The Most Fascinating Historical Points of Interest in the Cook Islands
With a rich history of Polynesian settlement dating back to the 5th century, there’s a lot to unpack in the Cook Islands. The distinct stone circles of ancient “marae”, old coral limestone architecture, and sites from Maori myths and legends can all be visited across Rarotonga, Aitutaki and the rest of the Cook Islands. You can read about the islands’ vibrant history in A Brief History of Rarotonga & the Cook Islands. Meanwhile, here are the most fascinating historical sites across the Cook Islands!
1. Arai-Te-Tonga Marae – Ancient Maori Gathering Place
One of the best examples and remains of a “marae” (gathering place) and “koutu” (royal court) in the Cook Islands, Arai-Te-Tonga sits just off the Ara Metua (inland) road of Rarotonga. The koutu, built by the first settlers of Rarotonga in 1350 AD, sits just behind an interpretation panel displaying a deliberate arrangement of stones in the grassy clearing. See more of Rarotonga’s points of interest in the 10 Best Historical Sites on Rarotonga.
Location: Corner of the Inland Road (Ara Metua) and Maotangi Road, Tupapa (northeastern side of Rarotonga).
2. Avana Point – Vaka Migration Site
Located just north of Muri on Rarotonga is the spot where the Maori set off in their canoes (vaka) to make the migration to Aotearoa New Zealand. The site has a memorial with commemorative stones set in the circle listing the name of each vaka that departed Avana Point. Many New Zealand Maori can trace their heritage back to these vaka. Discover more sites across the island in the 50 Best Things to Do on Rarotonga.
Location: A gravel roadside clearing on the coastal side of the Main Road (Ara Tapu) opposite the Ngatangiia CICC Church, Ngatangiia (eastern side of Rarotonga).
3. Akaiami – Landing Site of the TEAL Coral Route’s Flying Boats
Greeting passengers as they enter Aitutaki Airport is an information panel detailing the glamourous history of one of the lagoon’s islets, Akaiami. The motu (islet) was used as a refuelling stop as part of Tasman Empire Airline’s Coral Route, which operated between 1951 and 1960 and included stopovers in New Zealand, Fiji, Samoa, Aitutaki and Tahiti. Today, you can visit Akaiami via lagoon cruise or water taxi and see the concrete remains of the old wharf that was used for TEAL passengers to disembark the aircraft onto the island. See more Aitutaki points of interest in the 10 Best Historical Sites on Aitutaki.
Location: Akaiami (eastern side of the Aitutaki Lagoon). The old terminal site and wharf are now where the accommodation, Akaiami Paradise stands. Learn about arranging a water taxi to the islet in our Aitutaki Transport Guide.
4. Arutanga CICC Church – The Oldest Church in the Cook Islands
Aitutaki was the first island in the Cook Islands to accept Christianity, when in 1821, John Williams left two Tahitian preachers, Papeiha and Vahapata, to convert the island. The Cook Islands Christian Church (CICC) in Arutanga was the first church built in the Cook Islands in 1828. The whitewashed limestone building was restored in 2010 and is still used for Sunday church services, welcoming visitors. Find out more about attending a local church service in the 10 Best Churches in the Cook Islands to Experience as a Visitor.
Location: Southern end of Arutanga (west coast of Aitutaki’s main island).
5. Rimu Rau Burial Cave – Burial Cave on Atiu
One of the Cook Islands’ many burial caves, Rimu Rau is not only the easiest to access (although it still requires going down a tight pothole), but the easiest to find guided tours for. This burial cave on the island of Atiu contains well preserved skeletal remains. Although it’s not certain what caused the approximately 30 bodies to be buried in this cave, your guide will tell you the opposing legends. See more caves to visit across the country in the 10 Best Caves in the Cook Islands.
Location: Southwest side of Atiu. Guided tours can be arranged with Atiu accommodation providers or with the Atiu Information Centre.
