as Maunga Pu which reaches 123 metres.
The island is within a triangular barrier reef which has some incredible lagoons and there are some small uninhabited surrounding islands that are lined with palm trees and are picture perfect on a good day.
Most of the other islands within the Cook Islands are small and hard to reach for tourists, as well as having very limited accommodation options.
But if you are determined to visit them, it is possible to get to most of them one way or another.
Homestay accommodation is available on some of the islands.
However, some of the islands are uninhabited, including Suwarrow which is a nature reserve and houses only two caretakers.
The other 13 islands that make up Cook Islands are: Mitiaro, Atiu, Palmerston, Mangaia, Manuae, Takutea, Mauke, Rakahanga, Penrhyn, Manihiki, Pukapuka, Suwarrow and Nassau.
Cook Islands Tourism
Before the Covid-19 pandemic, tourist numbers to the Cook Islands were slowly growing. However, it remains an often overlooked destination in the South Pacific, despite all that is offers. In 2019, some 170,000 people visited the Cook Islands – almost 10 times the countries’ permanent resident population. Comparatively, Fiji attracted almost 900,000 tourists in the same year, while Vanuatu brought in 256,000 tourists and Tahiti saw just under 300,000 tourists. While it is as beautiful as any destination within the South Pacific, the fewer visitors make the Cook Islands a unique place to visit.
Cook Islands Flights
Air New Zealand and Jetstar both offer direct flights between Auckland, New Zealand and Rarotonga, Cook Islands. The flight time between the two airports is about 3 hours and 45 minutes. Air New Zealand has also previously offered direct flights between Sydney and Rarotonga, however these were put on pause during the Covid-19 pandemic due to border restrictions. Connections to Auckland are available from all Australian capital cities. The flight time from Sydney to Auckland is only 3 hours, while the New Zealand capital is just over 3.5 hours from Melbourne. Qantas, Jetstar and Air New Zealand all offer regular direct flights to Auckland from Australia’s east coast.
Domestic Cook Islands Flights
If you are looking to branch out beyond just Rarotonga on your trip to the Cook Islands, you can catch a domestic flight once you arrive. The island nation’s own airline, Air Rarotonga, offers flights to the popular tourist island of Aitutaki, as well as seven other outer islands – Nassau, Manihiki, Penrhyn, Atiu, Mitiaro, Mauke and Mangaia. Air Rarotonga also offers codeshare flights to Aitutaki with Air New Zealand, meaning it is possible to book a single itinerary through to Aitutaki with Air New Zealand. The flight time to Aitutaki is only 40 minutes from Rarotonga, meaning it is possible to easily visit the island as a single-day trip.
When is the best time to visit the Cook Islands?
It is always a good time to visit the Cook Islands, which enjoy warm and largely dry weather throughout the year. However, the best time to visit is considered to be during the drier months between April and November, which enjoy average daily maximum temperatures of between 25 and 28 degrees Celsius (77 to 82 degrees Fahrenheit). The water temperature is similar to the air temperature during these months, ranging from 24 to 27 degrees Celsius (75 to 81 degrees Fahrenheit). The whale watching season in the Cook Islands is between July and October, while those who are into kitesurfing should visit during the trade wind season of May to October.
Cook Islands Travel Insurance
Cook Islands is generally considered to be a safe destination to visit, with the rate of crime very low.
However, petty theft does occur, while the region is prone to tropical cyclones between November and April as well as severe storms throughout the year. Earthquakes and tsunamis can also occur.
As with any international getaway, taking out travel insurance is highly recommended if you are planning a trip to the beautiful Cook Islands. Travel insurance can protect you with cover for medical expenses – including Covid-19 – as well as evacuation and repatriation, cancellation fees and lost deposits. You can also be covered for lost, stolen or damaged luggage and personal belongings.
Make sure your trip to the Cook Islands is properly covered.
