Cook Islands are an archipelago of 15 islands that together make the dream of many people around the world. Besides their volcanic peaks, translucent lagoons, and gorgeous beaches, the islands are renowned for the charming hospitality of the native Polynesians who make everyone feel welcome with their laidback and friendly attitude. While Raratonga and Aitutaki are the most touristic, other islands, even though more remote, offer equally stunning attractions. Either fascinated by the lush green forests or the seemingly endless white beaches, everyone can find something alluring in Cook Islands. If you don’t know where to start your exploration of this paradise, check out these tips.
Punanga Nui Market
Every Saturday morning, the best thing to do in Avarua, the capital of Cook Islands, is to check out the Punanga Nui Market, one of the best markets in the South Pacific, set right on the waterfront. The colors and flavors will intoxicate you while you discover the traditional Polynesian food, delicious fruit smoothies, fish and seafood, roast pork rolls with apple sauce, lemon meringue, and other equally delicious treats. Among the local delicacies, you can find mitiore (fermented coconut with seafood and onion), rukau (steamed taro), ika mata (raw fish marinated in coconut and lime) and poke (banana with coconut and arrowroot). The mountains of mangos, passion fruit, and pineapples cannot leave anyone indifferent. The market is not just for foodies, as it also boasts an abundance of fragrant tropical flowers, jewelry, and clothes.
Aitutaki is one of Cook Islands’ main attractions and has a stunning lagoon surrounded by a ring of 15 dreamy palm-covered, uninhabited islets with an abundant marine life that offers perfect snorkeling conditions. On Maina, or Little Girl, bird watching is a popular activity as the islet is home to the red-tailed tropicbird, while Tapueta’I, or One Foot Island, is famous for its white beaches. A deep water channel brimming with tropical fish separates Tapueta’I from Tekopua. While exploring the islets of the lagoon, you can check the wreck of cargo freighter Alexander, which found its demise there in the 1930s. The images of the Aitutaki’s lagoon will be stuck with you, as the intense contrast between the vibrant blue of the water and the white sand is stronger than anywhere else. One Foot Island is the most famous motu of Aitutaki and you will be surprised by the exquisite ways in which it matches all our images of paradise.
Cross Island Track
Hiking is a great way to unravel the mysteries of the lush green Cook Islands. The Cross Island Track is a popular trail on the island of Rarotonga. It starts on the north coast, going up to the Te Rua Manga rock and then continues to the south coast, on the opposite side of the island, after passing by the Wigmore’s Falls. The hike is clearly marked and takes about four hours, requiring some dense forest climbing to the base of a steep rock known as The Needle, which pierces straight into the sky. While climbing the Needle is only for experienced rock climbers, hiking just to the base it’s well worth it for the spectacular views over the coast and the forest.
Avarua is a charming little town on the north coast of Rarotonga that serves as the capital of Cook Islands. Here you can get a good glimpse into the friendly and relaxed pace that characterizes the Polynesian lifestyle while still having enough attractions available to keep you busy. Besides the shops and restaurants, the town has a unique church made of coral, from where you can hear Maori hymns. A visit to The Cook Islands Library and Museum can prove very interesting as it hosts a wide collection of rare books about the Pacific’s history and culture.
Cook Islands are a perfect destination for snorkeling and the best place to check this out is the Aroa Marine Reserve, on the west coast of Rarotonga. The crystal clear waters protected by the outlying reef have an incredibly rich marine life. Some of the species you can spot here are the parrot fish, wrasse, angelfish, and the Moorish idols. Motorized boats are prohibited in the lagoon which makes the experience even more pleasant for snorkelers and swimmers. When tired, you can rest on the gorgeous beach.
Scuba divers will be as pleased as snorkelers by the exploration opportunities in Cook Islands. There are excellent dive sites around both Aitutaki and Rarotonga, where divers can enjoy some close encounters with sea turtles, reef sharks, or moray eels. Not only that the coral is thriving, but the visibility is optimum for a great diving experience.
Anatakitaki Cave or the Cave of the Kopekas is a spectacular karst cave in Atiu. A multichambered cavern hidden in the thick jungle, it is home to the kopeka birds, also known as Atiu swiflets, which live in nests between the stalactites and are known to navigate by using echolocation, just like bats. After exploring the chambers and the passages, you reach a freshwater lake found at the base of the cave, which is connected to the ocean through the Tiroto Tunnel. Covered by banyan tree roots that permeate its depths, the cave is indeed a natural wonder.
The territorial waters of Cook Islands are an official whale sanctuary. Between July and October, humpback whales migrate to the South Pacific waters, and they swim close enough to the shore that you can spot them from the beach. The best places to spot whales in Rarotonga are the Paradise Inn, the Fishing Club, and the entire shoreline in front of Avarua’s main street. If you visit outside the migration season, you can pay a visit to the Whale and Wildlife Center where interesting exhibits cover the wildlife of Cook Islands.
Cook Islands offer the greatest package of relaxation, excitement, and novelty fulfilling your need for both adventure and stability. Either you prefer the wonders of the underwater, underground or great altitudes, there is surely something fascinating to hold your attention. For those less adventurous, the beaches and quaint towns will provide equally attractive opportunities.