12 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in the Cook Islands
The Cook Islands are a castaway's dream. Among the most beautiful of all the Polynesian Islands, the archipelago's 15 islands lie flung between French Polynesia and Samoa. Translucent turquoise lagoons, volcanic peaks, and dazzling palm-fringed beaches recall the dramatic beauty of Tahiti, but with a more affordable price tag. The Cook Islands exude a warm and welcoming Polynesian hospitality, but instead of a French influence, the islands have strong ties to New Zealand.
Rarotonga and Aitutaki are the main tourist magnets. Other more remote islands attract adventurers, anglers, and real-life Robinson Crusoes. Rarotonga, the visible tip of a volcanic cone, is the largest of the Cook Islands, and its friendly capital, Avarua, is the commercial and cultural center of the islands. Around the lush peaks of the interior lies a coastal plain where coconut palms, papaya, bananas, and coffee plants flourish. Coral reefs ring the island, enclosing a narrow lagoon that offers excellent swimming and snorkeling opportunities. Aitutaki is the second most visited island. Dotted with 21 tiny palm-fringed islets or motu, its sublimely beautiful lagoon is the star attraction. Beachcombing, fishing, kayaking, snorkeling, and swimming are favorite things to do throughout all these islands, and once you lay eyes on them, you'll see why they rank among the most beautiful islands in the world.
1 Editor's Pick Aitutaki Lagoon
Aitutaki's main attraction is the large picture-perfect lagoon with translucent turquoise water. Twenty-one small islands (motu) dot the outer edge of the lagoon, some of which can be visited on cruises or tours. Kayaking is also a great way to explore these tiny islets. The small island of Maina in the southwest corner of the lagoon offers excellent snorkeling opportunities and is home to a beautiful sandbar known as "Honeymoon Island." The lagoon is also a popular spot for bonefishing, and you can hire local guides on the island.
If you want to stay right on the lagoon, the over-the-water bungalows at the luxury Aitutaki Lagoon Resort & Spa perch right above its crystal-clear waters.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in the Cook Islands
2 Tapuaetai (One Foot Island) Tour
Fringed by gently curving coconut palms, beautiful Tapuaetai, or One Foot Island as it is more commonly known, is the most visited of Aitutaki's motu, and for good reason. This stunning island is worthy of most people's wildest tropical fantasies. Beach-lovers can bask on its beautiful white sands, wade and snorkel in the turquoise lagoon, and even get their passport stamped at the tiny post office. Hermit crabs scuttle along the shore, and you can walk around the entire island in about 20 minutes. This is also a popular spot for weddings. Tours depart from Aitutaki, and most include plenty of time to snorkel, a barbecue lunch, and visits to other motu (islets) in the lagoon.
3 Muri Beach, Rarotonga
On the southeast coast of Rarotonga, Muri Beach or Muri Lagoon, as it is sometimes called, is one of the most popular and picturesque beaches on the island. Although the water quality has declined in recent years, the shallows stretch into dreamy shades of aquamarine, and snorkelers can see many species of tropical fish. Four offshore islets, called motu, shimmer on the horizon, enhancing the beauty of the area. After a day in the sun, hungry beachcombers will find many dining options in the nearby resorts and restaurants.
4 Titikaveka Beach, Rarotonga
On the southwest coast of Rarotonga, pretty Titikaveka Beach and lagoon is one of the island's best areas to swim and snorkel. The water is often so clear that swimmers need only stand in the lagoon to spot colorful fish. Snorkelers will find a plethora of marine life around the many coral heads, and the lagoon is dotted with blue sea stars. It's also great for kayaking.
In the small settlement nearby, you can visit the coral stone Cook Islands Christian Church dating from 1841.
5 Te Vara Nui Village Tour & Cultural Show, Rarotonga
A fun way to learn a little about the history of the Cook Islands and traditional island life is a visit to the Te Vara Nui Village. The excursion begins with a two-hour guided tour of the village. Coconut husking, cooking, fishing, dancing, carving, weaving, and Maori bush medicine are just some of the activities you can learn about on the tour. After soaking up all the culture, an island-style feast with both western food and local dishes awaits in the waterside dining room, along with a cultural performance incorporating storytelling through song and dance. The evocative over-the-water setting, elaborate costumes, and opportunities for audience participation make this experience even more memorable. Hotel pickup and drop-off is also available, and you can opt for a dinner-only package if you prefer.
Location: Ara Tapu, Ngatangiia District
6 Cross-Island Hike to Te Rua Manga (The Needle), Rarotonga
Hiking the cross-island track is a great way to explore Rarotonga's lush scenery. The trail leads from the north coast up to the distinctive pinnacle rock Te Rua Manga (The Needle) and then via Wigmore's Waterfall to the south coast. The falls are beautiful after heavy rain, with a pool at their base, but the cascades slow to a trickle during the dry season.
