A Complete Guide to Visiting the Cook Islands

white sand beach with turquoise sea and blue sky with white clouds

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A short flight from New Zealand, the 15 main islands of the Cook Islands are spread over 850,000 square miles in the South Pacific Ocean. The majority of travelers stay on Rarotonga (affectionately nicknamed Raro), the largest of the Cook Islands, which itself is still really small: it takes less than an hour to drive around the island's perimeter road! Several other islands are worth exploring, too, if you want to get away from the relatively more developed Rarotonga. With a warm tropical climate, pristine beaches protected by lagoons, and high-quality yet laid-back accommodation, the Cook Islands are a very appealing vacation destination.

Here's everything you need to know about visiting the Cook Islands, including how to get there, the best time to visit, and visa requirements.

Which Islands to Choose

The Cook Islands are divided into the Northern and the Southern Groups. The Southern Group is more developed and accessible than the Northern Group. The islands of the Southern Group, in order of population size, are:

  • Rarotonga
  • Aitutaki
  • Atiu
  • Mangaia
  • Mauke
  • Mitiaro
  • Palmerston
  • Manuae (uninhabited)
  • Takutea (uninhabited)

The islands of the Northern Group, in order of population size, are:

  • Pukapuka
  • Penrhyn
  • Manihiki
  • Rakahanga
  • Nassau
  • Suwarrow (uninhabited)

Rarotonga is by far the largest island, with a population of around 13,000. Aitutaki is second, with around 2000 residents, while Mangaia, Atiu, and Pukapuka have around 500 inhabitants each.

In terms of tourist infrastructure and attractions, Rarotonga is the most developed and popular island. There is accommodation to suit most budgets, a range of restaurants and markets, car and scooter rental facilities, supermarkets and bars, and many tourist-oriented businesses selling boat rides on the Muri Lagoon, snorkeling and diving trips, kayak and SUP rental, progressive dinners in the local community, guided hikes, Island Nights cultural shows, and more. Rarotonga is also home to the Cook Islands' only international airport, making it the most convenient place for a quick getaway. Check out this article for more information on the best things to do in Rarotonga.

Aitutaki is much smaller but still has a range of accommodation and activities. Some travelers take a day trip by air from Rarotonga, but it's worth spending more time here for the even slower pace of life and incredible lagoon, which is different from Rarotonga's. Island Nights cultural shows, water sports, great food, and spa activities can also be enjoyed on Aitutaki.

Atiu, the third-most populated island, has 28 lovely, wild beaches. However, unlike Rarotonga and Aitutaki, Atiu doesn't have a protective lagoon, so the beaches are less sheltered. There are many tropical birds to see here, such as the red lorikeet and the orange-plumed kakerori. The birdlife on Atiu used to be much more abundant than now, although conservation efforts over the past couple of decades are improving the situation.

Mangaia is thought to be the oldest island in the Pacific, at around 18 million years old. Visitors come here to explore the network of caves, which can be seen with local guides. There are also attractive rock pools, freshwater lakes, and dramatic cliffs and bush.

The other islands take quite a bit of trouble to reach, with infrequent flights. While each is appealing in its own way, with wildlife and beach attractions, the above-listed islands are much more accessible.

forest-covered island of Rarotonga with lagoon and offshore islands and blue sky

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How to Get to the Cook Islands

The Cook Islands are a favorite travel destination of New Zealanders, and several flights per week fly to Rarotonga International Airport from Auckland and Christchurch. Other direct flights to Rarotonga depart from Los Angeles and Tahiti. Flights from Sydney, Australia travel via Auckland.

Most of the other islands of the Cook Islands can only be reached on domestic flights from Rarotonga, on Air Rarotonga flights. Schedules change seasonally, and sometimes flights only take place once a month, so plan ahead if you want to get to one of the more remote islands. Aitutaki, the second-most visited island, is a 40-minute flight from Rarotonga. In the Northern Group, only Manihiki, Penrhyn, and Pukapuka have airstrips.

Unlike some other islands in the Pacific (such as French Polynesia or Hawai'i), you can't practically get between the Cook Islands by boat. There are no ferries, so your only sea option would be a private yacht or very limited and slow cargo ships. Some of the islands that have other offshore islands and islets do offer small boat transport, though.

