The Captivating Cook Islands

What trip to the South Pacific would be complete without a visit to a remote island that tourists never really hear about? The often overlooked, tiny South Pacific nation of the Cook Islands had always been somewhere that I’d wanted to see. With under 30,000 visitors a year from outside Oceania, it’s one of the South Pacific’s best-kept secrets. The captivating Cook Islands are about as close to paradise as you can get on this earth.

Travelling to the Captivating Cook Islands

As amazing as the Cook Islands are, their remoteness makes them a bit of a challenge to get to. The only option to get there from Samoa, a mere 900km away, was to fly 3250km to Auckland. Nearly four times the distance! From there I had to fly another 3000km to Rarotonga, the biggest of the 15 islands of the Cook Islands Chain. That’s over 6 hours flying to get to islands that should only be an hour’s flight away.

Booking a flight from Auckland to Rarotonga requires a little more planning than normal. There are only 12 flights a week. Those flights are split between Air New Zealand, Virgin Australia and Jetstar. If you want to fly out of Auckland on a Monday, you’re outta luck. On Sunday, a morning flight with Air New Zealand is the only choice. But Tuesday to Friday you’ll have a choice of a morning or afternoon flight. Saturday is the busy day as all 3 airlines fly the route that day. There are also flights to Rarotonga from Sydney and Los Angeles, but they only run once a week.

To make matters even more complicated, flights to Rarotonga cross over the international date line. That means that most flights land in the Cook Islands the day before they left Auckland. Conversely, flights back to New Zealand land two days after they left Rarotonga. Are you confused yet? Things can get quite complicated so extra vigilance is required to make sure you don’t end up cutting your time on the Cook Islands short by mixing up your days.

Arriving in The Cook Islands

K in Motion Travel Blog. The Captivating Cook Islands. Kia Orana - Welcome to the Cook Islands K in Motion Travel Blog. The Captivating Cook Islands. Welcome Serenade

The displeasure of all that extra planning fades away as soon as you land in the Cooks. Who could help but be captivated by the cute little neon sign that welcomes you the islands? Immigration officers greet you with ‘Kia Orana’, the local way of saying hello, then quickly and painlessly process your entry into the tiny country. When you enter the baggage reclaim area, you notice a man in the middle of the luggage belt. He’s performing a slightly upgraded version of the serenade received on other South Pacific islands like Fiji and Tonga; with laptop accompaniment instead of guitars.

The Captivating Cook Islands At Night

On the way to the Cook Islands, I had crossed the international date line for the third time during my pacific adventure. That meant I had once again gone back in time, to land in Rarotonga on the eve of the day that had just passed. Of course, everything was closed and there were no transport options besides taxis and airport transfers. I’m not a taxi kind of person and hadn’t booked an airport transfer with my accommodation because I thought that NZ$15 was a bit extreme for a 5 minute drive!

My accommodation was just behind the airport, a mere 200 metres away from where I stood. Unfortunately, I had to walk all the way around the airport perimeter to get to it. That made the walk a little bit longer but also gave me time to really take in the awesomeness of my surroundings. I was awed by just how dark things got once I hit the suburban road that would take me to my lodging for the night. I must admit that I stopped many times to admire the amazing amount of stars in the night sky. It was actually an exhilarating feeling knowing that just a few minutes walk from an international airport had taken me far enough away from all light sources to see the full glory of the heavens after dark.

K in Motion Travel Blog. The Captivating Cook Islands at Night
Rarotonga at Night. Yes, it was actually that dark!

It’s Christmas Time Again!

After a good sleep, I woke up to Christmas Day, for the second time! The Cook Islands are a majority Christan country. So as you would expect, Christmas is a big deal there. With an island twist..

K in Motion Travel Blog. The Captivating Cook Islands. Meri Kiritimiti Sign
Merry Christmas – island style!

Most places on the island were closed for the Christmas holiday, so I’d decided to hire a bicycle from my hostel, (NZ$10 for 24 hours), and ride around the island. The island of Rarotonga, or Raro as it’s affectionately known locally, is only 32km in circumference. You can circumnavigate the island comfortably in less than four hours on a bike. Additionally, it’s an easy ride because the road around the island is completely flat. The middle of the island, on the other hand, is not so flat.

