1. WHALE WATCHING
All 2 million square kilometres of ocean surrounding the Cook Islands are a whale sanctuary – and from July to October you can't get closer to humpback whales. You don't even have to get on a boat to see humpbacks up close, on the north coast of Rarotonga (where the reef is closest to shore), whales come within a few hundred metres of shore. You'll also see them up close from bars and restaurants built along the waterfront of Rarotonga's sleepy capital, Avarua. Visit the Whale & Wildlife Centre run by a world-leading whale expert, +682 21666; cookislandswildlifecentre.com, or view them from a boat, bluewatertours.com
** 2. SCOOTERS
There's no better – or safer – place to hire a scooter. The speed limit in Rarotonga is a leisurely 50km/h (40km/h if you're not wearing a helmet), and there are no traffic lights, peak hours, or traffic jams. What's more, it's easy to navigate your way around, and the roadside views are spectacular – there's a bitumen road that follows the coast the entire way around the island, polynesianhire.co.ck
3. SECRET ISLANDS
Sure, you might know of Rarotonga and Aitutaki; but have you heard of Atiu, Mangaia or Mitiaro? These aren't far-flung, remote islands – they're barely 45 minutes from Rarotonga by propeller plane, and once you get there, there are no other tourists to get in your way. You'll have entire islands for yourself, and be an instant star in tiny communities where life goes on as it always has, airraro.com
4. SUP YOGA
If yoga improves your mood, then why not try doing it on a paddleboard on a warm, Polynesian lagoon? Workout on Water (workoutonwater.com) offers week-long stand-up paddleboard yoga retreats year-round where you'll get to test your balance bobbing on top of Rarotonga's Muri Lagoon and on Aitutaki's world-renowned lagoon. Watch the sun rise from your board as you work your way up to a headstand on fibreglass, or stay in child's pose as the sun heats your back and the water laps against your knees.
** 5. GET LOST
Rarotonga may be just 69 square kilometres, and it takes barely 35 minutes to drive around it, but you can still lose yourself completely in one of Polynesia's prettiest, and least developed, hinterlands. Take any road off the island's coastal road onto the 1000-year-old Ara Metua inland road, and you'll see more goats, pigs and horses than cars. Then take one of Rarotonga's many water catchment tracks into hidden green valleys where few people ever roam.
Rarotonga is one of only two places in the South Pacific where you can go glamping, complete with luxurious four-poster beds and claw-foot baths set out under the stars – and all just a few hundred metres from the lagoon. Ikurangi Eco Retreat is set among lush tropical gardens with a view across a pawpaw patch to Rarotonga's mountainous interior. There's also a private yoga tent, should you wish to salute the dawn, +682 252888; ikurangi.com
7. FISH LIKE A WARRIOR
The Cook Islands offer some of the best deep sea fishing in the Pacific – you can take to the open seas with local fishermen whose fishing knowledge comes from their ancestors, not technology. Don't expect too many niceties, mind you, these aren't charters for those after polite chit-chat and morning tea. But Captain Moko will find the biggest tuna and mahi mahi in the sea, guaranteed …though if you don't pull them in, you'll have him to answer to. +682 20385; fishingrarotonga.com/FishingRarotonga.html
** 8. SUNSET BARS
Plan your day around being on Rarotonga's west coast (in Arorangi) for sunset. You can bar-hop your way across happy hours at the best sunset bars in the South Pacific – rustic establishments built on the sand where you can watch the sun set through coconut fronds while listening to live music. The Waterline Restaurant & Bar (+682 22161; waterline-restaurant.com), Wilson's Bar (+682 21546; castawayvillas.com) and Aro'a Beachside Inn's Shipwreck Hut (+682 22166; aroabeach.com/shipwreck_hut.htm) are within five kilometres of one another.
9. HIKE A MOUNTAIN, OR TWO
While it's the swimming options of the Cook Islands that get our attention, don't forget the mountains just behind the lagoon. You can self-hike across Rarotonga's rugged, steep interior – or take a guided tour with local legend, Pa (pastreks.com). At the centre of the island, mountains more than 500 metres above sea level jut out at right angles. There are chains set across rocky ledges, allowing hikers to climb for sweeping views over the island.
10. THE NEW SUPER FOOD
The traditional Polynesian diet is essentially 85 per cent gluten-free and 65 per cent lactose-free. In the Cook Islands, many chefs are now forgoing European techniques and ingredients in favour of dishes handed down through their family. You'll be served local dishes such as Ika mata – raw fish marinated in lime and served with coconut cream – and Rukua, taro leaves cooked with coconut sauce and onions at the Cook Islands' most innovative restaurants. Try Tamarind House, +682 26487; tamarind.co.ck.
