The Complete Travel Guide to the Cook Islands for Luxury Travellers
Elevate an already heavenly holiday destination by planning a luxury trip to the Cook Islands. Boasting intimate five-star villas lining sandy shores and turquoise lagoons, the islands of Rarotonga and Aitutaki really do look like paradise. The indulgence doesn’t end there, with plates of vibrant cuisine, charters on lagoons marbled with sand cays, and private jet experiences to lesser-explored atolls. Whatever the occasion or simply if money is no object, plan the ultimate premium escape with this complete luxury 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 miles) 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 sq mi) of ocean.
Climate: Maximum average temperature – 27°C/81°F, minimum average temperature – 21°C/70°F and yearly average rainfall – 2,000mm/79″.
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 yacht. 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, Hawaii 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 102-174mm (4-6.9″). 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 174-237mm (6.9-9.3″). 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, for catching some popular events, and for 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: 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 which we keep updated in What Documents Do I Need to Travel to Rarotonga & the Cook Islands? More info 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 island-hopping (especially with private jets available) but road tripping around the very manageable 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 our Rarotonga Luxury Itinerary: 3 Days for a memorable weekend.
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. See Rarotonga Luxury Itinerary: 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 Rarotonga & Cook Islands Luxury Itinerary: 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 Rarotonga & Cook Islands Luxury Itinerary: 10 Days for our luxury recommendation or have a browse of Rarotonga & Cook Islands Island-Hopping Itinerary: 10 Days should you want to discover more islands.
14 Days / 2 Weeks in the Cook Islands
A whole two weeks not only allows you to enjoy Rarotonga and Aitutaki for longer but even fit in a private jet experience to one of the lesser-visited islands, like Mitiaro. See Rarotonga & Cook Islands Luxury Itinerary: 14 Days for our most enticing itinerary.
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 miles) from Rarotonga, requiring a charter flight to get to. Regardless, those looking for a true South Seas adventure will be truly welcomed on these islands, which more than makes up for the lack of “luxury”.
Compare some of the most popular and easiest islands to visit in The Best Islands to Visit in the Cook Islands and Which is Better, Rarotonga or Aitutaki?
The Best Islands for Luxury in the Cook Islands
As the most developed islands, therefore, providing options for lavish resorts and indulgent experiences, both Rarotonga and Aitutaki offer a fabulous holiday for those seeking pure luxury. Check out our luxury guides to these destinations to discover more of their charms:
The outer islands of the Cook Islands are certainly more exclusive, visited by less than 1% of visitors to the Cook Islands each year. That’s why there are just a few island-hopping tours by plane per year to the lesser-visited islands. Intrigued? Find out more in the 10 Best Island-Hopping Tours in the Cook Islands.
The Other Southern Cook Islands
Should you be enticed by the other atolls of the Cook Islands, here’s a little bit more about them leading to their subsequent travel guides, starting with the other Southern Group islands:
- 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 giant banyan trees
- Mitiaro Travel Guide – Best cave pools in the South Pacific
- Palmerston Travel Guide – Lagoon islands 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 reliable system of island taxis and vehicle rentals on Rarotonga or your hosts on the outer islands simply renting out their car or scooter for you to explore at leisure.
Domestic Flights and Charter Flights
There is one airline in the Cook Islands running scheduled and charter flights between nine islands in the Cook Islands. Learn more in Your Guide to Interisland Flights and A Guide to Plane Charters.
Renting a car is the most popular way for travellers to get around each of the islands, whether it’s for ultimate freedom or it’s the only choice on some of the outer islands. Premium vehicles are available, such as convertibles. Find out everything you need to know about hiring in What You Need to Hire a Car in the Cook Islands.
Taxis are available on Rarotonga 24/7, while there are also a couple of taxi companies on Aitutaki offering a door-to-door service. Learn more about them in Taxis in Rarotonga & the Cook Islands: Taxi Fares, How to Use & More.
A popular method for locals to get around, scooters are one of the more quintessential ways to get around. 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 a leisurely option for riding from A to B with plenty of time on your hands. Check out Cycle Rarotonga & the Cook Islands: Where to Rent Bikes & E-Bikes for more details.
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: Luxury Accommodation in the Cook Islands
The Cook Islands has a broad and impressive range of luxury holiday accommodations, from five-star resorts to premium holiday homes with a pool. Most accommodations are boutique, with only a few large resorts on Rarotonga. Take a look at accommodation styles across all islands in The BEST Cook Islands Accommodations: Where to Stay or choose from the most luxurious in our 10 Best Luxury Accommodations & Resorts in the Cook Islands.
