Why Cook Islands is the Pacific’s most underrated destination

From adults only resorts to diving into pristine lagoons, the Cook Islands is all about barefoot bliss.

By Chris Ashton, June 7 2024
Why Cook Islands is the Pacific’s most underrated destination

When it’s ‘island vibes in the Pacific’ you seek, French Polynesia and Fiji are generally the first places springing to mind. Both are exceptional, no doubt. Yet, there’s another worth adding to the list: Cook Islands.

Spread across a vast expanse midway between New Zealand and Hawaii, this collection of 15 islands is the epitome of laidback luxury – blessed with all the natural beauty, romance and rich Polynesian culture of its established rivals, yet with none of the crowds.

Find yourself in serene Aitutaki.
Find yourself in serene Aitutaki.

Add in jungle-clad mountains, lagoons fringed by palms, rustic beach shacks and luxurious five star villas, plus fun facts like no traffic lights or buildings higher than a coconut tree, and you have a destination that sounds rather enticing indeed. 

With direct 5.5-hour flights from Sydney to Rarotonga, or an easy hop from Brisbane or Melbourne via Auckland, it’s an underrated though accessible year-round getaway with plenty of surprises.

Essential things to do in the Cook Islands

Scenic flights a perfect introduction

To help you acclimatise, a scenic flight with Air Rarotonga should be right at the top of your hit list. After all, once you’ve seen the lush valleys, emerald islets, and coral reefs from above, you’ll have a better understanding of how it all fits into the mix.

Departing regularly, tours take flight on nimble high wing Cessna, which are ideally suited to viewing and capturing the unfolding wonders. Plus, with a max of two passengers onboard, it’s an intimate way to discover this utopia.

Flightseeing with Air Rarotonga.
Flightseeing with Air Rarotonga.

Set sail on Aitutaki Lagoon

Just a 50-minute plane ride from Rarotonga, Aitutaki is the quintessential Cook Island – and the lagoon is its shining star. Day trips are an easy way to take it in, for which Bishop’s Cruises, The Vaka Cruise and T’s Tours Aitutaki are all good options.

When not diving into clear waters, pulling up to tidal islets or strolling deserted beaches, your guides are your passport to understanding the local way of life. As is so often the case, it really is the people who make a trip.

The Vaka Cruise.
The Vaka Cruise.

Embrace the island culture

Like many islands across the Pacific, Polynesian heritage is deeply-rooted in the culture – and the locals are more than willing to share it with anyone who’s interested. You’ll find several recommendations through Cook Islands Tourism.

Another good way to meet the locals is to hire a scooter and explore back roads and villages. You can also find a number of galleries and museums across the islands. Plus, most resorts will also have a cultural night with drumming and dancing.

It's true the people make the place.
It's true the people make the place.

A world of colour, just below the surface

Steep drop-offs and shallow lagoons, shipwreck reefs and a rainbow of curious fish; Cook Islands is a veritable paradise for divers and snorkellers. And in many instances you can simply walk right in from the beach.

There are 25 dive sites on Rarotonga, plus over 20 on Aitutaki, with something for beginners right through to advanced divers. Add in waters from 23°C to 28°C and visibility up to 60m, and the only question is: ‘Single or double dive?’

You never know what you might encounter.. Cook Islands Tourism / Charlotte Piho
You never know what you might encounter.
Cook Islands Tourism / Charlotte Piho

Luxury hotels in the Cook Islands

Though made up of 15 islands, the majority of luxury hotels and resorts in the Cook Islands are focused around two in particular: Rarotonga, the main island and primary entry point, and the intimate Aitutaki.

Pacific Resort Aitutaki, Aitutaki

One resort to rule them all. Pacific Resort Aitutaki is the most awarded property in the Cook Islands, and one glimpse at this absolute beachfront hideaway enveloped by emerald gardens is all you need to understand why.

Within you’ll find 29 beautifully-appointed bungalows and villas, all of them embracing that classic tropical vibe so often seen in the Pacific, plus a poolside bar and restaurant. There’s also Tiare Spa for when you need a little pampering.

Pacific Resort Aitutaki is the Cook Islands' most luxurious hideaway.
Pacific Resort Aitutaki is the Cook Islands' most luxurious hideaway.

Te Manava Luxury Villas & Spa, Rarotonga

If you prefer a little extra independence on your travels, Te Manava Luxury Villas & Spa on Muri Beach is a great option. It’s part of the same group as Pacific Resort Aitutaki, though each of the one- to three-bedroom villas is self-contained.

There’s also an onsite day spa, while kids enjoy complimentary access to a kids club, so parents can enjoy a little free time to explore or relax undisturbed in the plunge pools.

Embrace island time on your own schedule at Te Manava.
Embrace island time on your own schedule at Te Manava.

Aitutaki Lagoon Resort & Spa, Aitutaki

Wake up to the sound of the water lapping at the villa, and then jump directly from your deck into the turquoise waters at Aitutaki Lagoon Resort – the only Cook Islands resort with overwater bungalows.

Nestled on Motu Akitua Private Island, with an outlook across the gorgeous Aitutaki Lagoon, the intimate resort features a range of beachfront bungalows and villas, together with a sublime day spa and restaurant.

Overwater bliss at Aitutaki Lagoon Resort.
Overwater bliss at Aitutaki Lagoon Resort.

Little Polynesian Resort, Rarotonga

Exclusively welcoming adults only, Little Polynesian Resort is a curated escape of just 14 rooms, of which the Beachfront Bungalows – adorned in bleached timbers and soft pastel hues – are the ones to choose.

Part of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World stable, which is now accessible to members of Hilton Honors, the resort also boasts a relaxed restaurant overlooking Titikaveka lagoon.

Little Polynesian is ideal for a romantic getaway.
Little Polynesian is ideal for a romantic getaway.

Despite its beauty and charm, the Cook Islands still flies under the radar. Yet, if you’re willing to take the road less travelled, it’s a paradise you simply won’t want to leave.

(Of course, when you inevitably do, there are stunning escapes right across the Pacific, including some sensational private island resorts).


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