In this article, we would like to give some tips and an idea of what to expect in the Cook Islands, both in terms of budget and in terms of what to do when you are there. We went to the Cook Islands in June 2023 flying from Auckland and we spent three nights in Aitutaki and three in Rarotonga.
Introduction to the Cook Islands
The Cook Islands is a self governing island country in free association with New Zealand. It comprises 15 islands, of which the biggest one is Rarotonga. Two third of the 15,000 residents of the Cook Island live on Rarotonga, the rest is distributed on the other islands. At June 2023, only 2,000 people resided on the island of Aitutaki, another tourist destination of the pacific country. The Cook Islands have their own parliament and act as an independent country except for defense and foreign affairs, where New Zealand is responsible. The Cook Islanders are New Zealand citizens and the New Zealand Dollars is in used in the country.
The Cook Island are beyond the international date line. That means that if you depart from New Zealand you will gain a day on the way there and you will lose one on the way back. We departed from Auckland on Friday evening and we arrived on Friday night (2am of the night between Thursday and Friday), then we departed from Rarotonga on Wednesday and we arrived on Thursday. Make sure you double check the dates when you book flights and hotels!
How to Plan your Holiday to the Cook Islands
The Cook Islands is quite a tourist destination in the Pacific and there are several reliable website that can be used as a source of information for the activities in loco. One of the best websites is probably the website of Cook Island Ministry of Tourism.
Here we just want to share with you some information that you may not find somewhere else.
Where to go
We only visited Aitutaki and Rarotonga, the two most popular destinations in the Cook Islands. When you decide to go to the Cook Islands, you will fly to Rarotonga, where the international airport is located.
From there you can decide whether to go somewhere else of just stay there. Although it’s more expensive, we strongly recommend you going to Aitutaki as well. The island is much smaller, the pace is more relaxed and your experience will be definitely more “local” than in Rarotonga.
We divided the article in three sections. Click on the section of your interest of scroll down to read it all:
Aitutaki is the second most populous island of the Cook Islands and it is sometimes described as an “almost atoll”, consisting of a lagoon within an encircling atoll, with a significant area of high land on one side.
Aitutaki, with its white sandy beaches and palm trees, is the stereotypical paradise in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and it’s particularly famous for snorkelling, diving and kitesurfing. To get there you need to take a plane from Rarotonga with the local company AirRarotonga.
On Aitutaki, as well as in the rest of the Cook Islands (probably less in Rarotonga but we weren’t there during the weekend), all shops shut on Sunday. All means all. Therefore, make sure you have enough food for Sunday or you may struggle to find an open restaurant on the island.
If you want to do a lagoon cruise on Sunday, make sure to book in advance. There are currently only two operators operating on Sunday:
- Kia Orana – +68231442 / +68273750 (mobile)
- Capt Puna – +68271707
We joined Kia Orana and we really enjoyed it. The guy was really nice and we paid 150 NZD per person including lunch. The snorkelling part was just breathtaking…
There are more cruise operators working during the week, we were told “Bishops” are good ones but we haven’t tried them. Not all cruise company go the same atolls, check out the routes and consider two cruises if you want to see them all.
If you don’t care much about costs, you can get a private charter to go around the lagoon. In that case expect to spend between 450 to 600 NZD per couple.
Hiring a Scooter
There is no public transport on Aitutaki and the island is small but not tiny so hiring a scooter is a popular way to get around. Most islanders have their own scooter and you don’t need a motorbike driving license, which is a requirement on Rarotonga. On Aitutaki the helmet is not mandary, nobody wears it and the rental place do not provide it so just be extremely careful. Traffic is not a problem though.
There are two shops where you can hire a scooter: Aquila and Rino’s. Both of them are on the main road nearby the city center. Despite having both an Italian name, none of them is run by an Italian 😉 We went to Rino’s and we paid 25 NZD per day.
