The Cook Islands are a beautiful archipelago found in the South Pacific where you can expect to find sapphire-blue oceans surrounding endless, white sand beaches and lush, tropical rainforests.
The main island, Rarotonga, is home to the capital of the Cook Islands and houses the majority of the Cook Islands population. You’ll also find plenty of incredible Rarotonga accommodation options here, making it the perfect place to stay while you explore the main island as well as the neighbouring ones.
Despite the laid-back island life that the country is known for, there’s still a lot of places to visit in the Cook Islands. Read on to find out some of our top picks.
Best Cook Islands Points of Interest
The capital of the Cook Islands, Avarua is the largest town in the country and is located on the northern coast of Rarotonga. The town is about as relaxed as it gets with restaurants, bars and shops dotted along the beachfront.
This section of the island certainly isn’t the prettiest and the beach isn’t overly suited for swimming or snorkelling, but it’s the best place to visit to pick up some souvenirs and have a bite to eat.
Trader Jack’s is one of the top restaurants in Rarotonga and is located in the heart of Avarua. It’s a must-visit spot for a sunset seafood dinner.
Avarua contains some of the best things to do in Rarotonga, including the Cook Islands Library and Museum, and the Cook Islands Christian Church. The latter of which is a special piece of Cook Islands History dating back to 1852.
Shopping is also a top activity here, with some popular spots including Punanga Nui Market, Perfumes of Rarotonga and Beachcomber Pearl Market. You’ll also find some cool little stores selling clothes and souvenirs.
2. Muri Beach
Avarua may be the capital, but Muri Beach is the place to be in Rarotonga. This beautiful beach is located on the stunning southeast portion of the island. The beach is lined with high-end resorts and the view looks out over a lagoon with three ‘motus’ jutting out of the water.
A few minutes walk inland from the beach you’ll find a few restaurants and shops. This is also where the Muri Night Markets are located – one of our top spots on the island to try out some of the local foods.
Muri beach is considered one of the most beautiful in the Cook Islands, however, the water quality here has declined. Its beauty has in some way been its demise. As crowds flock here, they also bring with them pollution. As a result, the water in Muri is less clear than other beaches in the Cook Islands and is one of the worst spots for snorkelling.
That said, Captain Tamas Beach Tours operate from Muri Beach. They offer our favourite Cook islands tours on the island as these cool as Cook Island people take you out to the edge of the lagoon near the reef to go snorkelling. The sealife you can find out here is incredible and some of the fish are huge.
3. Titikaveka & Tikioki Beach
Whereas Muri is the most popular beach on the island, Titikaveka and Tikioki are the quieter alternatives, making them some of the best places to visit in the Cook Islands.
These two beaches are right next to each other and are more-or-less accessible via a short walk. Between them lies the Fruits of Rarotonga – a spot revered for some of the best snorkelling in the Cook Islands.
These beaches are extremely pretty as well as less touristy. Despite this, there are resorts all around this area. The best 5 star resorts can be found around Tikioki, which makes sense given its slightly quieter vibe and incredible snorkelling.
It’s easy to spend days lying on these beaches between snorkel outings in the lagoon. Although we recommend bringing your own snorkelling gear, there is even a conveniently located dive shop nearby.
4. The Needle
The Cook Islands aren’t all beaches and island life. Te Rua Manga, or The Needle, is a towering rock formation in the centre of Rarotonga, perched atop a hill.
Although seen from most parts of the island, getting to Te Rua Manga requires quite a bit of effort. Most travellers opt for the cross-island walk, making their way from one side of the island to the other via a stop at The Needle.
This hike takes 2 to 4 hours depending on your fitness level. It’s certainly not an easy hike as the first half is a constant climb. However, the views from the base of The Needle are well worth the effort.
People often climb The Needle as well, however, we don’t really see this as achievable unless you’re a skilled rock climber. Overally, the hike is quite difficult but achievable for most and should be on most itineraries.
5. A’roa Marine Reserve
A’roa beach is our second favourite spot in Rarotonga for snorkelling. The beach is located on the west coast of the island and has stunningly crystal clear waters. This clarity makes snorkelling a dream.
Here you’ll get to see a range of sea life including moray eels, zebrafish and trigger fish – though watch out, these can be aggressive, I had one chase me around trying to bite me.
As this is a marine reserve, this is a particularly convenient spot to swim and snorkel with kids and anyone nervous in the water. You don’t need to swim out very far to see a wide variety of sea life and coral. It’s also far from any passages meaning it’s very safe to swim here, plus boats aren’t allowed in this area so you don’t need to worry about boat engines.
6. Black Rock
Black Rock Beach is the most scenic beach in Rarotonga with large rocks along the beach. Located on the northwestern corner of the island, Black Rock is the best spot to visit to watch the sunset.
The Cook Islands have some spectacular sunsets as well – just remember you need to be on the west coast to see them, of course!
If you can peel yourself away from the resorts and bars along the western side of the island and make yourself up to Black Rock you’ll be spoilt with a sunset overlooking the sea with rocks in the foreground.
