How to Plan a Trip to the Southern Group of the Cook Islands
That’s right, the Cook Islands is split into two island groups some 700km (435 miles) apart, the Northern Group and the Southern Group. The Southern Group is where most travellers visit the Cook Islands. It’s home to the nation’s only international airport and the idyllic holiday hotspot of Rarotonga. But wait, there’s much more to the Southern Group than the island that so many know about. There’s the picture-perfect lagoon of Aitutaki, the uplifted cave-riddled eco-sanctuary of Atiu, the tiny atoll of Palmerston where everyone is “family”, the uninhabited Takutea left to the birds and the turtles, and more! Discover the islands of the Southern Group, right here, in this complete travel guide to the Southern Cook Islands!
Frequently Asked Questions About the Southern Cook Islands
We’re here to plan the best trip ever, so we won’t waste any time in this Southern Cook Islands travel guide giving you the answers to questions that most travellers have about visiting.
How Many Islands are in the Southern Cook Islands?
There are nine islands in the Southern Cook Islands.
What are the 9 Southern Group Islands?
The nine islands that make up the Southern Group of the Cook Islands are:
What is the Southernmost Cook Island?
The southernmost Cook Island is Mangaia, which is 203km (126 miles) southeast of the nation’s capital, Rarotonga.
Where is the Southern Group of the Cook Islands?
The Southern Group of the Cook Islands lies south of the Equator in the South Pacific, huddled among other South Pacific nations, such as Fiji, Tonga, Samoa and French Polynesia. The Southern Cook Islands is approximately 770km (480 miles) south of the Cook Islands’ Northern Group. Learn more about the Cook Islands location in Where are the Cook Islands Located?
Jutting out of the Pacific Ocean, dramatic volcanic mountains pierce the sky and then slope down to encircling sandy beaches. In between are the island’s town and quaint villages that achieve the perfect blend of Western and Pacific living, while the resorts and boutique villas lining the beaches provide that idyllic Pacific holiday. This is Rarotonga.
The largest island and the capital of the Cook Islands, Rarotonga is often believed to be the country of the Cook Islands (but as you’ll find out in this travel guide to the Southern Cook Islands, there’s so much more). It’s the island that most travellers make it to, home to the Cook Islands’ international airport, a cruise ship port of call and irresistible holiday packages.
In short, Rarotonga is one big resort, providing endless options for dining, snorkelling, watersports or just relaxing on the island that only takes 45 minutes to drive around.
What to Do on Rarotonga
- Hit the snorkelling hotspots straight from the beach
- Venture through tropical jungle and up volcanic peaks on Rarotonga’s hiking trails like the Raemaru Track
- Experience a Rarotonga “island night”
- Have a close encounter with Raro’s beautiful marine life on a turtle swimming tour
- Join the locals for a progressive dinner tour with Cook Islands Tours.
For much much more ideas, check out the 50 Best Things to Do on Rarotonga.
Plan Your Trip to Rarotonga
Intrigued? Start planning your trip to Rarotonga, including how to get there, where to stay and what to do, with The Complete Travel Guide to Rarotonga.
Often described as the most beautiful lagoon in the Pacific (and the world), Aitutaki is the second-most visited island in the Southern Cook Islands. Its azure lagoon is a highlight, dotted with “motu” (islands) that are pristine, uninhabited and entice all sorts of lagoon cruises. Despite having a population of around 1,700, Aitutaki is where you start to see facilities and services start to reduce in the Cook Island’s smaller islands, providing a more tranquil experience than the “rat race” that many describe Rarotonga as.
What to Do in Aitutaki
- Cruise the Aitutaki Lagoon on a tour, private charter or sunset cruise
- Hike to the top of Maunga Pu
- Experience kitesurfing at Honeymoon Island
- Swim with humpback whales
- Try your luck at bonefishing, spearfishing or deep sea fishing.
For more ideas, check out the 20 Best Things to Do on Aitutaki.
Plan Your Trip to Aitutaki
Inspired? Start planning your trip to Aitutaki, including how to get there, where to stay and what to do, with The Complete Travel Guide to Aitutaki.
Atiu is one of many of the other Southern Group islands that is an uplifted coral atoll, characterised by its rugged limestone terrain known locally as “makatea”. The traditional name of Atiu, “Enuamanu“, pretty much sums up what the island is about, meaning “Land of Birds”. It’s an eco-lovers paradise with a vibrant yet rare bird population, while the island’s limestone caves and secluded beaches are other drawcards. The locals have their own unusual traditions that you’re welcome to join in on, such as drinking “bush beer” at their local bars known as “tumunu”, while a boutique coffee industry on the island offers more foodie delights.
What to Do on Atiu
- Trek through the jungle to Anatakitaki Cave (Kopeka Cave)
- Watch rare birds, identify plants and walk historic trails on Birdman George’s Eco Tour
- Try the local bush beer at a Tumunu
- Do crafts, learn about Atiuan history and feast on an umu with Punarea Culture Tours
- Taste locally grown coffee…
… And much more that we list in the 20 Best Things to Do on Atiu.
Plan Your Trip to Atiu
Interested? Start planning your trip to Atiu, including how to get there, where to stay and what to do, with The Complete Travel Guide to Atiu.
Mangaia is by far the oldest island in the Cook Islands and one of the oldest in the South Pacific, where the history can be felt even as you sight the terraces of “makatea” ringing around a central plateau when your plane comes into landing.
Exploring the ancient coral atoll is what an escape to Mangaia is all about, from the highest lookouts to deep down in the island’s caves, the latter of which hides glittering limestone and the preserved remains of Mangaian ancestors. In between, you’ll find pockets of deserted beaches sloping into the reef and villages where locals offer generous hospitality despite the island only receiving a handful of tourists per year.