There are two petrol stations on the island, one on the main road next to Aquila, the other one close to the airport. Petrol cost is obviously more expensive than in New Zealand but not crazy high.
The other option to get around is hiring a bicycle. However, we saw very few people on bicycles and it can be very hot during the day.
If you are looking for a local experience head to the morning market, operating Monday to Saturday. The market is located nearby the main square going towards the main wharf. The market’s operating hours are:
- Mon – Fri from 7am until noon
- Saturday from 6am until noon
On Saturday the market is particularly vibrant with a lot of locals having breakfast with grilled fish and cassava. The other days is more quiet but there will be somebody around for sure.
Make sure you go early, max one hour after the opening time, otherwise you may not find anything to eat and most locals will have already left.
Generally speaking, water on Aitutaki is NOT drinkable. Some people have their own wells, some others collect the rain. For drinking water, there are a few water stations around the island where you can find drinkable purified water. The one we used was nearby Aquila, on the main road.
Ask anybody if they can indicate the closest water station, they will be more than happy to help you!
Fresh Fruit and Veges
If you decide to go to Aitutaki in winter, you may be surprised by the lack of fresh fruit and veges around. That is because it’s winter and they import little to no fresh products on the island. You can find fresh products in the market (only early in the morning) or at Baxter’s in one of the internal roads.
Alternatively, you can go Angelo, the only Italian resident on the island! After 30 years in Australia, he moved to Aitutaki over 20 years ago after marring a local woman, Eva. They sell fresh fruit, veges and run the only pizzeria on the island (you need to order the pizza at least 3 hours in advance and it’s only take away. They make the pizza in their oven from scratch).
We spent two hours together with these two legends and they gave us a local dress for Giulia and the Koni Raoni t-shirt for Guido. We would love to come back and meet them again one day! We truly felt at home with them!
Angelo and Eva leave nearby Baxter’s, ask anyone on the island and they will tell you where to go!
Kitesurfing on Aitutaki
Aitutaki is a popular destination for kitesurfers. There are two main kitesurfing beaches on Aitutaki, Ootu beach on the main island and Honeymoon Island, both of them are suitable for beginners.
There are currently three operators on Aitutaki but we were told that the best one is by far Mike (+68273729). We went with him to Honeymoon island but we were unlucky and there wasn’t enough wind. However, we went snorkeling nearby which was amazing. To go kitesurfing with Mike expect to pay 40 NZD for the transport to honeymoon island + 180 NZD for hiring the gear.
Make sure you contact him beforehand, he will tell you about wind conditions and if he is going out or not (forecast are not reliable there). Also, Mike is punctual, island time is NOT a thing with him! If he tells you to meet at 9am, try to be at the wharf at least 10 min earlier or you may miss the boat.
Fun Fact: Chickens and Dogs
If you go to Aitutaki, the first that you will notice is the huge amount of chickens and the total absence of dogs.
Chickens (as well as pigs but to a lesser extent) are everywhere and that’s because islanders want to be self sufficient with food in case something happens and they can’t import anything. Locals may be used to it but every morning, even before dawn, roosters will start making a lot of noise. Maybe that’s why locals go to the market so early, they just can’t sleep!
Also, have you ever seen chickens climbing trees? Well, in Aitutaki you can! More than once, we saw chickens on top of the trees…strange eh?
Dogs are banned on Aitutaki. Apparently this is because back in the days they had a leprosy outbreak supposedly caused by dogs. However, we couldn’t find any source of information online corroborating this hypothesis, since apparently the canine leprosy can’t be transmitted to humans. Another reasons why dogs are banned is because some tourists got bitten, this is probably the real version of the story…
If you like Aitutaki, you may not like Rarotonga as much. It’s much busier and way more touristy (because of the costs, most people just visit Rarotonga and not the outer islands). However, the beaches are still stunning, people are friendly and there are a lot more activities on the island compared to Aitutaki.