Black Rock Beach is also considered one of the best spots for snorkelling and a top Cook Islands point of interest. We found it a bit too choppy due to the wind meaning the visibility in the water wasn’t great. Many people have told us otherwise, so I think we were caught out a bit by the weather so remember to bring your snorkels.
Otherwise, if you’re just keen to wander, it’s great fun to climb on the rocks and stroll through the rock pools.
7. Vili’s Burger Joint
Vili’s Burgers 100% deserve a spot as a Cook Islands point of interest. It’s not a beautiful beach or a mountain with views over the lagoon. Instead, it’s a restaurant with some of the best burgers in the world (second only to perhaps Ferg Burger in Queenstown).
This burger restaurant is located in the aforementioned Muri Beach area, opposite the Muri Night Markets. We stumbled upon it after struggling to decide what to eat at the market. Well, that turned out to be a very fortunate experience.
The fish burger and the cheese burger from Vili’s are not to be missed, and they are outrageously affordable. Something you can’t say about much in the Cook Islands. The burgers here are around $8-10 each making them, in our opinion, hands down the best value meal in the country.
8. Aitutaki, Cook Islands
Rarotonga has basically become synonymous with the country’s official name, the Cook Islands, however Rarotonga isn’t the only island.
Aitutaki is the Cook Islands’ second most popular island for tourists, considered the ultimate honeymoon haven for Kiwis. And rightly so, Aitutaki is essentially tailored for romance with 5-star resorts, entertaining couple activities and romantic restaurants.
This secluded island is just a 50-minute flight away from Rarotonga and is nestled within a huge, turquoise lagoon dotted with 15 motu. It is a place so jaw-dropping that it has been touted as the world’s most beautiful lagoon.
The only catch is a visit to Aitutaki can be largely cost-prohibitive for many travellers. The Aitutaki accommodation here can be quite pricey and even the flight to get from Rarotonga to Aitutaki cost around $200 per person return. When you add this to the cost of getting to the Cook Islands in the first place it quickly adds up.
Despite this, if you can afford it we think there’s no better place to visit in the Cook Islands.
9. Maire Nui Gardens
The Maire Nui Tropical Gardens is your excuse to take a break from all the beaches. Dive into the lush forest and immerse yourself in native, Cook Islands flora.
Maire Nui Gardens are conveniently located near Titikaveka Beach and entry is by donation making it suitable for all kinds of budgets – just pay what you can afford.
These gardens span for 7-acres and are immaculately maintained with views out to mountains and bridges crossing over lily-pad covered ponds. This pleasant walk is a refreshing change and a great way to spend some time.
Tucked away in the gardens you’ll also find their cafe serving local, Cook Islands cuisine.
Arorangi is a small village on the island’s western coast with a few shops and restaurants. It was the Cook Islands’ first missionary village and there is a historic church that dates back to 1849 you can visit.
Arorangi beach is a beautiful spot to relax and offers some of the best sunsets on the island. In fact, the entire western side of Rarotonga has some insane sunsets.
As Arorangi is a little more developed, it has become another hub for tourists with a bunch of beautiful resorts and hotels in the area. And no Rarotonga holiday is complete without beachfront bars, such as Wilson’s Beach Bar at Castaway Resort. Cocktail in hand watching the sunset, this is the best way to experience the Cook Islands.
Arorangi is also home to the Cook Islands Marine and Wildlife Eco Centre. This is a great activity in Rarotonga for families and travellers with kids. Tickets are $10 for kids or $12 for adults.
The eco centre is an interactive museum which is a fun and educational way to learn about Cook Islands wildlife and history.
11. Punanga Nui Markets
Although we’ve already mentioned Avarua, the Cook Islands’ largest town, the Punanga Nui Markets is a place that deserves its own mention.
From 7am – 12pm on Saturday mornings, the Punanga Nui Markets are a cultural representation of life on the Cook Islands. The largest market in the country sees vendors pop up selling everything including fresh produce, island-food, smoothies, coffee, hand-made ukuleles, crafts, pearls, jewellery and so much more.
There’s also often live music and it’s definitely a great place to hang for a few hours. There’s also a free, live cultural show.
If you aren’t free on a Saturday morning (which we wouldn’t recommend), then a smaller version of the market also operates Monday – Friday from 7am to 3pm but a lot of the vendors won’t be there during this time.
How to Get to the Cook Islands
For most people, the only way to get to the Cook Islands is by plane. These most commonly fly from Australia and New Zealand when travel restrictions are eased.
Things to Do in Rarotonga
For such a small island, there really is a lot of fun things to do in Rarotonga. Our top pick is obviously lying on the beaches, closely followed by snorkelling around Aitutaki or Titikaveka beach. Tama’s or Koka Lagoon Cruises offer awesome boat and snorkel adventures as well.
For people looking to work up a sweat, the hike across to The Needle is a tough but rewarding activity. Whilst romantic travellers can simply enjoy the great cuisine and beachfront bars.
For mid-range accommodation, we stayed at the gorgeous Castaway Resort located along the romantic western side of the island. They have a beachfront bar serving delicious cocktails and stunning views of the sunset.
Meanwhile, luxury travellers should look no further than Te Manava resort, offering the best 5-star experience on the island.