This challenging hike takes about four hours and leads through dense forest, climbing to the base of The Needle, a steep, bald rock that juts straight up into the air. From the base of the Needle, you can enjoy beautiful views over the coast and surrounding forest. (Climbing The Needle is only for serious rock climbers.) The trail then continues past Wigmore's Waterfall to the opposite side of the island. You can also start at the north end of the trail, hike to The Needle, and return back to the same starting point. Guides are highly recommended, though not mandatory.
7 Aroa Marine Reserve, Rarotonga
Sheltered by the outlying reef on Rarotonga's west coast, the crystal clear waters of the Aroa Marine Reserve are excellent for snorkeling. Parrot fish, Moorish idols, wrasse, and angelfish are just some of the species snorkelers might spot here, and the lagoon is off-limits to motorized boats, making it especially safe for swimming and snorkeling with small children. Kayaking is also a popular pursuit. After a day exploring the underwater life, you can relax and watch the sunset from the beautiful beach.
Not far from Aroa Marine Reserve, Cocoputt Cook Islands is an 18-hole mini-golf course with a fun dinner package that's especially popular with families.
8 Maire Nui Gardens, Rarotonga
A short stroll from Titikaveka Beach, the delightful organic Maire Nui Gardens offer a change of pace from the usual sun, sand, and sea activities. Flecked with tropical flowers, this seven-acre property is a lovely place for a stroll, with lily-topped ponds, wild ginger, hibiscus, and plenty of palms among the many plants flourishing here. Dragonflies flit through the lush foliage, and the sweet fragrance of tropical flowers imbues the air. After wandering through the garden, you can relax with a snack at the cute little open-sided cafe. Entry is by donation in an honesty box by the entrance.
9 Avarua, Rarotonga
Situated on the north coast of Rarotonga, Avarua is the capital of the Cook Islands. This relaxed little town has a friendly feel, and you'll find shops, restaurants, and several tourist attractions here. On Sunday mornings, the sweet strains of Maori hymns waft from the CICC (Cook Islands Christian Church). Dating from 1853, the church is made of coral, and some of the island's most famous people are buried in its graveyard, including the first prime minister of the Cook Islands. The Cook Islands Library and Museum houses a collection of rare books on the Pacific, and the museum offers a glimpse of the cultural history of the islands. Just offshore from Avarua, you can see the rusted wreck of the Matai jutting out of the water. This century-old wreck is a popular spot to snorkel, and you can also view it on a semi-submersible.
A must-see is the vibrant Punanga Nui Outdoor Market on the waterfront. This is a popular place for shopping in Rarotonga, with mountains of mangos, pineapples, and passion fruit, as well as fragrant tropical flowers, vegetables, clothes, and crafts. Most of the action takes place on Saturday mornings. Not far from Avarua, Perfumes of Rarotonga sells perfumes and colognes scented with local flowers and is a great spot to pick up some gifts.
10 Mount Maungapu, Aitutaki
At 124 meters, Mount Maungapu is the highest point on Aitutaki. A short 30-minute hike to the top affords spectacular views over the lagoon and lush, palm-studded landscape. A sign on the road opposite Paradise Cove marks the trailhead, and the track is marked on the free maps available on the island. Bring plenty of water, insect repellent, and a camera.
11 Arutanga, Aitutaki
Dotted with mango trees and hibiscus flowers, sleepy Arutanga is the main settlement on Aitutaki. Tourists will find a few craft stores here as well as a quiet harbor. One of the town's main attractions is the Cook Islands Christian Church. Built in 1828, it's the oldest in the Cook Islands and one of the most attractive, with stained glass windows and colorful carved wooden accents.
Arorangi is a small village on the west side of the island. It was the first missionary village on Rarotonga. Today, you can visit the Cook Island Christian Church dating from 1849 and view a monument to the island's first missionary, Papeiha. Arorangi Beach is a beautiful spot to bask on the sand by day and watch the sun sink into the sea at dusk.
More Must-See Islands in the South Pacific & Beyond
Northwest of the Cook Islands, Fiji is the quintessential tropical paradise, with more than 300 stunning tropical islands. Our Best Fiji Islands article will show you the top destinations. For inspiration on other tropical islands and getaways, see our pages on the Most Beautiful Islands in the World, the Best Tropical Vacations, and the Top Islands in the South Pacific.
South of the Cook Islands, New Zealand is known for its dramatic topography and adventure sports. Top places to visit here include the beautiful Bay of Islands, Queenstown, Taupo, Napier, Fiordland National Park, the Westland Region, Dunedin, and Rotorua. Flights to the Cook Islands depart from its vibrant capital, Auckland.