The Complete Travel Guide to the Cook Islands
Just specks on the world map, the Cook Islands are tiny pieces of paradise scattered across a vast portion of the South Pacific Ocean. Those who manage to find the islands of Rarotonga, Aitutaki or even the far-flung atolls like Pukapuka are instantly enamoured with their Polynesian charm, soothing climate and some of the world’s most stunning lagoons. That’s the Cook Islands in a nutshell, but if you want to be one of the lucky ones zipping around “Raro” on a scooter or snorkelling with turtles and giant clams in Aitutaki, then take a deep dive with us at Cook Islands Pocket Guide through the best travel guide to the Cook Islands.
An Intro to the Cook Islands
Location: The Cook Islands is an archipelago in the South Pacific Ocean in between Tonga, Samoa, Kiribati and French Polynesia. It is approximately 3,000 km (1,864 mi) northeast of New Zealand. Find out more in Where are the Cook Islands Located?
Size: The Cook Islands’ land area is 261 km² (101 mi²) scattered across 2,200,000 km² (850,000 mi²) of ocean.
Climate: Maximum average temperature – 27°C/81°F, minimum average temperature – 21°C/70°F and yearly average rainfall – 2,000 mm/79 in.
Find out more in The Cook Islands Weather, Seasons & Climate.
Time zone: UTC/GMT-10.
Find out more in What is the Cook Islands Time Zone?
Find out more in Who are the People of the Cook Islands?
Languages: Cook Islands Maori, English and Pukapukan.
Find out more in What is the Cook Islands Language?
How to Get to the Cook Islands
What is the best way to get to the Cook Islands? The Cook Islands can be accessed by flight, cruise ship or private sailing yachts. The most popular way to get to the Cook Islands is by international flight, so let’s start with that.
Flying to the Cook Islands
Direct international flights to the Cook Islands come from New Zealand, Australia, Honolulu and French Polynesia. If you’re coming from further afield, connecting flights can be made in New Zealand and Australia. See our guide, Which Airlines Fly Directly to the Cook Islands? for more advice.
All international arrivals land at Rarotonga International Airport on the island of Rarotonga, only a few minutes from the nation’s capital, Avarua. Find out more about the airport and what to expect in Which Airport to Fly into the Cook Islands.
Cruises to the Cook Islands
The Cook Islands is on the itinerary of several South Pacific cruises from French Polynesia, New Zealand and Australia, as well as round-the-world cruises from the US and Europe. There are two main ports of call in the Cooks, one in Rarotonga and the other in Aitutaki. Cruises also occasionally stop at Palmerston. Find out about which cruise liners have the Cook Islands on their itinerary, as well as what to do at each port of call in 7 Best Cruises That Visit the Cook Islands and The Complete Guide to the Ports of Call in the Cook Islands.
Sailing to the Cook Islands
The Cook Islands is situated on the Transpacific journey between the US and New Zealand. The yachting season is between May and October. Learn about the sailing formalities and the ports of entry in our Sailing Guide to the Cook Islands.
A Note on Customs Declarations
The Cook Islands has strict biosecurity measures at the border to stop unwanted pests and diseases from entering the country. Therefore, anyone arriving in the Cook Islands has to declare any “risk items” they have packed in their luggage – even common items like food and sports gear. Be sure to read up on Arriving in Rarotonga: Airport Customs, Biosecurity & Arrivals Process so you are prepared.
Check out our complete guide on How to Get to the Cook Islands for even more tips on making your way to the islands.
When to Visit the Cook Islands
The Cook Islands is a tropical country and experiences warm temperatures throughout the year. It has two distinct seasons, a dry season which is drier and cooler, and a wet season which is hotter and humid. Learn more about the climate in The Cook Islands Weather, Seasons & Climate + Weather by Month.
Dry Season (April to November)
The dry season is also known as the winter season in the Cook Islands, although many would not describe it as winter with temperatures around 19-28°C (66-82°F). The rainfall per month is an average of 102-174 mm (4-6.9 in). The dry season is also the time for seeing whales, kitesurfing/kiteboarding, clearer scuba diving conditions and catching wahoo.
Wet Season (December to March)
The wet season is hotter and more humid, with temperatures around 21-29°C (70-84°F) and an average monthly rainfall of 174-237 mm (6.9-9.3 in). This is also the Cook Islands’ cyclone season, which means there’s a risk of cyclones (but only a risk, which you can learn more about in A Guide to Cyclone Safety in the Cook Islands). The wet season is also the best time for catching Marlin, Yellowfin Tuna and Mahimahi, experiencing some popular events, and avoiding other tourists.
