Why Cook Islands is the ultimate tropical paradise for Australians

I just don’t think I’m an island person. Throw me into a warehouse rave in New York City and I’ll thrive. Take me driving through the dizzying hills of Tuscany and I’m good. Tell me about “island time,” however, and I’ll let out an audible groan.

I’m not a patient person when I’m travelling. So most of my time on islands has been spent wishing I was somewhere else; somewhere more urban with lavish art galleries, pop-up parties and swanky restaurants.

But we all have those moments. The “I think I could get use to this” mentality that seeps in when we step away from our patterns and give ourselves to what’s in front of us. And when you’re in the Cook Islands, what’s in front of you is so warm, generous and beautiful, that it’s almost impossible not to fall head over heels. For the culture, the people, the location, the glassy blue water, and, of course, the food.

“I try to go every year,” a fellow travel writer said when I told her I was off to the Cook Islands for the first time. “You’ll love it, trust me.” I trusted her, of course. She’s travelled to just about everywhere in the world, so for this prolific travel writer to tell me about her unquestionable love for the Cook Islands was a surprise.

“Is it just like all the other ones?” I ask. No, it’s not. It’s really not.

Image Credit: Alexandra Adoncello

See, the beauty of the Cook Islands lies in its simplicity. There’s a sense that the Polynesian archipelago, tiny with just 15 islands, is still largely untouched. And people have been travelling there for years. You won’t see any branded hotels or designer shops while driving around the island, where the only real directions are clockwise and anti-clockwise. You won’t come across chained fashion stores or even get a whiff of fast food. You will, however, see a lot of beautiful churches, spas, uncomplicated beachfront resorts and a small army of chickens.

In some ways, it reminded me of my time in the colonial seaside town of Levuka, Fiji’s old capital on the eastern coast of Ovalau. As soon as I landed and was whisked off to my accommodation, the charming Pacific Resort Rarotonga on Muri Beach, I didn’t feel like I’ve felt when I’ve visited islands before. I felt strangely rejuvenated – something I desperately needed after an exhausting year.

Below, I’m going to provide you with a bit of an itinerary. The highlight reel, so you’ve got something digestible to refer to when you step foot on this gentle tropical paradise. I hope following this guide will give you a similar experience I had on the Cook Islands, one of a very restful and much-needed break just a mere few hours from Sydney.

Check In To Pacific Resort Rarotonga

Image Credit: Vasenev Photography / Cook Islands Tourism

As above, there are no internationally renowned chains on the island. You won’t find a Sofitel or an InterContinental when ringing around Raro. One of the only things close to a chain is Pacific Resort, which has carved out a strong identity for itself hinged on authenticity and detailed design.

Pacific Resort also has a property on Aitutaki, which is even more remote and infinitely more beautiful. It’s known as the best option in that part of the Cook Islands, but the Rarotonga one isn’t far behind in repute.

The 64 rooms, suites and villas are all modeled after traditional pacific island bungalows with thatched roofs on the exterior. Inside, they aren’t the peak of luxury but do the job just fine. If you get a twin Premium Garden Suite, the beds are so far apart, and separated by the spacious bathroom in the middle, that they feel like two separate rooms.

There’s a front and back door, where the back door leads to the interconnected garden, absolutely blooming with life and leading to the beach, the restaurant and, importantly, the bar. It takes just under a minute to walk from my room to the open-air reception area, where service is as friendly and helpful as you could possibly expect.

Image Credit: Turama Photographer

The resort also has more apartment-style rooms with full kitchenettes for longer stays and bigger groups.

The western breakfast may be plain with only the bare minimum, but lunch and dinner by the beach is excellent. Traditional Ika Mata (fresh tuna marinated in lime and coconut milk – I would eat it every single day if I could) should be your first order, but there are also crumbed fish and chicken burgers, salads and other mostly western-friendly options.

The beautiful stretch of beach is obviously the highlight. Wooden day beds are scattered around and there’s a hut with staff willing to assist with anything you want. Take a kayak or some snorkeling equipment and cruise around the clear waters. There doesn’t seem be as much marine life as you’d find at other parts of the island, but the tranquility is an extension of Pacific Resort’s gentle hospitality.

If you want to elevate your trip with something a bit more luxurious, look to Little Polynesian, which is part of the same hospitality group and is a member of Small Luxury Hotels. It’s also located on Tikioki Beach, which is better known for diving and marine life.

