The Cook Islands is my go-to recommendation anytime someone asks me about a tropical getaway. There is something so special about experiencing a destination so beautiful with so little crowds. From the crystal clear turquoise water of Aitutaki to the tropical jungles of Rarotonga, a getaway in the Cook Islands is what a tropical vacation should feel like. The locals joke that the color blue was invented here, and I actually believe it! If you’ve read about our other trips to islands in the pacific, you probably know that we love the Hawaiian island of Kauai (we even got married there last September). The Cook Islands truly feels like a blend of Kauai and Bora Bora, years ago before no one knew about them. Read on for our Cook Islands travel guide, so you can make the most of a trip here…
Left to right from top: all photos were taken in and around One Foot Island, off the coast of Aitutaki.
2 ISLANDS, 6 DAYS
Rarotonga • 3 days
the main island, with plenty of hotel, food, and beach options to kick off your trip.
Aitutaki • 3 days
a remote island with surrounding lagoons featuring clear blue water and splurge-worthy hotels.
At a glance…
Best time to visit – April through November
Getting there – direct flights from Los Angeles & Sydney
Getting around – Car or motorcycle, you can also walk
Currency – New Zealand Dollars
Language – English
We flew into Rarotonga via Air New Zealand from Los Angeles, arriving right before sunrise. It’s the main island, but don’t be fooled – there are plenty of untouched beaches and landscapes. With the law that ‘no building can be taller than a coconut tree’, it’s refreshing to see such raw beauty and curated development in a place that would ordinarily be flooded with tourists and large hotels.
Where to Stay
Crystal Blue Lagoon Villas – a spacious and modern boutique beachfront property – these villas feature 6 suites, two of which can accommodate a family. The rest are situated on the sand for an amazing sunrise view. We loved the location since the outdoor market, breakfast cafe, and numerous restaurant options were all a few minutes’ walk away. We also had the pool to ourselves each day, thanks to there only being 5 other rooms!
Ikurangi Eco Retreat – for a unique, luxurious glamping experience in the tropical rainforest – this eco-friendly boutique hotel is the ultimate glamping experience. We arrived here to some tropical rain and sitting on our porch with a view of the jungle while listening to the rainfall on the roof was so relaxing. If you’re looking for something unique and don’t mind being a bit inland (instead of beachfront) this is the place to be.
Rumours Luxury Villas & Spa – for a romantic getaway in your own private beachfront villa – splurge at this incredible property where each room is a private villa with its own pool. If you’re headed to the Cook Islands for romance, this is the spot to be!
Pacific Resort Rarotonga – Polynesian luxury and hospitality on one of the island’s best beaches – this luxury property has a sister property on Aitutaki and is consistently one of the highest rated hotels on the island. It’s also beachfront at Muri Beach, one of the most pristine white sand beaches on Rarotonga.
Airbnb’s on Rarotonga– if you’re on a budget or are looking for something more unique, here are my picks for the best Airbnb’s on the island:
- Aroko Bungalows – garden accommodations on a budget, and walking distance to the market and food.
- Beach Bungalow – the beachfront bungalow experience — but under $100/night.
- Konoha Escape Villa – a modern, beautiful family-friendly property with a kid’s playground.
- Te Areranga Boat Shacks – affordable overnights in a quaint, unique boatshed!
- Teravaki Estate – for luxury, privacy, and a pool with a view. Perfect for groups.
New to Airbnb? Here’s our code for $40 off your first booking!
Where I’d stay if I went back to Rarotonga
I wouldn’t change much about how we did our trip there! Though I usually gravitate towards Airbnb’s, I would prefer split my stay between a beachfront villa and a jungle property. Beachfront for easy access to the water – Rumours Luxury Villas or Crystal Blue Lagoon Villas are both great picks – and both are walking distance to some of my favorite food spots on the island. We only spent one night at the Ikurangi Eco Retreat and I absolutely adored this property – so I’d definitely go back and spend an additional night or two!
Where to Eat
Le Bon Vivant (LBV) – I was seriously addicted to this delicious breakfast spot, which was conveniently located across from our hotel in Rarotonga. Highlights include the french toast with banana and local goat’s cheese omelet, but I don’t think you can go wrong with their menu.
Vili’s Burger Joint – for the best local burgers in town, head to Vili’s. All the beef is sourced locally. It’s also conveniently located across the street from the outdoor night market in Muri Beach. Open for lunch and dinner.
Vaima Restaurant – for a relaxed lunch on the beach, try Vaima’s. The menu features mostly local cuisine, including some fresh and delicious fish dishes. They have rotating specials and switch up their menu for dinner.
Trader Jack’s – we had dinner here on our last night before leaving, and seriously wish we had known about it earlier. It’s a local favorite, and everything he had was delicious (and we ordered a lot). For something truly unique, order the sashimi pizza – sounds weird, tastes delicious.
Kai Pizza – always a crowd-pleaser. The perfect stop for a simple meal that will leave you satisfied.
Rarotonga Brewery – if you are into craft beer, don’t miss this local brewery with picnic tables by the ocean. We filled up a flask here on our first day, and after that was gone, filled it with water to keep us hydrated the rest of the trip. They also sell homemade kombucha – yum!
Beluga – a trendy brunch and lunch spot with an outdoor patio that’s great for a lazy afternoon. Their coffee is delicious. They also sell gifts and other goodies if you’re looking to take something home with you.
