Strewn across the South Pacific like a handful of pearls tossed onto a gemstone-blue blanket, the Cook Islands are everything you'd hope to find in Polynesia.
While this tiny island nation is famous for its white sand and clear lagoons, there's more to the Cook Islands than pristine beaches (although these are great too, spread over 15 scatted islands). From digging into local history to witnessing the spectacle of Aitutakian fire-dancing, here are the top things to do in the Cook Islands.
Discover local history at the Cook Islands Library and Museum
The first hint of the treasures in the Cook Islands Library and Museum on Rarotonga comes from the exterior of the building – adorned with a vivid mural that celebrates the traditions and history of the Cook Islands. Inside, travelers can learn about the history and culture of these remote islands, from the first settlement by Pacific Islanders to the arrival of European explorers and the declaration of self-government in 1965.
Run by local volunteers, the museum has an interesting range of exhibits including Polynesian cookware, musical instruments and carved weapons. Local photographs and art hang on the walls, giving color and warmth to the displays. One of the highlights is a beautiful tivaivai, a traditional Cook Islands quilt, which hangs from the ceiling, its squares showing a canoe crossing the waves. The museum is conveniently located in Avarua, and is open Monday to Saturday mornings and Tuesday evenings.
The best time to visit the Cook Islands
Shop like a local at the Punanga Nui Market
To get a taste of local life, visit the Punanga Nui Market in Avarua on Saturday mornings. The marketplace is usually bustling with locals and sightseers, and it can feel like the whole of Rarotonga has come out to browse. Arrive early for the freshest local fruit and vegetables, then wander the stalls in search of local foodstuffs, drinks, clothing and souvenirs – this is a great place to pick up local art and wood carvings at reasonable prices.
Another highlight of market day is watching the cultural performances on the main stage. Local children perform Polynesian dances and songs from 10am, giving visitors a glimpse of the color and vibrancy of Cook Island culture. No trip to Rarotonga would be complete without a wander through the marketplace, so make sure your trip includes a Saturday trip to Avarua.
Get more travel inspiration, tips and exclusive offers sent straight to your inbox with our weekly newsletter.
Explore Aitutaki’s lagoon
Aitutaki, the second largest island in the Cook Islands, is less than an hour’s flight from Rarotonga, and it's hailed as having one of the most beautiful lagoons in the world. Stretching out from white sandy beaches, this turquoise stretch of water is dotted with tiny motu (islets). Spending a day cruising through its stunning waters and strolling along the sugar sands of uninhabited islands is one of the best things to do in the Cook Islands.
A typical lagoon tour involves visiting a few of the motu on the lagoon, snorkeling with tropical fish and enjoying a barbeque lunch, usually on postcard-perfect Tapuaeta’i (One Foot Island). In the lagoon, you can see turtles and giant clams and snorkel over the wreck of the cargo freighter Alexander, which ran aground in the 1930s. Along with the spectacular scenery, a freshly caught fish lunch is a highlight of the trip. Exploring Aitutaki lagoon on a sunny day feels like floating into paradise.
Go bonefishing in Aitutaki
Almost invisible on the sand flats below the lagoon, Aitutaki's silvery bonefish are reportedly the largest in the world. Known as kiokio in Cook Island Māori, adult bonefish regularly reach weights of 10lb or more. They're incredibly jumpy when they venture onto the flats and catching one is a challenge for even the most experienced fisher.
If you want to try your luck, head out onto the pristine lagoon with a local fishing guide. Learning local tips and tricks is essential if you hope to catch one of these elusive bonefish. Hanging out with a local fisher for the day is also a great way to hear more about life on the island and see beautiful Aitutaki from the water.
Appreciating the charms of isolation in the Cook Islands
Attend a service at the Cook Island Christian Church
Sunday mornings find the majority of Cook Islanders at church and joining a local service is a fascinating experience. The Cook Island Christian Church is a small, whitewashed building from the 1850s and the local congregation is very welcoming of visitors. The tradition of Christianity on the islands dates back to the arrival of British missionaries in 1821.
The Sunday service is in Māori and typically includes lots of sung hymns, giving the proceedings a festive atmosphere. Stay for refreshments after the service and have a chat to locals about the church and the local community. Just remember to dress conservatively for the church service, and expect the congregation to be in their colorful Sunday best.
Hike to the base of the Needle
For an island workout, and to see some of the best mountain scenery on Rarotonga, hike the four-hour Cross Island Trek. The trail begins behind the town of Avarua and the track meanders through lush rainforest, with shady trees providing a welcome respite from the tropical sunshine.
