The Cook Islands encompasses a beautiful archipelago in the South Pacific, where you can expect to find sapphire-blue oceans surrounding white, sandy beaches and lush, tropical rainforests.
The main island, Rarotonga, is home to the capital of the Cook Islands, Avarua, and houses the majority of the Cook Islands population. You’ll also find plenty of incredible Rarotonga resorts here, making it the perfect place to stay while you explore the main island as well as the neighbouring ones.
The Cook Islands is known for its stunning beaches and laid-back lifestyle, and it can be tempting to spend all your time at a resort. However, there are still a lot of places in the Cook Islands which are well-worth visiting. Read on to find out some of our top picks.
The capital of the Cook Islands, Avarua is the largest town in the country and is located on the northern coast of Rarotonga. The town is about as relaxed as it gets with restaurants, bars and shops dotted along the beachfront.
Avarua isn't in the prettiest part of the island and this isn't where you go for swimming or snorkelling. However, it’s the best place to visit to pick up some souvenirs, go shopping and enjoy a bite to eat.
Trader Jack’s is one of the top restaurants in Rarotonga and is located in the heart of Avarua. As well as being a popular spot for pizza, Trader Jack’s is a must-visit spot for an epic sunset, seafood dinner.
Avarua also contains some of the best things to do in Rarotonga, including the Cook Islands Library and Museum, and the Cook Islands Christian Church. The latter of which is a special piece of Cook Islands History dating back to 1852.
Shopping is also a top activity here, with some popular spots including Punanga Nui Market, Perfumes of Rarotonga and Beachcomber Pearl Market. You’ll also find some cool little stores selling clothes and souvenirs.
Avarua may be the capital, but Muri Beach is the place to be in Rarotonga. Located on the stunning southeast portion of the island, the beach is lined with high-end resorts which overlook a lagoon with three ‘motus’ jutting out of the water.
A few minutes’ walk inland from the beach you’ll find a few restaurants and shops. This is also where the Muri Night Markets are located - one of the top spots on the island to try out some of the local foods.
Muri Beach is considered one of the most beautiful in the Cook Islands, however, the water quality here has declined. Pollution has increased with the number of visitors to the area, and he water in Muri isn't as clear as other beaches on the island. As a result, it's not the best spot for snorkelling in Rarotonga and you may opt for kayaking or other water sports instead.
If you are staying in Muri and want a great snorkelling experience, Captain Tamas Beach Tours operate from Muri Beach. Their tours take you out to the edge of the lagoon near the reef. The sea life you can find out here is incredible and some of the fish are huge.
The natural beauty of the Cook Islands extends beyond the beaches. Te Rua Manga, or The Needle, is a towering rock formation in the centre of Rarotonga, perched atop a hill.
While you can see it from most parts of the island, getting to Te Rua Manga requires quite a bit of effort. Most travellers opt for the cross-island walk, making their way from one side of the island to the other via a stop at The Needle.
This hike takes 2-4 hours depending on your fitness level. It’s certainly not an easy hike, as the first half is a constant climb. However, the views from the base of The Needle are well worth the effort - expect 360 degree, breathtaking views across the island.
Just bear in mind that during wet or following wet weather the track can become muddy, slippery and, overall, unsuitable for hiking, so check the conditions before you go. You can climb The Needle as well, however, we think this is best left to skilled rock climbers.
When people think of the Cook Islands, Rarotonga usually comes to mind. However, Rarotonga isn't the only island that is worth visiting.
Aitutaki is the Cook Islands’ second most popular island for tourists, and is considered the ultimate honeymoon destination for New Zealanders. This accolade is well deserved - Aitutaki is essentially tailored for romance with five-star resorts, couples' activities and romantic restaurants.
The secluded island is just a 50-minute flight away from Rarotonga and is surrounded by a huge, turquoise lagoon dotted with 15 motu (small islets). It is a place so jaw-droppingly lovely that it has been touted as the world's most beautiful lagoon.
The only catch is that a visit to Aitutaki can be very expensive. The resorts here can be quite pricey and even the flight from Rarotonga to Aitutaki costs around NZ$200 per person return. When you add this to the cost of getting to the Cook Islands in the first place, it quickly adds up.
Despite this, if you can afford it, we think there’s no better place to visit in the Cook Islands.
Black Rock Beach is wonderfully scenic, with large rocks scattered along the sand. Located on the north-western corner of the island, the best time to visit Black Rock is in the early evening.
