How to Plan a Trip to the Northern Group of the Cook Islands
A real “Robinson Crusoe” experience, the islands of the Northern Group of the Cook Islands are sparsely scattered across the South Pacific Ocean. They are closer to their South Pacific cousins of Tokelau, Samoa and Kiribati than they are to their capital, Rarotonga, so visiting these tiny communities is like visiting a different country for both locals and tourists alike. That’s if, of course, you make it to these islands that you have to have the luxury of time, money and a sense of adventure to visit…
But the lucky few who make it here are welcomed with open arms and come back utterly enchanted by the experience. They are once-in-a-lifetime destinations and one of the most memorable travel experiences on the cards for a Cook Islands getaway. Find out how you can make it yours with this complete travel guide to the Northern Cook Islands.
Frequently Asked Questions About the Northern Cook Islands
We’re here to plan the best trip ever, so we won’t waste any time in this Northern Cook Islands travel guide giving you the answers to questions that most travellers have about visiting.
What are the 6 Northern Group Islands?
The six islands that make up the Northern Group of the Cook Islands, from north to south, are:
What is the Northernmost Cook Island?
The northernmost Cook Island is Penrhyn (locally known as Tongareva), which is 1,365km (848 miles) northeast of the nation’s capital, Rarotonga.
Where is the Northern Group of the Cook Islands?
The Northern Group of the Cook Islands lies just south of the Equator between the bands of 9° and 13°30′. They lie in the South Pacific between the island nations of Samoa, Tokelau, Kiribati and French Polynesia. Learn more about the Cook Islands location in general in Where are the Cook Islands Located?
What is the Population of the Northern Group?
The population of the Northern Group of the Cook Islands is around 1,020, which is only 6% of the Cook Islands’ overall population.
Which Islands to Visit: Penrhyn
Still proudly known by the locals as its traditional Maori name, Tongareva, Penrhyn is the northernmost of the Cook Islands. It’s also the largest lagoon in the country at 233km² (145mi²) and 14km (8.7 miles) across. When you’re sitting on the secluded beaches, you can’t even see the other side of the lagoon!
Most famously, however, Penrhyn is known for its crafts. The islands here are the source of the white woven hats, earrings and fans that you see people wearing all over Rarotonga. The lagoon is also known for its rich marine biodiversity, including a variety of sharks which has given Penrhyn the reputation of being the “shark lagoon”. What’s more, some parts of the lagoon are so deep that they are yet to be explored…
What to Do in Penrhyn
- Take a boat trip on the largest lagoon in the Cook Islands
- Feed the friendly reef sharks
- Browse amazing crafts that are famous across the Cook Islands
- Snorkel and scuba dive among untouched coral
- Experience amazing singing at a local church service.
Plan Your Trip to Penrhyn
Intrigued? Start planning your trip to Penrhyn, including how to get there, where to stay and what to do, with The Complete Travel Guide to Penrhyn.
Which Islands to Visit: Manihiki
It’s the outer island that you’ll hear most about when exploring Rarotonga. Manihiki is known for its back pearls, an industry that services all of the black pearl jewellers you come across on Rarotonga. Pearl farmers and other islanders in Manihiki are ultra-welcoming, allowing you to take authentic tours of the pearl farms, explore the lagoon and enjoy real island life in one of the most remote inhabited places on Earth.
Manihiki is the Northern Group island that’s easiest to get to thanks to its scheduled flights with the local airline. It’s also the only Northern Group island with proper commercial accommodation (rather than homestays/guesthouses): Manihiki Lagoon Villas.
What to Do in Manihiki
- Visit the pearl farms
- Take a tour of the Manihiki Lagoon
- Join the locals for fishing or spearfishing
- Explore Motu Tokerau
- Snorkel or scuba dive among unspoiled coral banks.
Plan Your Trip to Manihiki
Inspired? Start planning your trip to Manihiki, including how to get there, where to stay and what to do, with The Complete Travel Guide to Manihiki.
Which Islands to Visit: Rakahanga
A rectangular coral atoll lying nearby Manihiki, Rakahanga is the remotest of the two islands, only accessible by boat from Manihiki or by cargo ship. Whereas Manihiki is famous for its black pearls, Rakahanga’s “jewels” are the finely woven rito hats and mats crafted by the island’s locals, as well as its coconut crabs known as “unga” – the largest species of crab in the world.
What to Do in Rakahanga
- Experience island living and learn about breadfruit and copra farming and rito crafting
- Cruise the Rakahanga Lagoon
- Go fishing with the locals
- Relax on the glorious beaches
- See the world’s largest crabs.
Plan Your Trip to Rakahanga
Interested? Start planning your trip to Rakahanga, including how to get there, where to stay and what to do, with The Complete Travel Guide to Rakahanga.
Which Islands to Visit: Pukapuka
The remotest of all of the Cook Islands, Pukapuka is as far as you can get from Rarotonga. It’s closer, in fact, to its South Pacific cousins of Tokelau and Samoa whose cultures have an influence. The result is an interesting way of life with the island having its own unique language, as well as a much stronger sense of community than in the rest of the Cook Islands. On Pukapuka, you won’t just be looked after by your host; you’ll be looked after by everyone.
The nature of Pukapuka astounds any who comes here with three gorgeous islands surrounding a shallow azure lagoon of only around 5km² (3mi²). What makes it more special is that the locals look after it too, living on different islands for two to three months at a time in order for nature to recover.
