The Dream List: The Cook Islands

(Last Updated On: November 13, 2019)

Without knowing much about them, the Cook Islands have long lodged in my mind as the ideal deserted tropical island paradise – nothing but blue seas, white sand, and swaying palms as far as the eye can see.

Dreaming of the Cook Islands

The Cook Islands consists of 15 islands (defining an island to include islets) floating in the Pacific Ocean between New Zealand and Tahiti. It most often shows up on the dream list of divers, as the reefs along the islands are said to be wonderful.

The islands are classified into a Northern and Southern Group. The Northern Group consists of the islands of my fantasies: a mix of coral atolls and small islands scattered across a remote expanse of water. This is a world dominated by the ocean, with an economy that includes black pearl farms. When it comes to undisturbed Polynesian islands, these are the real deal. Of course, despite some being only an hour’s flight from Tahiti, they are difficult to reach without large amounts of time and money. (Thus the lack of tourists.)

The Northern islands include:

  • Manihiki, comprised of 40 islets around a lagoon that is 2.5 miles across. It sounds gorgeous. It is also known for its black pearls farms. (Do you suppose they allow shopping at those farms?)
  • Rakahanga is the sister island of Manihiki, some 26 miles across the water. It has a lagoon surrounded by two islands and seven small motu (islets).
  • Pukapuka is among the most remote of the Cook Islands and, apparently, also among the most beautiful. This may well be the tropical island of my dreams, with little to do besides play on the beach or in the water.

The Southern Group is where most tourists spend their time, including:

  • Rarotonga, which adds rugged mountains and jungles to my tropical beach-and-coral-reef fantasy. This is the capital of the Cook Islands, with a bustling market, many restaurants, and other urban activities. There are also beautiful beaches, mountain hikes, and plenty of snorkeling opportunities.
  • Aitutaki, with its magnificent lagoon, is one of the world’s largest coral atolls. It is said to be a paradise of colorful fish and giant clams.  It sounds like the ideal place for a snorkeling trip or for just hanging out on the beach.  Island circle tours, back road exploration, and mountain hikes allow an opportunity to get a broader view of the island, including sacred meeting grounds and coral-walled churches. The airstrip on Aitutaki was built by U.S. servicemen during World War II, a reminder that the South Pacific was a key battleground in the war.
  • ‘Atiu, formerly called “the island of birds,” sounds like the perfect island for exploring the natural world.
  • Mangaia is the oldest of the Cook Islands and may be the most interesting geologically, with a coastline that includes stalagmite-looking coral spires. It is a raised atoll and in some areas the coral walls of the makatea form cliffs 200 feet in height. As on other islands, these can be razor sharp, requiring careful hiking. The island also includes many caves, some of which connect far inland and carry the sound of waves some distance from the shore. This rugged island seems perfect for adventurous on-land exploration.
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Sailing the Cook Islands

While the islands seem like they’d be a good place for sailing (albeit with some long passages), there don’t seem to be many options for small boat chartering. However, Classic Sailing offers a number of tall ship itineraries to and within the islands.

There are a number of options for spending a day on the water, particularly around Rarotonga, where kayak and snorkeling can easily be arranged.

Online planning resources

A quick search yielded a couple of comprehensive web sites with information on the islands, tours, restaurants, and accommodations:

The sailing blog Just a Little Farther has a nice section on sailing in the Cook Islands as part of their old Nine of Cups website.

The Dream Trip List

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