The Complete Travel Guide to Palmerston© Kieran Scott - Cook Islands Tourism
The Complete Travel Guide to Palmerston

The Complete Travel Guide to Palmerston

© Kieran Scott – Cook Islands Tourism

How to Plan a Trip to Palmerston, Cook Islands

Pure white sandy islets surrounding an azure lagoon and far-flung between the Southern and Northern islands of the Cook Islands, Palmerston is the final frontier for exploring the South Pacific nation’s Southern Group (to which it technically belongs). So unlike its island sisters of Rarotonga and Aitutaki, there is no tourism industry here, but the 35 inhabitants are extremely welcoming to anyone who does make the effort to get to this isolated coral atoll. It’s part of the customs for the first inhabitant to greet visitors to be their host, a tradition passed down since the island was established by the forefather to which everyone here is related…

A Quick History of Palmerston

Palmerston might have been sighted by Captain James Cook in 1774 and is responsible for naming the atoll, but it was William Marsters who was the first to settle here. William Marsters was an Englishman from Gloucester, a carpenter and barrel-maker, who arrived on the island in 1863 with two Polynesian wives (a third would come later) and a determination to populate the island.

Some years later, he had 23 children living between his three wives, each wife with her own village. Today, there are thousands of “Marsters” living across Rarotonga and New Zealand, while everyone remaining on the island trace back their lineage to the “original” William Marsters. It may be important to note that marriage within the family group is prohibited…

A Travel Guide to Palmerston, Cook Islands

Now that you know a little about the fascinating history of Palmerston, let’s jump into how to visit this intriguing island. In this travel guide to Palmerston, we go over how to get there, where to stay and what to do on Palmerston Island.

Frequently Asked Questions About Palmerston, Cook Islands

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

Where is Palmerston Island Located?

Palmerston Island is located in the Cook Islands in the South Pacific, approximately 500km (310 miles) from the country’s capital, Rarotonga. Learn more about the location of the Cook Islands in our guide, Where are the Cook Islands Located?

Who Owns Palmerston Island?

Palmerston Island is privately owned by the Marsters family. The island is part of the country of the Cook Islands so is administered by the Cook Islands Government. Like other islands in the Cooks, Palmerston has its own Island Administration: three heads of each of the islands’ three families and three members appointed by each family. If you want to visit the island, you need to go through Palmerston Island Administration. Learn more about Cook Islands Government in our guide, Who Owns the Cook Islands? The Political Status of the Cook Islands.

Can You Visit Palmerston Island?

Yes, you can visit Palmerston Island, although not very easily. Most visitors arrive by private yacht during the dry season. Otherwise, it is possible to visit via one of the infrequent cargo ships departing from Rarotonga. Visits to the island should be made with the Palmerston Island Administration.

What is the Population of Palmerston Island?

The population of Palmerston Island is approximately 35.

The Complete Travel Guide to Palmerston©

How to Get to Palmerston

With no airstrip on the island, the only way to get to Palmerston Island is by sea. Visitors mostly make it to the island via private yacht or by the cargo boat from Rarotonga.

Sailing Yachts to Palmerston

One of the most frequent ways visitors get to Palmerston is via private yacht (and by “frequent”, we mean only around a dozen yachts per year). There are moorings on the lee side (west side) of the island where a small passage allows the island’s small boats to come and pick you up. You need to call Palmerston Island Administration on VHF Ch.16 with your approximate time of arrival. Even if you have cleared immigration with the Ports Authority on Aitutaki or Rarotonga (which you should do before arriving on Palmerston unless weather conditions make it otherwise impossible), you will need to go through an immigration, health, biosecurity and landing process (with fees) via the Island Administration. Learn more about yachting formalities in our Sailing Guide to Rarotonga & the Cook Islands: Tips for Yachting in the Cook Islands.

