We just got back from our first international trip since January 2020, to the Cook Islands. I thought I’d write in particular about what I thought worked well and what I’d do differently; see the summary for that. Here’s the distribution of days.
- 3 days in Rarotonga
- 4 days in Atiu
- 1 day in Aitutaki
I’m excluding a travel day to Atiu and one from Atiu to Aitutaki via Rarotonga.
We had a full complement of activities including the new-to-us activity of snorkelling, which was a bit of a revelation. (Great Barrier Reef one day while it still exists?) Also bouldering on the beach in Atiu, visiting caves, seeing different birds than we normally do in New Zealand, and walking across the island of Rarotonga.
We were the only tourists on the island of Atiu (population 434 as of 2016). And we did weird things like going for evening walks, as if we weren’t already obviously outsiders. Hard to be inconspicuous there.
I would have preferred less rain for our days in Rarotonga, but I’m not sure whether I would have wanted to stay longer. We could easily have done more hikes and more snorkelling. I was hoping to bag the Cook Islands highpoint but didn’t have time. 4 days is kind of a lot for Atiu, but it’s not like we were bored, and the flight schedules at time of booking didn’t permit otherwise. (Arrive on a Monday, depart on a Friday; later, we saw that Air Raro added a Wednesday flight). It’s possible that we could have used 1 or 2 more days on Aitutaki, though I’m not sure what else we would have done.
All the prices (e.g. for activities) are now higher than those posted on the Internet. I guess I get it: after a COVID year of zero revenue, people want to catch up as much as possible.
To get between islands, most of us will have to buy tickets from Air Rarotonga. (Sometimes there are boats, or maybe you have your own boat).
Renting a scooter in Rarotonga was indispensable: there isn’t enough within walking distance. A car might be more comfortable in the rain. It rained on us in August and it isn’t supposed to, but that’s likely to be climate change. Cars are way more expensive than scooters.
We didn’t manage to get a scooter in Aitutaki, which made supper quite difficult from where we were staying in the middle of the island (Tautu) at Gina’s Garden Lodges. We walked an hour to Arutanga, where maybe everything is. The sunset was good but the dining options less so. We started walking to the Pacific Resort Aitutaki, where room rates are incredibly high, and had a good and reasonably priced dinner at its restaurant.
Walking is a weird thing to do on the Cook Islands, and a woman offered us a lift on the back of her scooter and her cousin’s scooter, to the Pacific Resort. And then we tried to ask for a taxi, but the Pacific Resort shuttle driver just gave us a free lift back. Also while we were walking to Arutanga we got a ride from a diving operator driving a truck. People in the Cook Islands are indeed friendly as advertised.
We could have gotten by without a scooter on Atiu, because things aren’t that far (circumference 20km). It’s more convenient to have a scooter, though, and Super Brown rented us a new scooter in top condition. And scootering around the circumference of Atiu is much better than walking; the trail is kind of a boring walk. Maybe we would have gotten a better view of the grey heron while walking.
We had a great time at Coral Beach Bungalows in Rarotonga, which was perfect. It’s right on the beach and across the street from a convenience store. It is also within walking distance to Trader Jacks and Avarua, though a bit farther to Punanga Nui Market. The place was clean and had everything we needed (including a jug of drinking water). Also it came with a dog who was very into skritches. The door key was on top of the fridge and I didn’t notice that for a few days, but it’s not like people steal stuff.
Atupa Orchid Units in Rarotonga was also quite good and the owner Ingrid was very accommodating when we wanted to drop off our stuff a day early. Also had everything we needed, except for drinking water. It’s closer to the airport, which is why I chose it, as well as the Cross Island Trek, but also that means that it doesn’t have views. Totally fine. Would stay there again.
Gina’s Garden Lodges on Aitutaki was a neat space with beds downstairs and upstairs (a loft). The upstairs might be intolerably hot in summer, but we didn’t need to sleep upstairs and it wasn’t summer.
On Atiu, we did not stay at the Atiu Villas, but we should have. Take my word for it. Atiu Villas has helpful staff member Jackie (and others), epic gardens with the Rarotonga flycatcher, plus a swimming pool. Also free Internet.
