Cook Islands, things to do and travel guide: 20 reasons to love the Cook Islands with the family

1 FLAG THE BUS

Rarotonga is an ideal island for first-timers with children of all ages. For families of teens and tweens, such as ours, there's a stack of activities to do together. Relaxed and welcoming, the main island in the 15-strong group is ringed by the main 32-kilometre Ara Tapu road that hugs the coastline. The signs at the front of the local bus denote the direction rather than the destination; clockwise and anti-clockwise. With a speed limit of 50km/h and 30km/h in some areas such as Muri and Avarua this is the ideal way to take in the coast on one side and on the other, the volcanic peaks and jungle of the interior. The bus runs on the hour. See busaboutraro.com

2 DRIVE A BUGGY

Prepare to get dirty as you take your yellow buggy off-road, passing plantations and farmland on the way to the abandoned Sheraton resort, which is now just graffiti-covered shells of buildings, overgrown in jungle and surrounded by muddy tracks. Finish at the local waterfall for a washdown and tales from the entertaining guides about how the hotel was 90 per cent complete in the late 1980s before the project collapsed amid rumours of links to the Italian mafia. Drivers will need a full licence. See rarobuggytours.com

3 SAY HELLO

Most Cook Islanders hail from Polynesia, their ancestors arriving in AD800. The descendants of these brave seafarers today welcome outsiders with generosity and warmth, starting with the widely used salutation Kia Orana which translates to "May you live a long and fulfilling life". Responding with the same enthusiasm makes for an easy connection with the locals.

4 DRINK THE COFFEE

The Beluga Cafe in the Arorangi district on the island's west is an airy and popular place serving Karmee Coffee, flown in from Sydney, alongside house-baked chilli chocolate lime cake. Operated by former Sydneysiders Lou Christy, a trained chef who has islander heritage, and her partner Nathan Haywoad, the focus is produce. They buy parrot fish from the northern islands and tomato, eggplant and cucumbers from local farmers. Afterwards explore the attached gift shop stocked with local and overseas craft and curios. Attentive service and child-friendly.

5 STAY AT NAUTILUS RESORT

Set on the eastern side of the island of Rarotonga, the resort is front and centre on the Muri Beach lagoon. A sweeping driveway leads to a green and serene place of coconut palms and 17 villas built in traditional Polynesian style, each with a saltwater plunge pool. There's a breezy restaurant and bar area and infinity pool that seemingly spills over to the white-sand beach and lagoon. Staff are attentive and the vibe is calm. nautilusresortrarotonga.com

6 CRUISE MURI LAGOON

Musicians-cum-tour leaders at the bow of the glass-bottom boat  will serenade you on the lagoon with traditional tunes accompanied by ukulele and percussion on the way to a popular snorkelling spot to see clams and other aquatic life. It's then on to Motu Koromiri, also known as "no touching" island and a traditional barbecue lunch under a coconut grove. See kokalagooncruises.com

7 WANDER THE MARKET

Rub shoulders with the locals at the Punanga Nui markets on the waterfront where you can shop for bags of sweet limes, local black pearls, whole tuna, and the traditional Ei, a circlet of flowers worn on the head, both fresh and artificial. Traditional dancers are often on the stage for an always festive feel. Next to the township of Avaru. Saturday is the main market day. Ara Tapu, Avarua District, 8am-2pm.

8 STAY AT MURI LAGOON VILLA

Tucked down a laneway, the Muri Lagoon Villa has standalone accommodation with two bedrooms, kitchen, living area and prime position on the Muri Lagoon. A spacious elevated deck with loungers overlooking garden and coconut trees to water and the reef beyond is an ideal place for card games, sundowners and a snooze. Run by Shona Lynch and her family, this is one of a suite of properties across Rarotonga catering to families and groups. See cookislandsholidayvillas.com

9 EAT LUNCH

The New Place cafe has an eclectic menu including a healthy number of choices for vegetarians including Mexican frittata and corn fritters. Local dish Ika Mata in which fish is "cooked" by being marinated in lemon juice is a must-try, as is the local beer Matutu Mai Lager. The kids' milkshakes here are also a favourite. 50 Maire Nui Drive, Avarua.

