A Guide to Rarotonga and Cook Islands Culture
Welcome to contemporary Polynesia! You’ll be greeted with “Kia Orana”, gifted with the customary greeting of a floral ‘ei and served with smiles everywhere you go on the vibrant atolls of the Cook Islands. With an intricate blend of Pacific culture and Western influences, especially on the Cook’s main island of Rarotonga, you certainly won’t experience a culture shock but you’ll be eased into the charms of Polynesia through traditions concerning dance, music, crafts, food and more. This is the Cook Islands culture…
10 Ways to Experience the Cook Islands Culture
Before we get into the traditions and customs of the Cook Islands culture, here are some ways to experience the culture as a visitor:
- Experience a cultural show at an island night
- Buy local food and crafts at the markets
- Join the locals for a Progressive Dinner Tour
- Make an umukai with Tumutoa or Umu Experience
- Learn about the history and see interesting artefacts at the Cook Islands’ museums
- Experience the Cook Islands culture on a lagoon cruise
- Revel in the glorious singing of a Cook Islands church service
- Scout out historical points of interest
- Get the local’s perspective on an island tour
- Visit the outer islands (pa enua).
All of these experiences are described in detail in the 10 Best Cultural Activities in Rarotonga & the Cook Islands. For absolutely non-touristy experiences, on the other hand, check out How to Have an Authentic Cook Islander Experience. In the meantime, let’s dive deeper into the Cook Islands’ culture…
Cook Islands Dance and Music
If there’s only one aspect of the Cook Islands culture to witness or experience, it has to be Cook Islands dance and music.
Cook Islands Traditional Dancing and Island Nights
Standing the test of time and going mostly unchanged since pre-missionary times, Cook Islander dancing is often reputed as some of the best in Polynesia.
There are many names for dancing in the Cook Islands Maori language, “ura” is most commonly used, while it is more traditionally known as “kapa” to describe action dances. The name most visitors will want to remember, however, is an “island night”, an ensemble of different Cook Islands dance styles to the beat of traditional drums and the strings of ukuleles accompanied by a grand feast of traditional Cook Islander cuisine.
Check out some of our favourites in the 7 Best Island Nights in Rarotonga & the Cook Islands.
Cook Islands Dance Competitions
One of the most important events on the Cook Islands calendar is the annual Te Mira Ura, otherwise known as the “Dancer of the Year” competition. Amateur dancers to master dance troupes from across the islands come together for competition across several categories. There are also dance competitions taking place within other cultural festivals, such as Te Maeva Nui on the lead-up to August 4th’s Constitution Day and Te Mire Tiare with more excuses for dancing before the Maine Tiare and Tama Aito are crowned.
Learn more about festivals with dancing in the 10 Biggest Festivals in Rarotonga & the Cook Islands.
Cook Islands Drums, Ukulele and Choir Singing
To complete the ensemble, live music is often played along with traditional Cook Islands dancing. The Cook Islands drumkit is unique in Polynesia by having both skin-covered drums popular in east Polynesia and fully-wooden drums more popular in the west.
Another representation of the Cook Islands culture and music is the ukulele. Cook Islanders favour the eight-string ukulele producing a fast-strumming sound. They are typically hand-carved in the islands out of mahogany, rosewood and even coconut, often beautifully carved and sold as souvenirs at the local markets – see the 12 Best Souvenirs from Rarotonga & the Cook Islands.
Finally, a result of missionary influence but taking harmonies to a whole new level, the choir singing at a Cook Islands church service is powerful and moving. It’s an experience not to be missed, so check the 10 Best Churches in Rarotonga & the Cook Islands for Visitors.
Cook Islands Traditional Arts and Crafts
While traditional crafts were made for practical purposes, today, crafting is mainly reserved for gifts and souvenirs.
