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May 23, 2017

Guide to Cook Islands

By Lauren Jade Hill

By Kristen Shirley

This story originally appeared in the May/June 2017 issue of Elite Traveler.

For an authentic South Pacific experience far from the tourist traps and big chains, look no further than the Cook Islands. These small, unspoiled islands offer a peaceful and low-key escape from the outside world. The locals are friendly and eager to share their culture and beautiful landscape with you; on Sundays, they will welcome you into their churches and invite you to join in their celebrations. Bring a sense of fun and leave your watch at home, because island time rules here. Lazy days are spent visiting the small towns, trekking through the jungle and out on the crystal clear water. Rarotonga and Aitutaki are the main islands, but the adventurous should stop in Atiu, home to just 400 people, to explore rainforests, limestone caves and hidden beaches. Raro, as locals call Rarotonga, is the largest island, but even here you’ll find no stop lights, street lights or buildings higher than a coconut tree, and it takes just 45 minutes to drive around the whole place. With no cell phone data service and limited Wi-Fi, the world slips away.

Best Places to Have…

A Fish Sandwich
Charlie’s Cafe

Located on a beautiful beach, Charlie’s Cafe has the tastiest, biggest fish sandwiches around. Open only for lunch, it’s a fantastic stop during an island tour.

Located at Akapuao Beach in Titikaveka, +682 280 55

A Traditional Feast
Plantation House

This exclusive private home hosts three dinners each month, all by special arrangement. The home-cooked buffet includes many ingredients grown on the premises and gives a mouthwatering tour of Cook Islands cuisine. Many high profile guests and government officials have dined here, including Hillary Clinton and the Prime Minister of Cook Islands.

Contact Louis Enoka, owner,,

Catch of the Day
Tupana’s Restaurant

The casual local favorite has a sand floor, tiny tables and a blackboard menu listing the seafood that local fishermen have caught that day. Chili lime fish and coconut crab are house specialties.

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Located in Aitutaki,, +682 316 78


Pacific Resort Aitutaki

On the Water

The islands are ringed by reefs that create still, turquoise lagoons perfect for snorkeling, kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding and even walking out to islets such as Ta’akoka Motu in Muri Lagoon. If you are certified, leave the tranquil shallows and head out to the open ocean, where the water instantly changes to a deep blue with great visibility. The Dive Centre is a full-service dive shop with staff who will take you out to see caves, coral gardens and marine life such as turtles, moray eels and, in season, maybe even a whale. Between dives, enjoy the island views and hear about its unique history and mythology while snacking on fresh coconut.

Contact Sabine Janneck, owner,, +682 202 38,

Tik-e Tours

An electric tuk-tuk is definitely one of the most fun ways to see Rarotonga. Tik-e Tours offers personalized jaunts around the island to see cultural highlights, taking in a cocktail happy hour tour as well. It takes you to the best bars on the islands for a cocktail at each one, then safely returns you to your hotel after sunset. Book a few seats and make friends with other visitors – the mostly Australian and New Zealand tourists are an exceptionally friendly bunch—or rent it for a private party.

Contact Tania Farman, owner,, +682 286 87,

Lagoon Tour

Aitutaki Lagoon is world-famous for its enormous expanse of warm, crystal-clear turquoise water and beautiful motus. To see it all, you absolutely must do a lagoon cruise. Our pick is Kia Orana cruises, run by Andrew Katu, aka Captain Fantastic. With over 18 years’ experience cruising the lagoon in his small speedboat, he takes guests to as many as seven islets and avoids the cruise-ship crowds. Walk between motus through shallow sandbars, snorkel with giant trevallies and brightly-colored giant clams and afterwards enjoy a freshly-prepared, simple meal of fresh fish and fruit on the captain’s family’s motu. Be sure to wear waterproof and reef-safe sunscreen—you’ll need it!

Contact Andrew Katu, captain,, +682 314 42,

Pacific Resort Aitutaki

Island Night

Seafaring Polynesian warriors were fierce and fearless, sailing vast distances in the Pacific in vakas, double-hulled canoes. New Zealand was settled by migrants from Rarotonga. Explore Cook Islands’ culture and history with an island night. On Rarotonga, the cultural village Te Vara Nui hosts tours followed by dinner with an over-water show telling the story of the island’s founding through dance. Pacific Resort Aitutaki hosts an island night on Wednesdays with a shorter show and an incredible buffet at Rapae Restaurant. Local dancers and musicians provide an intimate experience—don’t be surprised if you are brought up on stage to participate.

Te Vara Nui, book online at, Pacific Resort Aitutaki, call +682 317 20


The elusive bonefish in Aitutaki is a bucket-list catch formany anglers. E2 has a specialized flats boat and guide Itu Davey, whose father taught him the secrets of the lagoon and the milky water where bonefish hide, will take you on a full or half-day charter. Bring tackle and a camera to snap a picture of your trophy—bonefish are protected in the Cook Islands and must be released back into the lagoon.

Contact Itu Davey, owner, +682 316 86,,


Pacific Resort Aitutaki

Pacific Resort Aitutaki
Ultimate Beachfront Villa

Panoramic views of Aitutaki’s famed lagoon wait for you at the Ultimate Beachfront Villa in the most luxurious resort in the Cook Islands. A member of Small Luxury Hotels of the World, Pacific Resort Aitutaki combines traditional Polynesian decor with tropical landscapes and stunning views. The villa has a living room, bedroom, large bathroom with spa-inspired outdoor shower and furnished decks with stairs that lead straight down to the beach. Take a stand-up paddleboard out for a mini lagoon tour and look for turtles and tropical fish.

From $1,050 per night. Contact Melanie Hall, North American business development,, +64 274 183 857,


Three-Bedroom Beachfront Villa

Steps from the beach and Muri Lagoon, the 3,655 sq ft space is decorated in contemporary Polynesian style and is perfect for groups. It features three bedrooms with full baths and freestanding tubs, a large living area, full kitchen and two private decks with saltwater plunge pools, both with views of the lagoon and Ta’akoka islet. The sophisticated eco-friendly boutique resort is available for full buyouts.

From $1,600 per night. Contact Jane Pearson, owner,, +682 251 25,


Beachfront Platinum Villa

For complete privacy, Rumours is the perfect choice; the Platinum Villa is almost a resort unto itself. To enter the property, cross a bridge through a private tropical courtyard complete with waterfall, pool and hot tub. The large living area has a canopied daybed, full kitchen, media room and even a koi pond running through it. The living room and two bedrooms open onto a large beachfront deck with hammock and kayaks to explore the lagoon. There is an award-winning spa and the owners can hire chefs to cook private dinners in the villa.

From $1,300 per night. Contact Andrew and Belinda Griffin, owners,, +682 225 51,

How to Get There

Located halfway between Hawaii and New Zealand, the Cook Islands make a convenient stop en route to Asia in your private jet, or Air New Zealand flies directly from Los Angeles, Sydney or Auckland. From LA, Business Premier on a Boeing 777 offers an innovative flatbed seat with mattress, duvet and pillows for the overnight flight. Air Rarotonga has daily flights and private charters between Rarotonga and Aitutaki.,

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