If you have never travelled to an island in the Pacific Ocean before on holiday, then this is the place to start. The Cook Islands is a disparate collection of tiny rocks that poke above the waves. Barely. Cook Islanders are a semi-organised kind of folk with lots of Polynesian charm and just enough get up and go to make sure visitors can enjoy a comfortable stay.
There are plenty of excellent hotels to choose from, lots of fresh seafood and very little to actually do. Best of all the country operates on NZ Dollars so you can actually figure out what things cost without the need of a calculator. Flights to the main island of Rarotonga are very cheap, often down around the $700 mark, with some flights direct from Sydney but most of the traffic going via Aukland. As the plane lands on the Rarotonga airstrip you can see some green lush hills to the left, and a world of blue ocean to the right.
Rarotonga is very very small. A single road does a loop around the coastline and you can drive it in about an hour, maybe less if you don’t have to stop for chickens crossing the road. There are some very fancy resorts tucked away but also lots of cheap bungalows if you want to self-cater or hang out with the entire family.
There is sand on Rarotonga but most of the beaches are edged by coral. It’s often more appealing to get in the water with a kayak, snorkelling gear or go fishing. Or just wait until low tide and walk out across the reef itself. The locals walk the tidal pools with a bucket to collect themselves dinner, which makes for a beautiful scene at sunset. If you want outrageously amazing beaches and gentle lapping tides, then you need to hop a short flight to Aitutaki, also part of the Cook Islands.
Most of the culinary options on Rarotonga are anything but gourmet, but my favourite are the fresh seafood shacks such as The Mooring Fish Cafe. Located on the southern side of the island, near Muri, the shack is run by Jill and the fish supplied by Moko. Moko is the loco local fishing guide who took me out to chase some Mahi Mahi one day. I was photographing for a magazine and the writer let a big catch off the line, I thought we were both going to be tipped over board! Moko has passion for fishing, and Jill is the best lady in town to cook it up,
My favourite eating on the island was the Punanga Nui Market on a Saturday morning. Lots of grills and treats to enjoy, and good coffee. Really fun market and something you definitely want to include in your schedule when booking flights.
As you scoot around the island on that loop road you’ll find little surprises along the way, such as a man smoking his own fish, an alcoholic concocting his own liquors (talk about the mice in charge of the cheese) and a quirky coffee shop that roasts and brews seriously good beans.
“Cook Islands Coffee Company” is operated out of the front yard of a local man, Neil, near the northern end of Rarotonga at Matavera. You know when he’s open because he puts a big traffic cone out on the street to let people know the beans are on. His son also happens to run the best bakery on the island, known for excellent croissants and custard tarts. The only catch is that Neil closes up around 10am so you can’t get a proper sleep in of you want a caffeine fix.
If your budget allows for a few days on Aitutaki then I implore you to go. This is one of the most remarkable formations on the planet, a massive blue lagoon about a metre or two deep sheltered from the waves by an outer reef system. Teal is the real colour here, not blue. Those jade hues never reach anything like proper blue because the white sands beneath the water reflect the sunlight and create that insanely gentle shade of teal.
There are two top shelf places to stay on this island, the luxury bungalow styled Aitutaki Lagoon Resort at Ootu Beach, and the more established Pacific Resort that clings to the cliff edges above it’s own lovely beach. They both cost more than the aircraft you flew to Aitutaki with, but they’re worth it.
Resort food anywhere is typically not my favourite thing in the world, but the Pacific Resort has it’s own garden and international chefs to deliver quality dining. It’s very good. Alternatives are hard to come by on such a small island, but there are two of note. Tupuna for seafood, and Samade Beach for a little more seafood.
Cafe Tupuna has the best seafood in all of the Cook Islands. It’s not Michelin starred, but it is home cooking with a twist of Singaporean influence and a lot of island charm. The chili crab is unbelievable and if you’re super lucky you might book ahead and score one of the “coconut crabs”, a bizarre red creature that literally climbs up palm trees and eat coconuts.
Samade Beach changed hands and is now called Aitutaki Village, and the new owner happens to be a seriously great chef named Thomas Koteka. He’s not exactly new to hospitality but is a local to Aitutaki. I enjoyed an amazing Sri Lankan style fish curry when I visited and washed it down with a half decent cocktail. Accommodation at Aitutaki Village is being upgraded to match Thomas’ standards, making this one of the more affordable places to stay if you want to enjoy the amazing lagoons.