14 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in the Cook Islands
Author Karen Hastings island-hopped around the Cook Islands during an extended visit. She loves the friendly people and the crystal-clear turquoise water.
The Cook Islands are a castaway's dream. Translucent turquoise lagoons, volcanic peaks, and dazzling palm-fringed beaches recall the dramatic beauty of Tahiti, but with a more affordable price tag.
Rarotonga, the visible tip of a volcanic cone, is one of the top places to visit in the Cook Islands, with beaches, resorts, cafés, and cultural attractions. 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 beautiful lagoon is the star attraction. Other more remote islands attract adventurers, anglers, and real-life Robinson Crusoes.
Beachcombing, fishing, kayaking, snorkeling, and swimming are favorite things to do throughout all these islands, and if you need a break from the sand and sea, you can hike lush jungle trails for mesmerizing views.
Once you lay eyes on these dreamy shores, you'll see why they rank among the most beautiful islands in the world. Wondering about the best places to visit? Take a look at our list of the top attractions in the Cook Islands.
1. Aitutaki Lagoon
This must be what heaven looks like. Aitutaki's picture-perfect lagoon glows in technicolor shades of turquoise, and 21 idyllic islets (motu) dot the clear waters, tempting you to paddle to their shores. Not surprisingly, this gorgeous spot has been dubbed one of the best places to enjoy a tropical vacation.
Activities: Kayaking is a great way to explore these tiny islets, but you can also visit some of the larger islands on cruises or tours. 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.
Thanks to its rich natural beauty, Aitutaki is one of the top islands to visit in the South Pacific, and the friendly locals add to its charm.
2. 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 worthwhile tourist attractions here.
On Sunday mornings, the sweet strains of Maori hymns waft from the Avarua 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.
Not far from Avarua, Perfumes of Rarotonga sells fragrances and colognes scented with local flowers, and it's a great spot to pick up some gifts.
Are you looking for things to do in Rarotonga at night? Wander over to Trader Jack's at Avarua Harbour for a sunset seafood dinner — Friday is the most popular night. And if you want to soak up some culture, Cook Islands hotels also host fun island nights with traditional dancing and pulsating drums.
3. Te Vara Nui Village Over-Water Night Show, Rarotonga
Attending the Over-Water Night Show and Buffet Dinner is one of the best things to do for families in Rarotonga's Te Vara Nui Village. Children and adults alike will love the exciting entertainment on offer at this unique one-hour show. It features a picturesque waterfall garden backdrop, traditional costumes, dancing, and music.
After enjoying the performance, it's time for an island-style feast. Both western cuisine and traditional Cook Islands food 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.
Location: Ara Tapu, Ngatangiia District
4. 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 looks like it belongs in a tropical island fantasy. You can bask on its gleaming white sands, wade and snorkel in the turquoise lagoon, and even get your 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. The island is also a popular spot for weddings.
Tours to the island are one of the most popular things to do in the Cook Islands from Aitutaki, and most include plenty of time to snorkel. Among the sea life commonly spotted here are giant clams, giant trevally, and brightly colored coral. Most tours also include a barbecue lunch and visits to other motu (islets) in the lagoon.
5. Arorangi, Rarotonga
Arorangi is a small village on the west side of Rarotonga and was the island's first missionary village. Today, you can visit the Arorangi 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. And if you're looking for a fun family activity, take the kids to the Discover Marine and Wildlife Eco Centre.
6. 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, you can grab a bite to eat at one of the many nearby resorts and restaurants.
7. Maire Nui Gardens, Rarotonga
Wondering where to go in the Cook Islands when you need break from the beach? A short stroll from Titikaveka Beach, the delightful organic Maire Nui Gardens will immerse you in the vibrant beauty of Cook Islands' flora.
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 wafts through the warm air.
After wandering through the garden, you can relax with a snack at the cute little open-sided café. Entry is by donation in an honesty box by the entrance.
8. 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 you need only stand in the lagoon to spot colorful fish.
Be sure to pack your snorkel gear, as there is plenty of marine life around the many coral heads, and the lagoon is dotted with blue sea stars. An underwater camera is another must-have. This beach is also great for kayaking.
If you're looking for the most romantic beach for couples, this might just be it. The soft sand is often free from other tourists, leaving you to feel as if you have the whole beach to yourselves.
In the small settlement nearby, you can visit the coral stone Cook Islands Christian Church dating from 1841.
9. Punanga Nui Outdoor Market, Rarotonga
If you're in Avarua on a Saturday, the vibrant waterfront Punanga Nui Outdoor Market is a must-visit attraction. The market is open from 7am to 3pm from Monday to Friday, but it's on Saturdays (from 7am to 12pm) that you'll find a larger variety of tasty and creative finds. Saturdays also play host to live shows depicting the island's culture.
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.
A popular souvenir to buy here are the beautiful black pearls, but you'll also find everything from T-shirts to bed sheets on offer. Be sure to have cash on hand.
10. 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), one of the island's most famous landmarks. It then leads 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 finger of 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. Note that climbing The Needle itself 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, and it's essential to have sturdy footwear. It's also best to avoid the trail after heavy rain, as some sections are steep and slippery.
11. Aroa Lagoonarium Marine Reserve, Rarotonga
Sheltered by the outlying reef on Rarotonga's west coast, the crystal-clear waters of the Aroa Lagoonarium Marine Reserve are among the best places on the island for snorkeling. Parrot fish, Moorish idols, moray eels, wrasse, and angelfish are just some of the species snorkelers might spot here.
Best of all, the lagoon is off-limits to motorized boats, making it especially safe for swimming and snorkeling with small children. Kayaking on the calm waters is also a popular thing to do here.
After a day exploring the underwater life, you can relax and watch the sunset from the beautiful beach.
12. 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 Cook Islands map available on the island.
Bring plenty of water, insect repellent, and a camera.
13. Discover Marine and Wildlife Eco Centre, Rarotonga
Looking for things to do in Rarotonga, Cook Islands on a rainy day? Head to Discover Marine and Wildlife Eco Centre.
Packed with interactive displays, this small but well-curated museum will teach you everything you ever wanted to know about the quirky marine creatures of the Cook Islands, from the deadly stonefish to giant coconut crabs. You can also learn the fascinating stories behind the shipwrecks that sunk along these shores.
This is a great place to take the kids. They can hold a blue sea star, get up close to baby turtles, and learn about the islands' ubiquitous hermit crabs. After your visit, pop by the Lickity Splitz Ice Cream Parlour for a sweet treat.
Address: Main Road, Akaoa, Arorangi Cook Islands
14. 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, but the main thing to do is wander around and soak up an authentic slice of island life.
One of the town's main attractions is the Arutanga 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. If you're lucky, you might hear the soul-stirring sounds of the local congregation singing their hearts out on a Sunday.
The Cook Islands - Climate Chart
|Average minimum and maximum temperatures for Rarotonga, Cook Islands in °C|
|29 23||29 23||28 23||27 22||26 21||25 19||25 18||25 18||25 19||26 20||27 21||28 22|
|Average monthly precipitation totals for Rarotonga, Cook Islands in mm.|
|Average minimum and maximum temperatures for Rarotonga, Cook Islands in °F|
|84 73||84 73||83 73||81 71||79 69||77 66||77 65||77 65||77 66||79 68||80 69||82 72|
|Average monthly precipitation totals for Rarotonga, Cook Islands in inches.|
Map of the Cook Islands - Top-Rated Tourist Attractions
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 and the top islands in the South Pacific.