Eat Around The Island

Image Credit: Dylan Harris / Cook Islands Tourism

Pacific Resort is in a good position as it’s close to some of the island’s best dining options. There are some great, refined dining experiences that are as big on location as they are on showcasing local dishes. Tamarind House Restaurant is a strong example, pitched right on the beach with doors that open the dining room up to the breeze. Some of the best Ika Mata I had was here, but the kitchen is also well-versed in protein. Sweet marinated pork seems to be a big favourite.

Right next to Pacific Resort is SilverSands Restaurant at Muri Beach Club Hotel, which seems to attract a younger crowd. Like most restaurants on the Cook Islands, it’s all Pacific Island cuisine.

I found the best option to eat well while also sticking to a budget is the Muri Night Market – right next to Pacific Resort.

The rustic open-air market is open Tuesday through Thursday and Sunday, so you’ll be there on at least one of those days. The cash-only market is as you’d expect, with many stalls set up from locals selling very affordable, delicious food that mostly showcases fresh catches. Some curried octopus was the best thing I ate all week, served with soft bread to mop up the lightly spiced, deep amber curry.

Image Credit: Cook Islands Tourism

Note that the market is cash only. There’s an ATM not far from the entrance so be sure to get cash out before you go. I recommend around A$20. Accommodation may be expensive on the island but food outside of resorts is not.

Almost opposite Muri Night Market is the Mooring Fish Cafe, which is basically a food truck with some outdoor seating. Not only will you find some of the best Ika Mata here, but the fish burgers are delicious and very affordable.

As for service? Well, I don’t think it’s possible to find bad service on the Cook Islands. I’ve always known Pacific Islander culture as warm, generous and sentimental. On the Cook Islands, dial that up to eleven. I’ve rarely felt more welcome everywhere I go (not everyone knew I was there as a journalist), and it really feels like locals speak to you from the heart. You’re family and so are they.

With the exception of taxi drivers, nothing feels transactional. The level of service in unmatched. Importantly, it doesn’t feel like it’s “trained” into the locals. They haven’t zipped off to the hospitality proving ground of Vegas to learn how to maximise gratuity, nor do they appear deceptively nonchalant. They’re just genuinely nice, hospitable people. Service comes naturally.

Take A Progressive Dinner

If there’s only one thing you need to do on the island that has nothing to do with water, it’s this. Cook Island Tours runs this Progressive Dinner where small groups visit three households for a course each. The first – and best – stop is for starters, the second for mains, and the final for desserts. All hosts are well-known on the island and welcome guests into their homes to cook massive traditional feasts laid out in a buffet style.

As above, the first stop is the most memorable as it takes place during daylight under massive trees on a quiet side street. The group sits on Aunty Nono’s verandah and enjoys a delicious spread of authentic homemade dishes like curried banana and Ika Mata. Given the range of bold, beautiful flavours and gentleness of the produce, it might look like she’s overprepared. Trust me, she hasn’t.

The family, whose small army of dogs and cats run around while your tour guide strums on his ukulele, also sell Aunty’s beautiful homemade Ika Mata on Sunday mornings. Apparently, this is the preferred hangover food on the island so it almost always sells out instantly.

The final stop of the tour will bring you a prayer, song, maybe even a dance, and more cakes than you could reasonably get through. Pacific Islanders like cakes, of all kinds.

It’s not only an authentic way to eat around. These locals are more than happy to answer any questions about the local culture, customs and even politics on Cook Islands. That’s why I recommend it as one of the first things you do on your visit. It’ll help contextualise everything for you and the trip will resonate that much deeper as a result.

The Progressive Dinner tour runs on Mondays and Thursdays only and goes for around 4.5 hours. You’ll wrap quite lately, so around 11 PM when the shuttle drops guests back to their resorts one-by-one.

Hike To The Needle

Image Credit: cookislandspocketguide.com

While driving around Cook Islands, your eyes are almost certainly going to be drawn to the mountain range in the middle, the highest point of which is Te Rua Manga, also known as The Needle.

Link up with Pa’s Cross Island Hike and join a group making their way to the base of The Needle. It’s led by some very attentive, informative and helpful guides. So helpful, in fact, that I didn’t at all feel judged when I couldn’t make it the entire way. While the hike will fill you in on the land, medicinal flora and wider history of the Cook Islands, you’ll have to split your attention between your guide and your footing.

I went on a day when it, unfortunately, rained quite a lot in the morning. This is not good. There is a substantial amount of overgrowth while you’re hiking the jungle and things can get rather slippery and steep. I made it up the hardest bit before I tapped out. It’s not a significantly strenuous hike, but I have hypertension so need to watch how hard I push myself.

