Hello, I’m Lisa, the photographer and editor behind The Wandering Lens.
As an island addict and underwater photographer I’ve visited a lot of tropical destinations over the years and seen my fair share of beaches. Tough gig, I know, shame I burn like a tomato at the mention of sunshine though.
That said, no beaches come close to those found in the Cook Islands, an island nation found in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and a popular holiday spot from Australia and New Zealand.
Now I realize it’s a big call saying they’re the best beaches but if you’ve seen those screensaver images of idyllic palm fringed shores dangling over blue water lagoons, I’m pretty sure this is the place they took them!
I've spent my fair share of time exploring the Cook Islands – here are my best tips and everything you need to know about planning your dream holiday in this amazing corner of the South Pacific.
Home to 15 islands, Rarotonga and Aitutaki are the two most popular visited by tourists, and each have their own natural wonders, pristine lagoons and different reasons for visiting.
If you’re hoping to mix it up and see both you can take a day trip from Rarotonga to Aitutaki but if you ask me, it’s well worth spending a few days on Aitutaki, if only to better your chances of sunshine. Aitutaki lagoon is in my opinion, the most photogenic spot in the Cook Islands and seeing it sparkle in sunshine makes it all the more dreamy.
So, let’s get started on the best places to visit!
Rarotonga’s must-see locations
1. Muri Lagoon
Grab a kayak and get paddling out to the islands of Taakoka and Koromiri that are located within the beautiful Muri Lagoon.
Muri is quite the little hub with a number of cafes and restaurants alongside a bunch of resorts and holiday villas. It’s a great place to base yourself while on Rarotonga!
You’ll find quite the community of sea slugs along the shore and once you’re out paddling on the lagoon the water colour is a crazy shade of turquoise blue. Be sure to take your snorkel out if you’re heading to Taakoka, it’s a great place to pull your kayak out of the water then jump in for a swim and see the thousands of colourful fish who call it home.
2. Island Paradise
Most resorts on Raroronga (and Aitutaki) will have their own island night which is an evening celebration of all things cultural including dancing, music and food. Having seen most of the shows, I highly recommend a night at the Island Paradise.
Located at one of the highest points on the island, after a steep drive uphill you’re welcomed by conch shell to views over the coastline and surrounding rainforest interior.
What makes this show different to the others is a guided walk before the dancing kicks off. They take you to see local women braiding palms, to hear tales of the past as you overlook the usually mist filled valley then witness a traditional offering to the king.
If you’re just in it for the feast and dancing then you won’t be disappointed either! There’s even a dance lesson if you’re hips aren’t already shaking by the end of the night.
3. Tikioki Beach
Rarotonga is circled by beaches and Tikioki has to be one of the best.
Far less crowded than Muri Lagoon, it’s got great access to the lagoon for snorkelling and has plenty of space to lay your towel down under the palm trees.
A great spot is found just in front of Charlie’s Café, there’s a very photogenic palm tree out the front!
4. Matavera District
Getting away from the beaches, the Matavera District is a great place to explore a more local side of Rarotonga.
Plantations filled with pawpaw, palms and other tropical goodies line the road that you can cycle along without worrying about too much traffic.
The gorgeous Ikurangi Eco Retreat is located here with views over the island’s interior. Ikurangi is the first glamping outlet in the Cook Islands, offering luxurious tents where you can fall asleep listening to the sound of the sea or enjoy a shower under the stars in your private bathroom.
Taking a bicycle around the Matavera District offers a slower paced look at island life. Peddling means you also get to hear every rooster, piglet and palm tree rustling in the breeze!
5. Avarua Foreshore + Markets
One of the benefits of staying on Rarotonga is the main village of Avarua.
As the capital, it’s got a host of shops and also a weekly market that’s quite the community event. Held on the foreshore every Saturday, the market is a mix of entertainment, fresh produce and locally made products, the perfect place to grab a smoothie and wander in search for a new sarong.
Head down to Trader Jack’s for great views, a relaxed vibe and pizza by the water, or you’ll find brand new cafes like the aptly named ‘New Place’ which caters for vegans and has a huge menu!
6. Black Rock
I asked some locals what their favourite beach was on Rarotonga and the one place that kept getting repeated was Black Rock.
Located close to the airport, I was a little surprised to hear this was a good spot but after taking a peek, I can definitely see why.