What to Do
Visit the Muri Night Market – this market is bustling with locals and visitors alike. We opted to try a few different dinner stands with longer lines and it paid off. The chicken kebabs with mushroom sauce in particular were mouthwatering! Trust us – you’ll want to come hungry. Note: Cash only! The market is open Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, 5PM – 9PM.
Take a Jeep tour – Rarotonga is the biggest of the Cook Islands and also has the tallest peak. Take a jeep tour to get to the highest lookout point on the island, along with a waterfall along the way. We used Raro Mountain Safari Tours to get around.
Watch the sunset at Black Rock Beach – during the day, this spot is the perfect swimming hole. By night, it provides the best sunset view on the island.
Join a boat tour – you have a few options for boat tours, but the glass bottom boat by Koka Lagoon Tours is one of the most popular. You’ll head to another part of the island to snorkel and enjoy some of the clearest water in Rarotonga. Go for the experience, but skip if you don’t want to be with a crowd!
Go paddle-boarding – rent a paddle-board for an hour to explore Muri bay, or opt for a nighttime tour on the lagoon. Captain Tama’s offers rentals in front of Muri Beach. If you go on the evening paddleboard tour, your host will bring lights to view sea life after the sun has set. Definitely on our list for the next trip!
My top 3 favorite Rarotonga photo spots
Rarotonga’s highest viewpoint – Google Maps
Aitutaki is small, lush, and absolutely stunning. You won’t find many options here for restaurants or activities like the main island of Rarotonga. It’s worth splurging on a hotel here, to relax and take it all in. Visiting the surrounding islands by boat is a must – it’s the only way to get to some of the most amazing beaches in the world, like One Foot Island.
Where to Stay
Pacific Resort Aitutaki – high-end jungle bungalows on the beach – we loved being tucked away in our jungle bungalow on the beach at Pacific Resort Aitutaki. The staff is wonderful, as is the pool area and breakfast buffet. Watching the sunset each night from our hammock was the highlight of our time on the island!
Aitutaki Lagoon Private Island Resort – overwater bungalows amidst your own private island – if you want the overwater bungalow experience, stay here. The hotel is situated on its own private island, with each bungalow perched over some of the clearest blue water in the world. Getting to the mainland is quick (only a 2 minute ferry ride)… if you feel the need to leave of course.
Airbnb’s on Aitutaki– Aitutaki island is very small, so if you’re interested in a short-term rental, plan ahead. Here are some of my favorite picks:
- Okoitu Beach Bungalow – beachfront with snorkel and kayak gear provided.
- Tangikaara Beach House – a colorful beach house with the most amazing ocean view.
- Petero’s Place Bungalow – cozy little beach shack with easy access to the water.
New to Airbnb? Here’s our code for $40 off your first booking!
Where I’d stay if I went back to Aitutaki
I loved our beachfront bungalow at Pacific Resort Aitutaki, but I’d love to stay at Aitutaki Lagoon Private Island Resort for something different next time around. Waking up in an overwater bungalow is a dream come true.
Where to Eat
Aitutaki is very remote, so there are not many options around the island besides the restaurants located inside hotels. Here’s where we went when we were craving something different.
Koru Cafe – easily my favorite spot on the island for breakfast or lunch! All the food is fresh, tasty and healthy. They serve breakfast all day, along with delicious lattes.
The Boat Shed – we actually went on a hunt for a different restaurant the night we ended up here (it turned out the first restaurant had recently closed). This old-school cafe and bar still do the trick if you’re looking for a variety of options. They serve up local food in a casual environment — and apparently it gets pretty rowdy here on weekends!
Tauono’s – a hidden gem serving up food grown by the owner in her very own garden. A great spot for vegetarian options, homemade cakes, and local fresh fruit! Open for brunch and lunch during the week.
What to Do
Take a boat to One Foot Island – to fully experience the beauty of Aitutaki, a boat tour is an absolute must. Each islet and lagoon is stunningly beautiful in its own way. The beaches on One Foot Island in particular are not to be missed – there’s only one development on the island, a small post office where you can get your passport stamped and then grab a beer afterward! We took a private charter through Wet and Wild Aitutaki to get here.
Take out kayaks or canoes – if you book either of the hotels I mentioned above, each has a number of items for rent that will allow you to explore nearby beaches and coral reefs on your own.
Attend an island night – if you’ve ever been to a luau, this is very similar. The buffets are endless, delicious, and you will go back for seconds (and thirds). All around a fun option to experience the local culture! We went to the island night at our hotel, but we’ve heard the one at Tamanu Beach is more of a spectacle. Call or email the hotel directly to book.
Try kite surfing – amateurs and professionals alike travel from all around the world to kite surf in Aitutaki. If you’ve ever wanted to try, this is the place to do it. Boats leave daily to take you to honeymoon island where you can go off on your own or be accompanied by an instructor.
Relax poolside – we loved the laid-back vibes and poolside restaurant at our hotel, the Pacific Resort Aitutaki. Bonus: endless coconuts!
Hike Aitutaki Atoll – this is the highest point of the island, and not to be missed. We parked our car here and walked a short (but steep!) 5 minutes up for sunset. The view is beautiful, as is the walk down. Bring bug spray!
My top 3 favorite Aitutaki photo spots
Pin me for later
For more photos from our stay and info to inspire your trip, check out our post about White Sand Beaches in the Cook Islands. And if you haven’t watched it yet, our video of 2.5 Years of Travel highlights some of our favorite moments from our travels – including our visit to the Cook Islands!