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Cook Islands Travel Guide

Whenever we tell people we recently returned from a trip to the Cook Islands the first question is always “where’s that?” It’s a destination if you don’t know where it is, you should change that and put it at the top of your list for your next vacation. We’ve had the privilege of visiting the islands twice and it remains one of our most cherished vacation destinations.


Located 2,940 miles directly south of the Hawaiian Islands in the heart of Polynesia, this tropical paradise is home to natural untouched beauty! With 18,000 residents, it’s easy to engage with the local Māori people. There are no high-rise hotels, traffic lights, or stop signs in the Cook Islands, offering a timeless escape with modern amenities. From the world famous, turquoise lagoon of Aitutaki, to the lush, green peaks of Rarotonga, each island offers its own unique experience that will leave a lasting imprint on your heart making you want to return to this paradise for years to come. 


So whether you’re looking for moments of secluded relaxation or unique cultural experiences, this tropical haven offers fun in the sun excursions for travelers of all ages! Plus, the New Zealand dollar stretches vacation budgets allowing you to "Live like Royalty” (plus tipping is not customary).


In celebration of the one-year anniversary of this island nation decriminalizing same sex relationships, we wanted to share some of our favorite places to stay, where to eat, and things to do with hopes of inspiring you to plan a trip to this little island paradise. 


PLACES TO STAY:


The Island of Rarotonga


Ikurangi Eco Retreat is an award winning eco retreat where luxury meets sustainability. Surrounded by lush gardens and stunning views of Ikurangi, one of the four major peaks in Rarotonga, this glamping destination fuses conservation and hospitality. Enjoy starlit outdoor baths, complimentary tropical breakfast, and bicycles available for guests to use. When we visited Rarotonga in 2018, this is where we stayed and loved every minute of it. The glamping tents offered a unique refuge after exploring the island during the day and the front and back outdoor areas allowed us to enjoy the beautiful multiple views from outside the tent. 


Manuia Beach Resort is nestled on Rarotonga’s western sunset coast. It is an intimate, adults-only, boutique hotel that’s full of Cook Islands charm. They offer spacious accommodations amidst tropical gardens or with ocean views, all with air conditioning. You can enjoy complimentary breakfast, snorkeling, kayaking and then on Sunday’s they throw an Island Night with a buffet and fire dancing show for an additional fee! We were able to watch the fire dancing show twice and loved it even more the second time. The resort is a place we never wanted to leave. We found ourselves spending hours by the beach listening to the waves, reading, and stargazing at night. 


The Island of Aitutaki


Tamanu Beach Resort is where family-owned hospitality meets casual luxury on the white sandy beaches of Aitutaki. They have 23 beachfront bungalows and villas with breathtaking views, especially during sunset. There is plenty of opportunities to dive into the crystal-clear lagoon with complimentary snorkeling gear, kayaks and SUPs! We’ve stayed here both times we’ve visited and plan on going back. 


WHERE TO EAT:


The Island of Rarotonga


On Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays you can enjoy an evening at the Muri Night Market. Local vendors line the perimeter of the market, offering seafood, cultural dishes, desserts, fresh fruit, and plenty of other options. On our most recent trip, we visited the night market twice and couldn’t get enough of the garlic prawns and mango smoothies.


Found off the island’s main road in the heart of Muri Beach is LBV Bakery and Cafe, which stands for Le Bon Vivant or “the good life” in French. With their coffee and pastries, some of the best on the island, you’ll experience just that… the good life! It’s a charming breakfast place and one of the few spots that are open on Sunday’s.


The first spot we ate at when we arrived in the Cook Islands back in 2018 was Palace Burger, and it happened to be our last stop on our most recent trip with our mothers. Do yourself a favor and order the classic “Palace Burger”, but be sure to have at least one other person help you eat it! No only is it delicious but it’s massive. They have a lot of great options to choose from, and their location is near the port of Rarotonga.


The Island of Aitutaki


Widely known as “The Best Place to Eat on the Island of Aitutaki,” Avatea Cafe is an alfresco family-owned restaurant that charms locals and tourists alike. They offer a delicious fusion menu of mouthwatering dishes! We recommend the Fish Taco Trio, Island Whopper Burger, or the Rainbow Poke Rice Bowl. If you’re not feeling hungry, you can kick back, relax and enjoy live music with a coffee, smoothie, wine or cold beer.


If you’re looking for a spot to grab food either on the way to or after you visit Ootu Beach on the lagoon, we recommend stopping by Koru Cafe. It’s conveniently located and is known to have the best espresso on the island of Aitutaki. You’re destined to enjoy tasty, fresh food or meet fellow travelers. Don’t forget to enjoy a coke float known as a “Spider” after your meal.


THINGS TO DO:


The Island of Rarotonga


Go Local is a locally owned and operated tour company that offers sustainable and eco-friendly ocean adventures like spearfishing, over-the-reef free diving, fishing charters and bush walks. We did their two-hour Turtle and Eagle Ray Tour and it was an unforgettable experience that allowed us to safely swim alongside these beautiful sea creatures. Plus, our guides captured photos during the tour which were transferred to our phones afterward so you’re truly able to savor the moment long past your return to land.


We love some healthy competition and one of the ways we did that while on Rarotonga at Aumata Mini Golf. The best part? It was close to our accommodations, Manuia Beach Resort. They have a well-maintained 18-hole course, with a few twists and obstacles that made it even more enjoyable. It’s a fun, affordable activity for travelers of all ages! 


For those of you who crave adventure and enjoy pushing their limits, Pa’s Cross Island Trek is the perfect excursion for you! It’s a guided hike across Rarotonga where you’ll learn about the vegetation, the landscape and the history of the Cook Islands with every step you take. The entire trek lasts about 3-4 hours as you climb Te Run Manga, otherwise known as “The Needle”.


With Raro Safari Tours, you’ll want to buckle up for a thrilling ride as you hop aboard one of their 4x4 safari jeeps with a professional driver and expert guide. They offer fun, safe and educational half day tours as you venture beyond tourist hotspots and into the interior of Rarotonga. It’s the perfect way to experience hidden gems around the island and learn about the traditions, culture and history.


No visit is complete without experiencing an Island Night Cultural Show. Although there is a dozen to choose from, we recommend Highland Paradise and Te Vara Nui. Both offer delicious buffet meals featuring popular local dishes. You’re guaranteed to have an unforgettable evening as you learn about Cook Islands history and culture through music, song and dance.


The Island of Aitutaki


With personalized tours for small groups of two to six people, the team at KuteKute Tours & Transfers, ensures an intimate and memorable half day adventure on Aitutaki’s world famous lagoon. They go above and beyond at curating the perfect experience that’s tailored to your group’s preferences. A few highlights from our tour included floating in the crystal clear water at One Foot Island, snorkeling with marine life, visiting filming locations for Survivor: Cook Islands and enjoying a homemade picnic lunch on the beach at Akaiami island. 


For travelers who would prefer a larger group lagoon cruise experience, you can enjoy a six-hour lagoon cruise on board Vaka Cruise’s 21-meter Polynesian style canoe as you kick back, relax and soak up the breathtaking views of the world-famous lagoon. You’ll swim, snorkel, enjoy a tropical buffet lunch and explore beautiful motu’s. Be sure to bring sunscreen, a camera and your passport to get a rare stamp on One Food Island. 


Run don’t walk to book your next vacation in the Cook Islands! For more information visit their tourism website: https://cookislands.travel/.


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