Facing west it’s treated to direct views of the sunset as it falls into the ocean each evening plus the lagoon is filled with coral. The beach has so much space that it doesn’t really feel like you’re sharing it and the contrast of black rock against the teal water is stunning.
Getting Around Rarotonga
The Island Bus Route
Rarotonga has two bus routes, one going clockwise and one going anti-clockwise. They’re called the ‘Clockwise’ and ‘Anti-Clockwise’ buses. Clever, huh!? They’re a great way to explore the island and see a little bit of everything.
You’ll find them stopping at locations all around the main road and you can ride it for $5 or grab a day pass for $16 that allows you to hop-on and hop-off as you tour the island. There’s also family passes and concessions available.
Hiring a Car in Rarotonga
I would highly recommend hiring a car (or moped if you’ve got better balancing skills than me!) in Rarotonga if you’re hoping to take your own path and explore a little.
You can rent a car directly from the airport or in Avarua, with most rental agencies offering to collect you from your hotel. Because the island is only 32km in circumference and the speed limit is 50km/ph, you won’t use up much fuel but will have the flexibility of stopping at every single palm tree if you wish.
Aitutaki’s Must-see Locations
Now remember before when I made the claim that the Cook Islands have the best beaches?
Well, Aitutaki has THE BEST.
Seriously, once you’ve seen One Foot Island, it’s pretty hard not to compare every single beach to it.
The palms, the water, the sand, the colours…it’s all perfection and the absolute definition of the word paradise.
1. One Foot Island
As I said, it’s paradise. Complete and utter tropical island dreams come to life.
You can take a day trip out to One Foot Island with Bishops Cruises or The Vaka Cruise or hire a private boat for even more time here.
One Foot Island is the place to go to capture those iconic screensaver shots. It’s where palms hang above bright turquoise water, where chickens roam free and where coral and giant clams are grown! There’s also resident trevally that swim in the channel connecting One Foot with Tekopua Island, a good little swimming challenge if you’re keen.
Some couples even chose to get married here and after the ceremony, they’re invited to plant their own palm tree by placing a coconut in the sand.
When photographing the colours of the Cook Islands, I came here to capture the rainbow of blues as the water level changed, not to mention the landscapes when the underwater world meets the shore. There’s not much description needed for One Foot though because really…take a look at the photos below.
Located right next to One Foot Island is Heaven. Just as its name suggests, this sandspit is every beach lovers dream.
You can get dropped off here on your cruise and walk across to One Foot Island, or if you’ve got a private boat, be sure to ask your captain to take you to Heaven.
Just walking out on the sandspit as the vibrant water surrounds the white shores is an experience in itself. It’s also a great place for a swim with the water level dropping off quite deep from the sand making it ideal for the cinematic run and dive motion.
3. Honeymoon Island
Now Honeymoon Island is special for a few reasons and tucked away in the south-western corner of Aitutaki Lagoon, it’s a stand-alone gem worth discovering.
Most day tours will include a visit to the snorkelling spot found on one of Honeymoon’s out-stretching sandspits however having a smaller boat will enable you to get dropped off for a bit of on-island exploring.
Honeymoon Island is home to nesting sea birds which you can see by wandering carefully under the canopy of palms. Avoid startling them or attempting to touch them as they’re nesting and easily agitated. They are so beautiful though and their white wings contrast really well with the surrounding landscapes.
The island is also popular with kite and wind surfers. With shallow water and a usual ocean breeze, it’s perfect for zooming around the lagoon or if you’re not super sporty, you can watch and photograph them instead!
4. Snorkelling in Aitutaki
As an island surrounded by reef, it’s almost a crime to visit Aitutaki and not see beneath the surface.
The eastern coastline has a long beach that stretches from north to south offering endless access points to enter the lagoon and go swimming.
The reef directly in front of Tamanu on the Beach is great for seeing small reef fish in shallow water. Tamanu also has a restaurant open for lunch and dinner that serves fresh seafood so if you’re looking for a place to hang for the day, it’s worth a peek.
Otherwise, getting out on the lagoon is by far the best way to see the magic of Aitutaki’s underwater world. You can head out diving and deep sea fishing but for most people, exploring the lagoon and snorkelling in perhaps the clearest water in the world is bliss.