What to Do on Mangaia
- See the glittering caves of Tuatini or Te Ruarere
- Climb down the cliff ladder to the hidden paradise of Ara’oa Beach
- Hike up to Mt Rangimotia, the highest point on the island
- Check out the Saragossa Shipwreck
- Snorkel or reef walk at the Tuaati Rock Pools.
For more inspiration on activities, take a look at the 15 Best Things to Do on Mangaia.
Plan Your Trip to Mangaia
Compelled? Start planning your trip to Mangaia, including how to get there, where to stay and what to do, with The Complete Travel Guide to Mangaia.
An 18.4km² (11.4mi²) island with a population of less than 300, Mauke is one of the smallest of the Southern Cook Islands. The uplifted coral atoll is rich in fertile soil, giving it the name the “Garden Island“, which is clear to see with the lush jungle bouncing from the “makatea”. In the fissures of the island’s makatea are various caves, typically with a refreshing pool at the bottom, while the coastal makatea is separated by pockets of serene and secluded white-sand beaches.
Although the very few that come to Mauke mainly do so for the natural splendour and tranquillity of the island, the villages harbouring its friendly locals show that there’s more to the island. While the villages may have been “divided” in the past (and they have a funky church to prove it), they are united now with vibrant yearly events and unmatched hospitality at their visitor accommodations.
What to Do on Mauke
- Go for a swim in Vai Tango Cave
- Swing like Tarzan on the largest banyan tree in the South Pacific
- Bathe in a sea cave pool at Kopupooki Beach (Stomach Rock)
- Take a Tour of “The Divided Church“
- Relax at the beach garden and watch the sunset at Te Oneroa Beach.
Find out more about these experiences and more in the 15 Best Things to Do on Mauke.
Plan Your Trip to Mauke
Tempted? Start planning your trip to Mauke, including how to get there, where to stay and what to do, with The Complete Travel Guide to Mauke.
The final frontier of holidays in the Southern Cook Islands, Mitiaro is tiny, unspoiled and welcoming. The 22.3km² (13.9mi²) island has a population of around 155 residents, a significant percentage of which opens their homes to visitors providing the only accommodation on the island. It’s a truly traditional Cook Islands experience where you’ll dine with the locals, borrow your host’s scooter/pick-up truck and experience the villages’ weekly events. But the friendly locals aren’t the only draw to Mitiaro, as this “makatea” island is awash in some of the most breathtaking swimming caves in the Cook Islands. It is also lined with pockets of beautiful and secluded beaches.
What to Do on Mitiaro
- Jump into the deep cave pool of Vai Nauri
- Soothe the skin in the sulphur pools of Vai Marere
- Get the “private beach” experience at Mitiaro’s many beaches
- Head out on a boat (or relax by) Rotoiti and Rotonui lakes
- Take a tour to Te Pare Fort, the only fort in the Cook Islands.
More awesome ideas can be found in our 15 Best Things to Do on Mitiaro.
Plan Your Trip to Mitiaro
Got you hooked? Start planning your trip to Mitiaro, including how to get there, where to stay and what to do, with The Complete Travel Guide to Mitiaro.
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 Southern Group. So unlike its sisters in the Southern Group, 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…
What to Do in Palmerston
- Visit the island’s only school
- Fish with the locals
- Experience bosun bird hunting
- Help with community projects
- Experience a Sunday church service.
Plan Your Trip to Palmerston
Captured by the allure of Palmerston? Start planning your trip to Palmerston, including how to get there, where to stay and what to do, with The Complete Travel Guide to Palmerston.
A verdant uplifted atoll temptingly visible from the island of Atiu, Takutea is rarely explored except, of course, if you are a bird…
This bird and turtle sanctuary is not only a physically challenging island to land on with its fully locked encircling reef but getting permission to visit here is a bureaucratic nightmare. Nevertheless, those that are lucky enough to sight Takutea from afar will enjoy the view of its encircling seabirds and the fishing opportunities that surround it while those who are highly skilled can enjoy the surfing and diving opportunities.
What to Do Near Takutea
- Enjoy watching the birds circling the island, such as red-tailed tropicbirds, red-footed and brown-footed boobies, great frigates, brown and black noddies and more
- Scuba dive at unspoiled coral reefs near the island
- Attempt the challenging surf waves off the shores.
Plan Your Trip to Takutea
Feeling enticed? Start planning your trip to Takutea, including how to get there and what to do, with The Complete Travel Guide to Takutea.
The two horseshoe islands facing each other in a ringed lagoon some 101km (63 miles) southwest of Aitutaki are collectively known as Manuae. They are also some of the least-visited islands in the Cook Islands. The island to the west is Manuae and the island to the east is known as Te Au O Tu. 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…
What to Do in Manuae
- See the ultra-rare bristle-thighed curlew
- Snorkel and dive among spectacular coral
- Try out some fishing at these abundant but rarely used fishing grounds.
Plan Your Trip to Manuae
Fascinated? Start planning your trip to Manuae, including how to get there and what to do, with The Complete Travel Guide to Manuae.
More About the Southern Cook Islands
That’s it for our complete travel guide to the Southern Cook Islands. If there’s anything we’ve missed, you’ll likely find it in the guides below. Plus, see how the Southern Group compares with the Northern Group!
- Getting Here: How to Get to Rarotonga & the Cook Islands?
- 101 Best Things to Do in the Cook Islands: The Ultimate List
- The Complete Travel Guide to the Northern Cook Islands
Finally, plan the rest of your Cook Islands excursion using The Best Cook Islands Travel Guide.