An Unforgettable Cook Islands Itinerary: Complete Travel Guide [2024]

The Cook Islands are a tiny cluster of islands in French Polynesia, synonymous with crystal clear water, lush palm trees and towering volcanic mountains. Although small in size there is so much to explore in this tropical island paradise.

With no buildings taller than a palm tree and no multinational companies allowed, the Cook Islands offers the slow paced island life that dreams are made of. We made sure to include all the best that there is to see and do here into this adventure packed one week Cook Islands itinerary! 

Overview

Cook Islands Itinerary: 

Day 1: Arrival into Rarotonga (Tuesday)

Day 2: Rarotonga Turtle Safari and Night Market (Wednesday)

Day 3: Rarotonga Mud Buggying or Hiking and Over-water Cultural Show (Thursday)

Day 4: Muri Lagoon Tour (Friday)

Day 5: Rarotonga Markets and Depart to Aitutaki (Saturday)

Day 6: Aitutaki Lagoon Tour (Sunday)

Day 7: Depart Aitutaki and Rarotonga (Monday)

Common Questions:

  • When to visit the Cook Islands
  • Where to eat in the Cook Islands
  • Cell reception and wifi in the Cook Islands
  • How safe are the Cook Islands
  • How expensive are the Cook Islands
  • How to get around the Cook Islands
  • What currency does the Cook Islands use
  • How to get to the Cook Islands
  • How long to spend in the Cook Islands
  • Cook Islands packing list

Note: This Cook Islands itinerary is arranged to start on Tuesday to account for opening days of certain activities, feel free to shift your ‘day 1’ to account for your actual arrival day. 

If you have less time to explore the islands consider a day trip to Aitutaki to reduce the length of your Cook Islands itinerary. 

Day 1 (Start of your Cook Islands Itinerary)

Arrival into Rarotonga

All international flights arrive into the mainland of the Cook Islands – Rarotonga, known as ‘Raro’ to the locals, so your Cook Islands itinerary starts right here.

We recommend organising a hire car for your time in Raro as although the island is relatively small (it only takes around 50 minutes to drive the perimeter) it makes life much easier if you have your own transport rather than relying on taxis or the local bus. We hired our car through Polynesian Rental Cars which are very affordable and allow pickup directly from the airport. 

Since the Cook Islands are a long way from most places in the world we recommend leaving this first day open to catch up on some rest and settle into your accommodation.

Rarotonga Accommodation

Mid to high range: We stayed at Muri Beach Club while in Raro. This is an adults only resort situated right on the beautiful Muri Lagoon, it has a great pool area and rooms are very spacious. 

Cook Islands Itinerary
Accommodation at Muri Beach Club
Muri Beach Club

Family friendly: Pacific Resort Rarotonga came highly regarded as a great place for families. This resort is also right by the water and has family rooms available.  

Budget friendly: Rarotonga Backpackers is one of the only places that provides shared accommodation on the island, situated on the coast and offering a great option for solo or budget travellers.

Day 2

Turtle Sea Scooter Safari 

Start your first full day of your Cook Islands itinerary with a turtle sea scooter safari. On this tour you will be taught how to use their underwater sea scooters and then one of the guides takes you into the waters of the Avaavaroa Passage in Rarotonga’s lagoon where tons of turtles, eagle rays and tropical fish are found. 

Holding a starfish underwater
Turtle Sea Scooter Safari
Swim with the sea turtle
Swimming with sea turtles in Avaavaroa Passage

This experience runs for around 2 hours and there are multiple times available each weekday (it does not run on weekends) based on the tides. We recommend booking this in advance as it is a very popular activity!

Muri Night Markets

You might want to check out the Muri Night Markets for dinner tonight. They’re just a short walk from Muri Beach if you are staying there, otherwise you can drive and park nearby.

Food stalls around Muri Night Market
Food stalls around Muri Night Market
Muri Night Market

These markets offer a variety of food trucks, stalls, and stands in a really laid back, open air venue. Open on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday evenings from 5 pm, you’ll find everything from local BBQ to fresh seafood, coconut drinks, chicken curries, noodles, pizza and desserts.

