Insider’s Guide to Travel in the Cook Islands
The Cook Islands appeal to honeymooners and travelers looking for a luxurious getaway, but that doesn’t mean you have to spend a fortune to travel here. Located in the South Pacific Ocean — situated between French Polynesia and American Samoa — these 15 small islands are often called the Pacific Ocean’s best kept secret.
This destination has been on our tropical island bucket list for years and we were surprised to find that many travelers had no idea where these islands are located. Just a short flight from Los Angeles, it has quickly become one of our new favorite travel destinations.
Which Islands to Visit in the Cook Islands
The Southern Group of Islands includes Palmerston, Aitutaki, Manuae (uninhabited), Takutea, Mitiaro, Atiu, Mauke, Rarotonga, and Mangaia. Rarotonga and Aitutaki are two of the easiest islands to visit and where you will find the most infrastructure.
You will find regular flight service to all of the islands in the Southern group, except Palmerston and Manuae. Mangaia is the second largest island in the Cooks, but it has a very small population of just 500 people. Atiu is known for its limestone caves and amazing diving locations and, like Mangaia, is still very much undiscovered.
The Northern group of islands consist of Pukapuka, Penrhyn, Rakahanga, Manihiki, Nassau, and Suwarrow. These islands are not easily accessible and, therefore, very expensive to visit. This guide will focus on Rarotonga and Aitutaki because they are the easiest to access, yet still off the beaten track for most travelers.
Cook Islands Sample Itinerary
Overnight flight into Rarotonga with Air New Zealand: This gives you a full day to explore the island on arrival, but make sure to confirm check-in time at your hotel. Muri Beachcomber offers lounge access with a shower, plus full access to the property’s facilities until 12pm check-in time. We spent the morning kayaking around the lagoon and our room was ready by 11am!
3-4 night stay in Rarotonga: Don’t overlook Rarotonga. We loved it just as much (if not more) than Aitutaki.
Flight to Aitutaki with Air Rarotonga: Make sure you get a window seat for this 30-minute flight!
Stay 3-6 nights on Aitutaki: For a longer stay on Aitutaki, I suggest switching hotels from one side of the island to the other, so you can get the best of both worlds. See hotel recommendations below.
Lagoon Tour on Aitutaki: Make sure to take at least one lagoon tour while you are on Aitutaki. Based on our hotel’s recommendation, we booked with Aitutaki Adventures which is one of the few boats that cruises along the west (less windy) side of the island, plus a stop at One Foot Island. Bishop’s Cruises is another popular one with slightly less people than Vaka Cruises. They all run about $99 NZD per person.
How to Get to the Cook Islands
If you are flying from the United States, Air New Zealand offers regular direct flights between Los Angeles (LAX) and Rarotonga (RAR). New Zealanders can easily hop on a direct flight to the islands via Auckland and Australians can fly direct from Sydney. Once you are on Rarotonga, you can fly to the other islands with Air Rarotonga.
When to Visit the Cook Islands
The tropical weather in the Cook Islands makes it a great destination for year-round travel. The rainy season (their summer) begins in November and lasts until mid March or early April. This is when the water will be the warmest, but you might find the temperature outside of the water a little overwhelming at times.
After our research, we decided to visit in the shoulder season of October (their spring) which is typically less windy than the wintertime and when you will find the best deals. December through April is their cyclone season so keep this in mind when planning your trip.
Packing Essentials for the Cook Islands
Photo Equipment – we highly recommend bringing a GoPro for underwater photos (and a selfie stick!) and a nice camera for land activities.
Clothing – Sandals or flip flops, a couple of swimsuits, and a sun hat are must-haves any time of year. We also highly recommend bringing water shoes.
Tunic Cover-Up – Ladies, this is a must have for all of my island trips.
Bug Spray – Do not forget to bring lots of buy spray.
Sunblock – Bring plenty of sunblock. It’s expensive on the islands.
Rash Guard – It protects you from the sun when snorkeling and provides a little warmth if the water is chilly.
Snorkel Equipment – You’ll save a ton of money by bringing your own and you won’t be stuck with old equipment.
Wifi & Cell Service in the Cook Islands
The Cook Islands is one of the few places in the world where cell phone companies cannot provide any sort of inexpensive international package. It’s literally in the middle of the ocean, so be prepared to turn off your data roaming and switch your phone to airplane mode just as an extra measure.