Wooden carvings of Polynesian gods were historically the most widespread art form in the Cook Islands, most of which were of the god of the sea and fertility, Tangaroa. These squat figures have become iconic carvings to buy in all sorts of sizes. War clubs, spears, Cook Islander drums, vaka (canoes) and more are still replicated and hand-carved to this day for display purposes, but you can see many traditional examples in some of the 5 Best Museums in Rarotonga & the Cook Islands.
Introduced during the missionary period, tivaevae are applique linens that are made by women as a group. The craft is still practised today to make intricate quilts, cushion covers and burial shrouds. You’ll notice that many holiday accommodations across the Cook Islands have beds made up in tivaevae linen. Learn more about where to shop for tivaevae in The Best Places to Buy Souvenirs in Rarotonga & the Cook Islands.
Rito Hats, Fans and Earrings
The women of the far-flung islands of Penrhyn and Rakahanga are famous across the Cook Islands and especially on Rarotonga for their talent in making finely woven hats, fans and earrings made with bleached and dyed palm fronds locally known as “rito”. These crafts are sold for a high price on Rarotonga and are the pride of the “mamas’” Sunday church outfits. See the 12 Best Souvenirs from Rarotonga & the Cook Islands to learn more about them and find out where to pick them up for yourself.
Black Pearl Jewellery
On the atoll of Manihiki are the perfect conditions for farming rare black pearl oysters. Black pearl oyster farmers sell their wares to talented jewellers across Rarotonga and Aitutaki to create all sorts of wonderful handcrafted necklaces, bracelets and earrings. Check out the best black pearl jewellers in The Ultimate Guide to Shopping in Rarotonga & the Cook Islands.
Cook Islands Traditional Clothing
In everyday life, Cook Islanders dress casually and modest to respect their Christian values. When it comes to dancing, however, costumes pay tribute to the Cook Islands Polynesian roots with both sexes wearing skirts made from “kiri’au” (hibiscus bast), overskirts decorated in flowers, shells and feathers, woven headbands and more. A more recent (1980’s) addition is that women wear coconut bras.
One significant aspect of the dress culture in the Cook Islands is the pareu, also known as a sarong. You’ll find these in many handprinted designs and colours and are tied in many styles, from a casual wraparound to a more formal dress. Head on one of the cruises in the Muri Lagoon to see a pareu-tying show! More details can be found in the 10 Best Lagoon Cruises in Rarotonga & the Cook Islands.
Flowers Behind the Ear
Putting tropical flowers behind the ear is mostly for decoration in the Cook Islands, but it does have some significance at social events or if you are partying. Tucking a flower behind your left ear means you are single; the right means you are taken!
Another part of the Cook Islands look are the ‘ei kaki (neck garland) and ‘ei katu (head garland). For visitors, they will be part of your Cook Islands journey from the moment you arrive, as it is customary for your host to give you a fresh floral ‘ei kaki. Shell necklaces, pupu necklaces (the name given to the tiny yellow shells which are a speciality of the island of Mangaia) and fake flower ‘ei are also worn and, understandably, have a longer lifespan.
Cook Islands Traditional Food and Drink
Like most cultures, food plays an important role in the Cook Islander lifestyle. While nowadays, Cook Islanders enjoy a variety of international foods, particularly Asian and American dishes, there are a few traditional Cook Islander dishes that hold strong for family gatherings and local meals.
One of the easiest dishes to find is ika mata, raw fish marinated in coconut cream with a few other spices or chillis for extra flavour. You’ll find ika mata available as an entrée at many restaurants across the Cook Islands, hopefully, presented in a coconut shell for a truly authentic island look!
Pronounced “po-kay”, poke is a sweet traditional Cook Islands dish usually made with banana but can also be made with pawpaw, pumpkin, sweet potato (kumara), breadfruit or taro. The banana is baked with arrowroot (maniota) and coconut cream.
Curried Pawpaw or Banana Salad
A refreshing side to any dish in the Cook Islands, curried pawpaw or banana salad is a concoction of either pawpaw (papaya) or banana with mayonnaise, curry powder and mango chutney or some other variation. It’s a sweet-tasting sensation that surprisingly works!
