The Top 10 Things to Do in the Cook Islands

Sailboat in the idyllic Muri lagoon in rarotonga in the Cook islands in Polynesia south Pacific
@ Didier Marti / Getty Images

The Cook Islands are 15 tropical islands in the South Pacific Ocean, northeast of New Zealand and southwest of French Polynesia. The largest island, and the only one with an international airport, is Rarotonga, part of the Southern Group of islands (the Northern Group is harder to reach and more sparsely populated). Most travelers stay on Rarotonga, where there is the most variety of accommodation and tourist activities. Still, Aitutaki, Atiu, and a handful of other islands with tiny populations (200-500 inhabitants) are worth visiting if you are looking for a tropical island beach paradise and plenty of peace and quiet. From markets selling local handicrafts and cuisine to diving, kayaking, and bird watching, here are the top 10 things to do in the beautiful Cook Islands.

01 of 10

Laze on a Coconut Palm-Fringed Beach

Palm tree, One Foot Island, Aitutaki,The Cook Islands
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In a country with thousands of beautiful beaches, it's hard to say which is the most beautiful. Still, many people say that Manihiki (population 200) in the Northern Group has the most beautiful beaches. It has 40 islets that encircle a lagoon that's 2.5 miles wide. Black pearls are cultivated here. But if it's too much of a challenge to get to Manihiki, there are many more accessible beaches that are stunningly beautiful.

Muri Beach, on Rarotonga, is the most popular beach in the Cook Islands, where you can find many resorts and restaurants. The sheltered Muri Lagoon makes this a great place to lounge and paddle (especially for kids), as well as snorkel. Beaches elsewhere on Rarotonga tend to be less sheltered, with larger waves. Aitutaki is also beloved for its glorious lagoon and white-sand beaches on the many little islands and sand strips spread over the lagoon. But wherever you go in the Cook Islands, you won't be far from a dazzling beach.

02 of 10

Try Kayaking, Paddle Boarding, or Kite Surfing

one yellow and one orange kayak on a white sand beach with palm trees in background

elmvilla / Getty Images

The sheltered lagoons of Rarotonga and Aitutaki are ideal for water sports like kayaking and paddleboarding, as well as kite surfing and windsurfing when there's a breeze. Some waterside resorts have kayaks or SUPs for their guests, either for free or for a small fee. If your accommodation doesn't have these, there are plenty of places at Muri Beach (and elsewhere) to hire gear by the hour or for longer. The Rarotonga Sailing Club at Muri Beach also rents out small sailing boats.

03 of 10

Shop and Eat at Rarotonga's Markets

market tents with people shopping and palm trees in background

Elen Turner

Q6V8+RMJ, Ara Tapu, Avarua, Cook Islands

The weekly Saturday-morning Punanga Nui Market, in Rarotonga's main town of Avarua, is a huge social occasion for locals and tourists. Local food, fresh produce, and a wide range of Cook Islands souvenirs and clothing are sold. This is the best place to buy quality souvenirs, including clothing and handicrafts. Traffic around the market tends to be busy, and it can be difficult to find a parking spot if you don't arrive early, so get the public bus if you can.

Head to the Muri Night Markets on Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday evenings to take a break from resort fare. The outdoor market alongside the road at Muri (not on the beach itself) serves up a range of tasty local and international food, including ika mata (raw fish), Raro-style chicken curry, grilled prawns, and tropical fruit juices. Officially it runs from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m., but it's a very popular market, and some of the tastiest food sells out quickly. Aim for 5 p.m. if you don't want to miss out!

04 of 10

See Colorful Tropical Fish While Diving or Snorkeling

tropical fishes in crystal clear water
Freder / Getty Images

The warm tropical waters of the Cook Islands are home to hundreds of fish species and dozens of types of coral and turtles, rays, and sharks. In the Cook Islands, a vast area has been preserved as a marine reserve, and large-scale fishing isn't allowed within 50 nautical miles of each island. This means that the marine biodiversity is protected, and snorkelers and divers have plenty to see.

The sheltered lagoons of Rarotonga, Aitutaki, and elsewhere are great for snorkeling, and you can either do this from a glass-bottomed boat ride in Muri Lagoon on Rarotonga or just by walking into the lagoon. For experienced divers, the steep oceanic drop-offs, canyons, caves, artificial shipwrecks, and walls of coral further out to sea are enticing. Visibility is also good. Open water diving trips are from boats, but these generally don't have to travel more than 10 minutes from shore.

Rarotonga and Aitutaki are the most popular diving spots. As other islands are more challenging to get to, regular diving tours aren't usually offered, but you can arrange private charters if you're keen to explore more remote parts of the ocean.

