Cook Islands Travel Guide

The Cook Islands are a group of fifteen islands and are located just east of Tonga and Samoa. The two main islands are Rarotonga and Aitutaki, with the capital,Avarua located on Rarotonga.

Rarotonga is a volcanic island, surrounded by beautiful blue waters and spectacular coral reefs and with rugged mountain peaks in the middle. The island of Aitutaki is regarded as the most picturesque in the Pacific. Cook Islands accommodation ranges from luxury resorts to motel units as well as plenty of self contained houses and cabins.


The first thing that you'll notice are the large mountains that dominate the centre of the island. Then there are the aqua waters inside the reef that circles the island. It takes a bit longer to recognise the other major differences between the Cook Islands and other Pacific islands - there is nothing out of place. It's a bit like the movie 'The Truman Show' - no one litters, the streets are spotless, everyone keeps their lawns and gardens trimmed and manicured. You drive around looking for the poorer sections on the island, where people are living in below standard accommodation, but they don't exist. There are no taxis dominating the traffic, no mosquitoes pestering you, no traders dragging you into their shops, no restaurants that you wouldn't eat at,  no tall buildings spoiling the landscape (nothing higher than a coconut tree apparently), no speeding cars or bikes, and little or no crime.

The Rarotongans are very friendly people, maybe not as outgoing and affectionate as the Fijian natives, but friendly all the same. They appear to have a relaxed and casual lifestyle and will always greet you with a friendly hello or Kia Orana when you see them. There is very little crime on the island and you will feel safer here than probably any other pacific island, whether you are walking through the back roads of  the island with your family, trekking through the mountains, swimming at a deserted beach or walking the streets of Avarua at night.

The standard of living is reasonably high, especially compared to places like Fiji or even Vanuatu. Most houses have electricity and sewerage, with some of the newer places featuring solar power and underground electricity.

The Cook Islands' only international airport is located on Rarotonga, only 2km from Avarua.

The population of The Cook Islands is around 17,790 people. About 81% are full-blooded Polynesian, 8% are mixed Polynesian and European, 8% are mixed Polynesian and non-European, and 2% are European.

The Cook Islands has a large range of Polynesian and International cuisine. All vegetables are fresh and local, as is the seafood. 'Island Nights' should be experienced for both the dancing and the traditional Cook Islands feast. It's called the 'umukai' - succulent food cooked in an underground oven. Coconut water is a popular drink, as are fruit juices and coffee. Beer, called bush beer, is brewed from oranges, bananas, pawpaws, or hops. Kava is a traditional ceremonial drink.

The Cook Islands is one of the best scuba diving and snorkelling locations in the world. There are many tour companies who can accommodate beginners to more advanced divers.

Cook Islands Facts

Population: Approximately 17,790 people scattered around the fifteen islands. There are about 13,000 on the main island, Rarotonga, and about 2,000 on Aitutaki.

Capital: Avarua

Location: The nation of the Cook Islands comprises 15 islands spread over 2.2 million square kilometres of ocean right in the middle of the South Pacific between Tonga to the west and the Society Islands to the east. The actual land mass only covers 240 square kilometres.

Economy: Agriculture provides the economic base with major exports made up of copra and citrus fruit. Manufacturing activities are limited to fruit-processing, clothing, and handicrafts. Tourism is by far the main foreign exchange earner generated by the 100,000 or so tourist arrivals each year.

Language: Official languages are Cook Island Maori (Rarotongan) and English.

Religion: Cook Islands Christian Church 55.9%, Roman Catholic 16.8%, Seventh-Day Adventists 7.9%, Church of Latter Day Saints 3.8%, other Protestant 5.8%, other 4.2%, unspecified 2.6%, none 3%.

Climate: The Cook Islands offers a perfect tropical climate with maximum summer temperatures of 29 degrees and a minimum of 22 degrees while the winter maximum is up to 25 degrees with a minimum of 19 degrees. December to March is the warmer, humid season. Tropical showers are likely to occur without warning but usually pass quickly. The small differences in the temperature make any time of the year a good time to visit.