Cook Islands travel literature
Also, many of these places had collections of Escape magazine lying around, which had lots of information about the Cook Islands that is otherwise hard to find.
I feel like we did this very wrong on Rarotonga. Cooking works in many places that one might stay in the Cook Islands. Let’s go through the islands.
Dining on Rarotonga
- Trader Jacks is good. I liked the ika mata here and on Aitutaki.
- Vili’s Golden Wok is somewhat Asian fusion-y and I had dumplings that were like xiaolongbao but without containing soup. I’d definitely go here again.
- Ride Monster had a surprisingly good ham and egg breakfast muffin (with a pickle).
- Tuakata Cafe was the only place we could find that was open in Avarua on a rainy Sunday morning. Lamb curry as it should be.
- Ka Kite and Aroa Cafe at the airport were pretty typical cafes.
- Tried to go to the Muri night market but it wasn’t running: too windy.
- Spaghetti House was average.
We were expecting there to be more restaurants in the centre, Avarua, but there just weren’t that many (and we failed to find any bars except Trader Jacks on a Friday night somehow). I would make sure to look at places a bit farther from Avarua and perhaps sometimes at the resorts. In particular I stopped at Spaghetti House on a Saturday night and I think going a bit further around the island would have paid off.
Dining on Aitutaki
The places we did manage to get to were good, but it was a bit of a struggle to get to them without transport! The things that are open are most often burger stands, which we didn’t try.
- Rapae Bay Restaurant at the Pacific Resort Aitutaki: best kumara fries I’ve had, light and fluffy. Oh, and the grilled chicken must have been done sous vide, it was really moist. The fried rice was as good as Mr. Go’s in Wellington (i.e. really good).
- The Boat Shed: more ika mata; what you’d expect from a place called the Boat Shed. Seafood soup contained all the seafood one might want.
Dining on Atiu
Options are limited, and the grocery store is expensive and has barely any fresh fruit and vegetables.
- Areora Cafe: can be the only sit-down option on some nights.
- Super Brown: has take-out and some seating. Had a chicken dish that reminded me of my mom’s caramel chicken.
- Kura’s Kitchen at Atiu Villas: may be available when there are guests at the Villas or when there is a special occasion. We were there for a banquet for the Constitution Day committee. Everyone was speaking Cook Islands Maori, so the experience for me must’ve been comparable to what happens when MP comes to my family gatherings. The buffet was great.
Activities we did: Rarotonga
Punanga Nui Market
Per its webpage, the “heart” of Rarotonga. I always like going to markets to see what’s going on, and this market was the place to be on a Saturday morning in Rarotonga. The food we got maybe wasn’t the best choices though.
It’s a jungle walk and we did it in light rain, making it slippery. Felt like the same level of track maintenance as “route” in New Zealand, which is the wildest category. In this case there were slippery roots to climb going north to south, as well as ropes to help us while descending. This trek goes past the Needle, which is apparently climbable if a bit runout, but definitely not in the rain. Might have been prettier on a sunnier day, but that’s not the day we had.
We took the bus to get back to Avarua. Works well enough.
Takitumu Conservation Area
We took a brief walk here and hoped to see kakarori aka Rarotongan flycatchers. We didn’t, but maybe if we had had more time. I’d visit again, it’s pretty mellow native bush.
Snorkelling at Aroa
We got to The Rarotongan around 4pm before going to Atiu and that was too late to rent a snorkel. When transitting Rarotonga on our way to Aitutaki we bought one snorkel and no fins (which help when there’s current). This minimal gear allowed us to snorkel on our last half-day in Rarotonga, at least sequentially, sharing my Tevas instead of having fins or water shoes. (No snorkels avaialble to rent that day). Anyway, there was a good supply of fish including a sea eel hanging out in the coral.
Scooter around the island
It’s a thing to do I guess. We did it. All paved.
Activities we did: Atiu
Definitely one of the more remote places I’ve been.