It’s important to note that it’s cash-only with an ATM available at the TEM store next to the market.

To avoid missing out, aim to arrive around 5:30 pm as some stalls tend to sell out fast.

Day 3

Mud Buggying

If you’re feeling adventurous today we recommend jumping on a mud buggy tour with Raro Buggy Tours. On the tour, you drive through Rarotonga’s mountain country as you manoeuvre through hills and plantations on your personal buggy. You will get VERY muddy, so be warned, if you don’t like getting dirty then this one might not be the best for you but it is a lot of fun if you’re up for it. After getting muddy you hop in a ute with your group and wash off in the beautiful Wigmore’s Waterfall.

Mud Buggying Adventure
Mud Buggying Adventure
Mud Buggying Adventure 1

Hiking Te Rua Manga (The Needle)

Another adventure you can do if you’re up for a less muddy but still challenging morning is hike Te Rua Manga ‘The Needle’ which is one of the most beautiful and scenic hikes on the island. You can choose to do this hike with a guide with Maunga Tours or by yourself if you’re a confident hiker. 

It’s a challenging hike over tree roots and rocks that will take 3-4 hours but the views at the top are well worthwhile! We recommend packing lots of water, insect repellant and wearing sturdy shoes if you plan to tackle this hike. You can find more information about how to tackle this hike on the Cook Islands website

Over-water Cultural Show 

Tonight we recommend heading to the Te Vara Nui Village for the over-water cultural show and dinner. The experience opens at 5.30pm where you can find a seat at your table or by the edge of the water. 

Te Vara Nui Village
Te Vara Nui Village
Over-water Cultural Show
This Over-water Cultural Show is a Must Do!

We absolutely loved watching the fire show and traditional dancers perform a story of their ancestors with traditional drumming and vocals. The food is delicious with a range of local options and international faves so there’s something for everyone. 

The experience runs on Tuesdays, Thursday’s and Saturdays and does book out in advance so we recommend locking it in before you arrive. This is one cultural experience that is not to be missed as part of your Cook Islands itinerary. 

Day 4 (Half-way through your Cook Islands itinerary)

Muri Lagoon Tour

Touring Muri Lagoon is a must do as part of your Cook Islands itinerary. We went out with Koka Lagoon Cruises and had such an epic morning, the tour lasts for around 3 and a half hours. 

Muri Lagoon Tour
Muri Lagoon Tour
Muri Lagoon Tour 1
Don’t miss this tour in your Cook Islands itinerary

You start the tour with snorkelling the coral reefs in the lagoon and then move onto an island for a BBQ lunch and a demonstration on some Cook Islands customs like coconut husking and basket weaving. The highlight of this cruise for us was the people though! The guides sing and dance all day and truly create the most fun day out. 

Day 5

Punanga Nui Market

Open every Wednesday and Saturday morning the Punanga Nui Markets are held in the main part of town in Raro. It’s a great chance to try local produce with more than 130 food and craft stalls, as well as several cultural performances. 

Cultural Performance at Punanga Nui Market
Cultural Performance at Punanga Nui Market
Punanga Nui Market

Local produce like honey and indigenous organic fruit, herbs and vegetables jostle for space with freshly caught fish and tropical flowers. We recommend arriving early to see the local produce before it is sold out. It is also a great place to pick up some souvenirs and presents for back home!

Depart to Aitutaki

There are multiple flights that leave from Rarotonga to Aitutaki everyday with Air Rarotonga. It’s just a 50 minute flight to get across to Aitutaki from the mainland.

When you arrive at the island most accommodation providers can pick you up from the airport if requested, Aitutaki is even smaller than Rarotonga so nothing is more than 20 minutes away. 

If you plan on eating outside of your accommodation or want to go for an explore then you can ask your accommodation in advance to arrange a hire car or scooter for your time in Aitutaki. 

