The Complete Travel Guide to Manuae© DH - Cook Islands Tourism
The Complete Travel Guide to Manuae

The Complete Travel Guide to Manuae

© DH – Cook Islands Tourism

Everything You Need to Know About Visiting Manuae

The two horseshoe-shaped islands facing each other inside a ringed coral lagoon some 101 km (63 mi) southwest of Aitutaki are collectively known as Manuae. They are also some of the least-visited islands in the Cook Islands. The islet to the west is Manuae and the island to the east is Te Au O Tu motu, together covering a land area of 6.2 km² (3.9 mi²) in a 13 km² (8 mi²) lagoon. The atoll is the true definition of the word; on the peak of a submerged volcano. But those wishing to see this stunning piece of paradise for themselves will have many hurdles to jump to visit this uninhabited sanctuary. That’s why it has mostly been left to the turtles and seabirds…

Find out more about Manuae, how to visit, its history and what there is to do there, in this complete travel guide to Manuae.

Frequently Asked Questions About Manuae

We’re here to tell you everything you need to know about Manuae, so we won’t waste any time in this Manuae travel guide giving you the answers to the questions that most travellers have about visiting.

Where is Manuae?

Manuae is located in the Southern Group of the Cook Islands, approximately 101km (63 miles) southwest of Aitutaki. The Cook Islands is located in the South Pacific, which you can learn more about in Where are the Cook Islands Located?

Do People Live on Manuae?

No, people do not live on Manuae, although the island has been inhabited in the past. See the section on “The History of Manuae” for more information.

The Complete Travel Guide to Manuae©

How to Get to Manuae

Manuae is the most difficult of the Southern Cook Islands to visit (and perhaps in all of the Cook Islands). Even the locals rarely use the rich fishing grounds surrounding the coral atoll, especially given the challenges of its very narrow entry passage into the lagoon, which requires the calmest of sea conditions to navigate.

Those who are determined can arrange a visit to Manuae will need to contact the indigenous owners via their website, You’ll need an experienced local boat operator who knows the atoll well, has a well-equipped motorboat with appropriate safety equipment, and can spare a day for the journey there and back. The 101 km (63 mi) crossing from Aitutaki to Manuae takes approximately three to four hours in each direction.

Private yachts can admire the islands from offshore but will have difficulty getting onto land. Find out more about visiting the Cook Islands by yacht in our Sailing Guide to Rarotonga & the Cook Islands: Tips for Yachting in the Cook Islands.

The Complete Travel Guide to Manuae©

The History of Manuae

Dating back to the earliest known social history of Manuae, there is a disagreement between Atiu and Aitutaki on who settled the atoll first. One story is of two Atiuan brothers and their Aitutakian wives being first. Meanwhile, Aitutakians believe the island was first discovered by the Polynesian explorer and one of the high chiefs of Rarotonga and Aitutaki, Ruatapu. Ruatapu was said to have named the island “Manu Enua” meaning “Bird Island”. His son, Tupui, was thought to have then named the atoll “Te-Au-O-Tupui”, meaning “The Kingdom of Tupui”. The slightly shortened version of this name has stuck for the eastern motu to this day.

European Discovery of Manuae

Manuae’s European claim to fame is that it was the first island in the Cook Islands to be spotted by Captain James Cook, who sailed past the island in 1773 calling it “Sandwich Island”. He then changed its name to “Hervey Island” after he named the Hawaiian Islands the “Sandwich Islands” instead.

On Cook’s 1777 voyage, he stopped at Manuae and talked to the island’s inhabitants, and through his Tahitian interpreter Omai, found out that the island at that point was under the control of Atiu.

In 1823, the missionary that introduced Christianity to the Cook Islands, John Williams, visited the island to find 60 inhabitants. Soon after, these inhabitants killed a group of Aitutakians gathering copra, which in turn, resulted in a raid that wiped out the island’s population. Whoever survived was taken back to Aitutaki by missionaries.

Throughout the 1800s, Europeans made temporary homes on the island, most notably, William Marsters who later moved to (and populated) the island of Palmerston with his three wives. You can learn more about that story in The Complete Travel Guide to Palmerston.

Prisoners, Casinos and Protection

In the late 1890s and early 1900s, Manuae was used as a penal colony until about 1915. After that, a small settlement was established next to the reef passage on the northern point of the Manuae motu to start a copra industry. However, the settlement was abandoned in the mid-1960s after copra prices plummeted.

In the early-1980s, a small airstrip was constructed on the island when there were plans to turn the island into an exclusive resort with a casino. Thankfully, this didn’t come to fruition.

The Proprietors of Manuae Incorporated (PMI) was established by court order in 1983 to represent the descendants of the original indigenous population. The PMI committee members are elected on a regular basis by these landowning descendants. In October 2022, the PMI established the not-for-profit Manuae Enua Conservation Trust (MECT) to represent the landowners’ interests in managing Manuae for conservation and sustainable development. Only landowners and their descendants can be trustees.

The Complete Travel Guide to Manuae© DH - Cook Islands Tourism

Top 3 Things to Do on Manuae

Simply making it to this island is an achievement in itself and something you can tick off your “bucket list”. If you’re one of the very lucky few to make it to this atoll, then you can expect experiences such as…

  1. Seeing the ultra-rare bristle-thighed curlew – During the summer months, the world’s most endangered long-distance flyer, makes the arduous journey from Alaska to Manuae every year
  2. Snorkelling and diving – Needless to say, a trip to Manuae needs to come with snorkel or dive gear at the ready, as the turtle sanctuary and coral have been left to thrive, untouched for decades
  3. Fishing – Although Manuae is too far a fishing ground for most Aitutakians, your local guide to the island will no doubt take the opportunity to angle the abundance of bounty around the atoll.

See more typical Cook Islands experiences in the 101 Best Things to Do in the Cook Islands: The Ultimate List.

More About Manuae and the Cook Islands

That’s it for our complete travel guide to Manuae in the Cook Islands. For more less-explored islands to visit, check out the following guides:

Finally, plan the rest of your Cook Islands expedition using The Best Cook Islands Travel Guide and the 30 Tips for Travelling in Rarotonga & the Cook Islands.


Laura S.

This article was reviewed and published by Laura, editor-in-chief and co-founder of Cook Islands Pocket Guide. Since arriving solo in the South Pacific over 10 years ago with nothing but a backpack and a background in journalism, her mission has been to show the world how easy (and awesome) it is to explore a paradise such as the Cook Islands. She knows the islands inside out and loves sharing tips on how best to experience Raro’s must-dos and hidden gems. Laura is also the editor of several other South Pacific travel guides.

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