How to Experience the Real Cook Islands and Rarotonga
Rarotonga is one of the major tourist hotspots in the South Pacific. The Western and Polynesian blend of cultures means that most visitors couldn’t be further from a “culture shock” on this island. With that in mind, is it even possible to have an authentic Cook Islander experience? Oh yes! All you have to do is choose the right experiences on Rarotonga or, better yet, head to the outer islands of the Cook Islands where life is much different! We go through it all in this guide on how to have an authentic Cook Islander and Rarotongan experience.
Cook Island Maori Words to Know
One way to start immersing in the Cook Islander or Rarotongan culture is to use Cook Island Maori words! Everyone in the Cook Islands speaks English, but locals appreciate the effort.
Hello – Kia Orana!
Yes – Ae
No – Kare
Please – ‘Ine
Thank you – Meitaki
Thank you very much – Meitaki ma’ata (note that there variations of this on the outer islands)
Goodbye (to the person staying) – E no’o ra
Goodbye (to the person leaving) – ‘Aere ra
See you later – Ka kite
For more words, check out the 15 Rarotongan Words You Need to Know When Visiting the Cook Islands.
Go to the Outer Islands (Pa Enua)
Leave the resort holiday on Rarotonga behind and get a much more immersive experience by travelling to the outer islands of the Cook Islands, locally known as “Pa Enua”. And no, we don’t mean to just another resort on Aitutaki…
What are the Outer Islands?
The Cook Islands are made up of 15 islands split into two island groups: the Northern Group and the Southern Group. The Southern Group is where Rarotonga is located so getting to any one of the Southern islands is much easier (and cheaper) than getting to the Northern Group – if you’re determined, however, check out The Complete Travel Guide to the Northern Cook Islands.
Cultural Experiences in the Southern Group
The Southern Group islands outside of the tourist hotspots of Rarotonga and Aitutaki provide a much more authentic Cook Islander experience. Accommodations are small-scale and locally owned where you host provides all meals (of which they are local dishes made with ingredients grown on the island) and usually offers informal tours of their island, as well as some sort of transport for you to explore on your own. Because the outer islands of the Southern Group are far less visited than Rarotonga or Aitutaki, locals are usually more eager to talk to visitors – you’ll feel like you’ve become part of the village by the time you leave.
So check out the Southern Group islands to truly feel immersed in the Cook Islands culture. You can browse our Southern Group guides to learn more about each island:
- The Complete Travel Guide to Atiu
- The Complete Travel Guide to Mangaia
- The Complete Travel Guide to Mitiaro
- The Complete Travel Guide to Mauke
There are a few smaller uninhabited islands in the Southern Group too; all the details can be found in The Complete Travel Guide to the Southern Cook Islands.
The Most Authentic Rarotongan Experiences
Ok, so let’s say visiting the outer islands of the Cook Islands is not an option for you. What are the authentic cultural experiences you can have on Rarotonga?
Markets are weekly and sometimes monthly community events where locals come together to sell fresh produce, cooked meals and crafts. The Punganga Nui Market in Avarua is the most “touristy”, with many operators using the market as an opportunity to sell their tours. There are also a lot of craft stalls selling souvenirs, almost all of which are locally made within the Cook Islands such as rito hats and earrings, as well as black pearl jewellery. All in all, there’s not too much to feel sceptical about at the Punanga Nui Market, despite a good portion of it being directed at tourists.
Some of the most authentic market experiences are the ones you spot on the roadside. You’ll see temporary stalls with fresh produce and drinking nu (coconuts) for sale, sold by the local “mamas”.
Compare all of the markets across the country in the 5 Best Markets in Rarotonga & the Cook Islands.
Church is all part of the routine on Rarotonga. A Sunday church service is one of the best places to actually meet locals, as well as experience their traditions such as the “mamas” wearing fabulous rito hats and all of the locals singing their hearts out to the hymns. While tourists are encouraged to attend church services to experience the glorious singing of the locals, there certainly isn’t anything inauthentic about it. Check out which churches are worth going to in the 10 Best Churches in Rarotonga & the Cook Islands to Experience as a Visitor.
The Progressive Dinner Tour
We can’t talk about the most authentic Rarotangan experiences and not talk about the Progressive Dinner Tour. This tour run by Cook Islands Tours removes the barrier between “tourist” and “local” by taking you to three local homes across the island to indulge in a different course of a three-course dinner. It’s an opportunity to sample the real flavours of the Cook Islands and experience the generous hospitality of its locals.
Festivals and Events
If you’re lucky enough to be in Rarotonga during one of the island’s annual events, then you’re in for a truly authentic experience. Te Maeva Nui is a big one, starting at the end of July and ending on 4 August on Constitution Day. Te Mire Ura is also an exciting event; the “Dancer of the Year” competition where dance troupes from all over the country get together for a grand finale at the National Auditorium. It’s pretty much the biggest “island night” in the country!
More Ways to Experience the Cook Islands Culture
While we’ve gone through some of the most authentic Cook Islander experiences, there are a lot more cultural activities that you could be getting up to. Although the activities we list below are more catered to tourists, they still derive from important aspects of the Cook Islands culture and are well worth seeking out if you have the time.
More Cook Islander experiences include:
- Experiencing a cultural show at an island night
- Doing a hands-on “umu” workshop with Tumutoa
- Learning about the local history at a museum
- Experiencing the culture at a show included on a lagoon cruise
- Scouting out the historical points of interest
- Getting a local’s perspective on an island tour…
… And much more! Check out the 10 Best Cultural Activities in Rarotonga & the Cook Islands for all of the details.
More About Authentic Cook Islander Experiences in Rarotonga and the Cook Islands
That’s our complete guide to having an authentic Cook Islander and Rarotongan experience. Nevertheless, there’s a lot more to unpack about the culture of the Cook Islands in the following guides:
- Cook Islander Etiquette: Rarotonga & Cook Islands Customs & Traditions
- A Traveller’s Guide to the Cook Islands Culture
- Who are the People of the Cook Islands?
Finally, plan more of your itinerary using the 101 Best Things to Do in the Cook Islands: The Ultimate List.