The Cook Islands, founded by Captain Cook of course, get lost in the South Pacific shuffle. You never hear too much about them because they are overshadowed by neighbors with more marketable sounding names like Tahiti and Fiji. The only things that I really knew about the Cook Islands before I got there were that my Grandparents went there in the 1980’s on a cruise and loved it; people launder money there; and the guy who tried to con everyone on my crappy Tokelau boat lives there too. That aside, the islands were sort of a mystery to me. But as always, upon closer inspection and some unreal scenery and great times, the Cooks are one of my favorite destinations and right there with Fiji for all around fun and beauty in the South Pacific.
The most important thing about the Cook Islands for anyone who is going there is that the best islands are not Rarotonga which is where all International flights land. It’s the main island and capital if you will. Rarotonga is nice and you will like it there but in order to get what I am talking about with the Cooks greatness; you have to go to Aitutaki and its surrounding lagoon and atoll. It’s pure heaven and a paradise. It’s the South Pacific you dream about when you’re miserable at work and staring at that Microsoft screensaver of that gorgeous little island and all that crystal clear azure water. It’s perfect.
There are two options in visiting Aitutaki, well three I suppose, if you have your own yacht or are on a cruise ship from Tahiti. Otherwise you can fly on Air Rarotonga and pay up the ass for a round trip ticket for some NZ$500-600 depending on the deal and how sold out they are. Or better, you can do a day trip there which includes both flights, transfers, an incredible lunch of fresh tuna caught right there and the can’t miss lagoon/snorkeling cruise which is as good as it gets. You get that for NZ$459; still expensive for a day trip but you end up saving several hundred dollars when you factor in the costs of the cruise, car transfers, lunch etc. This is the exact reason why Aitutaki is not more well known. The costs are expensive and most people never leave Rarotonga.
There are other lagoon cruises on Aitutaki but the Air Rarotonga one has the biggest and best boat which has plenty of space for everyone to relax, lie out in the sun and eat comfortably. The tour starts with a quick tour of Aitutaki including a climb up to the highest point on the island for some nice views of the lagoon. The fun really starts when you get on the boat and start island hopping around the crater atoll from one amazing tropical island to the other. If you’re wondering what makes it different than a similar thing in Fiji, I can tell you it’s that the scenery is divine, it’s perfect. Pictures cannot do it justice. The colors, the contrasts, the sandbars, the swaying palms and the amazing weather make it memorable.
There is one sandbar island near One Foot Island in the atoll that hosts weddings. There is nothing else on the sandbar but it is a permanent one that doesn’t disappear with the tides. When you get married there, you are allowed to plant a coconut which will eventually bring your very own palm tree. There are something like 15 baby palms starting to spout. I just think that if you were going to get married, that’d be a cool place to do it for sure.
One Foot Island by the way is an awesome island smack dab in the middle of the atoll and host of the main crux of the tour. It even has the worlds smallest post office where you can buy stamps and even a souvenir passport stamp from One Foot Island, Aitutaki and it’s in the shape of a foot.
My group of 18 on the tour was made up of a very International group including six female travel agents who liked to drink beer and wine all day and were a lot of fun. They were there on a free trip from the Tourism Bureau so they’d recommend the Cooks to their clients back in Oz. The rest of the people were much more subdued, anchored by the usually stoic German families and some Kiwi families. Good people all and made for a memorable day and one I cannot recommend enough.
Back on Rarotonga, I stayed at the Rarotonga Backpackers on the west coast of the island which is easily circumnavigated on scooter as it’s only 32km around the whole island. There is a road that goes around the entire perimeter and one that encircles most of the interior where many locals live.
There are two Rarotonga Backpackers, one beachside and one hillside. I had originally wanted the beachside one but as I didn’t book until the day before as always, they were booked up so I got the hillside. As usual, it ended up working out great. I got upgraded to the single apartment with full ensuite and fan for only NZ$36. Something like that in Oz or NZ would be double or triple that easily. The other thing was I had great people in the hostel with me which always makes the experience great.
Rarotonga is a very cosmopolitan island as far as Pacific Islands go and has a lot of good restaurants, bars and hotels. The two best restaurants are Tamarind on the north of the island and Vaima on the south. I ate at both and highly recommend each of them for great Polynesian fusion food and cool atmosphere. I especially loved the coconut chicken curry at Tamarind and appreciated the owners trying to recover the wifi password for me so diligently; albeit unsuccessfully but that’s life on the islands!
The other great thing about Rarotonga is they have these island nights each night at one of the big hotels and resorts. I went on a Monday night with two Canadians that I met at the backpackers to a place called the Crown Beach Hotel. I wasn’t terribly excited in the beginning because I have seen many shows like this all around the Pacific on different islands. You’d really have to be a student of Pacific history to truly know the differences between all the music and dances but they are always fun nonetheless.
This particular show was excellent and included a fantastic buffet dinner for only NZ$45. The two Canadians I went with really loved it too as it was their first one which added to my enjoyment. Sometimes when you get jaded with certain things, it takes a new vision to make you appreciate how cool some of these things are. The best was that they called me up onto the stage to dance with one of the island women.
Funny thing about this show was that it included children dancers as well and all the dancers had to go out into the audience and select a partner to dance with. My partner happened to be five years old (above to my right)! It was really cute and she was trying to teach me how to do the weird island knee banging dance thing. Mind you, I am a shitty dancer to begin with but when instructed by a five year old, I am even worse! However, it was pretty fun and everyone laughed.
The best beach on Rarotonga and the biggest center for tourists and resorts is Muri Beach (below) and the surrounding lagoon which is fantastic. It is not as picturesque as Aitutaki but if I hadn’t have seen Aitutaki; I would have said how great Muri is. It is also the home to the lagoon boat tours and some good restaurants on the beach for lunch and happy hour. Sails was my favorite, they do a great fish and chips complete with a Steinlager beer (aka the green bullet) which tastes like piss but that’s beside the point!
I didn’t do the tour but you can walk across the lagoon over the neighboring island where they do the tour barbeque and show and I did piggyback onto it and watched the natives climb the palm trees with such ease. It made me really want to try it but with my foot still pretty beat up from that damn scooter accident on Christmas Island, I decided against it.
The same injury also caused me not to do the hike through the mountainous center of Rarotonga which is a 3-4 hour hike through beautiful and lush green mountains. It kind of looks like Hawaii and is supposed to be a nice hike, albeit full of mosquitoes. Mosquitoes and stray dogs are actually the only bad thing about Rarotonga. The dogs aren’t violent or imposing like on Samoa but they are annoying and will just sit next to you on the beach or try and eat your food. Luckily they aren’t the really gross ones with like 10 nipples and low hanging utters or whatever you call those things on dogs! That aside, I really loved my time on Rarotonga.
So when you head to the Cooks, make sure you head out to Aitutaki and get over to Muri Beach on Rarotonga. It is a great set of islands and a great spot to be held up for a few days or even a week. You can also combine it with a trip to Tahiti, New Zealand and even get a direct flight to Los Angeles. But that’s it so plan ahead.