The Cook Islands  are a self-governing parliamentary democracy in free association with New Zealand, located in Polynesia, in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean, between French Polynesia (Society Islands) to the east and Tonga to the west. It is an archipelago with 15 islands spread out over 2.2 million sq. km of ocean. Though quite far, there's no land between the Cook Islands and Antarctica.
With the same time zone and latitude (south, rather than north) as Hawaii, the islands are sometimes thought of as "Hawaii down under". Though smaller, it reminds some elderly visitors of Hawaii before statehood without all the large tourist hotels and other development.
Named after Captain Cook, who sighted them in 1770, the islands became a British protectorate in 1888. By 1900, administrative control was transferred to New Zealand; in 1965 residents chose self-government in free association with New Zealand. New Zealand handles defence, foreign affairs (including issuing passports) and currency; otherwise the islands are self-governing. This includes immigration, which is strictly controlled -- even for non Cook Island New Zealanders.
Many Cook Islanders will tell you how there are more Cook Islanders living in New Zealand and Australia than in the Cook Islands. The population of the Cook Islands is less than 15,000 but there are over 50,000 Cook Islanders living in New Zealand, and over 30,000 in Australia. Those remaining have often spent time in Auckland, Melbourne or Sydney before returning home.
Tropical, moderated by trade winds. Rarotonga has average maximum temperatures of around 25°C in winter (May-October) and 29°C in summer (November-April), temperatures in the northern islands are several degrees higher. Rainfall mostly occurs in summer, usually in the form of afternoon storms. Cyclone season is November to March, although the islands are hit by a big one only once every five years or so.
Tourism facilities are well developed on Rarotonga and Aitutaki, and information is available. However you won't see a single tout, and tourist scams are unheard of. If you want to organize something, it usually isn't hard to do, but you will need to make the first move.
There is a departure tax of NZ$55 per person adult and $15 per child between 2 and 12. It is only payable in cash. No tax is payable for children under 2. Having just returned from the Cook Islands (9 Feb 2013), I can confirm that there is now NO departure tax.
You must have a reservation for accommodation pre-arranged or you may be sent back (or onward) on the next flight out. Camping on the beach is not allowed.
Rarotonga International Airport (IATA: RAR) is the main gateway to the Cook Islands. There are daily services to Auckland (3.5 hr) and weekly services to Sydney, Fiji and to Los Angeles. The only international airlines at present are Air New Zealand and twice-weekly Pacific Blue. Air New Zealand has code share arrangements with other Star Alliance members including United Airlines and Rarotonga is a popular stopover on Round the world flights.
See the Rarotonga article for airport details.
Rarotonga and Aitutaki are regular stops for cruises operating from Tahiti. Other cruise companies also stop by occasionally.
If you're planning to sail to the islands you must enter through one of the five designated ports of entry. These are Rarotonga, Aitutaki and Atiu in the Southern group, and Penrhyn and Pukapuka in the Northern group.
Domestic inter-island service is provided by Air Rarotonga . Although you can book flights through Air New Zealand, it is usually cheaper to do so directly with Air Rarotonga. This has become much easier in the past few years, now that they offer on-line booking. Unless you're a member of Air New Zealand's "Airpoints Dollars" program, you won't receive any airline miles for Air Rarotonga -- and then only if you book through Air New Zealand, often at a higher price. Star Alliance mileage for Air Rarotonga is not available.
Most of the outer islands have only unpaved runways. However, landing won't be much rougher than that of a paved runway. If you've never landed on an unpaved runway before, it's nothing to be overly concerned about, and you've probably had a few rougher landings on a paved runway.
The intrepid traveller can visit all inhabited islands by inter island freighters, but these can be weeks apart or worse if you want to get the really remote islands. Details of services are published in local island newspapers.
There are no generally scheduled boat or ferry services between the inhabited islands.
There are two uninhabited islands - Takutea and Manuae. The only easy way for a visitor to get to Takutea is on the research vessel Bounty Bay operated by Rarotonga-based Pacific Expeditions, which has special permission to run occasional Eco tours.
There are five living languages in the Cook Islands with English and Cook Islands Maori the official languages. Cook Islands Maori is called Rarotongan after the capital island and is the most widely spoken version of Maori in the Islands. Others are Penrhynese, unique to the Northern group island of Penrhyn and rapidly disappearing, and Rakahanga-Manihiki, spoken by about 2,500 Cook Islanders, only half of whom on the two islands from which it takes its name.