Rukau is a traditional favourite in the Cook Islands, which is taro leaves cooked in coconut cream with a few other flavourings to lift the dish. The taro leaves have to be cooked just right or else the natural prickly texture won’t feel so good on the way down. Luckily, all of the “mamas” in the Cook Islands are highly skilled when it comes to cooking up the perfect rukau.
Learn more about traditional dishes and where to try them in our guide, Traditional Rarotongan Food: 10 Foods to Try in the Cook Islands. Plus, check out our The Food Guide to the Cook Islands: Places to Eat, Food Tours & More for all things food in the Cooks!
Cook Islands Drinks
Not forgetting liquid delights, an authentically Cook Islander drink includes “tumunu” which is a bush beer made from banana, pawpaw or oranges. It is particularly popular on the island of Atiu as a response to the kava drinking that was banned on the islands due to missionary influence. Locally made beer, coffee beans and fruit smoothies are also a hit in the islands, which you can learn more about in the 10 Drinks in Rarotonga & the Cook Islands You HAVE to Try!
Cook Islands Language
The Cook Islands is home to three official languages: English, Cook Islands Maori and Pukapukan. While English is the language that will help you get by in the Cook Islands, Cook Islands Maori, also known as Rarotongan, is the native language and the language used between locals.
The first thing to know about pronunciations in Cook Islands Maori is that there are only 13 letters in the Cook Islands alphabet: a, e, i, k, m, n, ng, o, p, r, t, u and v.
Learn about the history of the language, how to pronounce the alphabet and how to say important words in What is the Rarotonga & Cook Islands Language?
Religion in the Cook Islands
The Cook Islands is a religious country, particularly devoted to Christianity. Christianity was introduced to the islands around 150 years ago and has been going strong ever since. Christianity influences cultural norms, such as observing Sunday as a day of worship and rest, while the church plays a large part in social interactions, provides guidance and redistributes goods and services to those in need.
Learn more about the history of Christianity in the Cook Islands and which denominations are worshipped in The Guide to the Religions in the Cook Islands.
Cook Islands Customs
With many Cook Islanders being well-travelled and especially used to Western cultures due to the country’s strong ties with New Zealand, the local customs are not too strict. Nevertheless, there are a few things to keep in mind when visiting the Cook Islands in order to respect the local values.
Clothing Etiquette in the Cook Islands
When it comes to clothing, locals prefer to wear more modest clothing themselves but are not usually offended by short-shorts, singlets, etc. A general rule for wearing swimwear, however, is that swimwear should stay at the beach or pool. It is bad practice to walk around villages and towns in just your bikini or bikini top, for instance. It is acceptable to cover up swimwear with a pareu (sarong), for instance. What’s more, being nude at the beach (or anywhere in public) is not accepted in the Cook Islands.
There is also some clothing etiquette to keep in mind for going to church, including that men should wear pants and a smart shirt, while women should cover the knees and shoulders.
Other Cook Islands Customs and Etiquette
There’s not much more to add to the list of rules and etiquette for the Cook Islands other than that tipping is not expected but welcomed, haggling is not customary, and acknowledging people who acknowledge is better than ignoring them. Go into all of the details of these customs in Cook Islander Etiquette: Rarotonga & Cook Islands Customs & Traditions.
More About the Cook Islands Culture
That’s it for our guide to the Cook Islands culture, but the culture is so complex that we certainly have more to say on the matter! Check out our other guides concerning the Cook Islands culture:
- Who are the People of the Cook Islands?
- A Brief History of Rarotonga & the Cook Islands
- 10 Best Cultural Shows in Rarotonga & the Cook Islands
Finally, don’t miss a thing about planning a trip to the Cook Islands by checking out The Best Cook Islands Travel Guide and Cook Islands Travel Tips: 30 Tips for Travelling in Rarotonga & the Cook Islands.