How to nail a perfect week in the Cook Islands
Brett Atkinson creates the ideal itinerary for a blissful week in paradise.
Relaxation, island adventures and brilliant eating and drinking all combine on a week-long getaway exploring Rarotonga and Aitutaki. Time a visit around the weekend to make the most of weekly events including popular markets and a Sunday morning church visit featuring superb South Pacific harmonies.
Kick off a Cook Islands sojourn with a bit of time travel, leaving Auckland on a Saturday morning, and courtesy of crossing the International Date Line, arriving in Rarotonga on Friday afternoon. Relax into your accommodation before making your way to the Waterline Restaurant & Beach Bar on Rarotonga's west coast for a first-night island sunset. Cocktails, live music and a sand-between-your-toes spot in one of the Waterline's Cape Cod-style chairs make the early start from Auckland all worthwhile.
Part two of being fast-tracked to an island state of mind is visiting the weekly Punanga Nui market. Order up a takeaway coffee and browse the various food stalls and arts and crafts outlets.
Still-warm coconut buns and a tropical fruit smoothie are good breakfast options, while traditional flavours include grilled māroro (flying fish) and coconut-cream infused rukau (young taro leaves). Umu (the Cook Islands version of a hāngī) lunch packs are popular with locals. Handmade ukuleles make a great Cook Islands souvenir, and there's often music and dancing scheduled at the market.
Head south to the sheltered waters on Muri Lagoon, and kayak or paddleboard to palm tree-covered motu (islets). Muri-based KiteSUP rent both kayaks and paddleboards, and also offer guided Fire on the Water night experiences. Paddleboards framed with LED lights illuminate the lagoon, and tours culminate with a traditional fire show on a deserted motu. Options for Saturday evening nightlife along Muri lagoon include dinner and drinks on the deck of the R.S.C. (Rarotonga Sailing Club) Bar & Brasserie.
Sunday's a day of rest in the Cook Islands, so ease into a relaxed few hours by attending church. Look forward to locals dressed in their sparkling white Sunday best, colourful hats trimmed with tropical flowers and heavenly harmonies.
The Cook Islands Christian Church (CICC) in Avarua is the most popular, but the Titikaveka CICC near Muri or the Arorangi CICC on Rarotonga's west coast are historic and welcoming alternatives. Visitors are invited to stay for refreshments following the service.
After a seared tuna sandwich at the Mooring Fish Cafe, stay on for the impromptu live music or island DJ beats that sometimes enliven the cafe on Sunday afternoons.
Just around the coast, the Tikioki Marine Reserve offers some of Rarotonga's finest snorkelling. The best displays of fish and coral are further out in the lagoon, where flippers are recommended to combat stronger currents. Nearby, the roadside stand at Chantal's Concierge has snorkelling gear for hire. End the day back in Muri, feasting on traditional island flavours at the relaxed Muri night market. A freshly-opened nu (young coconut) is the ultimate island electrolyte drink.
Head out with Ariki Adventures on a Turtle Sea Scooter Safari, harnessing a Yamaha sea scooter to snorkel safely in the Avaavaroa Passage. Pacific green and hawsksbill turtles are regularly seen, along with eagle rays and the occasional reef shark.
Exploring the passage safely is only possible around low tide, so if tide times don't work out, spend the morning steering a zippy vehicle around Raro Buggy Tours off-road trails. You'll end up incredibly muddy, and more than happy to clean up with a swim at Papua (Wigmore's Waterfall) after all the twisting and turning action.
After a busy few days, relaxing by the pool or in a hammock with lagoon views is an entirely appropriate response, but to learn about the Cook Islands' environmental initiatives, spend the afternoon at the Discover Marine & Wildlife Eco Centre in Arorangi. The centre includes bird rescue facilities, stonefish, coconut crabs and short-finned eels, and is also used for the rehabilitation of sea turtles.
Continue for dinner and drinks at Trader Jacks in Avarua, securing a spot on the deck to watch Raro's oe vaka (outrigger canoe) enthusiasts heading out for an after-work paddle. Local kids are usually playing around and jumping off the nearby wharf.
Ease into a travelling day with a brunch selection delivered to your accommodation by Island Platters. Coconut bread, an overflowing selection of tropical fruit, and an omelette, hash browns and breakfast sausages should be enough to get you through to an afternoon Air Rarotonga flight 50 minutes north to Aitutaki. Landing above the expansive turquoise spectacle of Aitutaki's lagoon is one of the Pacific's great travel experiences.
By rental car or scooter, drive to Avatea Cafe in the Aitutaki village of Tautu. Opened right before the borders closed in March 2020, the garden cafe's successfully negotiated the last couple of years by serving up some of the best food in the Cooks. They're keen on harnessing local ingredients, and there's a cosmopolitan sheen to a menu including brilliant burgers, fish tacos and poke bowls loaded with sesame and lime-marinated tuna. Ask what seasonal icecream flavours are available.
Explore Aitutaki's world-famous lagoon with Quinton Schofield from Wet & Wild. A full day's outing could be a relaxed experience combining snorkelling with tropical fish above banks of coral and visits to deserted lagoon motu, or he can arrange a more active schedule including tube-riding, wakeboarding and spearfishing.
Either way, a delicious curried papaya salad and grilled fish with Quinton's "special sauce" is bound to feature as a mid-afternoon lunch.
Poolside tapas and cocktails at the Pacific Resort's Black Rock bar are a great way to experience an Aitutaki sunset. Go easy though, as you'll need to be up the following morning around dawn.
Get an early start with Mike Tekotia from Black Pearl Charters, traversing the Arutanga Passage out of the lagoon to the much deeper waters of the South Pacific. Mike heads out to the various FADs ("Fish Aggregation Devices") arrayed around Aitutaki, ideal fishing grounds to catch sleek and glistening yellow-fin tuna. Experienced fisher folk and absolute newbies are both catered to, with Mike making it easy for everyone to catch a fish. Depending on the season, wahoo and mahi mahi are also landed.
Drawing tourists from around Aitutaki, Island Night at the Tamanu Island Resort is a long-standing Thursday night tradition. Look forward to stellar harmonies and loads of fun from Tamanu's ukulele quintet – who knew 4 Non Blondes' What's Up? sounded so good island-style? - and energetic dancing and drumming kicks off after a lagoon-side buffet. Tamanu's cocktails come with a mini-umbrella that's equally island-style.
Relax at Aitutaki's Koru Cafe before making the short drive to the airport and a flight south to Rarotonga, linking to Air New Zealand's afternoon departure to Auckland, and an International Dateline-crossing arrival back in Aotearoa on Saturday night.