Currency: New Zealand dollar. 5c, 10c, 20c, 50c, $1 and $2 coins and $5, $10, $20, $50 and $100 notes. There are Westpac and ANZ Banks on Rarotonga. Westpac is in the centre of town and opens 9:00am-3:00pm weekdays and 9:00am-midday on Saturdays. The ANZ is next to the Visitor Information Centre in town and opens 9:00am-3:00pm Mon to Thurs and till 4:00pm Friday. There is an ATM at the ANZ and Westpac.

Time Zone: The Cook Islands is 20 hours behind Australian Eastern Standard Time. There is no daylight saving time in the Cook Islands.

Taxis: Taxis are available but it's not like Fiji or Vanuatu with taxis dominating the traffic. Taxis here are expensive and you will need to ring and book.

Flying Times To The Cook Islands: Just over 6 hours from the east coast of Australia.

Passports: All visitors to the Cook Islands must have a valid passport with at least 6 months validity beyond the date of arrival.

VISAS: Australian tourists travelling to the Cook Islands for up to 30 days do not need to obtain a visa in advance.

Departure tax: Adults NZ$55, children under 12 years exempt. You can prepay this tax at the Westpac bank Avarua or at the airport, but there were no delays paying at the airport prior to departure. Payment to be in NZD or a major credit card.

Health: No vaccinations are required. Be sure you have good travel insurance. Drink bottled water, avoid ice cubes and raw and undercooked food. Seek medical advice if you have a fever or are suffering from diarrhoea. There is a hospital on Rarotonga.

Electricity: 240 volt 50 Hz AC. The same 3 pin plugs that are used in Australia and New Zealand.

The country is named after Captain James Cook, who landed there in 1773.

Flights & Connections

Always be prepared to arrive at least two and a half hours before international departures or 80 minutes before domestic departures. There are many dining options in and close by to the Rarotonga International Airport. Most of the lounges only accept New Zealand and Cook Island currency. There are a range of duty free shops at the airport.
A Departure Tax of NZ$71.77 per adult is incorporated into your airline ticket.

Capable of handling aircraft up to Boeing 747s, Rarotonga International Airport now welcomes more than 100,000 visitors annually from all over the world.
Rarotonga has a good range of transport options including rental cars and scooters, private coach transfers, taxis, and a public bus service all available from the Airport. Operators have reception desks located in the Meet and Greet area immediately past Customs.
The airport is serviced by Air New Zealand, Virgin Australia and Air Tahiti. The domestic carrier is Air Rarotonga.

There are also small airports located on Aitutaki, Mangaia, Mauke, Mitiaro, Atiu, Penrhyn, Mainihiki and Pukapuka providing basic facilities.

Travel Tips

There are many ways to get yourself around the island. The circumference of the island is only 35km and the main road is fully sealed. There is also an inland road which is also sealed, but much narrower than the main road, so caution is advised, as well as many other tracks and roads, some suitable for 4 wheel drives only.

The Cook Islands Bus company has a bus service that circles the island in both directions. The cost is $2.50 one way or $4 return and runs from 7am-4:30pm and 6pm-10pm Monday to Friday, Saturdays 8am-1 pm and 6pm-11:45pm and Sundays 8am-12 noon and 2pm-4pm (clockwise only). You can get a day pass or a 10 trip pass.

Taxis are available but it's not like Fiji or Vanuatu with taxis dominating the traffic. Taxis here are expensive and you will need to ring and book.

Cars are available for hire at each resort or at car hire places in Avarua and near the airport. You will need to get a Cook Islands drivers license by visiting the police station. The cost is $10 and they will take your photo and ask you to return in 30 minutes to pick up your license. The police station is closed on Sundays so try to avoid Monday mornings as the queue will be out the door. Car hire starts from around $45/day. The island speed limit is 60kph (40kph in built up areas).

The most popular form of transport on Rarotonga is the motor bike or scooter. You will see them everywhere. You can hire a bike at numerous places around the island and at the main resorts. Expect to pay around $20 - $25 dollars a day. You will need a current motor bike license or you can take a quick driving test at the police station (for $5). The speed limit for bikes is 40kph all around the island.