Just off the tip of Honeymoon Island is a sand bar that drops off into deep water that’s filled with giant coral crops. Here you’ll find VERY friendly trevally who cruise through to check out whoever enters their domain.
When I first visited the Cook Islands a few years ago the resident trevally was known as George. Upon visiting a few weeks ago, I asked what the name of the trevally was only to be told they now have no name.
Apparently, whenever the locals had named trevally in the past, they would suddenly disappear. So now, these majestic fish swim around without a name, just a presence that lets you know they’re the king.
Due to the clarity of Aitutaki Lagoon, it’s a great place for underwater photography and is where I took a group of people on my first ever underwater photography tour. Capturing the underwater world, the colours and patterns of the sand and sea is so addictive when you’re working with scenery in the Cook Islands!
5. Aitutaki’s Sunday Church Service
As the oldest church in the Cook Islands, the Arutanga CICC Church dazzles with atmosphere. Even if you’re not religious, experiencing the sounds of the locals as they sing on a Sunday morning is absolutely mesmerising.
If you find yourself in Aitutaki on a Sunday, around 10am head down to the church to witness the magic of community spirit and sound. Visitors are welcome to attend the service, it’s just advised to wear respectable clothing (no bikinis or short clothing) and to be a little discrete with your cameras.
Where to Stay and Eat on Aitutaki?
Unlike Rarotonga, Aitutaki benefits from a more small town feel, meaning you’ll be treated to views no matter where you choose to go and there’s unlikely to be much of a crowd.
Aitutaki has two main options, lagoon side or beach side.
When it comes to the lagoon side, this basically means anywhere that’s facing toward the inside of the lagoon, the beach side is mainly the western coast facing the reef break.
The hot spot for food on the island has to be Koru Café. Located on the Ootu Peninsula, it’s open for breakfast and lunch offering a fantastic menu of yummy gourmet meals and snacks to take on your lagoon cruises.
For dinner I loved the Blue Lagoon Restaurant at Aitutaki Village where you can dine by the lagoon after a wander along the beach. Nearby there’s also The Boat Shed which has delicious Asian meals or seafood dishes, even sushi which you can eat out on the deck while listening to the sound of waves crashing over the reef.
Resorts on Aitutaki range from super luxe to barefoot basic. There’s the honeymooner’s favourites, Pacific Resort Aitutaki and Aitutaki Escape or for those looking for the over water bungalow experience, you’ll find that at Aitutaki Lagoon Resort & Spa.
Otherwise Tamanu on the Beach is a great place to stay in beautiful bungalows by the sea or if you’re looking for a more budget friendly option, there’s Kuru Club and Inano Beach Bungalows.
Which Islands to visit in the Cook Islands?
First up, Rarotonga has an international airport with direct flights from the US, Australia, New Zealand and Tahiti making it no doubt, your first point of call! It’s the largest of the 15 islands and due to its accessibility and variety of activities, the most popular.
From Rarotonga you can then jump on a smaller plane and explore some of the other islands located within the Cook Islands. There’s quite a few to choose from however the most popular apart from Rarotonga are Aitutaki and Atiu.
If you’re hoping to get off the tourist path you can fly with Air Rarotonga up to the Northern Group which includes Manihiki and Pukapuka, or you can fly south to Mangaia.
Deciding on which island to visit comes down to what you want to do, and also what type of accommodation you’re looking for. As mentioned above, Rarotonga and Aitutaki both offer a range of accommodation options from luxury resorts to glamping and more basic ares (cabins).
The other islands offer a more traditional stay, think barefoot from beach to bed kind of thing. If you’re looking to switch off and don’t mind missing wifi for a few days then I’d definitely look at venturing to Atiu or Mangaia. Both islands remain relatively tourist free meaning you’ll most likely have the abundant natural beauty all to yourself! There’s caves, reef, lush rainforests, exotic animals and local culture to witness.
So there you have it, paradise found! Have you ever been to the Cook Islands or traveled in the Pacific?
If you’re planning to travel Cook Islands soon and have any questions, feel free to ask in the comments below! Alternatively, if you’ve already been and have some secret spots to share, please do so…unless it’s really secret in which case, now I want to know even more!
For destination guides to other photogenic regions of the world, I’d love for you to pop on over to my site The Wandering Lens and say hello!
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