Which of the Cook Islands is the Best to Visit?
You’re probably one of the lucky few that have realised that Rarotonga isn’t a country. In fact, it’s part of the Cook Islands which is an entire country made up of 15 main islands! So rather than simply, “going to the Cook Islands”, decide which island by following our guide to the best islands in the Cook Islands!
The Best Islands in the Cook Islands for…
… Families: Rarotonga
… Couples: Aitutaki
… Beaches: Aitutaki
… Resorts: Rarotonga
… Hiking: Rarotonga
… Snorkelling: Aitutaki
… Scuba diving: Rarotonga
… Turtle swimming: Rarotonga
… Whale swimming: Aitutaki
… Bird watching: Atiu
… Kitesurfing: Aitutaki
… Caving: Mangaia
… Culture: Mauke
… Homestays: Mitiaro
… Adventure: The Northern Group
As the easiest island to visit in the Cook Islands with the most accommodations and things to do, Rarotonga is easily the best island to visit in the Cook Islands… For most people, and we’ll get onto that later…
Rarotonga is the arrival island for international flights to the Cook Islands, but it’s also an island that would be a shame to miss if you were to hop straight onto a plane for the next island. The volcanic island is unique in the Cook Islands in that it has volcanic peaks to climb and a cosmopolitan culture of cafes, restaurants and shops.
Tourist activities range from epic inland adventures on 4WD buggies to swimming with sea turtles in the lagoon and so much in between – just check out the 50 Best Things to Do on Rarotonga. There is also a wide range of places to stay, from family-friendly resorts to boutique villas for couples and even a couple of backpacker hostels. Have a browse of Where to Stay on Rarotonga: The BEST Rarotonga Accommodations for more of an idea.
So, if you’re looking for ease, a good balance of adventure and relaxation, variety and upscale accommodations, choose Rarotonga as the island to visit in the Cook Islands. Start your travel planning with The Complete Travel Guide to Rarotonga.
Very different from Rarotonga, Aitutaki is an atoll with one large island (although smaller than Rarotonga) and several small “motu” (islets) encircling a glorious lagoon. The pace of life is a lot slower and more relaxed here compared to Rarotonga, where finding yourself alone on a motu or sandbank amongst turquoise waters is a fairly common occurrence.
Although the tourism industry is a lot smaller than on Rarotonga, there is still a decent range of accommodations, from luxury resorts to budget guesthouses. Have a look at Where to Stay on Aitutaki: The BEST Aitutaki Accommodations.
In terms of things to do, there’s a lot more “relaxing” going on than most other types of activities, but a must-do is a lagoon cruise with snorkelling and island-hopping. Other alternative experiences include kitesurfing and bonefishing. Have a browse of the 20 Best Things to Do on Aitutaki for more ideas.
All in all, if you want to get away from it all; experience stunning island beauty and glorious beaches away from the crowds, then Aitutaki would be the best island to visit in the Cook Islands. Start planning your trip with The Complete Travel Guide to Aitutaki.
Rarotonga and Aitutaki are by far the most visited islands in the Cook Islands. The other islands don’t even come close. But that’s exactly why travellers do decide to explore the lesser-visited islands of the Cooks; to experience something more adventurous, less crowded and perhaps a little more authentic. A first go-to for such an occasion would be the island of Atiu.
A “makatea” island, Atiu is an uplifted coral atoll characterised by its ancient fossilised coral which makes up most of the terrain. This means that the island is full of caves and rocky cliffs line the secluded sandy beaches that slope down onto the encircling reef. Atop of the makatea is lush forest that provides the ideal habitat for birds, which is why the island is used as a sanctuary for vulnerable species and why its original name was “Enuamanu”, meaning the “land of birds”.
Also on the island is a cluster of villages with a vibrant history of warriors, while today, cultural norms surround drinking bush beer at the “tumunu”, eating “umukai” and growing arabica coffee beans.
The interesting aspects of Atiu can be experienced through bird eco-tours, cultural tours and cave tours, as outlined in the 20 Best Things to Do on Atiu, while there’s also plenty of room to explore on your own. As for places to stay, there isn’t much choice but one of the accommodations is the most “resort-like” outside of Rarotonga and Aitutaki – see Where to Stay on Atiu: The Best Atiu Accommodations.
Intrigued? Plan your adventure to Atiu using The Complete Travel Guide to Atiu.
Mangaia, Mauke or Mitiaro
Similar in a sense to Atiu, the other makatea islands of Mangaia, Mauke and Mitiaro are all easy to fly to from Rarotonga. They are, in fact, the easiest of the “lesser-visited islands” to get to, each being just a 50-minute flight from Rarotonga. What’s more, each has a small selection of tourist accommodations that is much more “homely” than on the islands mentioned above. However, they are by no means upscale so be prepared to experience a much more down-to-earth side of the Cook Islands.
In terms of what to do on these islands, Mangaia is home to some of the largest cave networks to explore in the Cook Islands. Mauke and Mitiaro also have caves but the ones you can easily visit are more like cave pools that you can swim in. Mauke has an interesting church known as “The Divided Church” which has some of the most unique architecture and stories from the islands. It is also home to the South Pacific’s largest banyan tree which is certainly a sight to behold. All of the islands have countless secluded beaches that you can enjoy all to yourself.
Therefore, either Mangaia, Mauke or Mitiaro (or all three) are well worth visiting for more adventurous travellers who prefer exploration and experiencing island culture and hospitality, rather than simply sitting in a resort. Start planning your trip to any of the islands in The Complete Travel Guide to Mangaia, The Complete Travel Guide to Mauke and The Complete Travel Guide to Mitiaro.
The Northern Group
Sitting as far as 1,365km (848 miles) away from Rarotonga, the Northern Group of the Cook Islands is closer to Tokelau, Samoa and Kiribati than they are to the rest of the Cook Islands. This is also true for their culture, making a hybrid of Polynesian customs and traditions that are unique to their islands. The Northern Group would rate higher as the best islands to visit in the Cook Islands only if they were easier to get to…
The only scheduled flight to the Northern Group is to the black-pearl producing lagoon of Manihiki, which costs more than NZ$1,500 each way. As for the other islands, you’ll either have to charter a flight, join one of the very few guided island-hopping tours that take place each year, or sail there yourself.
Those that make it to one of these islands will stay in a designated guesthouse where locals will cook for you and take you out for experiences on the lagoon, to tour black pearl farms, visit schools and much more – see the 10 Best Things to Do in the Northern Cook Islands for more examples.
Finally, any of the islands of the Northern Group are the best island in the Cook Islands for the ultimate explorer. If that’s you, start planning your expedition using The Complete Travel Guide to the Northern Cook Islands.
More About the Best Islands in the Cook Islands
That’s it for our guide to the best islands in the Cook Islands. For more about all of the islands to visit, check out the following guides:
- What are the 15 Islands in the Cook Islands?
- The 13 Less-Travelled Islands of the Cook Islands
- Which is Better, Rarotonga or Aitutaki?
Finally, plan your entire trip to the Cook Islands, the easy way, using The Best Cook Islands Travel Guide.