You'll be unlikely to see anyone wear a helmet when riding bikes around the island, however you can request one when you make your booking. Because the speed limit is adhered to, and because the amount of slow traffic naturally limits the speed you can travel, driving is relatively safe. However there are some other hazards to negotiate. Dogs are likely to wander across the road in front of you without warning, and other animals like goats and chickens are a problem on the back roads around the island. Bikes are required to travel on the far left of the road to make overtaking easy, and it's illegal to ride two abreast.

Bicycles are another popular form of transport with most resorts providing hire facilities. Four wheel drive vehicles are also available for hire at resorts and car hire companies for around $75/day. Some off road driving is available but most tracks tend to only go in a couple of kilometres from the main road before they are stopped by the mountains. These tracks are not marked on the maps and can prove difficult to find. The highest road point on the island is at the hospital where you can get some great views, however if you turn left when you reach the hospital, you will find a track that takes you much higher up the mountain and offers some great views of both sides of the island. This track is only accessible by 4WD. Other tracks include the road to Wigmore's Waterfall, and the tracks leading to the Turangi walk and the Avana walk.


Not really a place to find great bargains or spend a great deal of time shopping. There are a couple of duty free shops in Avarua, some clothes, souvenir and t-shirt shops and jewellers specialising in black pearls.

Food And Drinks

There are a number of restaurants, cafes and takeaways scattered around the island. The most popular type of food is seafood, mainly fish, which is fresh and well priced. Most meat is imported and this is reflected in the price. Shellfish, like prawns and crabs, were hard to find and expensive. The quality of food available is above average, but seems to reach a certain level and that's where it stops. No high class restaurants serving lobsters or crabs or extensive menus that give you a wide choice. Trader Jacks seafood restaurant was very good (leave the kids behind) and the Sandals restaurant at the Pacific Resort was also very good (but expensive). The resorts will feature special nights including food baked in an underground oven, the umu, as well as seafood nights, barbeque nights etc. Some include some form of entertainment included in the price. You are more than welcome to drop in at the different resorts for lunch or dinner but you will need to ring and book to make sure of getting a table. Expect to pay around $15 for entrees and $25 for main meals.

There are a couple of supermarkets on the island where you can purchase most things you're likely to need and you'll pay much less than resort prices. Soft drinks are around $1.50/can, the same for bottled water, beer is around $2 a can, bread is a bit more expensive at around $3.50/loaf. There are small shops every kilometre or two around the island where you can pick up most basic items.

Things To Do

There are many activities available for families on The Cook Islands. Here is a list of the most popular ones:

Wigmore's Waterfall
Located about 1km in from the main road, about 3km past the Rarotongan Beach Resort is the only waterfall on Rarotonga. You can walk or drive (4WD, motor bike or bicycle). We decided to walk. The turn off the main road is not marked, but it is right next to the Sheraton Hotel. The hotel was started about 10 years ago and building was abandoned about 6 years ago with the resort nearly complete. The area is now overgrown with weeds and vines and the near completed buildings look like they will never house a tourist. The road to the waterfall then passes farmland but soon turns tropical with huge vines wrapped around the tall trees and a cascading stream bordering the path. The waterfall itself is somewhat of a disappointment. There is a metal pipe across the waterfall which spoils the natural beauty and a sign advises that water from the waterfall supplies the towns drinking water and you aren't allowed to swim (contrary to what we were led to believe). The beauty of the rainforest and the stream still makes the walk worthwhile (take your mozzie repellant).

Aroa Pony Trek
The Aroa Pony Trek is situated just behind the Rarotongan Resort and offers a 2 and a half hour horseback ride to Wigmore's Waterfall and back along the beach. The cost is $40/adult and $25/child. We thought this would be a bit much for the kids so we arranged to have a half hour ride along the inland road and back along the beach for $20 per horse. The younger kids shared a horse with their mums and everyone had a great time. Definitely recommended.