The trail continues to the base of 413m (1,455ft) Te Rua Manga – aka The Needle – a looming volcanic rock in the center of the island. This is the highest point on the trek and lookouts reward hikers with panoramic views across the island. Finish the hike with a swim and picnic at peaceful Papua (Wigmore’s) Waterfall.
Experience an Island Night
A sense of excitement and anticipation permeates the air before the start of an Island Night – a Cook Islands feast. Performers are visible in shadows, with painted faces and colorful costumes, and delicious smells mingle with the scent of tropical flowers. Over the next few hours, guests are treated to dances and songs, local music and a feast which includes an umu, where food is cooked in an underground oven.
Attending an Island Night is not only a wonderful evening out, it also offers a glimpse of the culture and traditions that existed on the islands before the arrival of Europeans. While many hotels and resorts have impressive shows, the Highland Paradise Cultural Centre on Rarotonga is renowned for its Island Night performances. If you’re lucky enough to experience an Island Night in Aitutaki, you’ll be treated to the tradition of Aitutakian fire-dancing, which is one of the most impressive spectacles in the Cook Islands.
Discover pre-Christian Aitutaki at Punarei Cultural Village
For curious travelers who want to know more about life in the Cook Islands in pre-colonial times, a visit to the Punarei Cultural Village is a must. Here, you can discover the ancient myths, legends and traditions of Aitutaki – including the stories told before the arrival of English missionaries to the island in the 19th Century.
A tour around the village showcases traditional life on the island, and you'll have the opportunity to cook in a buried umu oven, made from leaves and traditional materials. You can also learn about indigenous art forms in Aitutaki and see what a local village would have looked like before the arrival of European explorers.
Marvel at the volcanic rocks at Black Rock Beach
On the northwest coast of Rarotonga, striking black rock formations rise from the sea at the appropriately named Black Rock Beach. Contrasting with the white sand, the volcanic rocks are a striking sight – in pre-Christian times, local people believed this was where souls began the journey to the afterlife. It’s a particularly beautiful place to watch the sunset, with the black rocks silhouetted against the pink and yellow sky. Black Rock is also a lovely, calm place to swim and snorkel on a windy day, as it’s located on the sheltered side of the island.
Go snorkeling in the Fruits of Rarotonga
One of the joys of visiting the Cook Islands is swimming with the islands' abundant tropical fish. There are several beautiful marine reserves along the coast of Rarotonga, all filled with bright coral and fascinating marine life, and Tikioki – aka, the Fruits of Rarotonga – is a definite favorite.
This is a wonderful place to snorkel, with large coral reefs, relatively deep water and darting schools of tropical fish in rainbow colors. If you’re traveling with children, a shallower snorkeling spot is Aro'a Marine Reserve in the southwest of Rarotonga.
Take a stroll through the Maire Nui Gardens
Along with the beaches, one of the most distinctive things about the Cook Islands is the abundance of beautiful tropical flowers. When visitors arrive in the country, they’re often given an ‘ei – like a Hawaiian lei garland – made from tropical blossoms as a gesture of welcome. To have a closer look at Cook Island flora, head to the Maire Nui Gardens at Ara Tapu on Rarotonga.
Visitors can wander around seven acres of glorious tropical gardens, dotted with peaceful lily ponds, and admire the remarkable mountain views. Walking through the gardens is a wonderfully serene experience and a perfect contrast to the bustle of activity in Rarotonga’s resorts. If you find yourself working up an appetite, head to the park café, almost hidden in the foliage.
Learn about local marine life at the Cook Islands Marine and Wildlife Eco Centre
If you have a rainy day while you’re in Rarotonga, or just want a day away from the beach with children in tow, head to the Cook Islands Marine and Wildlife Eco Centre atArorangi. Here you'll find a variety of colorful exhibits which showcase Rarotonga’s diverse ecology.
In the aquarium, you can get an up-close view of lagoon sea life, including stonefish, clams and crabs. The live coral and local insects are always popular with kids, as is the aviary for rehabilitating injured birds. After you’ve had a look around the exhibits, grab an ice cream at the on-site ice cream parlor.
You may also like:
Best places to visit in New Zealand if you love nature
The best experiences in Bora Bora: beauty and the beach
A date with the ocean in Mo'orea, French Polynesia
The Cook Islands are on our 2022 Best in Travel list. For more stories from some of the world’s most exciting destinations click here.
Safety recommendations and restrictions during a pandemic can change rapidly. Lonely Planet recommends that travelers always check with local authorities for up-to-date guidance beforetraveling during Covid-19.