The Most Amazing Natural Attractions in Rarotonga, Aitutaki and the Cook Islands
A mix of jutting volcanic islands and flat-topped uplifted coral atolls, the Cook Islands hides an array of breathtaking natural attractions. Whether you’re visiting the main island of Rarotonga or venturing somewhere more adventurous like the outer islands of Aitutaki, Atiu, Mitiaro, Mauke or Mangaia, this list of natural attractions in the Cook Islands is sure to inspire the places you visit on your next trip.
What are Some Natural Features of the Cook Islands?
Before we get started, what sort of natural features can you expect in the Cook Islands? On Rarotonga, you have a coast of mostly white sandy beaches sloping into a surrounding lagoon, as well as an inland interior of forested mountains reaching more than 400m (1,300ft) high. Aitutaki is a flat coral atoll with an expansive lagoon, while the other outer islands of the Southern Group are uplifted coral atolls made up of coral limestone known as “makatea”.
1. Aitutaki Lagoon
Ok, so we know that the Aitutaki Lagoon is a BIG place but as it is agreed to be one of the world’s most beautiful lagoons time and time again, it easily tops this list of natural attractions in the Cook Islands. Home to idyllic uninhabited islands like the famous One Foot Island and Honeymoon Island, as well as some of the clearest and vibrant snorkelling within its lagoon waters, it truly is paradise. Check out how to plan a trip to Aitutaki using The Complete Travel Guide to Aitutaki and discover the best ways to experience the lagoon in the 10 Best Lagoon Cruises on Aitutaki.
2. Te Rua Manga (The Needle)
Piercing the sky at the highest point on Rarotonga, it’s easy to see why this natural attraction is commonly known as “The Needle“. The official name of this mountain peaked with a breccia spire is Te Rua Manga and can be accessed on the Cross Island Trek. Either tackle the 4-6-hour hike yourself following the tips in the 10 Best Walks & Hikes in the Cook Islands or take an insightful guided walk with Maunga Tours, as highlighted in the 8 Best Guided Walks in Rarotonga & the Cook Islands.
Location: Rarotonga. The quickest way to The Needle is from the southern end of the Cross Island Track, which is at the end of Papua Road, approximately 1.6km (1 mile) from the main road (Ara Tapu). Guided tours have transfers included to take you to the Cross-Island Track.
3. Papua Waterfall (Wigmore’s Waterfall)
The Cook Islands’ only waterfall, Papua Waterfall is an iconic natural attraction on Rarotonga. Also known as Wigmore’s Waterfall, the falls can be found among the forest in a clearing with picnic tables to make the most of your visit. The waterfall is at its best when there hasn’t been a dry spell (which, luckily, isn’t too often on Rarotonga) and swimming is best done in the bottom pool; not on top where the water pipes are. Plus, avoid climbing the sides where rocks are known to fall. Remember to take some insect repellent with you! Once you’ve got all of the safety aspects in mind, you’ll have a good time visiting.
Location: End of Papua Road, Vaimaanga, south side of Rarotonga. To drive up the road to the waterfall, you may be asked for a donation (around NZ$2 for bikes and NZ$5 for cars/trucks).
4. Muri Lagoon
Don’t worry, we weren’t going to leave out Rarotonga‘s most popular beach and lagoon, the Muri Lagoon! The lagoon features four uninhabited motu, as well as placid waters that are a watersports paradise. With lagoon cruises, kitesurfing, stand-up paddleboarding, snorkelling and kayaking, there’s never a dull moment here, while the restaurants and cafes lining the sands make it easy to replenish. Check out more of Raro’s top beaches in the 10 Best Beaches on Rarotonga.
Location: Muri, east coast of Rarotonga.
5. Anatakitaki Cave (Kopeka Cave)
Now moving on to some of the amazing natural attractions of the outer Cook Islands, Anatakitaki Caves are a must-see on the island of Atiu. See a series of three caves with awesome limestone stalactites and home to a rare and fascinating bird. Join a local guide for an experience through the dense rainforest with jagged coral rock. Bring your swimwear for the cave pool and put on your best bird-spotting hat for seeing the kopeka, a swiftlet unique to Atiu that uses sonar just like a bat! Learn more about how to plan a trip to Atiu in The Complete Travel Guide to Atiu. Plus, see more natural attractions in the 20 Best Things to Do on Atiu.
