The Cook Islands is a little slice of paradise located in Polynesia in the middle of the South Pacific, which have 15 inhabited islands spread out over 2.2 million square kilometers of ocean with no land between the tropical Cook Islands and Antarctica. They are a self-governing parliamentary democracy in free association with New Zealand.
Even though it takes you 9 ½ hours on Air New Zealand nonstop from Los Angeles, the Cook Islands are on the same time zone as Hawaii. The islands are sometimes thought of as "Hawaii down under". The New Zealanders “Kiwis” love the Cook Islands, it’s a quick getaway for them. It all starts at the very small airport, you exit the plane on the tarmac and are greeted with “Kio Ora” and big smiles by customs.
The history of the Cook Islands is explained on every tour, even the Lagoon cruises. The Islanders are passionate about their ancestors and its history. I loved all the “story telling”, each person adds their own little twist and excitement to the stories. Brief history: The Cook Islands are named after Captain Cook, who sighted the islands 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 defense, foreign affairs (including issuing passports) and currency, they do have a limited volume of Cook Islands notes and coins which are colorful and beautiful. Otherwise the islands are self-governing and includes immigration, which is strictly controlled.
It’s amazing how more Cook Islanders are living in New Zealand and Australia than in the Cook Islands. The population of the Cook Islands is fewer than 15,000, but there are over 50,000 Cook Islanders living in New Zealand, and over 30,000 in Australia.
The weather of course is tropical. Rarotonga has an 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 the summer, usually in the form of afternoon storms. It is also know to rain in the winter and can be rather windy. Generally all the tours continue to operate even in the rain; however, if too windy, the Lagoon cruises may cancel due to rough water.
You will never see large chain hotels on the Cook Islands; there are smaller more intimate resorts. In five days I explored 24 hotels on 2 islands, Rarotonga and Aitutaki. The look and feel is Polynesian throughout the islands and the properties. The sizes of the resorts range from 3 rooms up to 280 rooms and cater to families and couples. There are several adult only properties.
It’s hard to pick one favorite hotel as they all have their own beauty and character. Pacific Resorts on both islands is simply amazing: filled with beauty along with luxury. Rumors, on Rarotanga, has luxury villas which cater to the more upscale luxury guest, and one of the villas has a “media room” with an amazing projector and screen. They also have a beautiful spa on property, “Rarotonga Waterfall Spa,” which has won a number of awards as best spa on the island, specializing in body scrub and Vichy shower treatments.
I went on four different tours. Upon arrival we boarded a coach for a 3-hour island tour. We learned all about the vegetation, especially the coconut, and how to shuck and open it up. We drank from a coconut with a straw and ate raw coconut daily.
Raro Mountain Safari tours operates a 4x4 “educational” adventure. We adventured to the highest peak we could via the vehicle. The highest peak you is only accessible by hiking.
On Aitutaki we experienced a different kind of 4x4 tour with Punarei Cultural Tour, and ventured to the cultural village that has been transformed to mirror the traditional village structures and methodologies used prior to the arrival of the missionaries. We cooked our own lunch in the ground, just like their ancestors, even made our own plate out of palm fronds. While it cooked we visited different parts of the island and learned the Aitutaki culture.
A more relaxing tour is on the Te Vaka Lagoon Cruise; you visit three “motus” (islands), one being the famous One Foot Island. You can swim, snorkel or explore the islands on your own.
The Cook Islands is for the relaxing and adventurous type of traveler. There's lots to do, or you can do nothing but lay on the beach. Shopping is a must on Saturday, as they have the famous “Flea Market” called Punanga Nui Market. Feel the friendly ambience filled with handcrafted gifts, black pearls, vibrant colors, and amazing fragrances from the flowers. Sunday is a day of worship and almost everything is closed, so be prepared for a quite relaxing day!