The Cook Islands – An Island Destination for the Borderline Adventurous

Ever since I was little my family has been a strong supporter of the notion of “summer vacation.” By the time I got to college I considered myself pretty well traveled – Hawaii, Washington DC, New York, Bermuda, Roatan, etc. I figured that it was time to start my solo travel career, but with me home from studying abroad and my brother about to leave for college, Mom and Dad had one last family trip planned: the Cook Islands.

The Cook Islands are a small nation in the South Pacific made of a series of small – very, very small – islands. Situated east of Australia and southwest of Hawaii, the main island of Rarotonga became our home base for nearly two weeks. The island was small enough to drive around in an hour and we didn’t have to try too hard to exhaust all Rarotonga had to offer.


Muri Beach comes to life with the sunrise.

If you love the feel of sand between your toes but don’t want to fight for a spot on a busy beach in Hawaii or Florida or the Bahamas or some other such sandy beach getaway, Rarotonga might just be the perfect escape. The white sand beaches were one of the highlights of the island, especially if you can motivate yourself out of bed early enough to watch the sunrise from between the palm trees and to when the sand crabs will be scuttling back into their holes for the day and the dinner-plate-sized royal blue starfish appear in the shallows.

Rarotonga is a vacation destination for the borderline adventurous – city slickers won’t find much appeal and adrenaline junkies won’t be very impressed, but if you fall somewhere between the two, there is plenty to keep you occupied. Set aside some time for two for $99 scuba diving with Pacific Divers –  who offer an open water diving certification Discover Scuba dives for first time divers – for a chance to see docile sharks, giant rays, and lion fish and swim through ship wrecks and through tunnels in the reefs. Be sure also to make time for the cross-island hike that takes you from the north end of the island to the south along a well-maintained path. This is somewhere between a walk and climbing a really long set of stairs, but the view from the summit was well worth the protesting calves. The whole hike took us just over two hours and could certainly have made for a leisurely afternoon if we had allotted more time.


From the summit of the cross-island hike, you have a 360 degree view of the island.

The Muri Night market is a must do while visiting Rarotonga. Three nights a week vendors set up their stations and create some of the best food on the island, attracting locals and visitors alike. Choose from a variety of fresh seafood or curry dishes for dinner and save room for a fresh fruit smoothie after.

While Rarotonga was beautiful, it somehow fell short of my expectations. Kawaii had better beaches. Roatan had better scuba diving. Bermuda had a better island aesthetic, with its well-maintained pastel houses to Rarotonga’s more au naturel infrastructure that often was bordering on rundown.

The island of Rarotonga is very small and it doesn’t take long to exhaust the attraction the island has to offer. You could fill another day with a boat excursion to one of the other nearby islands that make up the nation, but those trips are an expensive extension of what you will already find on Rarotonga. Instead of planning an entire vacation to the Cook Islands, this is a place better suited to being one leg of a trip. Perhaps tag on a few days in Rarotonga to your New Zealand vacation.

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5 thoughts on “The Cook Islands – An Island Destination for the Borderline Adventurous

  1. John Robetts says:

    I think this is a very honest assessment but one that also saddens me. I’m a repeat visitor and great advocate of the Islands. And Raro has changed a lot in recent years. But I feel strongly that the tourism department are failing to promote the Islands as a destination in their own right. There’s a whole lot more “adventure” for those who go beyond Raro and Aitutaki. It’s certainly not cheap or easy but those who do will be rewarded with memories to last a lifetime and the warmest of welcomes from locals who treat you as as a guest rather than a tourist. I do hope you consider going back to the Islands one day and exploring further.


    • anothersidetrackedlife says:

      Hi John! Thanks for reading. I appreciate your thoughts.

      I’ve heard lots of good things about the more remote islands and I really wanted to get out and explore them. Unfortunately that wasn’t in the stars for this trip. As it was, I enjoyed my time there – just not as much as I had anticipated with as much hype as there was leading up to this trip.

      What are some of your must-see things on the islands?


  2. John Roberts says:

    There are so many must sees in my opinion, but let me share a few from the easier to reach islands. Mauke is the garden of the islands with beautiful flowers and trees everywhere and a fascinating old stone church that was literally divided in two by an inside wall because the two villages who built it argued about how it should be decorated inside. It’s being restored to its former rainbow coloured glory now (minus the wall which went a long time ago). It has the . world’s largest banyan tree too! Lovely friendly people. Atiu is called the land of the birds and there are plenty of them, some very rare, all very beautiful. It also has some tiny little beaches where the sunsets are stunning and from July to September you can see whales swimming close to shore as they migrate (I was told you sometimes see the whales giving birth). And you should seek out one of the traditional bush beer schools (not the tourist one). Mangaia is the oldest island in the Pacific, very rugged in the interior but my meanderings around it were memorable for the people I met along the way who showed off their wild pigs and chickens, gave me a fascinating insight into real island life and were just incredibly welcoming.

    If you don’t mind a shameless plug, there’s a whole lot more on my website which covers all 15 islands (created with the help of islanders) which is at


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