Best Time to Visit

The Cook Islands have a warm tropical climate, but there's quite a lot of variation between the 15 islands, as they're spread over 756,771 square miles. Rarotonga is typically cooler than Aitutaki as it's further south, away from the equator.

The peak travel season is between June and August, the Southern Hemisphere's winter. The weather is usually sunny at this time, and temperatures are warm but not too hot. You may even need a sweater or light jacket at night. Many New Zealand and Australian tourists visit at this time, especially during the winter school holidays.

November to March is the cyclone season in the Cook Islands, so not the best time to visit. Although cyclones don't hit the islands themselves every year, nearby weather patterns can create high humidity, rain, wind, and grey skies and seas.

Other times of year (September and October and March to May) are considered the shoulder season in the Cook Islands. The weather may be pleasantly warm, but there's a higher risk of rain than during the peak season. The shoulder seasons are also less busy with New Zealand and Australian tourists.

coconut palm trees swaying in the wind with bright blue sky

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How to Get Around

To travel between the islands of the Cook Islands, domestic flights on Air Rarotonga are necessary.

Getting around Rarotonga is easy. You can rent a car from the airport and rental agencies around the island. If you have a full license from the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the EU, Japan, or Norway, you don't need a local license to drive in Rarotonga. If you have a license from another country, you'll need to get a local license first.

Scooters are a common sight on the roads of Rarotonga, and lots of travelers hire them, but it's important to know that you must get a local license to ride a scooter legally. You must go to the police station in Avarua town, where you'll need to sit a practical and theoretical test. Get there early in the day, if you can, as there's often a long line of tourists waiting. Helmets are also compulsory, and you could be fined for not wearing one.

Alternatively, Rarotonga has a public bus that operates on two routes: clockwise and counterclockwise! It takes about an hour to do a circuit of the island. It runs on a timetable but is often delayed, so be prepared to stand at the side of the road for a while. Even if you rent a car or scooter, the bus is convenient for visiting the Punanga Nui Market in Avarua on Saturdays, as you won't have to struggle to find a parking spot.

On Aitutaki, there's no bus, but some taxis are available, as are car and scooter rentals. Some resorts also offer bicycle rental, or lend them to guests for free. Aitutaki is not small enough to walk around, but it's small enough to cycle if you enjoy cycling.

Transportation options are more limited on the other islands, but car and scooter rental are usually possible on the islands with larger populations. It's a good idea to plan ahead rather than just show up and expect to be able to hire exactly what you want in a tiny, remote place. Hotels can arrange transfers and advise you on the best way of getting around.

Tips for Visiting

Language: Cook Islands Māori, an eastern Polynesian language, is the official language of the Cook Islands. It is closely related to, but distinct from, New Zealand Te Reo Māori. Another major local language is Pukapukan, spoken on the Northern Group island of Pukapuka. It is more closely related to the Samoan language than Cook Islands Māori, and most speakers of Cook Islands Māori can't understand Pukapukan. English is widely spoken in the Cook Islands, especially in the islands that receive the most tourists. Many Cook Islanders are educated in New Zealand or have been there for work.

Currency: New Zealand dollar. ATMs are easy to find in Rarotonga but less so elsewhere. Credit cards are widely accepted. Take cash if you're visiting the more remote islands, just in case.

Visa: Visas are not required, but all visitors will be issued a free visitor's permit upon arrival in the Cook Islands. New Zealand passport holders can stay for up to 90 days and can arrive with a one-way ticket. Holders of other passports are allowed to stay for up to 31 days and must show (or be able to show) a return ticket upon arrival. If you're planning to arrive in the Cook Islands on a flight from Tahiti, New Zealand, or Australia, the necessary visas for these countries are required. Note that Australia has stringent transit visa requirements, even if you're not leaving the airport.

Time zone: Although the Cook Islands are aligned with New Zealand in many ways, this doesn't apply to the time zone! The Cook Islands lie just east of the International Date Line, in the GMT -10 time zone. Be particularly aware of this if taking a flight to/from New Zealand. The Cook Islands are 22/23 hours behind New Zealand time (depending on whether New Zealand is in summer or winter).

Prices: The Cook Islands is not a budget destination, although you can find some cheaper non-resort accommodation and keep costs lower by shopping at supermarkets and self-catering. Expect to pay similar prices for accommodation, food, and souvenirs as you would in New Zealand. Groceries are sometimes even more expensive than in New Zealand due to the distance they've traveled to reach the Cook Islands.