Staying safe in Cook Islands
The most common issue for tourists in the Cook Islands is occasional thefts of belongings. According to the Australian Government’s Smart Traveller website, thieves sometimes target items left on the beach or unsecured items stored in motor scooters or motorcycles. It is important to watch your belongings and securely store or hold onto your valuables wherever possible. Beaches in the Cook Islands do not have lifeguards on duty, so weak swimmers need to be careful of strong tides and find safe areas for swimming. Always follows the advice of local authorities or hotel or tour staff if there is an earthquake or tsunami alert and move to higher ground if you are near the beach. If you are travelling during the cyclone season, make yourself aware of the evacuation plan for your hotel or accommodation. Same-sex sexual activity or ‘acts of indecency’ between men is illegal in the Cook Islands, with penalties including prison sentences of up to seven years. Significant penalties also apply for carrying or using illegal drugs.
Best Resorts in the Cook Islands for couples
Don’t expect to find any towering mega hotels or resorts in the Cook Islands. This is a nation which has a rule of thumb that no building can be taller than a palm tree. Given its relatively low tourist numbers in comparison to other South Pacific destinations, the major international hotel chains do not have a footprint in the Cook Islands. However, that does not mean there isn’t some great places to stay.
Here are some of the top resorts in the Cook Islands for couples.
Pacific Resort Aitutaki
Undoubtedly the No.1 rated resort in the Cook Islands, the Pacific Resort Aitutaki is located on the island of Aitutaki, which is about a 40-minute flight from Rarotonga.
The resort overlooks what has been voted one of the most beautiful lagoons in the world and is surrounded by amazing white sand beaches and lush tropical vegetation.
The small property has only 29 spacious bungalows and villas, which are decked out in a traditional style and include private sundecks, direct beach access and private outdoor showers.
A no-kids resort, it caters only for adults and children over the age of 12 and features a spectacular infinity pool, luxury spa and on-site restaurant.
Guests consistently give Pacific Resort Aitutaki five-star reviews and describe it as “faultless”, “wonderful” and having “most helpful staff” on hand who will assist with anything you need.
Moana Sands Lagoon Resort
A small and relatively new resort on Rarotonga, the Moana Sands Lagoon Resort only opened in 2018 but has quickly become a popular spot to stay.
An adults-only resort, it accepts guests only over the age of 18 and offers 24 deluxe studios and suites across two levels.
Located on the eastern side of Rarotonga, the property is situated on the famous Muri Beach and overlooks Rarotonga’s famous lagoon.
Facilities include a swimming pool, cabana, sun lounging decks, a luxury spa, on-site restaurant and complimentary use of kayaks and snorkelling equipment.
Guests describe the resort as a “beautiful, tranquil hotel” in a “stunning location”, some saying they “can’t recommend it enough”.
Little Polynesian Resort
Located on the south-eastern coast of Rarotonga, this is a sister property of the Pacific Resort Aitutaki.
It goes by the slogan ‘Inspiring Romance’ and is therefore not surprisingly an adults-only five-star resort.
Enjoying a great location on Titikaveka Beach, the resort offers both modern beachfront bungalows and garden studios that were built with luxury, seclusion and romance in mind.
Property facilities include an infinity pool on the edge of the white sand beach and an on-site restaurant and bar.
Guests label the Little Polynesian Resort as “the perfect hideaway” and a “little piece of paradise” that “sets the benchmark for boutique beachfront bungalows”.
Muri Beach Club Hotel
Another property on Muri Beach on the island of Rarotonga, this modern adults-only resort is much loved by guests both for its hospitality and its location.
An intimate, 30-room hotel, the property was the dream of a local farmer who eventually brought it to life.
The modern well-appointed rooms include some Polynesian flair and there is 24-hour service that promises you will be treated like part of the family.
The resort features a pool, on-site restaurant, a bar and a spa.
Those wanting to get active can grab a kayak or stand-up paddleboard to explore the stunning lagoon just off the beach or even swim across it to one of three private motus which are directly in front of the resort.
Aitutaki Lagoon Private Island Resort
Want to stay in an overwater bungalow on your trip to the Cook Islands? This is the only resort in the island nation that offers such accommodation.
Located on the ‘world’s most beautiful lagoon’ on the island of Aitutaki, this resort is another adults-only property and is perfect for a romantic getaway.
As the name suggests, the resort is located on a private island but it is just a two-minute ride by ferry from the main island of Aitutaki, giving it a level of exclusivity but also making it very accessible.
