The Cook Islands
An untouched paradise, a tropical oasis, a cluster of tiny atolls deep in the South Pacific, a hidden gem between Tahiti and Fiji, a modern version of 1950's Hawaii, a country with a law banning any building from being built higher than the tallest coconut tree.
We had been dreaming of the South Pacific for years, thinking this ocean full of such incredible islands were only for honeymooners, cross-ocean yachters, and the incredibly wealthy - but what we have found this year is that these paradises are so much more accessible than we ever thought. Traveling to The Cook Islands was a dream come true for me, and quickly became one of my favorite spots in the world. It's so much less commercialized, less crowded, and less expensive than Tahiti, Fiji, or Hawaii - if you're looking to take a dream tropical vacation - this is the place to go, and you will be surprised at how assessable this wonderland truly is.
Read on for everything you need to know about Rarotonga, the main island and capital of this little country - where to stay, where to eat, where to eat, and everything that you absolutely cannot miss.
- Air New Zealand has a direct flight from LA once a week! This is what we flew and we were very impressed with the service on the airline, as well as the ease of the flight times - the flight departs LAX at midnight, and lands in Rarotonga at 6am the next morning. The flight back is also a midnight flight, to maximize your vacation time. You can also fly direct from Australia, New Zealand, and Tahiti.
- The best way to get around Rarotonga is to rent a car at the airport, there's no real way to get around the island without it, and driving here is incredibly easy - you can travel the main road around in a loop in under 45 minutes. There is an Avis Car Rental right at Rarotonga airport to get you going!
- From here, you can fly Air Rarotonga to eight other islands within the Cook Islands, the most popular of which is Aitutaki.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO:
- The Cook Islands are on the same time zone as Hawaii, just 3 hours behind Los Angeles. This made our travel and keeping track of days much easier than crossing the international date line like we did when we flew to Fiji earlier this year.
- The islands use the New Zealand Dollar as currency
- Be prepared - they drive on the left side of the road here. Luckily, the roads are very easy and without much traffic, so it's a great place to get used to this, if you haven't driven on the left before.
- Rarotonga is not as consistently hot as a lot of tropical islands, and gets cool at night.
WHERE TO STAY:
- Moana Sands - A brand new resort on the sunrise side of the island with a pool overlooking the ocean, and ocean views from every room.
- Pacific Resort Rarotonga - Pacific Resort is a local chain, with luxury locations on both Rarotonga and Aitutaki, a classic, high-end staple of the island.
- Rumours Luxury Villas - Every room is a private villa, complete with private pools. Ummm yes please?
- On a Budget? - Try a Vacation Home or Apartment Rental for simple, authentic local accommodations for a smaller price.
WHERE TO EAT:
- Kai Pizza - a little shack on the North of the island, we were super impressed with the pizza here. Sit on picnic tables outside, or take a pizza to go, grab a bottle of wine and eat it in your hotel bed - or do only we do that?
- Coco Latte - Great coffee, smoothies, and breakfast in a cute outdoor cafe.
- Le Bon Vivant - A more upscale cafe for everything from breakfast to dinner. A mix of amazing pastries, great dishes, and even Kombucha is on the menu.
LOCAL DINING FAVORITES:
- Muri Night Market - Every Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday evenings, the night market is the place to be. A variety of food stalls make everything from ribs and thai noodles, to local favorites, giant boozy crepes, and everything in between. You absolutely must stop here at least once in Rarotonga!
- Charlie's Cafe and Beach Bar - A place with everything! Good drinks, local beer, good food, a great beach, live music, the famous Tai's Weather Rock, Charlie's is a must-stop, for either day or night.
- Palace Take-Aways - A local side-of-the-road burger joint. We probably wouldn't have stopped here if our amazing guide hadn't mentioned it to us, and we were super glad we did. Try a burger "wet" - which is an extra helping of coleslaw that soaks through the bun, a favorite of the locals here.
- Raw Fish - In Fiji, we fell in love with Kokonda, a raw fish dish similar to ceviche, but made with coconut milk - and the Cook Islander raw fish is the closest we have found since. Super healthy, fresh, local, and tasty - we ordered this every chance we got.
THE BEST BEACHES:
- Black Rock Beach - An icon of the island, and a perfect, unobstructed view of the sunset. This beach is great to climbing on the rocks, swimming in the shallow water, snorkeling, and enjoying the views.
- Muri Beach and Lagoon - All of the beaches in Rarotonga are generally uncrowded, long, and with shallow waters you can wade out in to or snorkel in in calm waters. We loved that all of the beaches are so easy to access, you can just pull over and park along the main road and walk right there. Muri beach is one of the most beautiful beaches with the clearest water on the island.
- Aroa Beach - Another beautiful white sand beach!
- TitiKaveka Beach - And another beautiful white sand beach! We chose which beach to go to usually by which side of the island was windier at the time, and going to the other side. The island is so small, it's easy to just cruise the main road and stop at all of the best beaches in one afternoon. Find your favorite!
DON'T MISS OUT ON:
- Cross Island Trek and The Needle - There are a number of hiking trails on the small island, and this is the most popular and incredibly stunning. The full trail takes you from one end of the island, up to the highest summit, and then down to the other side, ending at a waterfall. Alternatively, you can reach the summit, and come back down the way you came. This was one of our highlights from Rarotonga - it was challenging but doable, with stunning views, and The Needle at the peak is truly a spectacle. The entire hike is a well-marked trail, and then to climb up the needle, there are ropes and chains to guide you. This part was definitely a bit scary, but is very well maintained, and so worth it! Pa's Island Treks have led guided tours here for decades, and know the island like no one else.
- Maire Nui Botanical Gardens - A really beautiful, lush garden that is very much worth a visit - for photos, or just to enjoy the peace. There is a cafe inside here for lunch or a coffee.
- A night at Hula Bar - A local favorite, the Hula Bar is a massive outdoor beach bar that is one of the best places for a night out in Rarotonga. Located directly across from the airport, it's a great stop for one last drink before your flight out, or to come dance and get your party on on the island.
- The Matai Wreck - The remains of a sunken ship sticking out of the water, visible from the main road. In calm waters, this is a great spot to swim out to and snorkel. Unfortunately, we were on the island during a few days of high wind, so we weren't able to check it out for ourselves! But our guide told us that it is one of his favorite things to do, so definitely add it to your list!
What to Wear:
Shop my favorite picks for Island style!