This story first appeared in Vacations & Travel magazine, autumn 2019, issue 110
A place where Polynesian tradition is still strong, the Cook Islands is becoming known as a South Pacific leader in eco-tourism. Here, discover 10 ways to see the archipelago with nature and culture in mind.
A blissful 15-isle archipelago just east of the dateline in the Pacific Ocean, the Cook Islands has long attracted travellers with the promise of crystal-clear water, a diverse marine life, and a strong connection to Polynesian culture. But now there’s another reason to visit: a focus on sustainable tourism. From eco-cycling expeditions through the jungle to snorkelling adventures unveiling the island nation’s new marine conservation area, here are 10 reasons to visit this South Pacific paradise now.
1. Environment first
More than 99% of the Cook Islands’ exclusive economic zone is water, covering a staggering 1.9 million square kilometres of atolls, volcanic and limestone islands, and sand quays. It’s home to 130 species of coral, 600 different types of fish, numerous species of threatened turtles, as well as endangered reef sharks, whales and dolphins. And as of July 2017, this incredible underwater bounty is protected. Passing legislation for Marae Moana (Sacred Ocean) means that the country’s marine conservation area now extends over 1.1 million square kilometres, becoming the largest commitment by a single country for integrated management and conservation from ridge to reef and from reef to ocean. Learn more at sustainably run Te Ara museum.
2. Lagoon life
The Cook’s second-largest island, Aitutaki, is actually quite petite – you can drive around its rainforest-laced shores in an hour. The real reason to come here, however, is for the sea. At Ootu Beach, board the Vaka boat and cruise past outer motu (islets) to One Foot Island. Here, the lagoon is a dazzling patchwork of blues, the bathtub-warm water filled with paddling green turtles, enormous trevally and giant clams with purple lips that waver as clownfish swim by. The boat drops anchor off a hallucinatory white sandbank where you can clamber ashore to get a stamp in your passport from the tiny One Foot Island post office, which also sells cold beer.
3. Pedal power
While serious mountains create a jagged spine through the heart of Rarotonga – the archipelago’s largest island – the hinterland is relatively flat and easy to explore on two wheels. Over three hours, Storytellers Eco Cycle Tour guides lead you through sleepy villages and into the jungle, where you’ll learn about wild crops (and get to sample one or two) and hear stories about life growing up in this patch of paradise. If you want to work up more of a sweat, there are also four- and five-hour expeditions that require advanced biking skills. Regardless of which experience you choose, you’ll end up on a secluded beach for a dip and lunch with your hosts.
4. To market, to market
Located on the waterfront in Avarua, Rarotonga’s main township, the Punanga Nui Market is like a colourful slice of Cook Island culture. Stallholders gather from across the archipelago to sell handicrafts, art and black pearls, cultured and perfected by nature in the pristine lagoon of Manihiki, one of the most remote islets of the Cook’s group. You can also pick up artisanal produce, including addictive coconut vodka and dressings laced with lime. It’s open daily, although Saturday is the most popular time to visit, with live music on a central stage. In the evening, head to Muri Night Market for bowls of zingy ikamata (raw fish ‘cooked’ with citrus and coconut milk) and piping hot taro baked in an umu (earth oven).
5. Luxe lodgings
The Cook Islands are a popular honeymoon destination, so it comes as no surprise that Rarotonga’s shores are lined with upscale lodgings that unite style and sustainability in equal measure. The pick of the bunch is the Little Polynesian, where thatched-roof villas are stilted over Titikaveka Beach, widely regarded as one of the prettiest stretches of sand in the South Pacific. Giant beds are draped with floaty material, hammocks swing between palms beside the impossibly blue ocean, cocktails are served by the infinity pool and there’s an on-site spa with jungle views. Meanwhile on Aitutaki, the Pacific Resort is like a luxe Polynesian village dropped into the middle of the rainforest. Beachfront bungalows come with broad patios for admiring the lagoon, with colourful flourishes – vibrant prints, local artwork – adding to the tropical allure.
6. Garden variety
Three hectares of eye-popping tropical gardens dotted with cooling lily ponds, the Maire Nui Gardens offer a glimpse into the diversity of Rarotonga’s flora and fauna. Hidden among palms, papayas and trees of tiare maori (a fragrant, star-like flower with an aroma that will stay with you your whole visit) is an excellent cafe. Pull up a bench, gaze at the mountains that surround, and order island-style banana splits with lashings of coconut cream, organic chicken salads, or sandwiches loaded with vegetables and herbs grown in the kitchen garden.
7. Balancing act
Even the most uncoordinated visitor will not be disappointed by the KiteSUP yoga adventure on stand-up paddleboards. Regardless of your experience performing downward facing dog, you will spend some time in the water. But Rarotonga’s lagoon offers a soft, not to mention warm, landing, and the backdrop of palm-fringed motu is so pretty you’ll swear postcards were invented just to show it off. The same company organises evening Fire on Water tours, which see you paddle across the lagoon in darkness, your journey lit by the Milky Way above and glowing lights attached to your paddleboard – until the fire twirling starts.
8. Island flavours
One of the best ways to get a feel for the flavours of the Cook Islands is through a progressive dinner, where you’ll enjoy an entree, main and dessert at three different homes around Rarotonga. At each stop you’ll tour the property, chat to homeowners and feast on a dish they’ve prepared to showcase local produce. The food changes depending on what is fresh and in season, and hosts vary depending on who is available to have guests over. Other popular dining haunts include Vaiana Bistro & Bar, for generous seafood platters and icy beers; Barracuda, for the island’s best coffee and cake; and Tamarind House, for incredible tasting plates served on an expansive seaside lawn. On Aitutaki, Koru Café is the place for breakfast and lunch (and picking up picnic supplies), while Cafe Tupuna is located in a beautiful private home with tables set around the palm-studded gardens.
9. Scoot this way
One of the best ways to explore Rarotonga’s lagoon is with your head under water, gliding past green and hawksbill turtles – the latter critically endangered, with only 200,000 left in the world. Ariki Holidays makes it easy to get up close to these beautiful creatures on snorkelling expeditions, with a twist. Your kit for the day includes a hand-held, motorised marine scooter, which propels you through the water at four kilometres an hour. You’ll cover good ground, passing over jaw-dropping coral gardens, schools of tropical fish and even a shipwreck – without breaking a sweat.
10. Cultural insights
Beach lovers, rejoice! Rarotonga has some of the most covetable stretches of sand in the South Pacific, and you’ll explore a few on Captain Tama’s Lagoon Cruise. Colourful boats chug through the sea at a leisurely pace, dropping anchor over reefs where you can snorkel with turtles and colourful fish. You’ll also get time on some of the region’s motu – on one, your hosts will prepare an incredible barbecue of just-caught fish and tropical fruit. While you eat, seated on the sand, you’ll enjoy a demonstration on how to climb coconut trees (not easy) and all the different ways you can wear a sarong (very handy).
Air New Zealand flies to Rarotonga with stopovers in Auckland – airnewzealand.com.au
Where to stay:
Little Polynesian – littlepolynesian.com
Pacific Resort – pacificresort.com
What to do:
The Vaka Cruise – thevakacruise.com
Storytellers Eco Cycle Tours – storytellers.co.ck
Captain Tama’s Lagoon Cruizes – captaintamas.com
Ariki Holidays – arikiholidays.com
KiteSUP Watersports – kitesup.co
Te Ara – The Cook Islands Museum of Cultural Enterprise – tearacimce.com
Cook Islands – cookislands.travel