Cargo Boats to Palmerston

An infrequent cargo boat service departs Rarotonga for Palmerston and the other Southern Group islands once or twice a month. These cargo boats have cabins (or a covered deck to sleep on) and take passengers to the island. Due to the infrequency and inconsistency of cargo schedules, however, those wishing to take a cargo boat need to have a lot of time to spare on Rarotonga. When a boat is scheduled, it could be days, even weeks, before it actually departs. Find out more about cargo boat travel in the Cook Islands Cargo Ship Guide: How to Use the Ferry for Interisland Travel in the Cook Islands.

Cruises to Palmerston

That’s right, there is even a cruise ship that includes Palmerston on its South Pacific itinerary. Seabourn stops at Rarotonga, Aitutaki and Palmerston on some of its South Pacific cruises, giving you a unique opportunity to experience this less-visited atoll. Learn more about the cruise in the 7 Best Cruises That Visit the Cook Islands.

How Long Does it Take to Get to Palmerston?

It takes approximately eight days to get to Palmerston on a cargo boat from Rarotonga. For sailing distances from overseas via yacht, check out How Long Does it Take to Sail to Rarotonga & the Cook Islands?

The Complete Travel Guide to Palmerston©

Where to Stay on Palmerston Island

There is no formal accommodation for visitors on Palmerston, with visitors usually either staying in their yachts or being welcomed into a local family home. As part of Palmerston tradition, the first person to welcome a visitor to the island has to host.

How to Arrange Accommodation in Palmerston

While the technicalities of the tradition still remain the same, it’s not as “spontaneous” as it may seem. Stays on the island are typically arranged with the Palmerston Island Administration so they can organise a family to stay with, as well as a boat to pick you up from the cargo ship/yacht.

Because the Palmerston Island Administration email address changes every few years, it’s best to contact Cook Islands Tourism for the latest contact details.

Accommodation Costs + Eating and Drinking

Needless to say, accommodation standards are pretty basic, typically in a tin-roofed plywood home or something less. But the family you will be staying with will keep you fed and watered (see Is the Water Safe to Drink in the Cook Islands? for ways to make sure water is safe to drink). While you may not be asked to pay your way, you can help around the house and with community projects.

The Complete Travel Guide to Palmerston© Kieran Scott - Cook Islands Tourism

Things to Do on Palmerston Island

Visiting Palmerston is experiencing a slice of life in a small community on an isolated island. Needless to say, there are no organised tours or lagoon cruises. Anything that you do on Palmerston will be arranged by your host family or whoever you’re savvy enough to get talking to. Just mingle with the community and see what adventure you get up to.

5 Best Things to Do on Palmerston Island

The typical activities visitors get up to on Palmerston Island include the following:

  1. Visiting the school – Visitors are welcome to visit the school, sit in on classes and take a tour of their local vegetable gardens with the kids
  2. Fishing – You’ll meet fisherfolk fishing from shore, as well as within the lagoon. This is not just to feed the community but to also ship to Rarotonga. If you play your cards right, you might even be invited on a fishing tour of the lagoon
  3. Bosun bird hunting – A tradition since the island’s founder, bosun birds (red-tailed tropicbirds) are hunted on the 28th day of the month to supplement the diet while keeping the bird populations at a sustainable level
  4. Help with community projects – Part of immersing in the local culture (and thanking the island for their hospitality) is helping with whatever projects are happening. It could be painting a house or offering your skills; nurses, doctors, teachers and IT technicians are always in high demand!
  5. Experience a Sunday church service – One of the most striking buildings on Palmerston Island is the church. Attend the church on a Sunday morning and see the locals dressed in their best hats with their best singing voices, creating harmonies that are sure to move you.

A few honourable mentions include playing sports with the locals (usually volleyball or football/soccer) and, of course, snorkelling. See more typical Cook Islands experiences in the 101 Best Things to Do in the Cook Islands: The Ultimate List.

More About Palmerston and the Cook Islands

That’s it for our complete travel guide to Palmerston 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 31 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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