K in Motion Travel Blog. The Captivating Cook Islands. Centre of Rarotonga

Cycling Around The Captivating Cook Islands

The main road around Raro hugs the coastline, so you are guaranteed spectacular views no matter where you stop along the road.
K in Motion Travel Blog. The Captivating Cook Islands. Coastal Views in Rarotonga

Even the dead get great views!
K in Motion Travel Blog. The Captivating Cook Islands. Graves with Coastal Views in Rarotonga

Cycling around the island is a great way to get a feel for island life. You’ll also learn that islanders are not only a caring bunch, they also have a great sense of humour. The only ‘stop’ sign on the whole island is a shop sign!
K in Motion Travel Blog. The Captivating Cook Islands. Shop Stop in Rarotonga

And obviously this is a joke, right?
K in Motion Travel Blog. The Captivating Cook Islands. Rarotonga Humour

There are no busy roads in Raro! In fact, there’s a good chance you won’t see another person on the main road for hours. But you’ll see plenty of this.
K in Motion Travel Blog. The Captivating Cook Islands. More Coastal Views in Rarotonga

And this.
K in Motion Travel Blog. The Captivating Cook Islands. Rarotonga Coastal View

And maybe even a bit of this.
K in Motion Travel Blog. The Captivating Cook Islands. Rarotonga Rocky Coastal View

Seafood With a Side of Safety

After a few hours of cycling around the island, I had decided that it was time to escape the heat and grab a bite. Seeing as it was Christmas Day, my only option was to eat at a resort. I felt like I was the centre of attention when I walked in. All the staff were waiting to serve me. I was given the option of dining inside or outside. The decision was easy.
K in Motion Travel Blog. The Captivating Cook Islands. Resort Tables On The Beach

Owing to the season, the tables were looking quite festive, in that island kind of way.
K in Motion Travel Blog. The Captivating Cook Islands. Festive Table Setup

I’d opted to try a local dish called Ika Mata. It consists of raw fish marinated in lemon and coconut milk.
K in Motion Travel Blog. The Captivating Cook Islands. Traditional Seafood Dish Ika Mata

To be honest, I wasn’t holding high hopes for this dish as I’m not a huge fan of fish, but it was actually quite delicious. Once I’d finished my feed and admired the beach for a bit longer, I headed back to the main road where I saw this sign

Interestingly, the law on the Cook Islands when I was there only required people between the ages of 16 and 25 to wear helmets when cycling or riding scooters/motorbikes. I could probably guess why that was the particular age group chosen but it’s still a little weird that it wasn’t applied to everyone.

K in Motion Travel Blog. The Captivating Cook Islands. Rarotonga Coastal View Through Trees

After a few more roadside stops to look out into the mesmerising blue sea, I found my way to a small local shop where I’d planned to buy some refreshments. That should’ve just taken a few minutes, but I left the store three hours later.

Local Celebrities on the Captivating Cook Islands

You may be asking how I could’ve spent three hours in a small store. Well, part of the reason was that the lady behind the counter was a chatterbox. I also never shy away from a chat. Especially when it’s with a well known and respected local. Aunty Mei, who was the local lei maker, was happy to give me some insights into her life on the island.

Many are familiar with the Hawaiian lei, generally slipped onto the neck as a symbol of friendship when welcoming visitors. The idea is similar in the Cook Islands, but they also have many other uses. There are two main types, Lei Kaki, which are similar to Hawaiian leis, and Lei Katu which are wreaths placed on the head. Aunty Mei specialises in the second type. Locals will place orders with Aunty Mei for all kinds of events, like graduations and weddings.

Aunty Mei’s Leis

All flowers used for Aunty Mei’s creations come from her own lovingly tended garden. The impression I got was that Aunty Mei had enough lei orders to keep her going for several months at least. She did say she had noticed a slight downturn in business in recent years as the younger generation were becoming disinterested in traditions. That’s something that unfortunately seems to be a bit of a trend around the world.

Despite being busy making a lei at the time I had walked in, Aunty Mei stopped what she was doing to chat to me. That’s one of the things that make islands so endearing; everyone has time for everyone. It’s always enlightening talking to locals, but as it was getting late, I had to continue my ride. Aunty Mei said I was welcome to come back and chat any time, then offered some flowers from her garden as a parting gift.

The Cross Island Trail

After seeing the flat coastal parts of the island, I was ready to tackle the rugged, hilly interior.
K in Motion Travel Blog. The Captivating Cook Islands. Rarotonga's Interior

I had asked around town about the Rarotonga Cross Island Trail and most responses indicated that I shouldn’t try it without a guide. Looking at the hills I had to scale, I didn’t think it would be too difficult. Plus with my experience trekking around the world, I was sure I’d have no problems.