Captain Tama's Lagoon Cruise
This is a four and a half hour glass bottom boat tour of Muri Lagoon. The cruise takes you to one of the best snorkeling spots on the island. The coral and fish are brilliant. If you don't want to snorkel you can swim next to the boat or sit and watch the fish as they are fed. The cruise then takes you to an island off Muri beach where a barbeque lunch of grilled fish, cooked bananas and salads is served. The captain then puts on a show of sarong tying and coconut husking and you have plenty of time to explore the island or swim in the sparkling waters of the lagoon. The kids went hermit crab hunting and found some huge crabs. The cost was $150/family and it's well worth doing. Snorkelling gear is provided, but flipper sizes were limited for kids, so it would be advisable to take your own or get some from your resort to take with you.

Hire a car or bike
Spend a day driving around the island. You can drive around in under an hour and you can pick the best spots for a swim and snorkel. Then you then can check out the inland road, which takes you past plenty of places of interest, past farms and up to the hospital for some great views of the island.

4WD Raro Mountain Safari Tour
These tours feature a tour into the valleys and up to the mountain tops around the island for some stunning views of the island. The cost is $60/adult and $30/child and includes light refreshments.

Walks and Hiking Tours
There are plenty of walks and hiking trails around the island. They range from easy to very hard. The Wigmore's Waterfall walk was our only attempt but there are plenty of walks to choose from. Pa's Mountain Walk offers a choice of a 4 hour Nature walk or a 4 hour Cross island trek. The cost is $50/adult and $20/child.

Snorkelling is probably the most popular activity on the island, with the natural lagoon that surrounds the island making it perfectly safe. You can stop at most places around the island and snorkel straight off the beach. There are some areas that are marked as dangerous so take a local map with you. Bring your own snorkel and flippers to save hassles trying to find ones that fit you and your kids and invest in a disposable underwater camera for some great shots of the fish and coral.

Te Vara Nui Village
Te Vara Nui Village is the cultural centre of the Cook Islands offering 3 amazing products: a 2.5 hour village tour offering a full authentic journey into the past, a stunning Over-Water Night Show and first class Island/Western fusion buffet dinning experience on floating and fixed stages set in botanical gardens surrounded by rock gardens and waterfall. The combo package offers both Village Tour and Over-Water Night Show and buffet dinner in one night. Your ultimate cultural experience not to be missed.

Cook Islands Cultural Village
A guided tour of the Cultural Village includes information and demonstrations of the Cook Islands culture, weaving, coconut husking, wood carving, cooking, Maori medicine, fishing and costume making. The tour includes lunch and a show and costs $60/person. There is also a circle island tour available for $60/person.

18-hole mini-golf is located in Aroa. Great fun for teenagers, children and adults. Shaded seating is avaliable and there is a cafe for refreshments.

Other activities available include a plane trip to the beautiful island of Aitutaki ($389/adult and $195/child), diving, kayaking, reef walking, Island NiteLife tour, garden tours and fishing.

Healthy Travel

The major issues facing travellers to The Cook Islands are those associated with safe water & food. Gastro-intestinal infections are the most common illnesses affecting travellers. Proper food handling, drinking purified water, and maintaining good personal hygiene are key to prevention. It is recommended not to drink the tap water in The Cook Islands. Either boil it first or drink bottled water. You should also avoid raw and undercooked food. Seek medical advice if you have a fever or are suffering from diarrhoea. Be sure to pack a medical kit when travelling with children.

No vaccinations are required, but you should ensure your routine immunisations are up to date. Check with your doctor one month prior to departure. Take precautions against being bitten by mosquitoes, including using insect repellent at all times, wearing long, loose-fitting, light-coloured clothing and ensuring your accommodation is mosquito proof.

There is a hospital on Rarotonga, an outpatient's clinic and several private medical doctors. On Aitutaki and Atiu there are smaller hospitals. Cook Islanders are sent to New Zealand for the treatment of serious conditions. It is recommended to have comprehensive travel insurance organised before you leave.

The Language

The Cook Islands has two official languages - Cook Island Maori (Rarotongan) and English. Some of the more common words and phrases are:

kia orana - hello.
aere ra - goodbye.
meitaki - thank you.
'ae - yes.
kare - no.
mataora - happy.
kai - food.
teia ra - today.
apopo - tomorrow.
moana - ocean.
ra - sun.

Family Accommodation