The Cook Islands, where turquoise lagoons contrast with lush jungles, is the South Pacific's best-kept secret.
There are many reasons to visit the alluring islands of the South Pacific, but in the Cook Islands, activities like kitesurfing and deep sea fishing are cheaper and more laidback here than in Fiji or Tahiti. Catering to the intrepid adventurer over the Tommy-Bahama loving beach bum (although, if this is you, beach chairs and pool bars also abound), the Cook Islands is full of adventures that put this little paradise high on our list.
Paddleboard the Iconic Muri Lagoon
No trip to the Cook Islands would be complete without a stop at Rarotonga’s Muri lagoon: one look at the crystalline turquoise water, and you’ll understand its popularity. Even though Muri beach is the most “touristy” on the island, it is still devoid of high-rise beach resorts and maintains a low-key feel. Still, skip the cheesy boat tours and experience the lagoon on a paddleboard. If you’re a beginner, don’t worry—paddleboarding is easy to learn and can be done from a kneeling position as well as standing. Muri lagoon is clear enough that you can see colorful coral and marine life right from your board, but bring snorkel gear along in case you want to get a closer look. Rent a paddleboard from KiteSup Watersports, or book a group tour.
INSIDER TIPFor a unique experience with LED-lit paddleboards, try the Fire on Water night tour.
Hike the Needle
Ditch the beach chair and hike to the highest point on Rarotonga for spectacular views of the entire island. The cross-island trek runs from end to end of the island and meanders through lush jungle, freshwater streams, the photogenic Wigmore’s waterfall, and the Needle mountain, or Te Rua Manga. Good path-finding skills are necessary for this trek, so if you aren’t confident with navigation, you can hire a guide from Pa’s Treks. Guided tours have an added bonus: local guides offer extensive knowledge of the area’s native flora and fauna, and will point out medicinal herbs that can be found in Rarotonga’s interior jungle.
INSIDER TIPHike from north to south; pathfinding is easier in this direction. Bring more drinking water than you think you’ll need (it gets very hot in the interior of the island), mosquito repellent, and shoes with soles that grip. Check the forecast before you leave and pick another activity if a thunderstorm is on the way because the trail gets extremely muddy and washed out easily.
Recommended Fodor’s Video
Browse Open-Air Stalls at the Muri Night Market
Stroll the Muri night market in the warm evening breeze for a taste of Cook Islands food and culture. This market is held at Muri Beach on Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday nights beginning at 5:30, so make sure to come hungry! Seafood curries, pork tacos, garlic shrimp plates, fresh papaya salad, and coconut pie can be enjoyed while watching traditional Cook Island dance and drumming demonstrations. Enjoy your bounty on the community picnic tables or take some food to go. You can also purchase handcrafted souvenirs like textiles, woven baskets, and black pearl strands from local artisans. Bring your own beer from local breweries like Rarotonga Brewing or Matutu Brewing. Open containers are allowed and encouraged while doing your shopping and enjoying your dinner!
Visit a Black Pearl Farm
Ask any local and they will tell you: Manihiki is the most wildly beautiful island in the Cook Islands group. The views of the triangular atoll from the air are spectacular: the Island of Pearls is actually located on top of an underwater mountain and is one of the most remote inhabited islands in the South Pacific. Pearl farming is the lifeblood of the small Manihiki community, and you can tour the many pearl farms, learn about their history, and even purchase some pearls, which range in price for every budget. Accommodation on the island is limited, so book ahead with Manihiki Lagoon Villas. Flights on Air Rarotonga leave from the Rarotonga airport every two weeks, and the island takes about three and a half hours to reach.
Hook a Yellowfin Tuna
Deep sea fishing off of Rarotonga is cheaper and easier than just about anywhere in the world. Rarotonga is surrounded by reef, and outside the reef, the water depth increases immediately and dramatically. So, rather than spending hours getting to deep water, you could be pulling up monsters like yellowfin tuna and swordfish within minutes. Enjoy the freshest possible sashimi right from your boat (and if you’re brave, sample fish heart for good luck) and when the boat docks, your skipper will filet the day’s catch for you to take home. There are several charter companies, but we love Dawnbreaker Gamefishing, which is run by a friendly local couple and offers some of the best prices.
INSIDER TIPSchedule a fishing trip towards the beginning of your stay in the Cook Islands, because if you luck out and catch a giant yellowfin, you’ll have plenty of meat to cook up for the rest of your stay!
