The Top Cultural Tours and Experiences in the Cook Islands
Sure, the beaches and coconut palms might seem familiar to anyone that’s visited a tropical paradise, but the thing that’s unique about Rarotonga and the Cook Islands is its culture. Cook Islanders have a rich history, astounding crafts and traditions that are still practised to this day. The most striking for visitors is the locals’ love for dancing, but there’s a lot more to experience between the vibrant cuisine and blend of Western and Polynesian traditions. Discover them for yourself with the help of this list of the best cultural activities in Rarotonga and the Cook Islands!
1. Experience a Cultural Show at an Island Night
A part of the Cook Islands culture that has survived through the ages is the energetic dancing of the island’s warriors and princesses. Watch talented dancers adorned in traditional costumes at one of the island’s cultural shows, otherwise known as “island nights”. The performance is not all there is to look forward to, however, as devouring plate after plate of all kinds of traditional Cook Islands dishes from the buffet is also a reason to join in. Island nights can be found on the islands of Rarotonga, Aitutaki and Atiu. See the 7 Best Island Nights in Rarotonga & the Cook Islands to compare your options.
2. Buy Local Food and Crafts at the Markets
An authentic cultural experience is to mingle with the locals at one of the Cook Islands’ local markets. The most popular and biggest by far is the Punanga Nui Market on Rarotonga, taking place every Saturday morning. It’s a gathering of Cook Islands’ crafts and food, including black pearls from Manihiki, rito hats from Penrhyn, pareu from all of the islands and much more! Rarotonga also hosts an array of night markets, while the outer islands also have their share of markets. Check them out in the 5 Best Markets in Rarotonga & the Cook Islands.
3. Join the Locals for a Progressive Dinner Tour
Another way to immerse in the Cook Islands’ culture is through its flavours. A down-to-earth cultural activity in the Cook Islands is the Progressive Dinner Tour on Rarotonga. Remove the barrier between “tourist” and “local” by joining Cook Islands Tours as they transport you across the island for a three-course dinner with each course in a different local home. It’s your opportunity to sample the real flavours of the Cook Islands and experience the generous hospitality of its locals. See similar food tours in the 10 Best Foodie Experiences in the Cook Islands.
4. Immerse in the Cook Islands Culture with Tumutoa
A fun and interactive cultural experience, Tumutoa Tours offers four awesome daytime and evening tours. Meet Tumutoa, adorned in traditional Cook Islander attire and a character you will never forget, who will teach you how to husk a coconut, climb a coconut tree and encourage you to try all sorts of weird and wonderful local fruits on the “Discovery Walking Tour”. Alternatively, spend the day preparing your own “umu”, a traditional underground oven feast, where you’ll prepare everything even down to weaving your own plates! The experience concludes with food accompanied by the entertainment of a string band and fire show. Combo experiences are also available, as well as guided inland mountain walks.
5. Learn About History and See Interesting Artefacts at the Cook Islands’ Museums
A good go-to when seeking culture anywhere in the world is the local museum, and the Cook Islands has heaps! The Te Ara Museum tells the history of the Cook Islands through contemporary displays, while the Cook Islands Library & Museum and Cook Islands National Museum have an array of artefacts and replicas to admire. Learn more about these museums and various others in the 5 Best Museums in Rarotonga & the Cook Islands.
6. Experience the Cook Islands Culture on a Lagoon Cruise
Whether you’re cruising the Muri Lagoon on Rarotonga or the vast Aitutaki Lagoon, the Cook Islands’ lagoon cruises definitely incorporate enough culture to make it onto this list of the best cultural activities in the Cook Islands! On the Muri Lagoon, Captain Tama’s Lagoon Cruizes and Koka Lagoon Cruises both entertain you with string band music, a coconut and pareu-tying demonstration and an island barbecue. On the Aitutaki Lagoon, cruises are an eclectic mix of traditional vaka (canoe) cruising and stopping on uninhabited “motu” (islets) for a Cook Islands feast. Compare all of your options in the 10 Best Day Cruises in Rarotonga & the Cook Islands.
7. Revel in the Glorious Singing of a Cook Islands Church Service
Whether you’re religious or not, attending a Cook Islands church service is an immersive experience. Locals are very welcoming to visitors wishing to share in this experience, where the “mamas” put on their finest hats and villagers raise the roof with their powerful harmonies. Churches can be found right across the islands of the Cooks, even the most remote, so check out the best ones to visit in the 10 Best Churches in Rarotonga & the Cook Islands to Experience as a Visitor.
8. Scout Out Historical Points of Interest
Experiencing the Cook Islands’ culture is about understanding the islands’ history, where there are many interesting historical sites to scout out. From ancient marae (gathering places) to the first coral limestone buildings lead by the missionaries, there’s a lot to unpack across the board. What’s more, there are information signs erected at historical sites, making a self-guided experience easy and fun. Check out the 10 Best Historical Sites in the Cook Islands for fascinating points of interest.
9. Get the Local’s Perspective on an Island Tour
Speaking of points of interest, make the most of the Cook Islands’ sights by learning the history, myths and legends from a local on one of the guided island tours. On Rarotonga, you have Cook Islands Tours and Raro Tours both offering orientation tours, getting first-time visitors acquainted with the island. In the outer islands, accommodation hosts usually offer island tours, taking you to places that you’d otherwise miss if you were on your own. Whatever you choose, you’ll find these tours extremely comprehensive, incorporating cultural aspects, island food, crafts and history. Compare some of the best tours across the islands in the 10 Best Guided Tours of Rarotonga & the Cook Islands.
10. Visit the Outer Islands (Pa Enua)
Known locally as the “Pa Enua“, the outer islands of a completely different slice of island life compared to Rarotonga. Just staying on one of these outer islands for a few days gives you an authentic Polynesian experience where you’ll live with a local family, be fed typical (but delicious) Cook Islander meals and become a temporary part of the village – trust us, you’ll become very familiar with the faces of the locals that will be saying “Kia Orana” every time you pass by. So plan your trip to some of the outer islands, either the Southern Group islands near Rarotonga or, if you’re feeling adventurous, the far-flung Northern Group with their own unique customs and traditions.
More Cultural Activities in Rarotonga and the Cook Islands
While that’s our list of the best cultural activities in the Cook Islands, you can find a few honourable mentions linked below:
- 5 Best Art Galleries in Rarotonga & the Cook Islands
- The 5 Biggest Towns & Villages in Rarotonga & the Cook Islands
- The 10 Less-Travelled Islands of the Cook Islands
Finally, if there’s anything else we’ve missed, you’re likely to find it in the 101 Best Things to Do in the Cook Islands: The Ultimate List.