Luxury resorts in the Cook Islands provide the complete holiday experience with various grades of room/suite containing at least an ensuite and basic hotel-like facilities, such as a TV and drink-making facilities. Some resorts have bungalows or villas with in-room self-catering facilities or even a private plunge pool. There are also usually communal facilities, such as a swimming pool, restaurant and watersport equipment rental if on the beach. Compare resorts in our 10 Best Luxury Resorts in the Cook Islands.
Note there is also a substantial number of resorts reserved exclusively for adult guests, should you want to set the right tone, so be sure to peruse the 20 Best Adults-Only Resorts in the Cook Islands.
Complexes of self-contained design-driven 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, as well as luxury villas on the main island in the 5 Best Luxury Villas on Rarotonga.
Luxury Holiday Homes
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 more independent holiday experience. Find out more about them in the 20 Best Holiday Homes in the Cook Islands.
Luxury Experiences 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 – although, there’s nothing wrong with that! 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!
When it comes to experiences that add a special touch to your Cook Islands getaway, you can grace your itinerary with the following:
- Lagoon charter – Visit uninhabited islets, snorkel and enjoy delicious local food
- Spa treatment – Visit a day spa or get a massage in your villa
- Private beach dinner – Be treated to fine dining with your toes in the sand
- Shopping – Rarotonga provides the opportunity to buy black pearls and crafts
- Private snorkelling tour – Explore the underwater world at your own pace
- Private island tour – Explore the island with a local guide
- Scenic flight – See Rarotonga from new perspectives
- Private jet tours – Visit the outer islands in style…
… And there’s more where those came from in the 10 Most Luxurious Experiences in the Cook Islands.
More Activities in the Cook Islands
For those experiences that don’t necessarily fall under the “luxury” category but may be worthy of your bucket list…
- Swimming with turtles – Join snorkelling tours to prime turtle habitat
- Kayaking & SUP – Join tours or hire 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
- Game fishing – The South Pacific’s largest pelagics can be caught
- Whale watching – Watch or snorkel with whales between July and October
- Surfing – Hit uncrowded reef breaks on Rarotonga
- Hiking – Rarotonga’s interior is awash in jungle and mountain hikes
- Culture tours – Learn how to make Cook Islander food and take part in traditions
- Island nights – Cultural show with local food
- Markets – Delight in street food and browse local handicrafts
- Natural attractions – Explore caves, waterfalls and rock formations
- Historical sites – See the remains of ancient marae
- 4WD tours – Self-drive quad and buggy tours
- Museums & art galleries – Inspire yourself or learn something new.
Again, start making your bucket list with the 101 Best Things to Do in the Cook Islands.
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”.
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. Fine dining restaurants can be found on Rarotonga and Aitutaki – see the 5 Best Fine Dining Restaurants in the Cook Islands. There are a few cafes and restaurants on Aitutaki, while food is experienced on the outer islands through your hosts’ homecooked meals. Browse eateries in The Food Guide to Rarotonga and The Food Guide to Aitutaki.
Vegetarian options are widely available across Rarotonga but less so on other islands. More specific dietary needs, such as veganism and coeliacs, are harder to cater for. Check out our advice in Rarotonga & the Cook Islands for Vegans & Vegetarians, as well as The Gluten-Free Guide to the Cook Islands.
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. Finding clean drinking water on the outer islands is a little more challenging. See Is the Water Safe to Drink in the Cook Islands? for more advice. Food in the Cook Islands is generally cooked to safe hygiene standards, so there’s not much to worry about there, but check out Cook Islands Safety Tips for additional advice.
What Food to Try
And what are the foods worth trying in the Cook Islands? Look out for the items listed in Traditional Rarotongan Food: 10 Foods to Try in the Cook Islands and 10 Drinks in the Cook Islands You HAVE to Try!
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.
Plan More of Your Luxury Trip to the Cook Islands
That’s it for our complete guide to luxury travel in the Cook Islands. For more premium travel tips, check out the following articles:
- 8 Best Luxury Experiences on Rarotonga
- 5 Best Luxury Experiences on Aitutaki
- The Complete Adults-Only Travel Guide to the Cook Islands
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 luxury guide to the Cook Islands!