Still can’t decide when the best time is to travel to the Cook Islands? Check out our complete guide, The Best Time to Visit the Cook Islands: Best Months to Visit, which dives much deeper into the subject.
What to Pack for the Cook Islands
The main thing you need to keep in mind when packing for the Cook Islands is having a tropical wardrobe that includes some more modest items of clothing for going out for dinner and/or visiting a church. A packing list for the Cook Islands might look a little something like this:
- 5 Singlets/T-Shirts
- 1 Blouse/Shirt to cover the shoulders for dinner or church
- 2 Shorts/Skirts
- 1 Light evening dress to impress at dinner
- 1 Dress/Skirt below the knee for church
- 1 or 2 Light sleepwear if you’re against sleeping in your undies
- 1 Light jacket/Cardigan/Pashmina for cooler evenings
- 1 Sports shorts/Leggings for hiking
- 1 Sports T-shirt/Singlet for hiking
- 1 Outfit to travel between Rarotonga and home
- 3 Bras including strapless, sports and comfort
- 6 Underwear
- 4 Socks
- 1 Bikini for beach/pool
- 1 One-piece for watersports
- 2 Boardshorts for guys
- 1 Rash vest
- Light shirt to cover arms and back
- Light rain jacket
- Walking shoes
- Reef shoes/Water shoes.
And that’s just the clothes! For a full packing list of everything to take, including accessories and toiletries, check out What to Pack for Rarotonga: A Full Cook Islands Packing List.
With high UV levels and the presence of mosquitos, certain health products are essential to take to the Cook Islands. The Cook Islands also has a fragile marine ecosystem so natural sunscreens and repellents are a must. If going to the outer islands, a reusable water purification bottle is preferable to buying bottled water for obvious environmental reasons. See our health essentials packing list in What Medication to Pack in Your First Aid Kit for the Cook Islands.
The currency in the Cook Islands is New Zealand Dollars. Most vendors accept Visa and MasterCard, while there are ATMs and options for currency exchange on Rarotonga and Aitutaki. Cash is the only way to go on the other outer islands. Get more money tips in What is the Best Way to Pay in the Cook Islands?
Note that the Cook Islands issues its own coins and banknotes that you won’t be able to exchange overseas, so make sure to use them all up unless you want a souvenir.
Travel Documents and Paperwork
Visitors to the Cook Islands do not need a visa but do need a passport that is valid for no less than six months after your intended date of departure (seven days for New Zealand and Australian citizens). There may be other current entry requirements, like vaccination certificates; we keep updates in What Documents Do I Need to Travel to Rarotonga & the Cook Islands? which can also be found on the Cook Islands Tourism Travel Advisory page.
How Long to Spend in the Cook Islands
The Cook Islands might make for an idyllic boutique resort getaway to simply relax for a few days and that’s fine; we all need to R&R from time to time. More intrepid travellers, however, will find that the Cook Islands is an excellent country not only for some minor island-hopping but mostly for road-tripping around very small islands.
We’d recommend the minimum number of days to spend in the Cook Islands is five days if just visiting Rarotonga. However, 10 to 14 days is the recommended number of days for a satisfying trip to the Cook Islands, especially if you include at least two islands, such as Rarotonga and Aitutaki.
For those of you who want to explore, here’s what you can achieve in certain timeframes… (And don’t worry, we’ll get onto the destinations in the next few sections).
3 Days / A Long Weekend in the Cook Islands
Over 3 days or a long weekend, you have enough time to see the highlights of Rarotonga. Check out The Best Rarotonga Itineraries for 3 Days for a compilation of itineraries.
5 Days in the Cook Islands
5 days gives you more time to comfortably explore one of the Cook Islands’ most popular islands, either Rarotonga or Aitutaki, but not both. See The Best Rarotonga & Cook Islands Itineraries for 5 Days for trip ideas.
7 Days / 1 Week in the Cook Islands
Some travellers will find that 7 days is ideal for a mix of adventure and relaxation on Rarotonga, while more intrepid travellers might want to squeeze in a trip to Aitutaki. Get some inspiration on what to do and where to go from The Best Rarotonga & Cook Islands Itineraries for 7 Days.
10 Days in the Cook Islands
10 days is a comfortable amount of time to enjoy two islands in the Cook Islands, such as Rarotonga and Aitutaki or Rarotonga and either Atiu, Mangaia, Mauke or Mitiaro. Check out The Best Rarotonga & Cook Islands Itineraries for 10 Days for a complete list of our recommended itineraries.