Aitutaki Accommodation

Mid to High Range: We stayed at Tamanu Beach Resort and it was absolutely amazing. This locally family owned resort is right on the beach in Amuri and has two separate wings – one is Adults only and the other is Family Friendly. With multiple pools, beautiful bungalows and a large restaurant that hosts cultural shows, this a wonderful option for your time in Aitutaki.

Budget Friendly: Aitutaki Budget Accommodation has amazing reviews and is one of the most highly recommended budget accommodations on the island with its central location right near the beach and shops. 

Biking around Tamanu Beach Resort
Biking Around Tamanu Beach Resort
Bungalow at Tamanu Beach Resort
Adults-only Villas at Tamanu Beach Resort

Day 6

It’s time for our personal favourite day of this Cook Islands itinerary! Today is all about exploring the stunning Aitutaki Lagoon. This lagoon has been the set of many movies and is home to some of the most blue waters in the world and incredible palm fringed islands. 

We jumped on board Vaka Cruise for our Aitutaki Lagoon tour. They pick you up from your hotel for a day out on the water full of snorkelling, swimming and exploring, including a visit to the famous One Foot Island. The boat was brand new and very comfortable, the food was some of the best we had during our whole time on the islands and the local staff were super knowledgeable – so we highly recommend this cruise.

This is a full day out so don’t forget to pack plenty of sunscreen, a hat and protective clothes in your day bag.

NOTE: if you are limited for time in the Cook Islands you can fly in and out of Aitutaki from Rarotonga for a day trip to do this tour!

Aitutaki Lagoon
Aitutaki Lagoon’s Famous One Foot Island
Aitutaki Lagoon 1
The Vaka Cruise is a Cook Islands Itinerary Must Do

Day 7 (End of your Cook Islands Itinerary)

It’s come to the end of your Cook Islands itinerary after a week in tropical paradise exploring this beautiful Polynesian slice of paradise. 

If you have time in the morning we recommend a drive around the island, it only takes around 40 minutes to complete a full lap, don’t forget to check out the Banyan Tree tunnel not far from the village of Vaipae. You can also drive up to the Piraki lookout for beautiful views over the whole lagoon from the centre of the island. 

After exploring it’s time to jump on a flight back to Rarotonga before making your onward journey from Rarotonga back home. 

Common Questions

When to Visit the Cook Islands 

For the highest chance of warm sunny days we recommend the dry season, which spans from April to October. During these months, the weather is consistently warm and pleasant, with plenty of sunshine and lower humidity levels. 

We completed this Cook Islands itinerary in April and had only a small amount of rain and cloud cover the whole time we were there!

This period also coincides with the island’s peak tourist season so if you prefer fewer crowds and don’t mind a tropical shower, the shoulder seasons of November to March can still be enjoyable, often with more affordable accommodation options and a quieter ambiance. 

Since it is a beach oriented destination just be cautious that this is cyclone season so there is a chance you may not be able to enjoy the islands to their full potential. 

Where to Eat in the Cook Islands

These are some of our favourite restaurants we visited during our time on the islands:

Rarotonga

  • Charlie’s: casual beachfront restaurant with amazing fish sandwiches.
  • Takitumu Tapas:  incredible food in a little courtyard (cash only).
  • Tamarind House & Ukulele Bar: more upmarket dining in an open air beachside setting, perfect for sunset drinks and dinner.
  • Trader Jacks: Cook Islands icon with a relaxed seaside eatery and bar, try their fish tacos!

Aitutaki

Cell Reception and Wifi in the Cook Islands

The main service provider in the Cook Islands is Vodafone. You can pick up a Vodafone esim online or pick up a physical sim at the Rarotonga airport (we had to queue a while at the airport so we recommend trying online). 

Buying data is not cheap and even with a Vodafone sim the service in the Cook Islands can be patchy due to its remote location, so plan to be offline at times. 

Accommodations and some restaurants have wifi available so this is another option if you don’t want to purchase a sim card. 