In addition to overwater bungalows, there are also accommodation options on land including private pool villas and beachfront bungalows.
The bungalows and villas on land come complete with outdoor Polynesian-style rain showers.
The resort also features a pool, gym, an on-site restaurant and a day spa.
Guests also have complimentary access to hammocks, bicycles and kayaks, stand-up paddleboards and snorkelling equipment to get out and explore the amazing lagoon.
Best Resorts in the Cook Islands for families
The Cook Islands is a spectacular place for a family getaway, being a safe and welcoming destination.
Here are some of the best places to stay if you are planning a trip to the Cook Islands with the kids.
Pacific Resort Rarotonga
A sister property of the Pacific Resort Aitutaki, this resort is located on the main island of Rarotonga and is another highly-rated place to stay.
Located on 5.5 acres, the boutique beachfront resort features only 64 rooms, suites and villas in contemporary Polynesian style.
Rooms either overlook the tropical gardens of the property or the white sands of Muri Beach and its sparkling lagoon.
The resort features a swimming pool, a complimentary kids club, a bar and an on-site restaurant.
Guests also have free access to kayaks and stand-up paddleboards to get out and explore the lagoon.
There are family rooms available as well as two and three-bedroom villas for larger groups.
The Pacific Resort Rarotonga is located on the eastern coast of the island.
Moana Sands Beachfront Hotel
Recently renovated, the Moana Sands Beachfront Hotel is located on the south-east coast Rarotonga and is a family-friendly sister property of the Moana Sands Lagoon Resort.
Overlooking Titikaveka Beach, the three-star resort overs a variety of studios across three levels, including interconnecting rooms for families.
There are also some deluxe beachfront studio rooms, which are only for adults.
The property has an on-site restaurant and bar, while there are also barbecue facilities available if you want to cook yourself, with a grocery store just a five-minute walk away.
Guests also have access to kayaks and snorkelling equipment to explore the lagoon.
If you are looking for family accommodation in a great location at an affordable price, this resort is worth considering.
The Edgewater Resort & Spa
Located on the western coast of Rarotonga near Black Rock, this beachfront resort it conveniently located only a five-minute drive from Rarotonga International Airport.
The large resort features 280 rooms set across six acres, ranging from standard garden view and beachfront hotel rooms to self-contained three-bedroom villas which are ideal for families and groups.
There is plenty to keep the whole family entertained, including a pool, tennis court, games room and a complimentary kids club for those aged 4 to 12 years old.
Other daily activities that guests can enjoy include fish feeding, crab racing and ei making (flower garland) classes.
The resort also has two restaurants – one serving western and Asian cuisine and the other specialising in Italian meals – as well as a spa and salon.
A continental tropical breakfast is included for all guests to sweeten the deal at this affordable resort.
The Rarotongan Beach Resort & Lagoonarium
A full-service family resort located on Aroa Beach on Rarotonga’s south-east coast, some of the island’s best snorkelling is just a few steps away in the Aroa Lagoonarium Marine Sanctuary.
The resort offers 2, 3 and 4-bedroom villas – including some with private pools – which are well suited to families and larger groups.
There are also ‘Honeymoon’ bungalows with private pools on offer, as well as standard beachside resort rooms and suites.
The four-star resort also has a pool, an on-site restaurant and bar and a 24/7 convenience store.
For the little ones, there is a free kids club, as well as a complimentary daily activities program which includes things like guided night snorkelling, fish feeding, island drumming and dancing lessons, trivia nights, karaoke and crab racing.
Other facilities include a games room, tennis courts, a gym and beach volleyball courts.
Tamanu Beach Resort
If you are looking to take the family to the beautiful island of Aitutaki, the Tamanu Beach Resort is worth considering.
Once an adults-only resort, the resort now had two separate wings – one of which caters for families with young children.
Each wing offers both beachfront and garden bungalows, some of which feature outdoor garden rain showers.
The bungalows have a mix of modern and traditional Polynesian styling.
Return airport transfers, daily A la carte breakfast and use of kayaks, stand-up paddleboards and bicycles are all complimentary inclusions.
