The Cook Islands are in the same rough vicinity as the Islands of French Polynesia, somewhat between Hawaii and New Zealand. They are comprised of 15 inhabited islands.
Best Time to Visit the Cook Islands
The best time to visit the Cook Islands would be between Mid-May and October, this would generally be the dry and cool season. From November through April, you contend more with humidity and rain, and the odd Cyclone storm. The rains, in a normal year, will tend to decrease in May. However, with the weather lately, this can oscillate. For example, the dry season in 2019 was unseasonable wet.
Generally the best time according to the locals is between June and September, but do note that vacationing New Zealanders hit the Cook Islands hard in July due to annual holidays. However, realize that, depending on the sun strength and wind, it may be a bit too cool for some to partake in swimming in this timeframe.
If you are interested in whale watching, the best time to visit the Cook Islands would be August and September. Humpbacks generally can make an appearance in the Cook Islands sometime by late June and disappear sometime in October.
Water temperatures around Rarotonga vary from a high of 81F/27C in the January to April timeframe and 76F/24.5C in the July to October timeframe. Bump those temperatures up a little bit for Aitutaki.
Miscellaneous Travel Tips for the Cook Islands
Most people are interested in the southern Cook Islands, namely choosing between Aitutaki and Rarotonga. Comparatively, Rarotonga has a much better diversification of things to do including snorkeling, hiking, light nightlife, shopping and restaurants. Aitutaki is well behind Rarotonga in terms of commercial development and feels far slower and more remote than an already chilled out Rarotonga. Aitutaki you don’t have much to do on land with the primary focus snorkeling and such. However, the real highlights of Aitutaki are accessed only by expensive boat tours to the uninhabited islands.
I personally do not find either island a great choice for a honeymoon, and Aitutaki is definitely not some high end getaway that the advertising literature makes it out to be. If I had to be in one or the other, I’d stay in Rarotonga just for the diversification of activities. Both islands are clean and civilized, and both have great water colour for photos, but neither were mind blowing to me. I had fun there, but it wasn’t actually all that memorable. And, if I had done it again, I would have skipped Aitutaki and spent less time overall in the Cook Islands.
As for Aitutaki itself, I’d say you can do all you need to do in Aitutaki if you had a full day there. Unless you are kite surfing, I would not stay any more than 3 nights. If weather comes against you, there is a serious lack of things to do. More important, as noted, the best islands require an extensive tour boat journey.
The Cook Islands are known as a good place to buy pearls, including black pearls. These pearls are generally all farmed as in many places.
Food in the Cook Islands
Food on Rarotonga is surprisingly not very expensive from the local takeaways. Fish sandwiches and hamburgers can easily be found under $5USD. The local brewery, while overseen by a militant barkeep, has a very nice beer on offer for not too much. Ice cream cones available everywhere on Rarotonga are a great deal. That said, you can bring in food as long as it isn’t fresh meat, etc. They are very lax with importation regulations – just declare.
Food on Aitutaki is a little more expensive and the quality is much worse. If you want good quality food on Aitutaki you will definitely be paying for the privilege. In an island where chickens roam free and fish circle the coast, it is somewhat unfortunate to find so many frozen chicken patties and “no fish” signs at the restaurants. Also do note, many places put canned beets on all sandwiches in Aitutaki.
Risks in the Cook Islands
Mosquitoes can carry dengue fever to the Cook Islands, generally from other islands such as Fiji. What typically happens is an infected person comes from elsewhere, and then a mini epidemic breaks out on the Cooks. The locals seem to be pretty adept at containing such and it isn’t really much to be worried about. Further, mosquitoes are generally less of an issue in the dry season. I did not use much bug spray while there.
There is the potential danger of stonefish in the sand which have a toxin that needs to be treated or removed upon stepping on one.
Rarotonga has pretty aggressive dogs that you will encounter riding bikes. Luckily Aitutaki has no dogs in favour of cats which are quite pacified, so no issues there.
There are no poisonous snakes to deal with.
The sun was surprising weak for what I expected. I only used sunscreen on the first day and after that realized a UV of 5 with all the passing clouds was not going to require daily applications.
Getting Around the Cook Islands
To get around the island, you can rent electric bikes from a couple different vendors, rent a car or rent a moped. If you rent a moped and don’t have a motorcycle license from homoe, you need to get a license from the police station which is a complete revenue-raising farce in my opinion. If you don’t want to rent transportation, there are island buses that run the perimeter in both directions. On Sundays, the service is cut back.
Random Tips About Food & Other Tidbits
Overall Rarotonga is a nice island for maybe 5 to 7 nights, with a possible quick Aitutaki visit thrown in. If I did it again, I’d do Rarotonga for 5 nights and head back home, but I also had pretty poor weather (cold & rain) and tides that were too shallow for good snorkeling.
For eating some fish sandwiches and reading books, Rarotonga was a great location.
There is an abandoned Sheraton Hotel on Rarotonga which you can wander through according to locals I talked to. It is more extensive away from the road and is access via some dirt paths. Much of it is filled with goat excrement but you can see the abandoned hotel rooms, lobby, etc. Do note that a local who lives across the street is an absolute nutcase if he sees anyone over there so I’d be discreet.
In general, the Cook Islands don’t seem to be very well known outside of Aussie & New Zealand circles but that will change as time goes on and marketing hype builds. The water colour can make for impressive marketing, and the islands off of Aitutaki can definitely pull in Instagram suckers. Until then, it’s certainly nice that it isn’t so touristy in that slimy touristy way places can be. It feels in proper balance, that you are visiting a real place that people live, and generally it feels good. It’s a nice place to ride around without any plan in particular. The biggest danger seems to be unreasonable expectations.
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