How Safe are the Cook Islands

The Cook Islands are considered safe for tourists with low crime rates and friendly locals. While standard precautions apply, such as safeguarding belongings, overall safety is not a major concern. We felt very safe the whole time we were there and would recommend the Cook Islands as a great destination for families, couples and solo travellers alike. 

How Expensive are the Cook Islands

The Cook Islands are pretty comparable to prices in Australia. This is not a budget destination like what you may find in South East Asia, however options for budget-conscious travellers exist (like hostel accommodation and cheap eats) and from our perspective the unique experience of visiting these islands justifies the cost!

How to get Around the Cook Islands

Rarotonga 

The best way to get around Rarotonga is by hiring your own car and this Cook Islands itinerary is must easier to complete if you do have a car. Car hire is very reasonably priced on the island and gives you lots of flexibility. 

We hired from Polynesian Rental Cars and picked up the car at the airport upon arrival. 

Another option is to hire a scooter for your time on Raro, this is a super fun way to get around but will mean you will need to organise transfers to and from your accommodation with your luggage. 

Remember to bring your full driver’s licence with you as this will need to be provided for your rental car or scooter. 

There is also a local bus that drives both anticlockwise and clockwise around the island if you aren’t able to drive yourself. You can check out the bus schedule here

You can also catch taxis around the island and they cost around NZ$3 a km. 

Aitutaki 

To get to Aitutaki you will need to catch a domestic flight from Rarotonga with Air Rarotonga. There are multiple flights each day.  

Once on the island, most accommodation providers will provide returns to and from the airport if arranged in advance. 

We had a hire car dropped at our accommodation to get around while there, however we only used it a couple of times so it’s not essential if you’re happy to eat at your accommodation. You can also hire scooters which are a fun way to get around the island. 

Remember to bring your full driver’s licence with you as this will need to be provided for your rental car or scooter. 

There is no public transport on Aitutaki and taxi services are available but limited so hiring a car or a scooter is definitely your best bet. 

What Currency does the Cook Islands use

The Cook Islands uses New Zealand Dollar (NZD). 

ATMs are plentiful around the island to get cash out however most businesses on the islands do accept card. The main exception to this rule are the markets where cash is required for most stalls. 

As a fun aside, they also have a few unique coins and a note that are only found in the Cook Islands. This includes their $1, $2 and $5 coin and their $3 note which are great to collect as a memento of your time on the islands. 

How to get to the Cook Islands

From Australia & New Zealand

Jetstar Australia now offers direct flights to Rarotonga from Sydney and currently flies three times a week on Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday.

Another option for Australians is to fly to Auckland in New Zealand and then catch a direct flight from there to the Cook Islands with Jetstar or Air New Zealand

 From the US

Non-stop flights are available from Honolulu, Hawaii with Hawaiian Airlines.

You can also fly in via Tahiti with Air Rarotonga or Air Tahiti. 

How Long to Spend in the Cook Islands

We recommend a week for your Cook Islands itinerary if you are looking for an adventurous holiday that allows you to experience the best of the islands. 

If you have a few more days up your sleeve and want to have some more relaxed beach and pool time then extending to 8 or 9 days is a great option too. 

If you have less time to explore, consider heading to Aitutaki for a day only trip rather than staying on the island. You can fly in the morning from Rarotonga, experience the famous lagoon tour and fly back out to Rarotonga that same evening, this could reduce your Cook Islands itinerary by 1 or 2 nights.

Cook Islands Packing List

  • T-shirts and singlets 
  • Shorts 
  • Activewear 
  • Evening wear (lightweight dress, shirt etc) 
  • Jacket 
  • Pants
  • Hat
  • Sunglasses 
  • Bathers (multiple!) 
  • Beach towel
  • Beach bag or backpack 
  • Thongs 
  • Sandals
  • Running shoes 
  • Clothes and shoes you don’t mind getting very dirty and wet (for mud buggying)
  • Toiletries 
  • Underwear and socks 
  • Sunscreen 
  • Mosquito repellent 

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