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13 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in the Cook Islands

Written by Karen Hastings
Nov 17, 2020

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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 have strong ties to New Zealand, but the country's culture is distinctly Polynesian, and the locals are among the friendliest on the planet.

Rarotonga, the visible tip of a volcanic cone, is the largest of the Cook Islands and one of the top places to visit for tourists. Its laid-back 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.

Idyllic tropical beach on Rarotonga
Idyllic tropical beach on Rarotonga

Aitutaki is the second most visited island. Dotted with 21 tiny palm-fringed islets, or motu, its sublimely 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.

Note: Some businesses may be temporarily closed due to recent global health and safety issues.

1. Aitutaki Lagoon

Aitutaki Lagoon
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.

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.

If you want to stay right on the lagoon, the over-the-water bungalows at the luxury Aitutaki Lagoon Private Island Resort perch right above its crystal-clear waters.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in the Cook Islands

2. Tapuaetai (One Foot Island) Tour

Tapuaetai (One Foot Island) Tour
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.

3. Muri Beach, Rarotonga

Muri Beach, Rarotonga
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.

4. Titikaveka Beach, Rarotonga

Titikaveka Beach, Rarotonga
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.

Snorkelers will find plenty 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

Te Vara Nui Village Tour & Cultural Show, Rarotonga
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 2.5-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, 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, and you can purchase just the tour or a dinner-only package if you prefer.

Location: Ara Tapu, Ngatangiia District

Official site: http://www.tevaranui.co.ck/

6. Cross-Island Hike to Te Rua Manga (The Needle), Rarotonga

Te Rua Manga
Te Rua Manga

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.

7. Aroa Marine Reserve, Rarotonga

Aroa Marine Reserve, Rarotonga
Aroa Marine Reserve, Rarotonga | marcia taylor / photo modified

Sheltered by the outlying reef on Rarotonga's west coast, the crystal-clear waters of the Aroa 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.

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

Maire Nui Gardens
Maire Nui Gardens | RDPixelShop / photo modified

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.

9. Avarua, Rarotonga

Aerial view of Avarua
Aerial view of Avarua

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 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. A popular souvenir to buy here are the beautiful black pearls. Most of the action takes place on Saturday mornings.

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.

10. Mount Maungapu, Aitutaki

View from Mount Maungapu
View from Mount Maungapu | Akos Kokai / photo modified

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.

11. Discover Marine and Wildlife Eco Centre, Rarotonga

Green sea turtles
Green sea turtles

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 adjacent Coconut Crab Cafe for a coffee or ice-cream.

Address: Main Road, Akaoa, Arorangi Cook Islands

12. Arutanga, Aitutaki

Cook Islands Christian Church, Arutanga, Aitutaki
Cook Islands Christian Church, Arutanga, Aitutaki | Philby / photo modified

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 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.

13. Arorangi, Rarotonga

Arorangi
Arorangi | Gregor Ronald / photo modified

Arorangi is a small village on the west side of Rarotonga and was the island's first missionary village. 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. And if you're looking for a fun family activity, take the kids to the Discover Marine and Wildlife Eco Centre.

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