Get A Treatment At The Waterfall Spa

The Rumours Waterfall Spa, part of a village, is a modest little venue near Tikioki Beach that’s often referred to as the best resort spa in the Cook Islands. This reputation has been in-tact since 2011, powered by great service and skillful therapists who offer a wide variety of treatments including hot stone massages and ones using gentle water pressure.

If you’ve been in Cook Islands for a few days, this is non-negotiable. Try to pencil in a treatment after Pa’s Cross Island hike.

Witness The Postcard Beauty Of Aitutaki

Image Credit: Temaeva Mackenzie / Cook Islands Tourism

I’m saving the best for last. If you to go Cook Islands and don’t see Aitutaki, you haven’t done it properly. After seeing it with my own eyes, this special part of the world, which sometimes feels like it’s ripped from a Moana sequel, is one of the APAC’s essential bucketlist experiences.

When I think of tropical paradise from now on, this will be the image that first springs to mind. Aitutaki, a source of great pride for islanders, is a vivid, jaw-dropping scene of pristine blue water and beautiful beaches. At times, it doesn’t look real. And it’s that kind of dreamlike quality that makes just seeing it for the first time worth the 50-minute flight from Raro.

Cook Islands’ domestic carrier, Air Rarotonga, flies direct from Rarotonga Airport in the early morning, and has some departures in the afternoon coming back. That’s enough time for a quick day trip to board the six-hour Vaka Cruise, a 21-metre catamaran with sun loungers and ample seating, typically packed with families and older travellers. Again, service is key here. It’s warm, welcoming, and spirited with tour guides often breaking into song as you look out over the expansive blue waters, flecked with milky patches and coral heads.

The reef is triangular shaped and there are 15 inlets (motu) scattered around in addition to the main island. I’ve only felt like I’ve “left Earth” in a few places on my travels. Iceland being the most memorable. I’m adding Aitutaki to that very short list; it’s cinematic; jumping off the boat to swim every inch of that water is a real moral dilemma you’ll be confronted with as soon as you set sail.

Image Credit: Ben Teina @jungleclix

If that sounds a bit fluffy, it’s because it is. But everything I’ve read on this part of the world from other travel writers is just as fawning, referencing the genuine sense of escapism on these small islands, some of which have boutique accommodations while others are so small you can walk the entire circumference in 20 minutes.

The Vaka Cruise stops by three inlets in the lagoon, with the last one being the most renowned: One Foot Island. You can bring your Passport here to get one of the rarest stamps in the world, but do your research first. I’ve read that novelty stamps aren’t always the best idea.

The water is so clear that all the Giant Trevally and other tropical fish life that flutter by the boat are easily spotted. There are at least two stops for snorkeling and your friendly tour guides will cook up a massive Pacific Island BBQ on board just before you return to the main island.

I can only imagine how magnificent Aitutaki is during whale season.

While I was on a day trip, I saw enough to recommend actually staying a day or two in Aitutaki. There are resorts with overwater bungalows and, as above, Pacific Resort also has a property here that has been coated with international awards in the past. The main island is only around 14km so it’d be nice to hire a scooter and explore.

Getting There

Jetstar has introduced a new nonstop route from Sydney to Rarotonga. With a flight time of six hours and fares as low as $349 one-way, this slice of paradise just became much more accessible for Aussies looking for alternatives to the typical island holidays like Bali, Fiji and Phuket.

Getting Around

There are a few taxis on the island, but don’t go expected an entire fleet. They mostly seem like private operators as well, and they don’t use meters. They will charge whatever they want, and like most islands, what they want will be more than you expect. I suggest hiring a car when you get to the airport, picking up a visitor SIM from Vodafone (internet isn’t the strongest anywhere on the island, but it’s enough) and finding your own way around.

Note that the speed limit here is comically slow – 30-50km/h – so it can take longer than expected to get from one point on the island to the other.

For more information on what to do in the Cook Islands visit the tourism board’s official website. To book your flight head to Jetstar which flies four times weekly from Sydney to Rarotonga.

I travelled as guest of Cook Islands Tourism so I could get hands-on with these experiences before writing about them.

Headline image by @my_rarotonga

Chris Singh

Chris Singh is an Editor-At-Large at the AU review, loves writing about travel and hospitality, and is partial to a perfectly textured octopus. You can reach him on Instagram: @chrisdsingh.