Birdman George tour
George has been heavily involved with Atiu conservation and knows a lot about both the birds and the trees they live on. Worth going on a tour, even though you can also see the birds by walking around (but hey, who does that). He makes bird calls and manages to summon most of the birds, and has a good viewing spot (on his family complex) for the Kuhl’s lorikeet.
Scooter around the island
Rarotonga has pavement going around the island. Atiu does not. My scooter experience here reminded me a bit of BC’s Quest for Tires from way back when. The challenges include mud, leaves, and coconuts. I did not wipe out.
We also got proposed a Jeep rental but the scooter is nicer (at least when it’s not raining). Easier to pull over and it’s worthwhile to explore each of the beaches.
Anatakitaki Cave tour
Ben took us to the Anatakitaki Cave and we saw the Atiu swiftlet (single-island endemic) and went swimming in the underground pool. There’s some walking over sharp coral rocks to get there, but reasonable shoes will get you over them. Going barefoot wouldn’t be the best. Also there was a big coconut crab in the cave.
Activities we did: Aitutaki
Teking (who has exceptional charisma) brought us around the Aitutaki Lagoon on a tour. Word is that all of the tours are good, but his tours are smaller than the other one we saw. Still about 25 people, and we were some of the youngest people on the tour. But we saw lots of fish while snorkelling. We could have brought the snorkel we’d bought the day before.
And here are some land and sea pictures.
Activities we’d consider doing
I would have liked to do Te Manga but we probably would have missed our flight if we had done it on the last day in Rarotonga. Not doing that again. Also we went snorkelling instead.
We wanted to get to an Island Night but it never worked out with our schedule. I’d hoped for one on Atiu, but, well, I didn’t think they’d run one for just us. Progressive dinner also never worked with our schedule.
We could have done more snorkelling on Rarotonga. Would have needed to get fins and another snorkel. Maybe sailing or windsurfing?
We could have tried harder to figure out how to get to the Aitutaki marine research centre and the Discover Marine & Wildlife Eco Centre on Rarotonga.
There are probably still enough things for us to do on a subsequent visit if we were to go again, even without going to a resort. Another week would be just fine.
The Internet is wrong about Internet availability on the Cook Islands. There is now reasonably-priced Internet on Rarotonga, Aitutaki, and even Atiu. I had three options: get a local SIM card ($49 for 3GB 4G/LTE, 30 international minutes, 300 international texts), or pay $10 per 2.5G of WiFi at Vodafone hotspots around all of these islands (almost all accommodation offers access to a Vodafone hotspot but you have to pay), or roam on my NZ 2degrees SIM for $7/day and use my data allocation from back home. As a comparison, 2degrees charges $40 for 4GB of mobile data. It’s slightly more expensive in the Cook Islands than in NZ but not as expensive as the horror stories on the Internet.
Sometimes the Internet did cut out. Then again, we were on tropical islands 2000 miles from New Zealand. And sometimes the Internet cut out because I turned off the power on the router.
Also, Google Maps is kind of useless for points of interest in Atiu and not great on Aitutaki.
I think that our minimal contact with resorts resulted in a fairly different experience from what we read and heard about.
What I’d do the same:
- go to Atiu (only 1% of visitors to the Cook Islands go there)
- rent scooters
- walk around and have everyone think we’re weirdos
- all the activities that we actually did
Different on Atiu:
- not sure if 5 days on Atiu is optimal (but didn’t have other flight options)
- stay at Atiu Villas instead of where we stayed
- asked at Super Brown about where the tumunus were
- brought more cash to Atiu (at least $300 would be good; Super Brown and Atiu Villas take credit cards but no one else does)
Different on other islands:
- perhaps longer on Aitutaki? not sure what else we’d do.
- make sure we can get a scooter on Aitutaki; where we were staying was a long walk!
- better dining choices: go further from Avarua for Rarotonga food
- choose better weather for Cross-Island Trek on Rarotonga
We were around for the Constitution Day celebrations on Atiu and saw the coconut opening competition as well as a bit of basket weaving, but our schedules didn’t work well to see a lot of them. Would have been nice to see more.