While Tahiti and Fiji receive most of the attention, it’s the lesser-known Cook Islands which epitomize that South Seas destination you always dreamt of. With no traffic and fewer tourists to contend with, visitors have their very own islands to lose themselves in.
There are a lot of islands in the South Pacific, but only one of them is that island. It’s that one you’ve always wanted to find: all big, green mountains spilling down into blue lagoons with barely a house in between; that’s big enough to get lost in, but small enough you’ll know your way around in a day or two.
I grew up on Rarotonga and always wondered why so few travelers came – how it’s flown under the radar is anyone’s guess. Fiji can get crowded, Tahiti’s expensive – but the Cook Islands are neither.
That’s the beauty of the place. Sure, there’s five-star hotels on lagoons but there’s still more pigs on the roads than cars. There’s no high-rise anywhere – no building’s taller than a coconut tree, it’s the law. There’s no traffic lights and the speed limit is set at 30mph. On Rarotonga you won’t find a chain hotel, nor will you be transported to a private island resort by helicopter – as is often the case in Fiji.
For a tiny island that’s 27-square-miles in size, and circumnavigable in barely 40-minutes, you can still get lost.All it takes me is a small detour from the main coast road to the 1000-year-old inland road, Are Metua to leave the modern world behind. Here locals farm taro plantations, with their pigs tied to coconut trees. Every time I return, I discover a new path into a valley I haven’t seen before.
The Cook Islands are as sophisticated as any South Pacific destination. Tourism is its staple industry, and you’ll find everything from luxury safari tents to romantic five-star villas. Rarotonga also has the best nightlife in the South Pacific, though it never comes at the expense of its sleepy lifestyle.
It’s home to the best sunset bars and restaurants in the whole Pacific set on the sand on Rarotonga’s west coast at Aorangi. They’re all located close to each other – like the Waterline Restaurant & Bar, Wilson’s Bar and the Shipwreck Hut.
But it’s the locals that have always made the Cook Islands special. Crime is almost non-existent, and you won’t find friendlier souls. Family is sacred (yours are just as important), and the Cook Islanders are the extroverts of the South Pacific – they love to socialize, so it’s little wonder there’s every type of restaurant, café, and bar. You can try everything from fish caught that morning at a café 16-feet from the lagoon, to gourmet Polynesian-fusion meals in restored colonial buildings.
The best plan to enjoy Rarotonga is to have no plan. Hire a scooter (there’s no safer place to try it for the first time) or car and follow the road right around. Rarotonga’s encircled by a barrier reef, so there’s safe swimming options all over. Many visitors prefer the widest section of the lagoon at Muri – it’s where you’ll find some of the fanciest accommodation options (and a bustling night market). You’re surrounded by four tiny, uninhabited motu (islets) you can swim to.
Though you need never leave Rarotonga, it’s worth taking the 45-minute flight north to Aitutaki. Travelers wanting to get away from it all can lose themselves here amongst the island’s eight tiny, peaceful communities (there’s just 1,400 locals) and on one of the South Pacific’s most celebrated lagoons. This lagoon (unlike Bora Bora’s) isn’t home to five-star chain resorts, instead it’s home to uninhabited motu (islets) owned by locals where there’s no-one around but the occasional fisherman. Aitutaki is a honeymooner’s dream: the Cook Islands’ most awarded romantic resorts can be found here, and most activities revolve around escaping to someplace of your own within the lagoon.
For Robinson Crusoe bragging rights, consider flying just a little further (but still under an hour) to little-visited gems like Atiu and Mangaia – both islands receive less than 100 visitors a year, and you’re almost guaranteed to have the island for yourselves.