14 Days / 2 Weeks in the Cook Islands
Adventurous travellers can visit multiple atolls in the Cook Islands, or simply enjoy Rarotonga and Aitutaki for longer – there’s plenty to do! See The Best Rarotonga & Cook Islands Itineraries for 14 Days for a whole list of exciting itineraries.
How Long Can You Stay in the Cook Islands?
Visitors to the Cook Islands can stay up to a month! Visitor extensions are available, however, which you can learn more about in our guide, How Long Can You Stay in the Cook Islands on a Visitor Visa?
Which Island to Visit in the Cook Islands
The Cook Islands is made up of 15 islands split between two island groups, the Southern Group and the Northern Group. The most-visited islands and the easiest to get to are the ones in the Southern Group, which is where Rarotonga and Aitutaki are located. The Northern Group is some 1,000 km (620 mi) from Rarotonga, requiring a much pricier airfare or charter flight to get to. Nevertheless, those looking for a true South Seas adventure will be truly welcomed on these islands.
The Southern Cook Islands
- Rarotonga Travel Guide – The Cook Islands’ top holiday hotspot
- Aitutaki Travel Guide – Beautiful lagoon with holiday accommodations
- Atiu Travel Guide – Eco-paradise with caves, birds and beaches
- Mangaia Travel Guide – Ancient rocky island with caves and beaches
- Mauke Travel Guide – Uplifted atoll with beaches and banyan trees
- Mitiaro Travel Guide – Best cave pools in the South Pacific
- Palmerston Travel Guide – Lagoon islets with a tiny population
- Takutea Travel Guide – Uninhabited nature reserve
- Manuae Travel Guide – Uninhabited nature reserve.
The Northern Cook Islands
- Penrhyn Travel Guide – Cooks’ largest lagoon and best craftspeople
- Manihiki Travel Guide – Black pearl producers and stunning lagoon
- Rakahanga Travel Guide – Remote atoll only accessible by boat
- Pukapuka Travel Guide – Village life with sustainable practices
- Nassau Travel Guide – Only accessible by boat from Pukapuka
- Suwarrow Travel Guide – The Cook Islands’ only national park.
Again, be sure to check out The Best Islands to Visit in the Cook Islands for more of a comparison.
How to Get Around the Cook Islands
The distance between islands in the Cook Islands is rather substantial, leaving very few options for island-hopping. Once you have arrived on each of the islands, however, getting around is made extremely easy, whether it’s the good public transport system and vehicle rentals on Rarotonga or hosts on the outer islands simply renting out their own car or scooter for you to explore at leisure.
Domestic Flights and Charter Flights
Renting a car is the most popular way for travellers to get around each of the islands, whether it’s for ultimate freedom or because it’s the only choice on some of the outer islands. Find out everything you need to know about hiring in What You Need to Hire a Car in the Cook Islands.
A popular method for locals to get around, scooters are a more fuel-efficient way to travel around the islands of the Cooks. Note that visitors without a license to ride a motorcycle will need to go through a quick test at Rarotonga Police Station to get their visitor’s scooter license. See the 10 Tips for Riding a Scooter in Rarotonga & the Cook Islands to start your research.
Bicycles and E-Bikes
While it’s pretty tough going to ride around the whole of Rarotonga (32 km/20 mi), bicycles and e-bikes are an affordable option for riding from A to B with plenty of time on your hands. Check out Cycle the Cook Islands: Where to Rent Bikes & E-Bikes for more details.
Rarotonga is the only island in the Cooks with a bus service. It is a cheap and frequent service with two buses revolving around the island in opposite directions at the same time. Check it out in The Bus in Rarotonga: Bus Fares, Timetable & More.
While those are the main ways to get around the Cook Islands, you can dive into all of your options, including some eco-friendly transport, in the Cook Islands Transport Guide: 15 Ways to Get Around the Cook Islands.
Where to Stay: Accommodation in the Cook Islands
The Cook Islands has a broad and impressive range of holiday accommodations, from five-star resorts to humble holiday homes. Most accommodations are boutique, with only a few large resorts on Rarotonga, as well as for the mid-range to the luxury market, but there are a few budget options if push comes to shove. Take a look at accommodation styles across the Cook Islands in The Best Cook Islands Accommodations: Where to Stay.
