Island Time: The Cook Islands from A-Z

Shandelle Battersby
Photography By
Cook Islands Tourism Corporation

New Zealand Herald Travel Editor, Shandelle Battersby, looks at why you should be planning an island getaway to paradise and what you need to know before you go.

A is for Aitutaki. Outside of Rarotonga, this is the most famous of the other 14 islands in the Cooks and can be explored on a day trip.

B is for Boat. Make getting out on one a priority. Two companies - Koka and Captain Tama's - offer excellent lagoon cruises which include snorkelling, lunch, entertainment and education about the local culture. 

C is for Coconuts. Your head will spin at the many uses of this versatile "drupe" (botanically coconuts are neither fruit not nuts) which is a diet staple for many Pacific people. The treasures inside are healthy, sweet juice and the useful meat, which can be used fresh or dried in cooking, or eaten as is. Its oil is also used in beauty products.

D is for Dancing. It's worth getting along to a cultural show - traditional Cook Islands dancing is a spectacle, and the colourful headpieces and costumes the women wear. Te Vara Nui Village at Muri Beach is an excellent overwater show at night that tells the legend of Tongaiti through music and dance.

E is for Eating.There are some great restaurants on Rarotonga, many of which specialise in seafood and Pacific Rim cuisine. We recommend Vaima on the south side of the island (try the seafood curry) and The Anchorage at Sunset Resort near the airport (go for the smoked marlin bruschetta).

F is for Fish. As in the fresh stuff to eat and the tropical stuff good for snorkelling amongst. One local speciality you shouldn't miss is the ika mata (marinated raw fish, usually tuna), and head to The Mooring Fish Cafe near Avarua for a delicious FOB Sandwich (Fresh off the Boat) - fresh mahi-mahi and salad in between a couple of big slabs of focaccia.

G is for Gardens. A small entry fee will get you into the Maire Nui Gardens at Titikaveka - nearly 3ha of tropical botanic gardens with lily ponds and mountain views, and a great cafe, Hidden Spirit.

H is for honeymooners. The Cook Islands is a major wedding destination, especially for New Zealanders, with nearly 700 weddings a year taking place there. Loved-up couples are everywhere.

I is for Island Time. The best approach is a relaxing one. No one minds if you're a bit late, no one cares if you leave early. "I" is also for internet, which you'll struggle to find access to for free. You'll need to pay serious money to run your social media apps, so we advise switching them off or leaving your devices at home.

J is for Jesus. There's not really any escaping him in this deeply religious nation - there are churches everywhere. If you're in the country on a Sunday, get along to a moving 10am service - tourists are very welcome. The harmonious, passionate singing is powerful, and it's a privilege to see the locals dressed up in their finery.

K is for Kiwi. There are so many New Zealanders in the Cook Islands that it feels like an extension of Aotearoa. Cook Islanders speak/understand our accent, they use our money and they share our sense of humour, with their own twist of course. The native tongue is Cook Island Maori, which is obviously very similar to our te reo Maori, so many of the indigenous words sound the same as back home. The friendly greeting of kia orana will remind you of this as soon as you get off the plane.

L is for Lagoon. The second you see it you'll want to be swimming in its inviting clean and warm azure waters. If you're blatting about in a car or on a scooter or push bike, it's hard to keep your eyes on the road.

M is for Muri. One of the nicest and most popular beaches on Rarotonga, Muri is known for watersports and its mile-long expanse of white sand. This is where you'll find many of the island's top resorts, and most of its tourists.

N is for Nightlife. The top hotspots, we're reliably told, are all in Avarua: the legendary Trader Jack's, Rehab, Whatever! and The Staircase. Tik-e Tours offer happy hour cocktail hops on party tuk-tuks.

O is for Orientation. There's only one road you need to worry about in Rarotonga, and that's the 32km one that goes around the outside of the island. The key words here are left and right. The bus service keeps it simple - clockwise or anti-clockwise. It's also worth noting the speed limit is just 50km/h - which drops to 30km/h in Avarua and Muri.

P is for the Punanga Nui Cultural Market. Saturday mornings are the best time to visit, near the Avarua harbour, to browse fresh fruit and vege, gift and art and craft stalls, and see free cultural performances.

Q is for Queue. The Waffle Shack at the Punanga Nui marketplace from Monday to Saturday is the place to be, serving award-winning coffee and great food. If you have to wait, it'll be worth it.

R is for Reef shoes. You should wear a pair if you're going swimming or snorkelling - you don't want your holiday ruined by an encounter with fire coral or a stonefish.

S is for Sunset. There are many great spots to watch the sun go down, preferably with a cocktail in hand, on the southwestern side of the island. One local recommended settling in at Aro'a Beach.

T is for Temperature. No matter what time of year you visit, it's going to be warm, with January the warmest month (averaging 27C) and July the coldest (23C).

U is for Ukulele. Probably the souvenir you're most likely to go home with. You'll see plenty of people strumming away on one of these, usually accompanied by some amazing drumming.

V is for Volcano. Rarotonga is a volcanic island, and its terrain is rocky. These days though the volcanic peaks are covered in tropical bush, not lava.

W is for Waterfall. If there's been rain, Wigmore's Waterfall, in the hinterland, will be in full flight.

X is for eXtreme. There are some great adventures for adrenaline junkies, including the Raro Buggy Tour which explores the island's interior.

Y is for Yesterday. Even though the flight is short, you actually cross the dateline. Then add an hour. So you get there yesterday and you get home tomorrow. Get it?

Z is for Zero. Zero big name department stores, fast food outlets, or any chain store of any description. It's all about shopping and eating locally.

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