The Top Tourist Attractions in the Cook Islands
What is there to see in the Cook Islands? From the iconic rocky peaks of Rarotonga to the paradise islets of Aitutaki, there are plenty of tourist attractions in the Cook Islands that entice any snap-happy traveller. Discover some of the most iconic sights in the Cook Islands, including across the less-visited outer islands, in this guide to sightseeing in the Cook Islands.
1. One Foot Island (Tapuaetai)
What? We’re not starting with a sight on Rarotonga? That’s right, we’re starting with easily the most famous island on the Aitutaki Lagoon, One Foot Island, also known as Tapuaetai. Many cruises in Aitutaki stop here for a barbecue lunch, leaving you plenty of time to explore the sights. A highlight is the post office where you can get your passport stamped and pick up other souvenirs! See more sights like this in our Top 10 Sights on Aitutaki.
Location: Southeast side of the Aitutaki Lagoon. Accessible with Bishop’s Cruises, Teking Lagoon Cruises, Kia Orana Cruise, The Vaka Cruise and Platinum Cruising. Find out more in the 10 Best Lagoon Cruises on Aitutaki.
2. Te Rua Manga (The Needle)
One of the most prominent sights on Rarotonga, Te Rua Manga, otherwise known as The Needle, is an exposed breccia structure reaching 413m (1,355ft) high. While The Needle can be admired all the way from shore on the northern side of the island, those who want a closer look will have to do a portion of the Cross Island Trek. The full walk is 6km/3.7 miles (3-4 hours). Those just wanting to climb up to The Needle, however, can start from the north side of the trail, trek up to the summit and return back the same way (1h30mins-2 hours). Guided hikes are available for the whole Cross Island Trek with Maunga Tours (see the 8 Best Guided Walks in the Cook Islands) or a spectacular view of The Needle from a mountaintop can be experienced with Raro Safari Tours (see the 10 Best Tours of Rarotonga).
Location: See the links above for the best access to the Cross Island Track, Rarotonga.
3. Anatakitaki Cave (Kopeka Cave)
A must-see tourist attraction on the island of Atiu, Anatakitaki Caves are a series of caves with awesome limestone stalactites and home to a rare and fascinating bird. The caves can only be accessed with a guide, such as Atiu Eco-Adventure Anatakitaki Cave Tour who offer a three-hour guided experience taking you through the dense rainforest to three spectacular caves. Bring your swimwear for the cave pool, sturdy shoes for scrambling over makatea (coral limestone) and put on your best bird-spotting hats for seeing the kopeka, a swiftlet unique to Atiu, that uses sonar just like a bat. See more caves to explore across the Cook Islands in the 10 Best Caves in the Cook Islands. Plus, check out more sights on Atiu listed in the 20 Best Things to Do on Atiu.
Location: East side of Atiu. Transfers are included in the tour mentioned.
4. Vai Nauri
One of the best (if not the best) swimming caves in the Cook Islands, Vai Nauri, on the island of Mitiaro, holds a deep pool with clear deep blue waters and striking limestone features. There are a set of steps down to the pool or you can clamber around the pool and jump off a 3m (10ft) outcrop into the deep waters. Discover more amazing sights on Mitiaro mentioned in the 15 Best Things to Do on Mitiaro.
Location: West side of Mitiaro. A short dead-end road to Vai Naui can be found a few hundred metres north of the Lake Rotonui turnoff.
5. Ara’oa Beach
The island of Mangaia hides many tranquil stretches of sand, most of which slope into the reef and are backed with dramatic “makatea” (uplifted coral). One of its most picturesque beaches is Ara’oa Beach at the northern tip of the island. Stop for a paddle on the reef and get some mesmerising photos of its makatea boulders and caves. Discover more sights, including caves and lookouts, in the 15 Best Things to Do on Mangaia.
Location: North side of Mangaia, on the coastal road, approximately 2.5km (1.6 miles) north of Ivirua village.
6. The Largest Banyan Tree in the South Pacific
Covering an area of 4,000m² (43,000ft²), Mauke’s giant banyan tree is the largest in the South Pacific. The 15-minute walk to the tree passes another sight on Mitiaro, Vai Moti, a small cave with a swimming hole where you a take a quick dip. Finally, you’ll come across the tangled roots hanging from above and crawling across the ground that indicates you’ve reached the Giant Banyan Tree! Locals have made an awesome tree swing with the roots – so have a go! Check out more sights on Mauke listed in the 15 Best Things to Do on Mauke.
Location: North side of Mauke. There is a clearing on the road to the start of this trail between Areora village and A’anga Beach on the east coast. As the trail is difficult to find, it is best to explore this area with a guide, which can be arranged through your Mitiaro accommodation.
7. Black Rock
Back on Rarotonga now, this volcanic outcrop among the sand is not only a spiritual site but a glorious place to snorkel or reef walk. Black Rock is said to be where Rarotonga’s spirits depart to the afterlife, which you can learn more about on the interpretation panel near the rock. At low tide, the rock pools are interesting to investigate, while it’s also a fun snorkelling spot at high tide. Learn more about the cultural significance of this sight in the 10 Best Historical Sites on Rarotonga.
Location: Main Road (Ara Tapu), Nikao, northwest side of Rarotonga.
8. Matai Shipwreck
This British cargo ship that wrecked on the Avarua Harbour on Christmas Day, 1916 is now part of the reef of 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. Discover more amazing sights across the island in our Top 10 Sights on Rarotonga.
Location: Trader Jacks, Main Road (Ara Tapu), the western end of Avarua, north side of Rarotonga.
9. CICC Church Arutanga
When it comes to sightseeing and architecture, one of the most impressive buildings in Aitutaki (and the Cook Islands) is the CICC Church in Arutanga. Either visit as part of a Sunday church service to admire the interiors and light displays from the stained-glass windows or get a photo from the Arataki Lookout on the hill behind it. Learn more about the church experience and find more photo-worthy church buildings in the 10 Best Churches in the Cook Islands to Experience as a Visitor.
Location: On the main road at the southern end of Arutanga, west side of Aitutaki.
10. Papua Waterfall (Wigmore’s Waterfall)
Cool off and get some “cool” pics at the Papua Waterfall. Also known as Wigmore’s Waterfall, this tourist attraction on Rarotonga can be found among the forest in a clearing with picnic tables to make the most of your visit. The waterfall is at its best when there hasn’t been a dry spell (which, luckily, isn’t too often on Rarotonga) and swimming is best done in the bottom pool; not on top where the water pipes are. Remember to take some insect repellent with you and avoid climbing the sides where rocks have been known to fall! For more safety advice, check out our Cook Islands Safety Tips.
Location: End of Papua Road, Vaimaanga, south side of Rarotonga. To drive up the road to the waterfall, you may be asked for a donation (around NZ$2 for bikes and NZ$5 for cars/trucks).
More Amazing Sights in the Cook Islands
Now that you know some of the best places for sightseeing in the Cook Islands, discover more of the top sights in the Cook Islands listed in the guides below:
- The 10 Most Famous Places in Rarotonga & the Cook Islands
- Where to Take Pictures in the Cook Islands: 10 Best Photography Spots
- The Top 10 Natural Wonders in Rarotonga & the Cook Islands
Finally, add more to the bucket list using the 101 Best Things to Do in the Cook Islands: The Ultimate List. Plus, work out all the logistics of planning a Cook Islands getaway in The Best Cook Islands Travel Guide.