Resorts in the Cook Islands provide the complete holiday experience with various grades of room/suite usually containing an ensuite and basic hotel-like facilities, such as a TV and drink-making facilities. Some resorts also have in-room self-catering facilities. There are usually communal facilities, such as a swimming pool, restaurant and watersport equipment rental if on the beach. Compare resorts in our ultimate list of The Top 50 Resorts in the Cook Islands.
Complexes of self-contained villas are very popular in the Cook Islands, usually consisting of bungalows with full self-catering facilities. They are very similar to resorts in that they usually have a swimming pool and watersports equipment for guests, but they tend to be much smaller complexes for a more intimate experience. Compare villas across the country in the 25 Best Villas in the Cook Islands.
From private holiday rentals with your own swimming pool to holiday home complexes, there are plenty of options to enjoy your own space in the Cook Islands. Holiday homes provide all you need for a home-away-from-home experience right down to a washing machine. Find out more about them in the 20 Best Holiday Homes in the Cook Islands.
Head to the lesser-visited outer islands and you’re likely to stay in a guesthouse. These are similar to B&Bs or backpacker accommodations where guests sleep in private rooms but share communal facilities such as a bathroom and kitchen. What’s more, almost all of the Cook Islands’ guesthouses on the outer islands come with homecooked meals! Find out more in the 10 Best Guesthouses in Rarotonga & the Cook Islands.
Things to Do in the Cook Islands
Contrary to popular belief, there’s more to do in the Cook Islands than drink cocktails and sit by the pool. The Cook Islands exceeds in adventure, relaxation and culture, providing a generous mix of water and inland experiences. There’s so much to do that we could hardly fit it all into our 101 Best Things to Do in the Cook Islands!
Water Activities in the Cook Islands
- Snorkelling – Snorkel in the lagoons or join sea scooter tours
- Swimming with turtles – Join snorkelling tours to prime turtle habitat
- Lagoon cruises – Visit uninhabited islets, snorkel and enjoy delicious local food
- Kayaking & SUP – Join tours or hire watersports equipment to explore the lagoons
- Scuba diving – Choose from tens of dives sites, from drop-offs to caves
- Kitesurfing – There are flat lagoons and ideal trade winds for kitesurfing
- Game fishing – The South Pacific’s largest pelagics can be caught
- Whale watching – Take boat tours to watch or snorkel with whales between July and October
- Surfing – Hit uncrowded reef breaks on Rarotonga.
Land Activities in the Cook Islands
- Hiking – Rarotonga’s interior is awash in jungle and mountain hikes
- Culture tours – Learn how to make Cook Islander food, take part in traditions and more
- Island nights – Cultural show with local food
- Markets – Delight in street food and browse local handicrafts
- Shopping – Rarotonga provides the opportunity to buy black pearls and all sorts of amazing crafts
- Natural attractions – Explore caves, waterfalls, rock formations and more
- Historical sites – See the remains of ancient marae
- 4WD tours – Self-drive quad and buggy tours
- Island tours – Explore the island with a local guide
- Museums & art galleries – Be inspired and learn something new
- Spa treatments – Visit a day spa or get a massage in your villa.
Food in the Cook Islands
All kinds of cuisine are represented in the Cook Islands, especially on Rarotonga which is best described as “island cosmopolitan”. What’s more, self-catering is easy to manage with grocery stores found on most islands that people visit.
Restaurants and Cafes
Restaurants serve international dishes, including Asian, European and American, while local dishes are best tried at “island nights” or on certain food tours. There are a few cafes and restaurants on Aitutaki, while food is experienced on the outer islands through your hosts’ homecooked meals. Browse restaurants and cafes in The Food Guide to Rarotonga and The Food Guide to Aitutaki.
Self-catering is made easy on Rarotonga and Aitutaki with plenty of accommodations with cooking facilities, as well as supermarkets, convenience stores and roadside fruit stalls to pick up supplies. Check out A Guide to Food Shopping in the Cook Islands for everything you need to know about a self-catering holiday. Plus, check out The Cost of Food in the Cook Islands for restaurant and grocery store prices.
Vegetarian options are widely available across Rarotonga but less so on other islands. More specific dietary needs, like veganism and coeliacs, are tougher to cater to. Check out our advice in Rarotonga & the Cook Islands for Vegans & Vegetarians, as well as The Gluten-Free Guide to the Cook Islands for more advice.
What Food to Try
Food and Water Safety
Most tourist accommodations on Rarotonga and Aitutaki have access to safe drinking water, whether it’s tap water through a UV-filtration system or a jug of filtered water at reception. There are also filtered and treated public water stations on the roadsides of Rarotonga and Aitutaki. Finding clean drinking water on the outer islands is a little more challenging. See Is the Water Safe to Drink in Rarotonga & the Cook Islands? for more advice. Food in the Cook Islands is generally cooked to safe hygiene standards, but check out Cook Islands Safety Tips for additional advice.
