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.
This archipelago has 15 inhabited islands spread out over 2.2 million square kilometres of ocean with no land between the tropical 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 conquered 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 just over 17,500 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 (77°F) in winter (May-October) and 29°C (82°F) 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.
All visitors to the Cook Islands, irrespective of nationality, are visa exempt for a maximum stay of 31 days. Visitors travelling for touristic purposes may extend their stay, for periods of 31 days, up to a maximum of 6 months.
There is a departure tax of $55 per person adult and $15 per child between 2 and 12 but this is now included in your ticket price.
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 (3.5h) and weekly services to Sydney, Tahiti and to Los Angeles. The international airlines are Air New Zealand and once-weekly Air Tahiti. 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. Jetstar also operate flights from Auckland to Rarotonga several times per week.
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 is a bus line that circles around the island, in both directions. Although there are official bus stops, the driver has no problem stopping where ever you want him to. As for the drivers: Often they like to chat a bit, and make some jokes, so if you for any reason should need some cheer-up, just take the bus!
It is very common for tourists to rent a scooter, but you need to make a Cook Island driving license. If you have a valid driving license, it is just a formality, but bring some time, since there is usually rush hour the day after the plane from New Zealand arrives. The island also has a variety of rental car options available as well as bicycles and e-bikes.
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. Island Nights are also offered at cultural villages like Te Vara Nui and Highland Paradise in Rarotonga.
You can do some really nice snorkelling in the lagoon that surrounds Rarotonga. Captain Tama's Lagoon Cruizes and Koka Lagoon Cruises operate from Muri Beach and provide a glass bottom boat ride, snorkelling, cultural entertainment and a BBQ lunch. Or go scuba diving outside the lagoon (there are a handful of PADI dive companies). Among the usual reef inhabitants you can see turtles, rays, and when the season is right, you might even see whales.
Visit the market on Rarotonga. A good chance to enjoy fresh ika mata, to watch some traditional dancing and to buy some craftwork.
The inland in Rarotonga is beautiful and must be explored. Find a guide and take a hike into the mountains. Pa's Trek offers the Cross Island Trek as well as a medicinal walk. Storytellers Eco Cycle Tours provide a unique cycling experience, taking visitors around the backroads of the island to taste fresh fruit from local gardens, hear stories about life on the island, and take a dip in a hidden waterfall. For those looking for a more thrilling tour, Rarotonga also has quad bike tours, mud buggy rides and safari jeep tours.
Rarotonga also features several incredible spas offering massages, facials, body wraps and more.
Another popular experience from Rarotonga is the Aitutaki Day Tour with Air Rarotonga. This is great for visitors who want to stay in Rarotonga but wish to explore the most beautiful lagoon in the world - Aitutaki Lagoon. The tour includes transfers, return flights, a tour of Aitutaki, a full day lagoon cruise with The Vaka Cruise, and a BBQ fish lunch on board. Visitors who have more time should stay a few nights in Aitutaki to soak up the slow paced life on this island. There are several lagoon cruises to choose from but visitors can also try kayaking, stand up paddle boarding, sailing, and scuba diving.
If you are interested in Polynesian culture, it is worth visiting one of the other islands, for example Atiu. If you talk to the people (there are not many), you might find someone like Papa Paiere, who might take you on tour around Atiu, and show you the places, where history happened, both Polynesian and European.
Also on Atiu, Marshall Humphreys offers a tour to the caves, which includes a short hike through the jungle. In the caves you can take a swim, you will hear stories about the islands and the caves, and get a digestible amount of Polynesian culture. You will see some endemic birds that live in these caves, and which manage to fly in total darkness, just like bats. And, of course, enjoy the beauty of the caves!
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 two varieties of highly unusual $3 banknotes 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 $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:
The best place to try these local foods is at the Punanga Nui Market on Saturday in Rarotonga. Visitors can also try these foods at an Island Night.
Rarotonga has over 100 cafes, bars and restaurants so there are a lot of options when visiting. You can have a different cuisine on every night of your holiday.
If you want to cook your own food, note that things which are in Europe cheap, are here usually expensive, and vice versa. Apples and grapes don't grow on the islands, they have to be imported. But tropical fruits, like bananas, pawpaw (Papaya), and of course coconuts are everywhere, very delicious (since naturally ripened), and might even be for free (when you rent a cottage, it might have a garden with bananas or lemons - but ask first if you can take some).
Meat in turn is expensive, because usually imported. There are chickens and pigs on the islands, but not enough to feed a crowd of every-day-meat-eaters. Fish you get at the Harbor, but you have to go early in the morning.
The legal drinking age in the Cook Islands is 18.
There are 2 Microbreweries ( Matutu and Cook Islands Brewery ) which both produce a range of delicious beers. Matutu brewery (just few km south of Muri Beach) can be visited for a tour.
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 snapper fish, 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.