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10 RIDE A BIKE

Get off the bitumen and onto the back roads of Rarotonga by mountain bike on a storytelling tour. Uncle Jimmy leads the way past turmeric and pineapple plantations stopping to share stories about local farm foods, including the revered noni fruit, and local culture. The final stops include a cool-off in a secret waterfall and a hearty lunch under leafy pohutukawa trees that bloom a bright orange and red. The riding is easy, the bikes are well maintained and tagalongs are available for smaller children. See storytellers.co.ck

11 PADDLE THE MURI LAGOON

The clear water of Muri Lagoon makes it an ideal place to learn to stand-up paddle board. Resorts generally have boards ready to go on the beach or you can hire one from local operators on the Muri strip. Alternatively, take your snorkel, goggles and flippers for a putter around to see local fish. Booties are a must to protect from coral cuts.

12 EAT DINNER

The open-air, under-cover Charlie's Cafe on the beach is the go-to place for dinner and a relaxed vibe. Operating from retrofitted shipping containers, Sinatra's playing as we sample the menu that includes its legendary fish sandwich as well as chicken and beef burgers. Akapuao Beach, Titikaveka. 

13 WATCH LIVING CULTURE

A cultural show with class, the legend of Tongaiti is an energetic performance with dance, commentary and fire about the arrival of Polynesians to the Cook Islands. A buffet dinner beforehand includes Western dishes plus a range of local foods such as rukau, baby taro leaves, pawpaw salsa and banana poke with tapioca and coconut cream. On Muri Beach. Children under five are free. See tevaranui.co.ck

14 WALK MURI BEACH

For a relaxed stroll at any time of day on Muri Beach you will pass kids building sandcastles, friendly dogs and the occasional wedding procession in this nuptial-friendly location. Most beachfront hotels welcome outside guests for drinks and snacks including the Nautilus which has happy hour at its Aqua Cafe from 4-5pm.

15 FLY TO AITUTAKI

Depending on the weather, the descent to Aitutaki after a 45-minute flight from Rarotonga is a standalone scenic flight. Aitutaki's lagoon has been voted numerous times as the world's best and it has 15 motus or islets. For war history buffs, an excellent display at the airport explains the importance of this airfield during World War II, as an alternative route from the US and the South-West Pacific and Australia skirting the theatre of war north and west of the Solomon Islands. See airraro.com

16 CRUISE AITUTAKI

Spend a glorious day aboard a spacious 21-metre, twin-hulled catamaran for the six-hour Vaka Cruise. There are several snorkelling stops and nature walks, a barbecue lunch and music by the crew. Staff are happy to help guests new to snorkelling and it's wheelchair accessible. See airraro.com (from Rarotonga) or thevakacruise.com (if staying on Aitutaki).

17 STAMP YOUR PASSPORT

One of the more unusual stamps to add to your passport can be acquired on the tiny islet of Tapuaetai off Aitutaki. It is also known as One Foot Island and the stamp is a fun reminder for all ages of what a stunning place you have visited.

18 DINE AT AN INSTITUTION

Overlooking Avarua Harbour, Trader Jacks has been hit by three cyclones in 30 years and its building can no longer be insured because of the location. Fresh seafood is a feature of the menu and its pizzas are popular. Ara Tapu, Avarua District. See traderjackscookislands.com

19 CLIMB A COCONUT TREE

 

A Cook Islander was crowned the fastest coconut tree climber in the world last year and it's worth witnessing the spectacle. On the Koka Cruise "Captain Awesome" will happily demonstrate and encourages visitors to have a try. See kokalagooncruises.com

20 EAT MURI NIGHT MARKETS

Weather depending, the night markets offers another chance to be around the local community and eat smoothies, dumplings and curries. Tuesday-Thursday and Sunday from 5pm. Cash only. Next to Muri Beach. See murinightmarket.com

Jane Reddy travelled as a guest of Cook Islands Tourism and Jetstar.

MORE 

www.traveller.com.au/cook-islands

www.cookislands.travel

FLY 

Jetstar flies daily from Australia to Auckland with daily connections onto Rarotonga, airport gateway to the Cook Islands.  See www.jetstar.com

To fly between the islands of Rarotonga and Aitutaki bookings can be made on Air Rarotonga www.airraro.com

STAY

Five night stays at Nautilus Resort cost from $1299 a person including breakfast daily. Phone Spacifica Travel 1800 800 722, see spacificatravel.com

Muri Lagoon Villas from $NZ500 a night for a maximum of four  people. See cookislandsholidayvillas.com

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