K in Motion Travel Blog. The Captivating Cook Islands. Rarotonga's Cross Island Walk

At the beginning, the trail was more like a road. Quite flat and easy to walk along. The surroundings were very lush and green as well.
K in Motion Travel Blog. The Captivating Cook Islands. Starting The Cross Island Walk

I even spotted a few animals just hanging around, trying to shade themselves from the harsh Cook Islands sun.
K in Motion Travel Blog. The Captivating Cook Islands. Mother Boar and Kids On The Cross Island Walk K in Motion Travel Blog. The Captivating Cook Islands. Cow and Chicken On The Cross Island Walk

The trail stayed relatively flat for a while, then it started narrowing gradually.
K in Motion Travel Blog. The Captivating Cook Islands. Narrowing Trail On The Cross Island Walk

The Challenge Begins

A little bit further along the trail, I entered the forest. It was there that the trail became considerably thinner and started looking a bit more like the trails I’m used to. I found this a little exciting as I was looking for more of a challenge.
K in Motion Travel Blog. The Captivating Cook Islands. Start Of The Forest Trail On The Cross Island Walk

Perhaps I should be careful what I wish for! It wasn’t long before things got decidedly harder.
K in Motion Travel Blog. The Captivating Cook Islands. The Trail Gets Difficult On The Cross Island Walk

Now I could see why everyone was suggesting that I do the trail with a guide. It was definitely not an easy hike. Even as an experienced hiker I was beginning to get annoyed with parts of the trail. It seemed to wind back on itself and cross streams a crazy amount of times. It was a relief when I finally made it to the mid-point of the hike.
K in Motion Travel Blog. The Captivating Cook Islands. Halfway Point Of The Cross Island Walk

From there you can take a side trip to The Needle, which is a rock jutting out from the hill. People think it looks like the eye of a needle. It can be seen from many places on the coast of the island.
K in Motion Travel Blog. The Captivating Cook Islands. The Needle On The Cross Island Walk

From the mid-point, the trail became slightly easier, although there was one particularly muddy section where locals had tied a rope to a tree to help people on their way down. I was excited when I saw this sign
K in Motion Travel Blog. The Captivating Cook Islands. The Last Sign On The Cross Island Walk

It meant that the trail was coming to an end and I would soon be able to reward myself with a cool-down at the Papua Waterfalls!
K in Motion Travel Blog. The Captivating Cook Islands. Papua Waterfalls At The End Of The Cross Island Walk

Getting Back to the Other Side of the Island

The Cross Island Trail had brought me out to the main road on the south side of the island, but I needed to be on the north side. Luckily there were buses that ran regularly along the main road. They run clockwise at certain times and anticlockwise at certain times. Unfortunately, I had looked at the normal schedule and thought they would run until 4pm. But as it was a public holiday, service stopped at 3pm. Whoops.

K in Motion Travel Blog. The Captivating Cook Islands. Palm Trees On The Walk Back to Town

I still had several hours before my flight departed, so I started walking. It wasn’t long before someone stopped to pick me up. He worked at the next resort, a few kilometres up the road. He told me he’d take me there and I could get another lift into the town from there. I actually didn’t mind walking, so once he dropped me off, I continued along the road.

Friendly Locals of the Captivating Cook Islands

I had probably only been walking for 10 minutes when another car stopped and motioned for me to get in. They were a middle-aged Australian couple who had made the Cook Islands their home many years ago. They told me they couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. The island life had won them over and I can definitely see why. A short while later, they dropped me off at the pub across the road from airport.

I had left my backpack there before I’d done the Cross Island Trail. As most places were closed by 4pm, I’d figured that it would be a good place to hang out before my 9pm flight back to Auckland. I sat myself down to enjoy a local beer with a view, when some locals came to join me.

K in Motion Travel Blog. The Captivating Cook Islands. Beer And Sunset At The Pub

They insisted that I shouldn’t be sitting alone and that I needed to drink more. Once I mentioned that I was flying out that night, they tried everything in their power to convince me to stay. “Don’t worry, you can get a flight out tomorrow”, they said. As amusing as my new friends were, I knew what I had to do. Get myself on that flight back to New Zealand so that I could continue my South Pacific adventure in the French territory of Nouvelle-Calédonie.

