One of the best0kept secrets in the South Pacific: the Cook Islands, a tiny island nation consisting of some of the most beautiful islands in the world. If the mention of vacationing in the South Pacific conjures images of thatched huts, white sand and crystal-clear waters of aquamarine, then the Cook Islands won’t disappoint. Upon arrival, visitors feel like they stepped back in time to a simpler era with the added convenience of modern amenities.
The local lifestyle is laid-back, the culture is rich and the scenery is pristine. With 15 islands to choose from, it’s difficult to decide where to start so take some time to explore the beautiful main island of Rarotonga. With an international airport, Rarotonga is the most populous island of the archipelago and the easiest to get to.
Spring and fall are the best times to visit this island paradise, when the temperatures are pleasant and rains are less likely, but its tropical location makes it prone to rainfall year-round so a light jacket is recommended. Getting around the islands is easy, especially on Raratonga where visitors can easily rent a car, bicycle or scooter.
The local language is Maori, but locals are well-versed in English, making communication for most tourists quite easy. Rarotonga prides itself on its simple lifestyle. There are no traffic lights on the island and it is one of the few places left in the world where you will not find a McDonalds.
Locals are friendly and hospitable, making visitors feel at ease and welcome. The island is free of poisonous snakes and insects, and the only native mammals are fruit bats, making it truly paradise as you are able to hike safely through the lush wilderness of the islands without fear of being bitten.
Families have numerous options for lodging on the Cook Islands. Rarotonga’s hotels around the island offer a variety of rates and amenities, while Airbnb is becoming increasingly popular on the islands to satisfy every family’s unique needs. The country’s tourism website offers great deals on local hotels, luxury resorts and home rentals.
The miles of beautiful seashore and crystal-clear waters make it ideal for swimming, snorkeling and sunbathing under a palm frond umbrella while you relax on the white sandy beaches. Koka Lagoon Cruises offers a great way to enjoy the water and local marine life. The company’s glass-bottom boat takes guests on a tour through Muri Lagoon to the shores of nearby Motu Koromiri for a beach barbecue lunch. The tour entertains guests with an onboard musician playing ukelele and singing traditional island songs. Cruises, running daily at 10 a.m., cost about $51.55 for adults and $27.50 for children.
The island’s vibrant culture offers plenty of exciting activities for visiting families, such as the Te Vara Nui Village located on Muri Beach on the big island. This cultural center offers tours in the setting of a traditional island village that teach about local history, customs, legends and crafts. The tour is interactive, encouraging learning through fun. As the sun goes down, the real fun begins with a buffet dinner of local cuisine and a performance of native music and dance in a spectacular setting on an over-water stage — right in the middle of the center’s lagoon. Single person rates for the tour, dinner and show combo run about $89 for adults and $40 for children with special rates available for families.
The islands have plenty of opportunity for shopping the local wares. Local gift shops and open-air markets offer a variety of hand-crafted local souvenirs like wooden carvings, local musical instruments and jewelry. The Punanga Nui Cultural Market is an open-air market in the village of Avarua on the north shore of Rarotonga where it’s easy to find a wide variety of local handicrafts in one place. Popular clothing items include Rito hats, hand-woven from young palm fronds, and pareu, sarongs dyed in beautiful colors and designs. Tivaevae quilts are another local handicraft. Local women handcraft these beautiful creations that are more of an art form than a quilt. While there, make sure you pick up some of the country’s signature black pearls, harvested from the northern island of Manihiki, also known as “the island of pearls.”
Despite the remote location, the Cook Islands are surprisingly accessible, with daily flights on Air New Zealand through Auckland. From Raratonga the archipelago’s other islands are easy to reach by boat (some of the larger islands are equipped with airports and can be reached within just a short flight). The smaller islands are mostly underdeveloped, lightly populated and offer a unique travel experience for adventurous travelers who enjoy roughing it and taking the road less traveled.