Australians love the South Pacific. But most don’t venture beyond Fiji, missing some stunning experiences. Look at a chart of tourism arrivals for the South Pacific’s numerous island resorts, and one destination towers over every other. Fiji, which features in the Nine Network TV series Love Island, has more than three times the number of visitors of its neighbours.
Yet almost all of the destinations boast similar, if not better, attractions: fabulous beaches, clear waters, friendly locals and unspoilt scenery. And in a world that is just waking up to overtourism, their lack of tourists becomes a drawcard in itself.
Take the Cook Islands. Officially awarded the title “world’s most beautiful lagoon” numerous times, Aitutaki (pronounced Aye-tu-tacky) alone is a magnet enough for global tourism. But the country comprises 15 stunning islands spread across two million square kilometres of ocean – all about six hours’ flying time from Australia.
A flight from Auckland northeast to “the Cooks” is just under four hours. Although, if you’re travelling from Australia, there are few direct flights and only a handful of options available with Qantas, Virgin and Air New Zealand that all involve lengthy stopovers.
But the effort is worth it. Arriving at the main island, Rarotonga (or “Raro” to the locals), you’re at the gateway to the surrounding coral reefs and endless white sandy beaches.
Here, the hot breeze carries scents of fragrant frangipani, ripe mango and cool ocean spray. Men as large as wardrobes carry flowers and pineapples to warmly welcome visitors – while equally large women wearing traditional floral dresses ride small scooters around the islands with ease. Unlike many Melanesians, who can be shy, reserved and mild-mannered, Cook Islanders are Polynesian and tend more towards the loud, vibrant and extroverted.
It’s not uncommon to be greeted at the airport by your tour guide “Aunty” who, despite you having never met, will welcome you with a warm and slightly bone-crushing bear hug.
Once you’ve adjusted to the heat, the high-pitch of Aunty’s laugh and the slow pace of customs (which is still faster than the pace on the rest of the islands), then it’s time to strap on your scooter helmet and get ready to explore.
The Cook Islands is closely connected to New Zealand: the people automatically have dual New Zealand citizenship, the currency is the NZ dollar, they drive on the left and everyone loves rugby.
The islands are grouped into the north and the south, and the prize gem is the north’s Aitutaki, a roughly 45-minute small-plane ride from Raro.
But no matter which of the islands you visit, you will be surrounded by some of the best beaches and reefs for water sports and snorkelling in the world.
The Cook Islands is not renowned for its cuisine, shopping or high-end accommodation – but you’ve come for the warm locals and exquisite landscape, and those will certainly not disappoint.
The Cook Islands guide
What to do
On Aitutaki, a lagoon cruise includes transfers, lunch and snorkelling equipment. Don’t forget to consider the cost of the short flight from Rarotonga.
On Rarotonga, the Cross-island Walk with Pa including transfers and a snack.
You can enjoy an amazing afternoon of yoga and stand-up paddleboarding (SUP) in the sunshine at Muri lagoon. The floating yoga class is 90 minutes and includes yoga, SUP lesson, stretches, a photo-booth session and a refreshing drink. Classes start at KiteSUP beach in Muri Lagoon. All paddleboards are beginner-friendly, meaning they are wide and “floating”, perfect for perfecting your balance and practising yoga.
from $38; workoutonwater.com
For a snorkelling holiday with extra adrenaline, grab a sea scooter – it’s like an underwater handheld motor that pulls you through the water – and hit up any of the stunning reefs across the islands.
The best kite-surfing in the world is also said to be in Aitutaki. And not a bad view either. Whether you’re a beginner or advanced, you’d be mad not to give this a go.
Where to shop
The Cook Islands is not really the shopping capital of the world. But if you are determined to spend your tourist dollar then buy something that is authentically from The Cooks. Black pearls are cultivated on the local atolls and are rare and stunning. For the kids, you can buy ukuleles (from $139) at the Prison Craft Shop, near the Crown Beach Resort. Shops generally close at 4pm and on Sundays.
Punanga Nui Market is held every Saturday and is as good for local art and craft shopping as it is for people-watching and soaking up The Cooks’ tribe vibe.
Where to eat
Sadly, the Cook Islands imposes very high taxes on imported foods. Locals have resorted to eating foods that are lower in price and higher in sugar and fat. Canned spam is a staple and is widely known to be one of the reasons the Cooks Islands has some of the highest obesity and diabetes rates in the world.
For tourists, however, there are plenty of options available that use local seasonal produce such as fish, seafood and tropical fruits. And with these ingredients, it’s hard to find better flavours anywhere else in the world.
Housed in a shipping container beside Avana Harbour, the Mooring Fish Cafe is a casual lunch spot serving another local favourite, fish burgers.
Waterline is a wooden beach bar and restaurant serving fresh fish dishes and hosting soulful live music a few nights per week.
Muri Night Market also has excellent street food and is a hub for local families who gather to hear the live music, bringing their own picnic rugs and sense of community.
Where to stay
The Aitutaki Lagoon Private Island Resort is a 36-room, adults-only sanctuary set on a private island reached by a one-minute ferry ride. Go for a Premium Beachfront Bungalow, from $558 per night.
On Rarotonga, catch the sunset at Crown Beach Resort & Spa. It has 36 villas and suites set in two hectares of gardens with a pool, from $502 per night.