Snorkel the Most Beautiful Lagoon in the World
Aitutaki, with its crystal blue waters dotted by tiny uninhabited islands, is home to what many consider to be the most beautiful lagoon in the world. The island is easily accessible from Rarotonga via a short 45-minute flight on Air Rarotonga, and can be made into a day trip or an overnight excursion. The lagoon’s clear waters have excellent visibility for encountering parrotfish, turtles, reef sharks, or eagle rays that live among the colorful hard corals. Aitutaki is famous for numerous tiny islets or motus, which you can get to by booking a chartered snorkeling tour with Matriki Sea Adventures. Or, if you want to venture out on your own, most beach clubs and hotels on the island rent snorkel gear.
Book a Hotel
Cruise Raro by Motorbike
The island of Rarotonga is only 33 kilometers in diameter and easily circumnavigated in an hour, so rent a motorbike and take an afternoon to explore the island by scooter. This way, you can stop at every interesting roadside stand and discover hidden beaches and hammocks just waiting to be lounged in. The cool breeze on your face as you zip along the coastline will be a welcome respite from hot island afternoons. There are countless shops that rent motorbikes, so walk or take the bus from your accommodations. You will need to go to the police station to get a Cook Islands motorbike license, but the process is relatively easy and only costs $20 NZD (around $15 USD). The police station is located near most of the rental shops.
Drive a Fourwheeler to a Taro Plantation
Taro, grown in the swampy lowlands throughout the Cook Islands, has been an important part of the Polynesian diet for thousands of years. Taro is a delicious starchy root vegetable, similar to a potato, although some would say it comes as an acquired taste. When Polynesian voyagers arrived to the Cook Islands, they brought the taro root with them, and the vegetable is still grown in the interior jungle of the islands on large plantations. Tour the interior “real Raro” by four-wheeler to see these plantations firsthand and learn about their history with Raro Safari Tours or Raro Buggy Tours.
Sample Bush Beer at a "Tumunu" Drinking Club
The remote island of Atiu, which receives around 50 visitors per week, is home to a centuries-old homebrewing tradition. Bush beer is brewed with fermented oranges and drunk in private drinking clubs called tumunus. Beer was once outlawed by missionaries, so these tumunus are usually located off the beaten path and serve as community gathering places. Air Rarotonga provides weekly flights to the isolated island of Atiu, where you can sample homebrew from coconut shell cups at the Te Poonui, Sunrise, Aretou, Vanilla, Amos, and Vaitamina tumunus. (Te Poonui and Aretou are our favorites.) Or, if you prefer, take a guided tour and learn about each tumunu’s history with The Tumunu Experience. As you pass around a cup of bush-beer reminiscent of fruity summer ale, prepare to introduce yourself to the regulars and join in on discussion or song.
INSIDER TIPDrinking at tumunus is free, but it is customary to bring a bag of oranges, sugar, or $5 to go towards the brewer’s next batch.
Paddle a Traditional Polynesian Outrigger Canoe
WHERE: Rarotonga and Aitutaki
The wayfinding Polynesian voyagers who first inhabited the Cook Islands arrived in outrigger Vaka canoes. Today, Cook Islanders celebrate their heritage racing these traditional watercrafts. On Rarotonga, there are three canoe clubs, like the Cook Islands Canoeing Association, that operate out of Avarua harbor, where you can go to see the boats and even try paddling them. If you’re visiting Aitutaki, the Toa Moana paddling club is located near the boat shack in Ootu, and it is possible to travel to different motus, or tiny islands, by canoe. Watch the experienced paddlers show off their skills in the afternoons and early evenings.
Learn to Kitesurf
WHERE: Rarotonga and Aitutaki
The wind is always blowing somewhere in the Cook Islands, and large, unspoiled lagoons with warm, clear water make this kitesurfer’s paradise the ideal place to learn. If you’re brand new to handling a kite, sign up for a set of three lessons to get a hang of it. On Rarotonga, sign up for private or group lessons with KiteSUP Watersports, who have specialty programs for beginner to advanced kiters. If you have the chance to visit Aitutaki, look up the Aitutaki Kite School, which provides boat transfers out to sandbars that are ideal for learners.
Watch a Vaka Sailboat Regatta
Unique vaka sailboats only exist in the Cook Islands, where sailing enthusiasts have retro-fitted traditional Polynesian vaka canoes with a sail. These extraordinary boats are similar to a catamaran in appearance, and the Rarotonga Sailing Club has an impressive fleet of around ten of them. On Saturdays, the club hosts regattas, or races, on the picturesque Muri Lagoon. Head to Sails Restaurant, the club’s home base, and grab a mai-tai and some smoked marlin while you watch the regatta from the deck. Be sure to wander down to the beach in between races to check out these one-of-a-kind sailboats up close.
INSIDER TIPGrab a drink at Sails on Saturday around midday in between regattas, and strike up a conversation with one of the sailing club’s members. You might get an invite to join—sometimes boats need an extra person for even weight!