6. Anaiti Cove – The Site of Kea’s Grave, Wife of Paikea
Atop a coral cliff on the island of Mauke is a small grave dedicated to Kea. According to Mauke legend, the beautiful Kea, who was devoted to Paikea, waited on a cliff at Anaiti Cove for his return after he was swept out to sea during a ferocious storm. He never returned, so Kea remained on the cliff for the rest of her life. To add to the drama, Paikea apparently did not die at sea but was swept 100km to Mangaia where he was rescued and took a boat to Rarotonga. From there, he is said to be one of the ancestors that took one of the migration canoes to Aotearoa New Zealand. He is a figure told in New Zealand Maori legend to this day! Meanwhile, it is said that Kea’s remains that were recovered from the cliff in 2003, the same place where the legend said she waited… Discover more points of interest nearby in the 15 Best Things to Do on Mauke.
Location: Off the coastal road (east side of Mauke). Anaiti Cove can be found between Anaraura and A’anga beaches.
7. Pare O Tane Palace of Makea – Palace of Ariki in Avarua
Opposite the prominent CICC Church Avarua on Rarotonga stands the historic Pare O Tane Palace of Makea and the surrounding Taputapuatea Marae. The grounds are open to the public to admire this grand building that has been renovated throughout the years, as well as for visitors to stand on the grounds where the paramount ariki (chief) of the area, Makea Takau, signed the treaty accepting the Cook Islands as a British protectorate in 1888. See more historical sites nearby in the 10 Best Things to Do in Avarua.
Location: Makea Tinirau Road, opposite the CICC Church, the eastern end of Avarua (northern side of Rarotonga).
8. Te Pare Fort – The Only Fort in the Cook Islands
The only known fort in the Cook Islands, Te Pare Fort is an ancient fort that was thought to have walls up to 6m (20ft) high built by the forefathers of Mitiaro. The fort was used as protection from the rivalling island and its fierce warriors, Atiu. Although the walls are now reduced to a few broken rocks, the site is still interesting to visit with a local guide who can tell you the story of the island’s acclaimed warrior, Maaro, and guide you on a 20-minute walk over the rugged “makatea” (uplifted coral limestone). You may also get a glimpse of the underground cavern below the fort where villagers would congregate in times of danger. Check out more interesting sites nearby in the 15 Best Things to Do on Mitiaro.
Location: Southeast side of Mitiaro. The trail starts just a few metres west of Te Umu Beach. It’s best to go with a guide, who you may be able to arrange with your accommodation or with the Island Administration.
9. SS Matai – 1916 Shipwreck
This British cargo ship that wrecked on Christmas Day in 1916 is now part of the reef lining the Avarua Harbour in Rarotonga. Either admire “The Boiler” poking out of the ocean from shore at Trader Jacks or swim out to ship yourself. Caution: Only strong swimmers with fins and snorkelling gear should make the journey – and at low tide with other people. The swim is about 500m (1,600ft) from shore. Alternatively, the Matai Shipwreck can be admired on Raro Reef Sub and snorkelling tours with Ariki Adventures and KiteSUP.
Location: Trader Jacks, Main Road (Ara Tapu), the western end of Avarua (northern side of Rarotonga).
10. Maungaroa Marae – Archaeological Site at Highland Paradise
An archaeological site that can be witnessed with traditional ceremonies still performed to this day, Maungaroa Marae or Tikai Marae is the site seen on cultural tours with Highland Paradise. Dating back to the 1700s, this ancestral site of the Tinomana tribe on Rarotonga hosts nearly 100 stone structures. Witness a welcome ceremony and engage in other cultural activities, such as weaving, coconut demonstrations and storytelling, on either a day or an evening tour with Highland Paradise. The latter also includes a cultural performance as part of their island night – learn more about it in the 7 Best Island Nights in the Cook Islands.
Location: Highland Paradise, top of Maungaroa Drive, Arorangi (western side of Rarotonga).
More Historical Sites in the Cook Islands
Now that you know some of the best historical sites to visit in the Cook Islands, discover more historical points of interest, as listed in the following:
- 10 Best Historical Sites on Rarotonga
- 10 Best Historical Sites on Aitutaki
- 5 Best Museums in Rarotonga & the Cook Islands
Finally, don’t miss a thing from your Cook Islands bucket list with the 101 Best Things to Do in the Cook Islands: The Ultimate List.