Cook Islands Top Things to Do
A visit to the Cook Islands is all about getting back to nature. In addition to the wonderful beaches, lagoons, snorkelling and diving, there are also some great nature-based things to do on land. One of the top things to do on Rarotonga is to hike to the pinnacle of the island, which is known as Te Rua Manga or ‘The Needle’. It is a tough but rewarding 2 to 3 hour hike through the island’s lush tropical jungle. There is also a waterfall to find on Rarotonga – Papua Waterfall. Popular tours available include lagoon cruises, snorkelling, scuba diving, guided hikes, cycling tours, quadbikes and 4WD trips.
Cook Islands Best Beaches
The waters around the Cook Islands are warm year-round, ranging from 23 to 28 degrees Celsius throughout the year. That means any time is a good time to head to the beach. Unlike parts of northern Australia, there is also no stinger season to watch out for.
Here are some of the best beaches to check out in the Cook Islands.
Muri Beach, Rarotonga
Located on the eastern side of the main island of Rarotonga, this is the beach where many of the island’s top resorts front onto.
Just off the beach is the famous Muri Lagoon, which has amazing blue waters and is great for swimming and snorkelling.
Muri Beach is also a hub for water sport tours, while there are plenty of bars, cafes and restaurants right nearby.
It is also a great place to watch sunrise if you are an early riser.
Just around the coast to the south-west of Muri Beach, this is another top-rated beach on Rarotonga.
This beach is home to bright turquoise waters and lovely white sand and is lined with palm trees.
It’s a great spot for relaxing as well as snorkelling in the lagoon.
Black Rock Beach, Rarotonga
On the western side of Rarotonga, this is a favourite spot for tourists and locals alike.
It is historically and culturally important for the people of Rarotonga, while its positioning facing to the north-west of the island means it enjoys sun throughout the day.
Sheltered waters make it a great spot for swimming or snorkelling with children, while it is also one of the best places on the island to catch an impressive sunset.
Aroa Beach and Marine Reserve, Rarotonga
On the south-west coast of Rarotonga, this is a highly-rated beach which has calm and shallow waters.
The marine reserve presents some great snorkelling opportunities, with visitors saying the “water is as clear as an aquarium”.
It is also a good spot for sunbaking and watching the sunset.
One Foot Island, Aitutaki
Located within Aitutaki’s famous lagoon, this tiny island is absolutely pristine.
Wonderful blue waters surround a white-sand island that is full of lush tropical jungle and palm trees.
You can take a boat across from Aitutaki to the island, which only has one single cabin that can be rented by visitors and a small post office where you can have your passport stamped.
Scuba Diving in the Cook Islands
Divers come from across the world to explore the waters of the Cook Islands, which provide some incredible scuba diving opportunities. The waters of the Cook Islands are warm year-round and visibility can be up to 60m. There are over 73 types of live coral in the Cook Islands along with hundreds of species of fish. Divers may also see sharks, stingrays and turtles, as well as humpback whales between the July and October. The Cook Islands’ Marae Moana Act means over 1,810,000 square kilometres (700,000 square miles) of ocean come under marine protection – more than four times the size of the state of California. Large-scale fishing is also banned for 50 nautical miles around each of the nation’s islands. There are a number of dive tour operators on both the islands of Rarotonga and Aitutaki, which can provide you with all the necessary dive equipment and take you out to explore. Night dives are also available if you want to try something a bit different.
When is the best time to dive in the Cook Islands?
While you can scuba dive at any time of year in the Cook Islands, the best time is generally considered to be between July and October. These are not only some of the months where the islands receive the least rainfall, but you may also have an opportunity to go diving with some humpback whales which set up home in the Cook Islands during these months.
What are the best scuba diving spots in the Cook Islands?
You can effectively dive anywhere in the Cook Islands at any time and find plenty to see. But there are a few top spots to check out. The island of Rarotonga is the top of a volcanic gently-sloping plateau. It has relatively shallow lagoons surrounding it, but then large drop offs of up to 4,500m.
At these drop offs, there is an abundance of coral formations and no soft corals. Most of the dive sites at these drop offs are just a 10-minute boat ride from land. There are over 30 top dive sites around Rarotonga, with options for beginner’s right through to advanced divers. There are also more than 20 top dive spots around the island of Aitutaki, with most of them again being just a short boat ride from shore.