On the remote Northern group island of Pukapuka, the islanders have a unique language of their own called Pukapukan of which there is no written version. It is more like Samoan, and some of it cannot even be understood by other Cook Islanders. But even there, English is spoken, albeit not widely. Children, though, are taught it in school.
At the very least, the visitor will quickly learn the usual greeting, "kia orana" which means "may you live long".
One of the cultural shows/dancing at one of the larger resorts.
Black pearls, these can be found in the main town and some resorts.
The Cook Islands use the New Zealand Dollar, but also issue their own banknotes and coinage, including the unusual $3 notes and the triangular $2 coins. Cook Islands money can only be used within the Cook Islands.
Like many other South Pacific island nations, the Cook Islands' economic development is hindered by the isolation of the country from foreign markets, the limited size of domestic markets, lack of natural resources, periodic devastation from natural disasters, and inadequate infrastructure. Agriculture and tourism provide the economic base with major exports made up of copra and citrus fruit. Manufacturing activities are limited to fruit processing, clothing, and handicrafts. Trade deficits are offset by remittances from emigrants and by foreign aid, overwhelmingly from New Zealand. In the 1980s and 1990s, the country lived beyond its means, maintaining a bloated public service and accumulating a large foreign debt. Subsequent reforms, including the sale of state assets, the strengthening of economic management, the encouragement of tourism, and a debt restructuring agreement, have rekindled some investment and growth.
Overall, much cheaper than nearby Tahiti, though anything imported will be expensive. This especially applies to fuel and milk. There is no fresh milk made on the islands, and the only fresh milk available is air-freighted from New Zealand daily, and costs around NZ$7.00. Locals generally get by with powdered or UHT milk.
Calling home can cost a bundle, due to the need of having a large satellite dish and related equipment on each sparsely populated island. Don't expect significant savings by Skype-in or VOIP callback, as the rates using these services tend to be the most expensive anywhere in the world. However, some hotels and resorts have free direct Skype connections (in addition to a regular telephone number) which can be used for reservations.
Don't eat pizza in the Cook Islands before you have tried the local stuff (which is admittedly hard to find):
Some of these are available every day at the market in Avarua. Every 2 weeks there is a "Go Local" market where locals sell their products.
There are 2 Microbreweries ( Matutu and Cook Islands Brewery ) which both produce a range of delicious beers.
Most of the outer islands turn off the entire electric system (blackout) overnight. Bring a flashlight (torch) with batteries.
Five day courses in traditional fibre arts are available.
Non-residents, even New Zealanders, require work permits. The Cook Islands has a problem with people of working age leaving the islands. Jobs are generally available in the tourism and hospitality sector.
There is also a possibility of volunteer work, in education and care.
No major hazards. Police are contactable on the emergency number 999.
Though the locals often go barefoot (they're experts at it!), it's not recommended beyond sandy beaches due to the sharp coral rocks. Use caution when climbing stairs that connect the lower parts of an island near the sea to the upper part above the cliffs. Some do not have railings on the edge, including platforms. Only the most acrophobic would be uncomfortable with this (they're plenty wide enough and not vertically "open"), but for children, the blind, and someone who's had too much to drink, the risk is extreme. On the platforms, avoid getting too close to the edge -- especially if you need a rest from climbing.
Motorcycle accidents cause many injuries and fatalities. Driving after dark has additional hazards due to poor visibility.
There is a hospital on Rarotonga, and a smaller one on Aitutaki, and some private medical practices operate in the islands. Medical care is limited on the outer islands. Ambulance emergency is on 998.
Try not to eat snappers, they may give you ciguatera. Mosquitoes are mostly a nuisance, though every few years there is a dengue fever outbreak in the wet season. No malaria, or other serious tropical diseases to worry about, (but do take dengue fever seriously during outbreaks).
Though the survey form given on arrival (and collected at departure) is optional, the airport staff will be very disappointed if you don't complete it. In case you've misplaced it, additional ones are available at the airport at departure.
The Cook Islands inhabitants are not behind the times. They have TV and Internet and they know very well what's going on in the world, so don't patronize them. German tourists on outer islands might be asked about Germany's "dark history", but they know very well that these times have gone a long time ago, and that modern Germany is an industrialized and democratic country.
Respect their religious habits; especially that nearly everything is closed on Sundays (with the exception of a few bars and shops).
Contrary to popular belief, the Cook Islands own history doesn't include head hunting but there was a large loss of life during the World War I (1914-1918) fighting with the British against Germany and Central Powers.
Not all islands have internet, and some not even mobile phone reception. Check the appropriate island articles.