Cook Islands travel guide: 10 reasons to visit beautiful Cook Islands, South Pacific


"Where's your happy place?" a friend asked me a few months back, when I was pondering where to go next. I had an instant answer: "The Cook Islands." My first time there, two years ago, involved yoga on a stand-up paddleboard while floating on a lagoon, as well as healthy eating and a huge dose of coconut water. I wanted more.

The Cooks are closer than most people think: a three-and-a-half hour flight to Auckland, followed by the same to Rarotonga, and you're there, albeit reliving the day you've just lived (you cross the International Date Line, eastbound).

There are certain requirements to hitting travel happiness, and these are 10 ways the Cooks might meet yours:

1. Accommodation that knocks your socks off

Nautilus Resort opened late 2014, and with villas priced at around $NZ900 ($810) a night, you expect it to be good. It's awesome. Our spacious open-plan villa looked out over our private plunge pool, and, just beyond that, Muri Lagoon and a palm-treed island. It's uber kid-friendly, but when, while we're lounging by the resort's infinity pool, my son says: "I want to swim in our own pool: I'm going back to our villa and getting fish and chips from room service," I know it's gone too far.

2. Low budget possibilities

Rarotonga has plenty of self-contained houses and bungalows that cost $NZ100-$NZ180 per night. Book early (check availability before booking flights, even) but set yourself up in one in popular Muri and enjoy its swim-friendly lagoon. You can buy $NZ10 meals at the local Muri night markets (Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday). Supermarkets in town have decent supplies for the self-caterer.

3. Something nothing like home

A short walk from Rarotonga's capital, Avarua​, are Ocean Spray Villas. These two modern, stark white self-contained villas practically jut out over the water. We scored the one closest to the water and I spent hours sitting on the balcony's outdoor lounges watching colourful fish swimming in the water below. It's not ideal for swimming, but the villas are perfectly located for watching whales (from July to October).

4. Active options

Land (and fruit) lovers can learn plenty from a Storytellers Eco Cycle Tour. We cycled to – then wandered through – small farms, learning the local ways, and picked and ate fruit that I'd never heard of from roadside trees around the island.

5. A place where you don't check your email

I made it a four-day record on the island of Aitutaki. When we landed after our 45-minute flight I decided that a tech detox would be fitting. There's other stuff to do: a lagoon cruise to three islands dotted in the lagoon is almost obligatory, swimming in the lagoon is lovely, and, if you visit Aitutaki Village, you can watch fully clothed folk spend hours walking in the sandflats hunting (and releasing) bonefish.

6. Fab fast food

A sweaty walk from Muri is the Mooring, a shack serving up some of the best fresh fish on the island. It's not just fish burgers (try the FOB); it also spices things up with delicious sashimi and salads.

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7. A routine

On Saturday mornings we'd drag ourselves out of bed, hop on the round-Rarotonga bus and reach the Punanga Nui Market, in Avarua, just before it closed. Locals have it all covered in the wee hours, but we'd still catch the spectacle of an island dance or two before chowing down on ika mata (raw fish cooked by lemon juice and coconut milk).

8. Some obvious learning

The aforementioned whales were once hunted, and you can get a good glimpse of this icky past at the Cook Islands Whale and Wildlife Centre. If you've ever wondered what a dreaded stonefish looks like, you might be able to see one in the flesh here. They're surprisingly cute.

9. Daily doses of goodness

Find the right supplier and enjoy a fresh coconut water a day (cafes usually sell them too). Roadside stalls sell straight-off-the-tree fruit, and you can stock up on local coffee, croissants and sourdough at the Punanga Nui market.

10. "Local time"

When you've got plenty of time (we had almost three weeks), you really don't care if the round-island bus is half an hour late. You're just happy that  it has arrived.

MORE INFORMATION

GETTING THERE:

Air New Zealand and Virgin Australia fly from Melbourne to Rarotonga via Auckland.www.airnewzealand.com.auwww.virginaustralia.com

STAYING THERE:

Nautilus Resort www.nautilusresortrarotonga.com; rates from $NZ650

Ocean Spray Villas www.murilagoonviewbungalows.com; rates from $NZ325

SEE + DO:

Eco Cycle www.storytellers.co.ck(adult and child $NZ99)

Cook Islands Whale and Wildlife Centre (entry adults/children $NZ12/$6)

The writer was assisted by the Cook Islands Tourist Office.