Cook Islands Cruises
If you would rather cruise to the Cook Islands than stay on them, you can. Paul Gauguin Cruises offers some 11-night itineraries from Papeete, Tahiti that visit the Tahitian islands of Moorea, Huahine, Taha’a and Bora Bora, while also stopping in at Rarotonga and Aitutaki in the Cook Islands.
The cruise line sails a luxury small ship in the South Pacific – the m/s Paul Gauguin – which has just 165 staterooms accommodating up to 330 guests. The ship also has three restaurants, four bars, a theatre, a fitness centre, a pool and a day spa. Another Tahiti-based ship, the Aranui 5 from Aranui Cruises, also makes occasional cruises to the Cook Islands. The ship is a dual-purpose cruise passenger and freight vessel that caters for up to 230 passengers and has all the comforts of a normal cruise ship at the back, while the front half of the ship delivers supplies to islands in the South Pacific.
Cook Islands Whale Watching
If you visit the Cook Islands at the right time, you do not even need to board a boat tour to do some whale watching. From the right beaches around the island of Rarotonga, you can often spot humpback whales in the surrounding waters. The whales migrate north into the South Pacific waters to mate, give birth and rest after visiting their summer feeding grounds of Australia and New Zealand. They then return to the Antarctic Ocean for the winter. The entire Cook Islands Exclusive Zone (EEZ) is a whale sanctuary, meaning the whales can visit safely. Migration patterns of the whales can vary slightly due to ocean temperatures, but sightings are common in the Cook Islands between July and October. One of the best places to spot a humpback whale on Rarotonga is from Black Rock on the west side of the island, where the fringing reef is close to shore. Other good spots include Aroa Beach on the south-western side of the island and Avarua Harbour on the northern coast of the island. If you visit the island of Aitutaki, you can get up even closer to the whales and swim with them. Multiple operators offer close encounter tours between July and October.
Cook Islands Kitesurfing
The water sport of Kitesurfing is kind of a big deal in the Cook Islands. The nation host the Manureva Aquafest Kitesurfing Competition each August, which attracts some of the biggest names in the sport. A week-long festival, it includes freestyle and race kitesurfing competitions as well as stand-up paddleboarding and outrigger canoeing events. The festival is held on the island of Aitutaki, which has what is regularly voted the ‘world’s most beautiful lagoon’ and is an ideal spot for kitesurfing. The best trade winds for kitesurfing come between May and October, but it is a safe and easy place for beginners to try their hand at the sport year-round. Local operators in Aitutaki offer lessons and equipment hire if you want to give kitesurfing a go.
Do you need a visa to visit the Cook Islands?
No. All international travellers can be issued a visitor permit on arrival to the Cook Islands, providing they meet certain criteria. Australian and New Zealand passport holders must have a passport that is valid for at least 7 days beyond their intended stay in the Cook Islands. Australian passport holders are allowed to stay in the Cook Islands on a standard visitor visa for up to 31 days, while New Zealand passport holders are eligible to stay up to 90 days.
Cook Islands Weather
The Cook Islands enjoy a warm and tropical climate year-round, with average daily maximum temperatures of between 23 and 27 degrees Celsius (73 to 81 degrees Fahrenheit) throughout the year. The warmest months are between December and April, but they are also the wettest months.
Average maximum temperatures during those months are between 26 and 27 degrees Celsius (78 to 81 degrees Fahrenheit). However, Rarotonga also records between nine and 10 days of rainfall each month during this period, albeit usually in the form of a brief morning or afternoon tropical shower.
The driest months are between May and November, which typically see rain on only five or six days per month. The average daily maximum temperatures during these months are slightly cooler but still warm, ranging from 23 to 25 degrees Celsius (73 to 77 degrees Fahrenheit). Rarotonga records between 11 and 13.5 hours of daylight each day across the year.
Cook Islands Population
According to the 2016 census, the Cook Islands had a population of 17,459 people. Of that population, 78.2 per cent identified as being of native Cook Island Māori decent. Given the tight ties between the Cook Islands and New Zealand, Cook Islanders are considered both citizens of New Zealand and Cook Islands nationals.