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72 Replies to “The Captivating Cook Islands”

  1. It does sound like a captivating trip! No one has time for anyone these days. I’d love to go there for a week and just chill and walk around. Are food and accommodation expensive there?

    1. It is sad that people place so many things above spending time with others these days!

      I found a single room in a hostel for about $NZ20/night, so it’s not the cheapest, but also not the most expensive. Food can be a bit expensive, beause almost everything is imported. It can be cheaper if you’re happy with eating something like Ika Mata everyday.

  2. It does sound like a captivating trip! No one has time for anyone these days. I’d love to go there for a week and just chill and walk around. Are food and accommodation expensive there?

  3. How brave of you to walk through that darkness! It’s so amusing how these time zones have you traveling back in time! You have definitely developed your patience as a traveler.

    I think it was sweet how you spent 3 hours in the store, sounds like something I would do. I always find it hard to end a conversation.

    1. I love the dark! :o)

      It was great to relive Christmas day, but on the flip side, I lost a complete day when I went back to New Zealand, hehe.

      It was not the first time I’ve spent hours chatting to someone in a store in a foreign country and it probably won’t be the last!

  4. Oh wow, the views and shorelines there are absolutely stunning. I could definitely spend hours just biking or even walking around and enjoying views like that! Thank you for sharing!

  5. The Cook Islands look like a wonderful spot for summer holidays! I’ve never had a chance to visit this place, but it will be placed on my bucket list for sure. :)

  6. Great post Kez! I’ve just renewed my passport and I’m ready to get started on traveling (obv once it gets here). Your posts and the post you’ve written for April for my blog has inspired me to bite the bullet and go traveling despite my many anxieties.

    Love your beautiful photos as usual.

  7. What a fun place to go to! Of course, traveling there sounds like a pain but since you got the day back it seems worth it haha. I definitely think that the bike ride around the perimeter and the hike in the middle of the island would be really fun to check out. The unfortunate part of traveling during the holidays as that a lot of things aren’t open, but glad you were able to find some food and a pub!

    1. It took a bit more planning, but it was definitely worth it!
      Stuff not being open is a pretty normal occurance on islands. Even when there’s no holiday things tend to be closed my mid afternoon!

  8. I had no idea how difficult it could be to get to the cook islands. However it sounds like you had the adventure of a lifetime! I loved that you rented a bike to explore the island. This is my favorite mode of transportation when exploring a new place!

  9. I wasn’t even aware of these Islands, They look amazing. I really hope i get the chance to visit them one day! Thank you for sharing this wonderful information!

  10. Sounds like a bit of an effort to get there but those views sure make up for it. What a beautiful looking place. I’d heard the Cook Islands are quite expensive to visit but some of what you mentioned doesn’t sound too bad, is it the kind of place you’d need a big budget for? Looks like there’s a lot to do just outdoors

    1. I didn’t have a huge budget. The airfares were my biggest expense. I paid more for them than I paid for my return flight from HK to Fiji, but I don’t regret it at all! :o)

      Besides that I think I spent around NZ$100 for 3 days, including NZ$50 for single accommodation at a hostel, NZ$25 for a resort meal and NZ$15 for bike hire.

      Obviously resorts charge a bit for food, anywhere from NZ$25-45 for a main course, but you can get food from markets for much cheaper, around NZ$6.

      You can hire scooters for around NZ$25/day or bicycles for NZ$15/day. The island bus is NZ$4 a ride. I opted to walk and cycle most of the time because it was a great way to see stuff.

      I think things could start to get expensive if you wanted to venture to other islands in the chain as flying is the only viable way to travel between islands. Unless you make friends with a boat owner ;o)

  11. I have been blessed with visiting a few of the islands but have spent more time in the Ile Marquesas – I want to go back and do more of the Cook – this is an amazing corner of the world – so beautiful!

  12. I want to go to the South Pacific so bad. My biggest challenge is to find easy travel between the islands, like Fiji, Tahiti, Cook Islands. Most often, I can only find flights via Auckland, New Zealand which is a huge detour. How did you do it?

    1. Unfortunately, it’s a logistical nightmare trying to travel between some of the islands. I actually wrote an article about it here.

      You can only fly to the Cook Islands from Auckland, Sydney and Hawaii. I flew from Samoa to Auckland, 3000km in the opposite direction, to get to the Cooks. I really really wanted to see the Cooks and I was not disappointed!

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