The Top Things to Do in Manihiki, Penrhyn, Pukapuka, Nassau, Rakahanga and Suwarrow
Remote, rarely visited and unspoiled, the Northern Group is the final frontier of travel in the Cook Islands. Their serenity and simplicity provide the ultimate destination to truly disconnect from the ways of the modern world. But, if you do manage to make it to the far-flung Northern Cook Islands, what can you expect to do? Find out in this list of the best things to do in the Northern Cook Islands, then get planning your expedition using The Complete Travel Guide to the Northern Cook Islands.
All of the things to do listed below are available across the islands of Manihiki, Rakahanga, Penrhyn, Pukapuka, Nassau and Suwarrow.
1. Take a Boat Trip on the South Pacific’s Most Isolated Lagoons
Almost all of the Northern Group islands are, in fact, coral atolls with a lagoon. A must-do is exploring these breathtaking seascapes by boat. Accommodation hosts and even local fishermen are happy to take visitors out onto their lagoon, visiting uninhabited “motu” (islets) with pristine beaches, stopping by coral banks for snorkelling, and perhaps giving you a go at fishing. With rarely anyone else out on the water and motu completely deserted and untouched, it will feel a world away from the lagoon cruises of Rarotonga and Aitutaki!
2. Visit a Black Pearl Farm
Manihiki is renowned in the Cook Islands and beyond as one of the world’s rare black pearl producers. A trip to the lagoon is not complete until you visit the tiny manmade islands containing pearl farms in its centre. Experience the farmers’ interesting way of life on these tiny islands and learn about the whole process of pearl farming from start to finish. Unlike in French Polynesia, pearl farm visits in Manihiki are informal yet much more authentic. Pearl farmers also show you how nothing of the oysters and their pearls go to waste.
Location: Tours can be arranged with accommodations on Manihiki. See The Complete Travel Guide to Manihiki for more information.
3. Snorkel Among Unspoiled Coral
With limited island development, no large-scale commercial fishing and locals relying on a healthy marine ecosystem to live, the coral reefs in the Northern Cook Islands are unspoiled and spectacular. While some snorkelling can be enjoyed from shore, the best snorkelling spots are along coral banks within the lagoon, such as in Pukapuka. If you’re feeling brave, snorkelling in Penrhyn is usually accompanied by reef sharks, while Manihiki and Rakahanga also have plenty to explore. The only island you can’t really snorkel from is Nassau. Oh, and remember to bring your own snorkelling gear to these islands!
4. See Coconut Crabs on Rakahanga
What has otherwise been eaten to extinction on many of the other Cook Islands, coconut crabs or “unga” are still climbing the trees in Rakahanga! The largest types of crabs in the world, these big blue beasts that live up to 60 years can be spotted tearing off coconut husks with their huge claws. Look out for them either after dark or in the early morning.
Location: Rakahanga. See The Complete Travel Guide to Rakahanga for more information.
5. Browse and Buy Penrhyn’s Famous Crafts and Rito Hats
You know those woven white hats that all the “mamas” wear to church in the Cook Islands? That’s Penrhyn! Buy gorgeous “rito” (bleached pandanus frond) hats, earrings, fans, shell necklaces and more straight from the talented locals than make them in Penrhyn. You’ll learn about the process and what it takes to make these incredible crafts that are prized all over Rarotonga and the Cook Islands. Don’t know what we’re talking about? Check out the 12 Best Souvenirs from Rarotonga & the Cook Islands.
Location: Penrhyn. Check out The Complete Travel Guide to Penrhyn to plan your trip.
6. See Eerie Shipwrecks
Yes, the islands of the Northern Group have taken many vessels by surprise over the centuries, with some of the “fresher” shipwrecks still visible to explore. On Nassau, the Manuvai Shipwreck is a striking sight; a Tongan container ship that wrecked in 1988 then was pushed over the reef’s edge by a cyclone shortly after. In Pukapuka, a walk over the reef between the main island of Wale and Motu Ko reveals the remains of an old Chilean contained ship.
7. Do Some Birdwatching in Suwarrow
Suwarrow is the Cook Island’s only national park and one of the most important breeding grounds for around 10 species of seabird, many of which can be seen circling the skies over the lagoon’s islands. Approximately 3% of the world’s red-tailed tropicbirds breed here, while around 9% of lesser frigate birds nest on the aptly named Gull Islands. Suwarrow is also home to around 80,000 sooty terns. If you’re lucky enough to sail to Suwarrow or stop by on the cargo ship from Rarotonga when it unloads, don’t miss this sight!
Location: Suwarrow – See The Complete Travel Guide to Suwarrow for more details.
8. Experience Real Island Living
Visiting the Northern Group is experiencing a slice of life in a small community on an isolated island, which can be one of the biggest gifts these islands give you. Learn what it’s like to go to school on such as small island as well as share your own stories with the local kids by visiting a school, learn about the industries such as breadfruit and taro plantation, black pearl farming, crafting and fishing, and see how communities rely on each other to survive. Strikingly, each of the islands has its own unique culture and customs, sharing more similarities with other island nations, like Tokelau, Samoa and Kiribati, than they do with Rarotonga.
One of the most interesting cultures to experience is the Pukapukans who not only have their own unique language but move their settlements from island to island within their lagoon in order to allow nature to restore and be available for future generations. Find out more in The Complete Travel Guide to Pukapuka.
Location: All of the Northern Group!
9. Feed the Reef Sharks in Penrhyn
One of the most striking things about Penrhyn is how in touch the people are with nature. You’ll often see locals feeding and petting reef sharks that come close to shore, which you can join in too to see how friendly these typically misunderstood creatures are.
Location: Penrhyn – See The Complete Travel Guide to Penrhyn for more information.
10. Listen to the Glorious Singing in Church
Like on all of the Cook Islands, the church services are amazing to experience on a Sunday morning. Locals get dressed in their finest (usually with rito hats from Penrhyn or Rakahanga) and put on their best singing voices with harmonies that can’t help but bring a tear to your eye! Every one of the inhabited islands in the Northern Group has multiple churches with denominations including CICC (Cook Islands Christian Church), Roman Catholic and Seventh Day Adventists. Check out churches worth visiting in the 10 Best Churches in the Cook Islands to Experience as a Visitor.
Location: All over the Northern Group!
More Things to Do in the Northern Cook Islands
That’s it for our list of the best things to do in the Northern Cook Islands. Now, all you need to do is get there! Here are more guides to help you plan your trip to the Northern Group:
- The Complete Travel Guide to the Northern Cook Islands
- Northern Cook Islands Transport: 9 Ways to Get to There & Around
- The 10 Less-Travelled Islands of the Cook Islands
Finally, plan the rest of your Cook Islands excursion using The Best Cook Islands Travel Guide and find more experiences in the 101 Best Things to Do in the Cook Islands: The Ultimate List.