** 11. CAVING
The barely visited islands of Atiu and Mangaia are home to a network of the South Pacific's least known underground caves. You'll feel like Indiana Jones as you walk, and sometimes crawl, past human skulls with just a torch to light your way through ancient burial caves. Some caves stretch for kilometres under the ocean and are home to rare bird and bat species, and have been seen by just a few speleologists. On Atiu, cave tours can be conducted by your accommodation (atiuvillas.com), while on Mangaia you'll have to ask around (try the local mechanic, or school bus driver), cookislands.travel/Mangaia
** 12. PARTYING
Despite its diminutive size, Rarotonga is one of the South Pacific's best party venues. You'll find something on each night of the week, except Sunday (church rules won't allow it – and bars will shut at midnight on Saturday). Start your evening at Trader Jacks, +682 25464, traderjackscookislands.com – the most iconic bar in the South Pacific that's built so close to the sea it's had to be rebuilt by loyal patrons twice after cyclones. Then walk next door to watch live music at locals' favourite, The Whatever Bar, +682 22299; facebook.com/Whatever-Bar-Grill-71523224868/, with its stunning views over Avarua Harbour, and finish late at Rehab (+682 25 717) – for Polynesian beats, served with local lager.
13. MURI NIGHT MARKETS
Try the best dishes for under $20 where the locals eat – the Muri Night Markets. Locals serve beloved family recipes handed down through generations. You'll sample the best Polynesian dishes at food stalls set up under coconut trees beside Rarotonga's best swimming area, Muri Lagoon. Held three times weekly, it's Rarotonga's most social occasion – patrons sit together at brightly painted picnic tables pushed together to promote communal dining, facebook.com/Murinightmarket/
14. AITUTAKI DAY CRUISE
Take a day cruise on a traditionally designed island catamaran to uninhabited islands spread throughout Aitutaki's lagoon (aitutaki.net/the-vaka-cruise). Join local crew as they play guitar and sing while they navigate their way across the lagoon, stopping to snorkel along the way. You'll stop at the island of Akaiami, where planes from the Coral Route through the South Pacific once landed, and Moturaku, where Survivor was filmed, before having a barbecue of freshly caught tuna on uninhabited One Foot Island. You can take the cruise as part of a day tour from Rarotonga, airraro.com/en/tours/aitutaki-day-tour
15. MOUNTAIN BIKING
Take a mountain bike tour deep into Rarotonga's green interior. You can choose between a shorter eight-to-12 kilometre ride that will take you along Rarotonga's ancient coral road, Ara Metua, through to an 18-kilometre ride for more seasoned mountain bikers down steep dirt paths, finishing with a cocktail at sunset on the beach. You'll also be taught about the history of the Cook Islands as your guide takes you past locals still living from the land just a few hundred metres off the busier coast road, storytellers.co.ck
16. BUSH BEER
Get a unique insight into Polynesian society by sharing cups of locally brewed beer while discussing community issues at a bush tumunu. The island of Atiu is home to six tumunus, and visitors are welcome to join in for a small contribution (take oranges or sugar, or $5). You'll drink bush beer brewed from fruit – a 200-year-old tradition established by visiting whalers. It's not particularly tasty (and it packs a punch), but you'll be privy to the inner workings of Atiu society, atiu.info/attractions/tumunu/
The Cook Islands are volcanic outcrops that drop straight into 4500-metre-deep ocean – offering divers some of the steepest oceanic drop-offs in the world. There are more than 30 dive sites across Rarotonga and Aitutaki, which suit everyone from beginners to experts, and most sites are less than 10 minutes away by boat. The water temperature is between 23 and 28 degrees year-round and water visibility is usually about 60 metres. You'll get to see humpback whales, hundreds of fish species and more than 70 types of coral, diverarotonga.com, pacificdivers.co.ck
18. DEATHLY SURFING
There's no surf industry in the Cook Islands. You'll have to bring your own surfboard, and leg-ropes, and you'll be hard pressed to see any other surfers at all. But there are waves for those who dare. Unlike French Polynesia and Samoa, there are few reef passes here. So surfers must paddle across dangerously shallow coral shelves to the waves, meaning any mistakes will cost you skin … lots of it.
19. FAST FOOD, POLYNESIAN-STYLE
Nowhere in Polynesia captures the essence of the South Seas quite like The Mooring Fish Cafe. It's nothing more than an old converted shipping container painted bright blue, but you'll eat the best fish sandwiches in the south Pacific as fishermen fillet their catch beside you, and you'll sit with locals as kids jump from the pier into Muri Lagoon. It's an island favourite, so be prepared to wait, but the crumbed mahi mahi with lime mayo, and the Cajun coated tuna with pickle is worth it, themooringfishcafe.com
20. CULTURAL TOUR
While most visitors are captivated by that lagoon on Aitutaki, it's worth investigating beyond it. Locals live in tiny villages spread throughout the island. The best way to trace their origins is at the Cook Islands' most significant cultural site, Punarei Cultural Village. Take a tour through ancient Aitutaki by visiting the restored burial ground, Marae Arangi-rea, and joining in an underground oven (umukai) feast, +682 3175; aitutakiculturaltour.com
**Traveller Top Picks
Craig Tansley travelled with the assistance of Cook Islands Tourism.