South Islands Attractions
The southern group consists of Rarotonga (the chief island in the archipelago), Mangaia, Atiu, Mauke and Mitiaro, Aitutaki, Manuae and Takutea (total area 212 sq.km). The most visited of the islands, and the best equipped to cater for visitors, are Rarotonga and Aitutaki. On the other islands there are only modest hotels and accommodation in private houses; but it is a marvelous experience to pay a flying visit to one or other of these almost entirely unspoiled islands. A 40- or 50-minute flight from Rarotonga will take you deep into the past.
The island of Rarotonga is the main point of entry for most visitors to the Cook Islands. Beaches line the coast, while the interior is dominated by lush mountains.
The atoll of Aitutaki is renowned for its wide turquoise lagoon, protected by the barrier reef which creates the calm waters that lap the beaches.
Mangaia (51.08 sq.km/31.66mi; up to 169m/554ft), the most southerly and the second-largest island in the archipelago, is in the shape of an irregular circle. The lower slopes of the central volcanic ridge are deeply indented by rivers. Round the central core are numerous irregularly shaped swampy depressions up to 366m/1200ft across, bounded at the lower end by limestone cliffs up to 60m/197ft high, sometimes dropping almost vertically. The cliffs are part of the 1.2-1.6km/.7-1mi wide plain of coralline limestone (makatea), much affected by karstic action, which surrounds the island's volcanic core. The water flowing down from the hills seeps away into dolines and extensive cave systems, to re-emerge on the shore or in karstic springs near the coast.The island is well provided with roads and tracks. Its fertile volcanic soil yields good yields of pineapples, coffee and other tropical produce for export.There are three small settlements on the island, Oneroa, Tamarua, and Ivirua. As with the rest of the Cook Islands, Mangaia is struggling to deal with a declining population. The island had a population of 2,000 in the 1960s and today is home to less than 500 people.
The atoll is formed by two horseshoe-shape islands, Manuae and Auoto (or Te-Au-O-Tu), separated from one another by a lagoon. The two islands, which have a total area of only 6sq.km/3.6sq.mi, consist of coral sand. The islands and the lagoon are surrounded by a continuous coral reef.Of the two islands only Manuae - an island of coconut plantations - has a permanent, if fluctuating, population. In addition to houses and administrative offices the little settlement has a health center and a number of copra-drying plants. Extra seasonal workers come from the neighboring islands. Outside the lagoon there is an anchorage for seagoing ships while a gap in the reef allows smaller vessels through. The other island, Auoto, can be reached only by boat over the lagoon. Within the lagoon and in the scrub near the shore white and blue herons and some other seabirds make their home. The turtles that are numerous here bring up their young in the lagoon. Visitors can reach Manuae only by boat at irregular intervals.
Mauke (18.4sq.km/11.4sq.mi) is the most easterly of the Cook Islands. The interior of the island is occupied by a much weathered basalt plateau with fertile soils, rising to a height of 30m/98ft, which is surrounded by a plain of coralline limestone up to 1.6km wide. In between the two there are occasional swampy depressions that are used for growing taro. The island is enclosed by a narrow fringing reef with a surf platform on the inner side. Six gaps in the reef allow small boats to reach the landing stages.There are two villages on Mauke, one near Taunganui Landing, with the post office, school and administrative offices, the other on the central plateau, with the church and a number of shops. The villages are linked by a good road and another road runs round the island. There are a number of large limestone caves. Like Atiu, Mauke has beautiful beaches, but here too the nearby reef with its broad surf platform restricts bathing.
The ancient meeting grounds of Puarakura Marae are still in use for ceremonial functions. The over grown ruins of other marae, including Marae Rangimanuka, Uke and Marae O Rongo, can be visited with a guide.
The island of Mitiaro (22.25sq.km/13.8sq.mi), northeast of Rarotonga, is in the form of an irregular oval. Like Atiu and Mauke, it has a raised reef surrounding the volcanic core and is enclosed by a continuous fringing reef. But unlike these islands, it consists not of a single volcano but of four low volcanic hills no more than 12m/39ft high surrounded by a belt of swampy land.The only settlement on the island is at Omutu Landing, with all the houses clustered round the post office, radio station, health center and copra drying building. From here gravel roads, each 2km/1.2mi long, run along the coast; the way over the swamps into the interior is on stone causeways. Two features of interest are a doline, 8m/26ft deep, and a stalactitic cave containing a lake of cold milky water that smells strongly of sulfur.There are almost no sandy beaches, but visitors can cool off in a number of pools on the fringing reef.
There are marae ruins in the interior of the island where the villagers lived prior to the arrival of missionaries. Karangarua, a very large marae, was discovered in 1989. They are mostly overgrown but may be visited with a guide.
Of interest on Mitiaro is the CICC Church along the west coast, which services the combined settlements in this area.
Takutea is an oval sand island (area 2.2sq.km/1.36sq.mi) surrounded by a coral reef. It is planted with coconut palms, which, since Takutea is uninhabited, are looked after from Atiu.
Atiu - Vai Momoiri
Vai Momoiri is a deep water filled canyon between the villages of Tarapaku Landing and Tengatangi.