Location: East side of Atiu. Transfers are included in the tour with Atiu Eco-Adventure Anatakitaki Cave Tour.
6. Vai Nauri
By far the best swimming cave in the Cook Islands, Vai Nauri holds a deep pool with clear deep blue waters and striking limestone features. This cave on the island of Mitiaro has a set of steps down to the pool or you can clamber around the pool and jump off a 3m (10ft) outcrop into the deep waters. It’s also one of the few caves in the Cook Islands that you don’t need a guide to visit. Plan your visit to the islands using The Complete Travel Guide to Mitiaro and see more amazing natural attractions in the 15 Best Things to Do on Mitiaro.
Location: West side of Mitiaro. A short dead-end road to Vai Naui can be found a few hundred metres north of the Lake Rotonui turnoff.
7. Aroa Beach (Aro’a Beach)
This beach on Rarotonga has it all: sunsets, long stretches of white sand and spectacular snorkelling. Located on the western side of Rarotonga, Aroa Beach (or Aro’a Beach) gets the most sun throughout the day and typically has calm and clear waters. The Aroa Marine Reserve in front of The Rarotongan Beach Resort & Lagoonarium is the best place to snorkel – where you can look but don’t touch the marine life. Learn more about the snorkelling here in The Best Snorkelling in the Cook Islands: Top 10 Places to Snorkel.
8. Ara’oa Beach
Are all of these beach names starting to look the same? Regardless, you won’t want to forget the name Ara’oa Beach if you’re visiting the island of Mangaia, which hides many tranquil stretches of sand, most of which slope into the reef and are backed with dramatic “makatea” (coral limestone). Stop for a paddle on the reef and get some mesmerising photos of its makatea boulders and caves. Plan your trip to the islands using The Complete Travel Guide to Mangaia and discover much more of its natural wonders in the 15 Best Things to Do on Mangaia.
Location: North side of Mangaia, on the coastal road, approximately 2.5km (1.6 miles) north of Ivirua village.
9. The Giant Banyan Tree
Covering an area of 4,000m² (43,000ft²), Mauke’s giant banyan tree is the largest in the South Pacific. The trail to the tree features many other natural attractions, from the cave of Vai Moti to Motuanga Cave, also known as “The Cave with 100 Rooms”. Finally, you’ll come across the tangled roots hanging from above and crawling across the ground that indicates you’ve reached the Giant Banyan Tree! Locals have made an awesome tree swing with the roots – so have a go! Learn more about visiting Mauke in The Complete Travel Guide to Mauke, as well as about more of its stunning natural features in the 15 Best Things to Do on Mauke.
Location: Mauke. There is a clearing on the road to the start of this trail between Areora village and A’anga Beach on the east coast. As the trail is difficult to find, it is best to explore this area with a guide, which can be arranged through your Mauke accommodation.
10. Black Rock
One final natural attraction on Rarotonga is a volcanic outcrop that juts from the white sand known as Black Rock. This is not only a spiritual site but a glorious place to snorkel or reef walk. The rock is said to be where Rarotonga’s spirits depart to the afterlife, which you can learn more about on the interpretation panel erected in front of the rock. At low tide, the rock pools are interesting to investigate, while it’s also a fun snorkelling spot at high tide. Learn more about its spiritual significance in the 10 Best Historical Sites on Rarotonga.
Location: Main Road (Ara Tapu), Nikao, northwestern side of Rarotonga.
More Natural Attractions in Rarotonga and the Cook Islands
Now that you know some of the top natural attractions in Rarotonga and the Cook Islands, discover more articles that just happen to mention more natural wonders:
- Sightseeing in the Cook Islands: Top 10 Sights in the Cook Islands
- Where to Take Pictures in Rarotonga & the Cook Islands: 10 Best Photography Spots
- The 10 Most Famous Places in Rarotonga & the Cook Islands
Finally, complete your bucket list using the 101 Best Things to Do in the Cook Islands: The Ultimate List and plan all the logistics using The Best Cook Islands Travel Guide.