For all things “food” in the Cook Islands, including markets to attend, foodie tours, restaurant recommendations and more, head to The Food Guide to the Cook Islands: Places to Eat, Food Tours & More.
Typical Costs and Budget for a Trip to the Cook Islands
We all travel very differently. Therefore, making a precise budget for everyone is an impossible task. Nevertheless, you can work out your own needs, thus budget, by simply looking at the typical prices listed below or in our article, How Much Does a Trip to Rarotonga & the Cook Islands Cost?
The Cost of Accommodation
- Dorm bed/night – NZ$20-$35
- Guesthouse private room/night – NZ$60-$200
- Budget resort ensuite room/night – NZ$130-$220
- Mid-range resort ensuite room/night – NZ$230-$550
- Self-contained double room/night – NZ$160-$550
- Self-contained family room/night – NZ$230-$1,100
- Luxury villa/night – NZ$700-$2,000
- Family holiday home/night – NZ$230-$760
The Cost of Food
- Main breakfast meal – NZ$10-$29
- Main lunch meal – NZ$15-$35
- Main dinner meal – NZ$14-$49
- Island night buffet and show – NZ$60-$130
- Small coffee – NZ$5-$6
- Bottle of beer – NZ$6.50-$8
- Glass of wine – NZ$12
- Cocktail – NZ$11-$21
- Mocktail/Smoothie – NZ$7-$16
- Soft drink – NZ$5-$6
The cost of supermarket food can be found in The Cost of Food in Rarotonga & the Cook Islands.
The Cost of Tours and Activities
- Guided hike – NZ$25-$80
- Spa treatment/1hr massage – NZ$80-$150
- Buggy/quad bike tour – NZ$125-$150
- Guided island tour – NZ$60-$70
- Museum entry – NZ$5-$15
- Outer islands cave tour – NZ$30-$70
- Snorkel hire/day – NZ$0-$10
- SUP or kayak hire/1hr– NZ$15-$20
- Lagoon cruise – NZ$79-$160
- Swimming with turtles – NZ$80-$160
- Snorkel tour – NZ$60-$160
- Fishing charter/private – NZ$600-$1,600
- Scuba dive/intro dive – NZ$200-$220
The Cost of Transport
- Bicycle rental/day – NZ$10-$25
- Visitor’s Scooter Licence – NZ$40
- Scooter rental/day – NZ$24-$30
- Car rental/day – NZ$40-$80
- Rarotonga bus/one-way trip – NZ$5
- Taxi/kilometre – NZ$3+
- Airport transfers/person – NZ$0-$36
- Aitutaki water taxi – NZ$35-$80
- Flight/Rarotonga to Southern Group – NZ$250-$275
- Flight/Rarotonga to Northern Group – NZ$1,600
- Charter flight/Southern Group – NZ$4,500-$5,000
- Charter flight/Northern Group – NZ$11,000
Spending Money for the Cook Islands
Here are a few averages for a daily budget for Rarotonga and the Cook Islands. These include food, activities, transport and miscellaneous expenses. Each price is per person per day:
- Budget daily budget: NZ$130
- Mid-range daily budget: NZ$250
- Luxury daily budget: NZ$460+
We break down the budgets further in How Much Spending Money Do You Need for the Cook Islands?
Cook Islands Travel Guides: Plan a Cook Islands Trip According to Your Travel Style
Finally, this wouldn’t be the best travel guide to the Cook Islands without taking into account that everyone likes to holiday differently. Here at Cook Islands Pocket Guide, we have travel guides for all styles of travel, including budget travellers, luxury travellers, honeymooners, families, adults-only and foodies. If one of these fits your style, then jump ahead to the appropriate travel guide:
- The Complete Backpacking Guide to the Cook Islands on a Budget
- The Complete Luxury Guide to the Cook Islands
- The Complete Travel Guide to the Cook Islands for Families
- The Honeymoon & Romantic Getaway Guide to the Cook Islands
- The Complete Adults-Only Travel Guide to the Cook Islands
- The Food Guide to the Cook Islands: Places to Eat, Food Tours & More
And if you simply can’t get enough Cook Islands wisdom, head over to the 30 Tips for Travelling in Rarotonga & the Cook Islands.
Happy travels and thanks for checking out this travel guide to the Cook Islands!