Going around the island
If you want to hire a scooter on Rarotonga you will need a motorcycle driving licence. If you don’t have it, you can pass an exam in loco with the police (but you have to pay and spend a few hours with them). Also remember that helmets are mandatory on Rarotonga, if you don’t wear it you will get a fine. There are several rental places where you can get a scooter, we paid 32 NZD per day including two helmets. Be aware that, road conditions are much worse on Rarotonga compared to Aitutaki and there is much more traffic. If you are not very confident with the scooter, it’s probably a good idea to hire a car instead!
A cheaper option would be taking the local bus. There are two buses, one that goes clockwise the other one goes anti-clockwise. They are scheduled every 30 min and are generally quite punctual. However, the local bus goes only on the main road so you won’t be able to explore the internal part of the island unless you want to walk. The single ticket cost 5 NZD but you can get multiple tickets for a cheaper price (cash only). You can find more info on their official website here. The only negative aspect of it is that the buses don’t run in the evening so if you decide to go to the night market, you may have to take a taxi on the way back.
Taxis are another option, although more expensive. Consider around 50 to 80 NZD for 30 min ride.
Hiking up the mountain
There are plenty of activities on the island and most of them involve being out at sea. However, mother nature is the rule over there and some activities may be cancelled because of sea conditions. We wanted to swim with turtles but the current was too strong so we couldn’t go out. A good plan B would be exploring the internal part of the island which is definitely better than Aitutaki. If you like hiking, going up to the needle is definitely a popular options. We didn’t do that because it was cloudy, we decided to explore the internal road with the scooter instead. Next time, we would love to go up there!
Water is often not drinkable on Rarotonga. However, often hotels/guest houses have purifiers so you may be able to drink from tap. If your hotel is not one of them, then there are some water station in the internal roads, where most locals live.
Muri beach is the kitesurfing beach on Rarotonga and it’s the only place where you can hire the gear. Considering the small beach, the presence of rocks (booties are required), swimmers and boats, Muri beach is probably suitable for intermediete/experienced riders. If you want to hire the gear, you should go to KiteSUP. They will offer you a two-hours class and if you are good enough, you can carry on with their gear with no additional costs. Expect to pay around 200 NZD.
Cook Islands: How to Make it Cheap
Unfortunately there is no many ways to make your holiday to the Cook Islands cheap. Considering where you are, it’s obviously quite an expensive holiday. However, here are some tips:
Find an accommodation with a kitchen
If you want to save a bit of money, getting an accommodation with a kitchen is a good idea. You will still go out for dinner a couple of times but you can cook some meals at home.
On Aitutaki we staid at Gina’s Lodge, it was ok but some other people we met staid at Aitutaki Budget Accommodation which in our opinion was better. We paid 374 NZD for 3 nights, two people.
On Rarotonga we staid at Coral Sand apartments and we paid 432 NZD for 3 nights, two people.
None of them had Wi-fi for free, if you want you can buy a sim card on your arrival.
Bring some food with you
A lot of people bring some food from New Zealand when they go to the Cook Islands. Nowadays, prices are not that different but there used to be quite a big price gap between the two nations. Just be aware that you cannot bring any fruit or veges to the Cook Islands!
Get a package deal
A lot of people get a package deal (including flights, hotels etc) from New Zealand. Normally packages are only to Rarotonga and some of them may include Aitutaki. We didn’t because it’s not “our style” and normally you end up being in resorts with no kitchen. Deals start from a minimum of 1,500 NZD per person for 7 days.
Go there during low season
Summer (November to April) is low season on the Cook Island because there is higher chance of rain. Going there during low season may be slightly cheaper but make sure you have a rain coat, it’s a tropical country at the end of the day!
The good thing of summer is that there will be plenty of fresh fruits and veges on the islands!
If you end up on Aitutaki for boxing day, you should definitely join the Koni Raoni!
Book in advance
As often happens over this part of the world, booking in advance will help you saving a bit of money. Especially in the outer islands where you have less accommodation options, booking in advance is very important!