Cook Islands – Guide for Backpackers
Visit the Cook Islands from New Zealand!
Visit New Zealand’s tropical brother, the Cook Islands! The Cook Islands are just a 4-hour flight away from New Zealand, giving backpackers the perfect excuse to visit paradise. With a heritage shared with the New Zealand Maori, the Cook Islands are a chance to see a different spin on the Maori culture in a tropical setting. What makes the Cook Islands so different from New Zealand, however, is that its a place to truly unwind. With so many palm-fringed beaches, warm lagoon waters to swim in, and delicious traditional food to try, no wonder so many Kiwis use the Cook Islands as a place to “escape” their daily lives.
The Cook Islands are made up of 15 islands strewn across thousands of kilometres, so getting around is not as easy as you may think. A few islands are connected with flights, but the rest of the islands you will need to rely on cargo boats to get around. The journey is well worth it to see these coral atolls and rugged volcanic islands covered in unspoiled rainforest. Whatever you decide to do, the Cook Islands will certainly give you that change of pace from a hectic backpacking lifestyle. By the way, did you check out our guides to Fiji, Samoa, Vanuatu, Tonga and New Caledonia?
Know before you go to the Cook Islands from New Zealand
- Flight – There are multiple airlines that fly to the Cook Islands and mid-week flights are usually the cheapest options. Compare flights on Skyscanner for your preferred dates
- Currency – New Zealand dollar. (Perfect if you are coming straight to the Cook Islands from New Zealand)
- Dress – Revealing clothing is not acceptable in the towns and villages
- Electricity – The Cook Islands use the same plug socket as New Zealand
- Language – Cook Islanders speak English and Cook Islands Maori
- Climate – Expect warmth and sunshine all year round. While May-October is dry and cooler with temperatures of 22-24 degrees Celcius, November-April is wetter and warmer with temperatures of 24-26 degrees Celcius.
The best ways to get around Rarotonga
This is your starting point on any Cook Islands backpacking trip. Rarotonga is the largest island (67sq km) and is serviced by the nation’s capital, Avarua. Stock up on supplies at this lively township then start exploring! How you transport yourself around this beautiful island with palm-fringed beaches and rainforest mountainous interior is all part of the fun.
Hire a scooter
A popular way for backpackers to explore Rarotonga is by hiring a scooter and taking the 32km coastal road. Beach hop along the way, but also take the time to check out the ancient Ara Matua coral road, built in the 11th century.
A 2-hour horse trek is another great way to discover the islands hidden gems, especially with a guide who knows all the best spots. You’ll pass through sheltered tropical forests, up to Wigmore’s Waterfall, then over to the sandy beaches that the Cook Islands are famous for.
Go by bus
To save those extra cents, take the buses that run both clockwise and anticlockwise around Rarotonga. You can grab an all-day pass and just ask the bus driver to stop wherever you like – you don’t have to wait for a bus stop.
Hike across the island
The Cross Island Trek is a 4-hour adventure with a guide, giving you the best views in the Cook Islands. You’ll ascend to the base of Te Rua Manga (The Needle), the island’s dramatic peak. The track takes you back down to Wigmore’s Waterfall where you can refresh yourself in a swimming hole.
Rarotonga’s wildlife and culture
While you’re exploring the wonderful Rarotonga, take the time to get to know the locals both on land and in the sea.
Muri Beach is the launch point for Muri Lagoon cruises. Either observe the tropical fish in their thousands from a glass-bottom boat, jump into the water on Captain Tama’s Lagoon Cruises with provided snorkel gear to get up close to their underwater world, or do some SUP (Stand-Up Paddle Boarding) with KiteSUP. Muri Beach is on the southeast coast.
Soak up the Cook Islands culture
Accommodation providers often host night feasts with a cultural show. The feast is called umukai and involves delicious food being cooked in an underground oven known as an umu. (Similar to a hangi, some might say). After the feast, Cook Islanders share their cultural heritage through karioi (entertainment) with traditional song, dance and drums. Check out this Over Water Night Show or Cultural Village Tour on Muri Beach.
The Cook Islands’ second most populated island, Aitutaki is an easy-going island only a 45-minute flight from Rarotonga. The island is well worth visiting if you have more than a couple of days in the Cook Islands.
Snorkel with turtles
Aitutaki is characterised by its lagoon of 12 by 15 km wide with 14 motu (islets). Not only does the lagoon have dazzling turquoise waters surrounded by white sand beaches, but it is full of sea life. The warm clear water is perfect for snorkelling or diving. You may get the chance to swim with turtles. Nevertheless, if you don’t strike gold that day, the array of tropical fish species are still something to be impressed by.
Get your passport stamped at One Foot Island
While you are in the lagoon, don’t forget to visit One Foot Island to get your passport stamped! The island also boasts the world’s smallest post office.
Climb Mt Maunapu
Meanwhile, on land, there is plenty to explore by hiring a scooter or car and using a road that hugs the coast most of the way around the island. The best vantage point on the island is from the summit of Mt Maungapu at 124 metres. The walk is an easy 30 minutes. See, even the hikes are relaxing in the Cook Islands.
If you have more time in the Cook Islands…
Check out the outer islands
- Atiu – Accessible by flight, Atiu is known for its limestone caves and diving locations. Explore the undisturbed tropical jungle inland
- Mangaia – The second largest island of the Cook Islands can be accessed by flight. Enjoy cave tours, rock climbing, snorkelling, mountain biking and horse trekking
- Mauke & Mitiaro – The people of the islands pride themselves on producing woven mats, handbags, purses and hats. Both islands can be flown to
- Manuae – This breeding ground for sea turtles and seabirds is uninhabited by people and can only be accessed by boat
- Palmerston – This is the most remote of the southern group islands, making it difficult to casually visit
- Manihiki – Part of the northern group islands, Manihiki is known for its black pearls. There is a weekly flight here based on booking demand
- Rakahanga – Only accessed from Manihiki, the island is full of coconut, breadfruit and pandanus trees, giving you plenty of food if you get stranded!
- Nassau – This is the only island in the northern group without a lagoon. Offshore provides good fishing
- Penrhyn – The golden pearls this island is famous for being used in rito hats, baskets, fans and mats made by the locals
- Pukapuka – With a small population, Pukapuka is influenced by its neighbouring country, Samoa. The island is great for snorkelling
- Suwarrow – This national park can only be accessed on a chartered expedition or private boat.
Visit more tropical paradises in the South Pacific from New Zealand!
Check out our articles on other backpacking destinations near New Zealand:
Where to stay in the Cook Islands?
There are not many backpacker hostels in the Cook Islands. Alternatively, use the budget accommodation options of motels and lodges. Expect to pay NZ$85 per single room per night, or a similar price for a double room, therefore prices are cheaper if you are travelling in pairs.
Here are a few suggestions for accommodation in the Cook Islands for backpackers:
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