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05 of 10

Cruise on a Lagoon

three boats with grass roofs and flying Cook Islands flags moored in shallow water with a palm tree-covered island in background

chameleonseye / Getty Images

Taking a glass-bottomed boat ride on Muri Lagoon is a Rarotonga must-do activity. A couple of different tour companies operate these and offer basically the same experience: Captain Tama's Lagoon Cruizes and Koka Lagoon Cruises. Tours go out to the reef, spend some time snorkeling, and then take you to one of the islands in the lagoon, where you will be fed and entertained with singing and drumming. If you don't want to snorkel, you can look at the fish and reef beneath the boat through the glass observation windows. It's a good idea to book a few days in advance, as spaces fill up quickly.

In Aitutaki, the Vaka Cruise offers a similar experience to that on Muri, but it's a bit more relaxed and lasts for around six hours. This cruise visits several of the little islands in Aitutaki Lagoon.

06 of 10

Experience an Island Nights Performance

Rarotongan man with grass skirt and headdress and bare chest holding a wooden weapon and dancing

chameleonseye / Getty Images

As well as being naturally beautiful, the Cook Islands are culturally rich. Travelers can experience this at an Island Night cultural show held at various Rarotonga, Aitutaki, and Atiu resorts. While they are put on for tourists, they're a great way of learning more about local culture in an immersive way. Enjoy a buffet meal of local cuisine while performers sing and dance for you. You might even be asked to join in! These shows are usually held every night of the week on Rarotonga but only on certain days on the other islands.

07 of 10

Hike to Rarotonga's Needle

jungle-covered volcanic mountains on Rarotonga, with palm trees in foreground

chameleonseye / Getty Images

Te Rua Manga, Cook Islands

If lying around on a beach has got you feeling in need of a good workout, take a guided hike up to the highest point on Rarotonga. Te Rua Manga, or the Needle, is the 1,354-foot rocky pinnacle in the center of Rarotonga. The north-to-south hike across the island via the Needle takes three to four hours. It's quite challenging because of the jungle-covered terrain, and if there's been rain, it will be very slippery and muddy. You don't have to go with a guide, but it's recommended.

08 of 10

Take a Day Trip to Aitutaki

propeller of a small plane flying above an atoll with blue and turquoise sea

oversnap / Getty Images

If you're short on time in the Cook Islands and don't have weeks to spend island hopping, Air Rarotonga's day trip from Rarotonga to Aitutaki is a great option. You can stay on the more easily accessible island, Rarotonga, and still experience other islands' even more laid-back pace. Aitutaki is a 40-minute flight from Rarotonga in a small plane, from which you can see incredible views of the ocean and islands. On arrival in Aitutaki, you'll be taken on a tour of some of the villages and then will spend most of the day on the Vaka Lagoon Cruise. You'll have plenty of time for snorkeling and will be served lunch on board the boat. Flights return to Rarotonga in the early evening.

Air Rarotonga also runs two-day packages from Rarotonga to little Atiu island, which has an incredible variety of birds and wonderful diving opportunities.

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09 of 10

Learn About Traditional Crafts and Textiles

purple and green applique fabric of Cook Islands called a tivaevae

chameleonseye / Getty Images

P7R8+8G6 Muri Beach Rarotonga, Ngatangiia District, Cook Islands
Phone +682 27 641

Weaving, carving, and applique quilts known as tivaevae are traditional crafts produced across the Cook Islands. The women from Rakahanga in the Northern Group are especially renowned for their fine pandanus leaf weaving. But if you can't make it out to the farthest islands, the markets in Rarotonga are a good place to purchase crafts and to ask the shop owners and craftspeople about their work. Te Ara: The Cook Islands Museum of Cultural Enterprise, a short walk from Muri Beach, is another good place to learn about traditional culture and crafts, and the gift shop sells a range of high-quality crafts, including tivaevae and paintings.

10 of 10

Take an Eco-Tour to a Remote Island

small white bird on a branch with fuzzy green leaves in background

Reed Kaestner / Getty Images

Some of the most remote islands of the Cook Islands are home to a spectacular array of birds, animals, and sea life. These islands are not easy to reach, with infrequent and often seasonal flights to the other islands, and are usually uninhabited. But if you're a keen birdwatcher, diver, or wildlife enthusiast, it's worth going to the trouble of arranging an eco-tour or charter boat to these remote islands.

Suwarrow, in the Northern Group, has been a national park since 1978. Nobody lives on the island except for two caretakers outside the cyclone season. It's a highly important eco-sanctuary and home to many endangered sea birds, turtles, manta rays, orca, and other marine life. It is pest- and predator-free. You require permission to visit Suwarrow and can only do so on a private yacht or charter vessel.

Another island that's rich in wildlife but very rarely visited is uninhabited Takutea in the Southern Group. It's a wildlife sanctuary and a vital breeding ground for sea birds like red-tailed tropicbirds, red-footed boobies, and great frigatebirds. The island is challenging to reach because it can only be accessed in calm weather, and a reef encircles the whole island. But for keen bird watchers who are up for the challenge, Takutea is worth the effort. Note that permission from the High Chief is needed to visit.

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The Top 10 Things to Do in the Cook Islands