Insider’s Guide to Travel in the Cook Islands
The Cook Islands appeal to honeymooners and travelers looking for a luxurious getaway, but that doesn’t mean you have to spend a fortune to travel here. Located in the South Pacific Ocean — situated between French Polynesia and American Samoa — these 15 small islands are often called the Pacific Ocean’s best kept secret.
This destination has been on our tropical island bucket list for years and we were surprised to find that many travelers had no idea where these islands are located. Just a short flight from Los Angeles, it has quickly become one of our new favorite travel destinations.
Cook Islands Travel Tips
Which Islands to Visit in the Cook Islands
The Southern Group of Islands includes Palmerston, Aitutaki, Manuae (uninhabited), Takutea, Mitiaro, Atiu, Mauke, Rarotonga, and Mangaia. Rarotonga and Aitutaki are two of the easiest islands to visit and where you will find the most infrastructure.
You will find regular flight service to all of the islands in the Southern group, except Palmerston and Manuae. Mangaia is the second largest island in the Cooks, but it has a very small population of just 500 people. Atiu is known for its limestone caves and amazing diving locations and, like Mangaia, is still very much undiscovered.
The Northern group of islands consist of Pukapuka, Penrhyn, Rakahanga, Manihiki, Nassau, and Suwarrow. These islands are not easily accessible and, therefore, very expensive to visit. This guide will focus on Rarotonga and Aitutaki because they are the easiest to access, yet still off the beaten track for most travelers.
Cook Islands Sample Itinerary
- Overnight flight into Rarotonga with Air New Zealand: This gives you a full day to explore the island on arrival, but make sure to confirm check-in time at your hotel. Muri Beachcomber offers lounge access with a shower, plus full access to the properties facilities until 12pm check-in time. We spent the morning kayaking around the lagoon and our room was ready by 11am!
- 3-4 night stay in Rarotonga: Our advice is not to overlook Rarotonga. We loved it just as much (if not more) than Aitutaki.
- Flight to Aitutaki with Air Rarotonga: Make sure you get a window seat for this 30 minute flight!
- Stay 3-6 nights on Aitutaki: For a longer stay on Aitutaki, I suggest switching hotels from one side of the island to the other, so you can get the best of both worlds. See hotel recommendations below.
- Lagoon Tour on Aitutaki: Make sure to take at least one lagoon tour while you are on Aitutaki. Based on our hotel’s recommendation, we booked with Aitutaki Adventures which is one of the few boats that cruises along the west side (less windy) of the island, plus a stop at One Foot Island. Bishop’s Cruises is another popular one with slightly less people than Vaka Cruises. They all run about $99 NZD per person.
How to Get to the Cook Islands
If you are flying from the United States, Air New Zealand offers regular direct flights between Los Angeles (LAX) and Rarotonga (RAR). New Zealanders can easily hop on a direct flight to the islands via Auckland and Australians can fly direct from Sydney. Once you are on Rarotonga, you can fly to the other islands with Air Rarotonga.
As a West Coaster who travels to the Caribbean often, a direct 10-hour flight (8 1/2 on the way home) with Air New Zealand was a breath of fresh air compared to multiple flights and layovers. This was our first experience with Air New Zealand and we were both impressed with the service and friendly staff. They have quickly jumped to the top of my favorite airline list.
If you do visit in the shoulder season, you can often find deals on flights to this destination. If you sign up for their newsletter, you will receive fare updates via email.
When to Visit the Cook Islands
The tropical weather in the Cook Islands makes it a great destination for year-round travel. The rainy season (their summer) begins in November and lasts until mid March or early April. This is when the water will be the warmest, but you might find the temperature outside of the water a little overwhelming at times.
After our research, we decided to visit in the shoulder season of October (their spring) which is typically less windy than the wintertime and when you will find the best deals. December through April is their cyclone season so keep this in mind when planning your trip.
Packing Essentials for the Cook Islands
Sunblock – Bring plenty of sunblock. It’s expensive on the islands.
Carry-on Bag Essentials – Visit our Carry-on Packing Guide.
Wifi & Cell Service in the Cook Islands
The Cook Islands is one of the few places in the world where cell phone companies cannot provide any sort of inexpensive international package. It’s literally in the middle of the ocean, so be prepared to turn your data roaming off and switch your phone to airplane mode just as an extra measure.
Our cell phone company charges $15 per megabyte in the Cook Islands!! To give you an idea of how easily you can burn through a megabyte, we bought a wifi package of 100 MB and it was used up in less than 3 minutes.
If you do buy a wifi package, make sure to turn off all of your automatic app updates in your settings otherwise those will begin to download once you connect to wifi and it will eat up your $10 package before you even get a chance to check your email. Many hotels sell a package of 100MB for $10.
Where to Stay on Rarotonga
Muri Beach is the place to stay on Rarotonga. This gorgeous long-stretch of beach sits inside a protected lagoon and travelers can easily kayak, swim, or SUP to two tiny, uninhabited islands. We spent hours researching in order to find the perfect hotel in this area. We finally settled on Muri Beachcomber and we could not have been happier with our decision.
Our 1-bedroom villa had ocean views, its own kitchen, and a spacious common area. There were a few slightly less expensive options, but it ended up being the most affordable option when we took into consideration all of the amenities included in the price. They include free use of their bikes, paddleboards, kayaks, and snorkel gear — plus airport shuttle and a basic breakfast each morning.
Everyone warned us not to spend too much time on Rarotonga because they felt Aitutaki was so much more unspoiled, but we were actually sad to leave this place after our short stay.
Where to Stay on Aitutaki
Landing on Aitutaki felt like a bit of culture shock. Rarotonga never felt crowded, but Aitutaki is quieter than any island we had ever experienced.
Casual Luxury on Aitutaki
If you are looking for casual luxury, we highly recommend Tamanu Beach. It sits on one of the best snorkel beaches on the island and during the windy season this side of the island provides a bit of protection. In October, Tamanu Beach was running at about $250US per night with breakfast included.
We ate most of our meals at Tamanu’s restaurant because the food was delicious and it was nearly impossible to find fresh food at the grocery stores. Fruit, vegetables and eggs are extremely hard to come by on the island and most stores run out of fresh items first thing in the morning. Tamanu Beach also offers free use of their kayaks and a free airport transfer.
Luxury Accommodation on Aitutaki
Aitutaki is known for its luxury accommodation. The top resorts include Pacific Resort Aitutaki, Etu Moana Beach Villas (both on the west side of the island), and Aituaki Lagoon Resort & Spa (with gorgeous overwater bungalows!).
Where to Eat
Vili’s Takeaway on Rarotonga
We found Vili’s Takeaway on our last evening in Rarotonga, otherwise, we would have gone there every night. They claim to have the best burgers on Rarotonga, but they might even have the best burgers in the world. It is, hands down, the best burger we’ve ever had. It’s not expensive either, which makes this place worth seeking out. They are located right in Muri Beach and they were right across the street from our hotel, Muri Beachcomber.
The Mooring on Rarotonga
The Mooring was a local’s recommendation for fresh fish sandwiches and salads. We went here twice for lunch. The fish was extremely fresh and they add a little twist to each sandwich. The cajun tuna sandwich was our favorite!
Tauonos on Aitutaki
We never managed to make it to Tauonos during open hours (Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays 12-2) but I think it’s necessary to mention it here due to the lack of vegetable options at other stores on Aitutaki. Their lunch includes fresh fish and vegetarian meals and their tropical market (with slightly longer hours of 10-5 on Mon., Wed., Fri.) offers fruits and vegetables from their organic garden.