Discover Hawaii Down Under
Let’s get something out of the way up front: if you’re going to the Cook Islands, you’re definitely going to get sand in your underwear. It’s a sprawling archipelago in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean, and boasts all the requisite white sand beaches, luxurious lagoons, perfect palm trees, and incredible coral reefs to qualify it as a bona fide paradise.
But once you’re sufficiently bronzed, the Cook Islands has a whole lot more to offer besides lounging on its gorgeous coastlines. Here’s a collection of other things to do in the Cook Islands to make your visit truly special.
Go bird watching on Atiu Island
The third largest island in the Cooks, Atiu is lush and tropical, swathed in jungle that remains largely untouched by tourists and its mere 400 residents. This makes it the perfect habitat for exotic birdlife like the White Capped Noddy, the Great Frigate, and the Tavake. Intrepid ornithologists can seek out the rare Kopeka, a tiny swiftlet that you won’t find anywhere else in the world.
The volcanic island is lined with hidden caves, making it the perfect place to poke around and feel like an explorer of times gone by.
Wander underground caves on Mitiaro
As mentioned above, the Cook Islands are riddled with caves and caverns, many of which are hidden underground. Arguably the most stunning are found under Mitiaro, a former volcano that sank to form a coral atoll.
Vai Nouri, an underground lake, is said to have healing powers, and Te Pitakare is an underground freshwater cavern that the island’s 200 residents use for drinking water – so keep your stinky feet out!
Get funky on Rarotunga
This capital island is where you’re likely to arrive, and although it’s the busiest part of the archipelago, it’s worth sticking around before you go in search of seclusion. Music forms a massive part of the Cook Islands’ cultural heritage. You can expect to find roving bands of ukulele players, hymns emanating from local churches, and infectious beats pounding from drums fashioned from hollowed out trees.
A gap year is all about throwing off your inhibitions, and the call of Rarotunga’s rhythm is guaranteed to get you dropping it like it’s hot.
Black pearls without the curse
A popular memento for visitors to the islands is a string of black pearls farmed from coral outcrops. You can find them for sale in numerous places around the Cooks, but it’s worth tracing them back to their source on Manihiki.
Local families here engage in the dangerous, time-consuming work of retrieving the pearls that shimmer blue, green, purple, and silver (making their name a bit misleading). You’re unlikely to find a souvenir that better encapsulates the spirit of this island nation.
Drink the best coffee of your life
Coffee is the fuel of the traveller. Without it you wouldn’t make it out of your bunk most mornings. The Cook Islands produces some of the finest Arabica coffee in the world, much of it coming from plantations on Atiu Island.
The smell of the beans roasting is absolutely intoxicating, and the taste… well, let’s just say there’s a reason you won’t find a Starbucks anywhere on the archipelago.
See Rakahanga while you still can
Right, we’re bending our ‘no beaches’ rule here a little bit, because Rakahanga, one of the most isolated and therefore least-visited of the Cook Islands, has to be seen while it still can.
The island is so low-lying that it’s at risk of becoming a casualty of global warming and slipping under the waves for good. Not only is it a beautiful place, but the spirit of the people here needs to be experienced. Life is never hectic anywhere on the Cook Islands, but here it’s at its most relaxed and friendly, and all of it in the face of impending doom. That’s something to be admired.