If you can peel yourself away from the resorts and bars along the western side of the island, and make yourself up to Black Rock, you’ll be spoilt with a sunset overlooking the sea with rocks in the foreground.
Black Rock Beach is also considered one of the best spots for snorkelling. Try and go on a still day since visibility isn't great if it's windy as the water can get a little choppy. It's also great fun to climb on the rocks and stroll through the rock pools.
Okay, so this isn't a stunning beach or a mountain with views over the lagoon. Instead, Vili’s Burgers is a restaurant with some of the best burgers in the world (second only to perhaps Ferg Burger in Queenstown).
Vili's Burgers is located in the aforementioned Muri Beach area, opposite the Muri Night Markets.
The burgers from Vili’s are not to be missed, and they are extremely affordable, something you can’t say about much in the Cook Islands. They cost around NZ$8-10 each, making them, in our opinion, hands down the best value meal in the country!
Titikaveka and Tikioki are beautiful beaches and quieter alternatives to Muri.
These two beaches are right next to each other and are accessible via a short walk. Between them lies the Fruits of Rarotonga - a spot revered for some of the best snorkelling in the Cook Islands.
These beaches are extremely pretty and less touristy than many other Rarotonga beaches, however, there are still a number of resorts in the area. The best five-star resorts can be found around Tikioki, which has a peaceful vibe and incredible snorkelling.
It’s easy to spend days lying on these beaches between outings in the lagoon. Although we recommend bringing your own snorkelling gear, there is even a conveniently located dive shop nearby where you can hire snorkel or dive gear if required.
The Maire Nui Tropical Gardens is your excuse to take a break from all the beaches. Dive into the lush forest and immerse yourself in native, Cook Islands flora.
Maire Nui Gardens are conveniently located near Titikaveka Beach and entry is by donation making it suitable for all kinds of budgets - just pay what you can afford.
These gardens span seven acres and are immaculately maintained with views of mountains and bridges crossing over lily-pad covered ponds. Walking through these tropical gardens makes a refreshing change from relaxing on the beach and is a great way to spend some time.
Tucked away in the gardens you’ll also find their café serving local, Cook Islands cuisine.
Aroa Beach is another great spot in Rarotonga for snorkelling. The beach is located on the west coast of the island and has stunningly crystal-clear waters. This clarity makes snorkelling a dream.
Here you’ll get to see a range of sea life including moray eels, zebrafish and trigger fish - though watch out, these can be aggressive!
As this is a marine reserve, this is a particularly convenient spot to swim and snorkel with kids and anyone nervous in the water. You don’t need to swim out very far to see a wide variety of sea life and coral. It’s also far from any passages meaning it’s very safe to swim here, plus boats aren’t allowed in this area so you don’t need to worry about boat engines.
Although we’ve already mentioned Avarua, the Cook Islands’ largest town, the Punanga Nui Markets are worth a spot of their own.
From 7am - 12pm on Saturday mornings, the Punanga Nui Markets are a cultural representation of life on the Cook Islands. The largest market in the country sees vendors selling everything from fresh produce, island-food and smoothies, to coffee, hand-made ukuleles, crafts, pearls, jewellery and so much more.
There’s often live music and it’s definitely a great place to hang for a few hours. There’s also a free, live cultural show.
We recommend you visit on a Saturday morning, however if you can't go then, a smaller version of the market also operates Monday - Friday from 7am to 3pm. Just keep in mind that a lot of the vendors won’t be there during this time.
Arorangi is a small village on the island’s western coast with a few shops and restaurants. It was the Cook Islands’ first missionary village and you can visit a historic church dating back to 1849.
Arorangi beach is a beautiful spot to relax and, like the rest of the west coast, offers amazing sunset views.
As Arorangi is a little more developed, it has become a hub for tourists with several resorts and hotels in the area, as well as a number of beachfront bars, which make for the quintessential Rarotonga holiday. Cocktail in hand watching the sunset, is one of the best ways to enjoy a tropical island.
Arorangi is also home to the Cook Islands Marine and Wildlife Eco Centre. This is a great activity in Rarotonga if you're travelling with kids and is fun for adults too!
The eco centre is an interactive museum which is a fun and educational way to learn about Cook Islands wildlife and history. Tickets are NZ$10 for kids and NZ$12 for adults.
Last Updated 16 November 2021