What to Do in Pukapuka
- Walk along the reef between Wale and Motu Ko
- Visit the bird island of Motu Kotawa
- Take a trip to the Toka Sandbank
- Try some of the sweetest taro in the South Pacific
- Learn about “Ra’ui” which allows sustainable living on the island.
Plan Your Trip to Pukapuka
Compelled? Start planning your trip to Pukapuka, including how to get there, where to stay and what to do, with The Complete Travel Guide to Pukapuka.
Which Islands to Visit: Nassau
Tiny, remote and unique amongst the Northern Group of the Cook Islands, Nassau is a small coral cay sitting 8.5m (28ft) above sea level. Unlike its Northern Group brothers and sisters, Nassau has no lagoon. The island is encircled by a tiny fringing reef, but the most striking thing about this island is its dense coconut forests and lush gardens, giving Nassau a reputation as a “Garden of Eden”.
Administered by nearby Pukapuka, Nassau is seen as a sort of “suburb” of Pukapuka which offers the only transport to Nassau. Those who make it to this gorgeous piece of paradise, however, will be rewarded with solidarity and simply living, away from all of the stresses of the modern world.
What to Do on Nassau
- Learn what it’s like to live in a small island community from the locals
- Join the locals on the open ocean for some deep sea fishing
- Relax on the glorious beaches
- Explore the island on foot; everything is within walking distance
- See the Manuvai Shipwreck.
Plan Your Trip to Nassau
Tempted? Start planning your trip to Nassau, including how to get there, where to stay and what to do, with The Complete Travel Guide to Nassau.
Which Islands to Visit: Suwarrow
An almost hexagonal lagoon in the southern reaches of the Northern Group, Suwarrow is the Cook Island’s only national park. With a population of two only for half the year, the coral atoll provides a true “marooned on a deserted island” experience that even some have recreated on the islands and written books about. The only ways to get to Suwarrow is via yacht or on the extremely infrequent cargo ship – but no one is permitted to stay on the island except for the island’s caretakers.
What to Do in Suwarrow
- Birdwatch at an important habitat for around 10 species of seabird
- Snorkel and scuba dive among untouched coral
- Sail to one of the world’s most remote sailing grounds.
Plan Your Trip to Suwarrow
Got you hooked? Start planning your trip to Suwarrow, including how to get there and what to do, with The Complete Travel Guide to Suwarrow.
How to Get to the Northern Cook Islands
The Northern Cook Islands are difficult to get to unless you have your own yacht. There is only one regularly scheduled flight to the Northern Group from Rarotonga, while charter flights and cargo boats are other ways to get to the Northern Cook Islands from Rarotonga. As you can see, all trips to the Northern Cook Islands usually have to start from Rarotonga, so see Getting Here: How to Get to Rarotonga & the Cook Islands?
Flights to the Northern Group
From Rarotonga, a scheduled flight goes to Manihiki every other Tuesday with the Cook Islands’ sole domestic airline. Chartered flights can also be arranged with the airline, taking you to either Manihiki, Penrhyn or Pukapuka. Flights are also included in island-hopping tours arranged with Island Hopper Vacations.
All of these and more are covered in Domestic Flights in the Cook Islands: Your Guide to Interisland Flights.
Cargo Ships to the Northern Group
Cargo ships for the Northern Group depart Rarotonga every 2-2.5 months, transporting supplies and a few people in the cabins available. They are, however, notoriously unpredictable, rarely stick to a schedule and are subject to delays, so only choose to travel via cargo ship if you have a lot of time on your hands.
More information can be found in our Cook Islands Cargo Ship Guide: How to Use the Ferry for Interisland Travel in the Cook Islands.
Yachting in the Northern Cook Islands
The Northern Cook Islands aren’t as popular a sailing ground as other South Pacific nations, but those with a private yacht have access to some of the more secluded Northern Group islands. The best islands set up for yachties are Suwarrow and Penrhyn.
Learn more about visiting the Cook Islands via yacht in our Sailing Guide to Rarotonga & the Cook Islands: Tips for Yachting in the Cook Islands.
More About Getting to the Northern Cook Island and How to Get Around
For more details on how to get to the Northern Cook Islands, such as inter-island boats between Pukapuka and Nassau, as well as Manihiki and Rakahanga, check out the Northern Cook Islands Transport: 9 Ways to Get to There & Around. The guide also lists ways to get around on the islands once you arrive, such as hiring a scooter and boat transport.
Where to Stay in the Northern Cook Islands
As you have probably guessed, there’s not much in the way of tourist accommodation in the Northern Group of the Cook Islands. Luckily, the people of these remote islands are extremely welcoming to anyone that makes the arduous journey to reach their islands, providing all food, transport and anything you may need to get by on a small underdeveloped island.
So how do you find a host? The best thing to do is to get in touch with the Island Administration of the island that you plan to visit. The Island Administration deals with all visitors, organising a host family for visitors to stay with before you arrive. You can get the most up-to-date contact details of the Island Administration through Cook Islands Tourism.
Find out more about accommodation options in each of the islands’ travel guides linked through this article. Plus, you can look at The Best Homestays in the Cook Islands for more advice.
More About the Northern Cook Islands
That’s it for our complete travel guide to the Northern Cook Islands. If there’s anything we’ve missed, you’ll likely find it in the guides below. Plus, see how the Northern Group compares with the Southern Group!
- 10 Best Things to Do in the Northern Cook Islands
- Northern Cook Islands Transport: 9 Ways to Get to There & Around
- The Complete Travel Guide to the Southern Cook Islands
Finally, plan the rest of your Cook Islands excursion using The Best Cook Islands Travel Guide.