Learn from my mistakes and just follow this simple guide to effectively enjoy your time in the Cook Islands.
I had never heard of the Cook Islands before last year and chances are, you’ve never heard of them either. The Cook Islands are chain of 15 small islands in the South Pacific in free association with New Zealand. Free Association is too complicated a subject for this post but basically they are a self-governing island nation that are citizens of New Zealand and also use New Zealand dollars as their currency (They also have the Cook Island dollar but can only be used there, whereas New Zealand dollars are currency in both). I remember looking at a map online learning about all the tiny little islands in the Pacific Ocean like the Johnston Atoll (fascinating history, good read) and stumbled across the Cook Islands. Just google image search Cook Islands, or rather I’ll just do that for you and you’ll know why.
I was sold.
I knew I had to visit the second I saw those pictures and began reading about them only to find out that flights from the US were expensive, like, $2000 USD roundtrip expensive. After learning that disappointing fact I figured I could go there from New Zealand at some point because I had plans to go to New Zealand before 30.
Some time went by and I never forgot about the Cook Islands but I didn’t look for flights either and I got an email from Scott’s Cheap Flights, a cheap flights mailing list I subscribe to (I am not affiliated in any way with Scott’s Cheap Flights and they do not pay me to endorse them. I just love their service and want to spread the word), LO AND BEHOLD! An email from Scott shows up in my inbox at the perfect time. Los Angeles to Rarotonga roundtrip in the $700’s no bag-fee on Air New Zealand and a one-way price in the $500’s.
I bought a one-way ticket to the Cook Islands.
But I didn’t know what to do there. I bought a ticket with no clue on what I wanted to do or see there. But now I know and this guide will help you.
Hostel or Hotel? Resort or Guesthouse? Do you want luxury and expensive or more basic and affordable? There are many accommodation options on the main island of Rarotonga and you are truly spoiled for choice, especially if you can afford more. I typically search for more basic and affordable accommodation like hostels when I’m traveling the world and there’s sadly not many to choose from here in that category.
The accommodation I booked is Backpackers International. Lauded as being the cheapest hostel at $15 USD per night ($20NZD) in Rarotonga, it was far from amazing but has everything you need and I really enjoyed my time here. While the place does not deserve high marks in most categories, the absolute most important thing about accommodation in the Cook Islands is proximity to the beach. If you’re not going to the beach in the Cook Islands why are you even going at all? Seriously. Proximity to the beach is key and there are many accommodations within walking distance to the beach.
Rent a scooter. Not a car.
Cars are, frankly, highly unnecessary. A 30-minute drive will complete an entire loop around the island so you’re never far from where you need to go. There’s a few companies you can rent a scooter from and I found the cheapest and best company was Polynesian Rental Cars & Bikes. They have good scooters and cheaper rates for 3+ day hire. Just make sure you bring your International Driver’s License (IDL), sometimes called an International Driver’s Permit (IDP) and your home country’s driver’s license. In the USA, only two private entities are authorized by the U.S. Department of State to issue an IDP, AAA is one that handles this service. Go to their website here or visit your local AAA branch. It’s $20 USD. They could refuse you a rental if you don’t have an IDP so it’s a good idea to just get yours.
There’s no shortage of eateries although you will pay more than if you buy your groceries and cook yourself, obviously. I’d normally cook breakfast and dinner in the hostel and buy lunch at various budget food joints wherever I was on the island. “Every budget hostel or motel provides kitchen facilities” says (http://cookislands.southpacific.org/rarotonga/food.html)
I cooked most of my meals at the hostel so I did most of my shopping at CITC Supermarket or Wigmore’s Super Store when I needed. Beer and wine can be purchased from most establishments but liquor needs to be purchased at a liquor store.
There’s so much to do but you’d go broke trying to do everything. Here’s some of the most popular activities.
Scuba Diving or Snorkeling
Very popular. There are a number of great dive site located all around the island, or so I’m told. Snorkeling was excellent as well.
Surfing, not so much
The entire island is surrounded by a large lagoon perimeter so all the big waves crash at the far end of the lagoon away from the beach. Great for snorkeling, not so for surfing.
Fly to Aitutaki
RT flights were about $350 NZD so if you got the coin this is a great option. Visually stunning and postcard worthy, Aitutaki is almost entirely a lagoon with a reef perimeter similar to Rarotonga, the Cook Island’s main island. Those travelers who I met that went to Aitutaki said it was amazing and worth every penny. I didn’t go but now I wish I did.
There’s a good hiking route called the cross-island trek. It’s well marked in either direction but generally goes North-South and will take a few hours at least. The highlight of the cross-island trek is The Needle, a strange tall rock formation pointing straight up towards the sky somewhere near the halfway point. Good Instagram photo op at the top too.
Without a doubt the most popular beach on Rarotonga and a good spot to rent a kayak, windsurf, or hop aboard the glass bottom boat, but not the “best” spot for snorkeling (but still good enough).
Also, don’t forget to try the Cook Islands Lager. I thought it was really good.