The Cook Islands are a nine hour night-flight away from Los Angeles so you really need to make it worth while. Beautiful beaches, wonderful people, fantastic food, there are way more than 10 things to should do. We traveled for two weeks to two of the fifteen islands, Rarotonga and Aitutaki and here is what topped our list of don't-miss-its.
1 Visit A School
You want to see how the locals live? Go visit one of the schools and you’ll have every question answered (and be asked quite a few on the way).
Hooking up with the school in the Cook Islands is as easy as an email. Most schools are government run with a handful of private locations. If you go to the Cook Islands Ministry page http://www.education.gov.ck/ and click on the tab for schools it will give you a list of the schools. If you want your visit to entail working with younger students, contact Primary schools. Teenagers/High Schoolers are at the Colleges (which flipped me out a little because college in the US is after High School – in Cooks, college is after primary, University is after college. See, perfectly clear). Once you have emailed a couple schools, arrange to either work with students with reading or math, have a question and answer session with a classroom or just hang out during lunch break. We chose the question and answer session and they were one of the best parts of our trip. At first students are shy (they are sometimes worried about their English skills), but they warm up to you quickly! If you are traveling with kids or teenagers, this is an even better experience – for everyone. We traveled with our fourteen year old and the fourteen year old Cook-Islanders had lots of questions for her!
This also gives you some “celebrity” status later in your visit when you are wandering town, because the students have no problem coming up and talking to you. We were told some of the best non-touristy places to eat, snorkel, and shop during these impromptu run-ins. We got invited to dinner, church, dance class and favorite swimming holes. A piece of advice: do this early in your trip and plan on more than one school. We thought it would be hokey until the first school, and then my family wanted more so we ended up visiting four schools on two islands.
This could easily be numbers two, three AND four, but I bunched them all as one – two - whatever.
If you look at a satellite map of Rarotonga, you will see the island, some pretty blue water just off the shoreline and then deep blue water outside that. The pretty blue water is within a reef, about a 100 meters worth of lagoon. This means that the water does not get very deep and offers wave protection within the lagoon (bottom line – keeps the big waves and sharks out). The water is smooth for kayaking because there is no fighting the surf to get out to the calmer water. We pulled the kayak out and it was remarkable smooth sailing (even in a sudden rain squall). The kayaks glide right over all the coral (even though it doesn’t look like it will). We did have to be careful with the oars to make sure we didn’t hit any of the live coral.
Snorkeling was a joy because you didn’t even need to put any gear on to see the fish! When we stood in three feet of water off the shore, we saw Picasso triggers, convict tangs, puffer fish and many other forgot-the-named species right from where we stood. We saw things in the Cook Islands we’ve never seen anywhere else in our travels. We stayed at the Palm Grove and had a great spot right outside the door. Fruits of Rarotonga is another popular snorkel spot. Beaches can seem hard to find because they aren’t really labeled. Literally, the cafe “Fruits of Rarotonga” is across the street from the “parking lot” for the beach. There is a bus stop there too. Muri Beach was popular, but we thought too crowded. Check the map or Jason’s guide for the two locations where snorkeling is not recommended. Other than that, anywhere seemed good to us.
It’s a big world out there off the island of Rarotonga.
Head out to one of the outer islands like Aitutaki for the snorkeling or Manihiki for the black pearls. While you can get a one day flight/snorkel package to Auitutaki, everyone I’ve ever heard from has wished they could have stayed longer. It will add to the cost a bit, but stay for more than one day. Trust me, it’s worth it!
4 Progressive Dinner
Not the most promoted activity, but this is the way to get a taste of the real local flavor.
This tour starts with a bus ride to the first house where you actually have a menu created by those that live on the island. You eat what they eat. The evening starts with an entree at one house, travels to another house for the main course and yet another house for dessert. The locals host it and you get to dig deeper into the culture as well as have amazing food that you won’t get from the local restaurant.
5 Attend Church Service
Even if you do not attend church regularly.
You can find Christian, Catholic, Seventh Day Adventenst, Baha'i and more. You won’t hear much English in these services as they are primarily in Maori, but it doesn’t stop the feel of the movement. Services are held across the island every Sunday, and Easter is a four day event. Aside from attending even if you don't go in your home country, nothing will be open during Sunday. Might as well be in church.
6 Punangua Nui Market/Roadside Stands
From farmers to fruit stands to your hands.
The Punangua Nui Market is held every Saturday from 8:00-1:00 and is a perfect place to get fresh fruit, veggies and fish for the duration of your stay. Not only are there food stands galore, but there are also booths/tents of handmade crafts done by locals (although some are brought in from Bali, so watch what you are getting if authenticity matters to you) and other souveniers. Have a smoothie, grab one of the local foods and enjoy.
If your trip cannot include a Saturday visit, stop by any of the roadside stands for local fruits and vegetables. They are cash only and are great on a middle of the week day when you realized you ran out of avocados - which by the way are the size of a small child's head.
7 Catch a Sporting Event
If you don't know the rules, it's even more fun!
During our two week visit, we saw soccer, netball, cricket, vaka (canoe) races, and a rugby rivalry game between the Rarotonga Bears and the Aitutaki Sharks. When we arrived at the rugby game at the Arutanga Sports Field, we didn't bring anything. No chairs, no blankets; just our curiosity and a couple of cameras. We didn't know which side to root for, which side was what team, the rules, nothing. We picked a side and stood to watch the game. A family that brought a blanket, cooler, snacks and several kids laid down their blanket, sat down next to where we were standing, and invited us to sit down next to them - on their blanket. Yes, it is that friendly. We later determined that one of the players on the field was the father of the two little girls next to us. They thought it was a kick when we would take a photo of the play and then zoom into their dad's face on the LCD screen on the back of our camera.
At Muri Beach, there was a cricket game going on. It is not out of place to join in the audience and become part of the booster club. Regardless of the outcome of the game, this small piece of the life of the locals is not to be missed.
8 Swim to Another Island
Why? Hello – just to say you did
Heading out to Muri Beach, you will see a series of small islands. Totally unplanned, we swam to Koromiri Island on our excursion one day. We had two pairs of flippers and snorkel equipment and we found that if you had fins, the current was not as intimidating. When you get to the beach, look around, see what the locals are doing. If you don't see anyone else heading over, they probably know something you don't. We saw grandparents walking across so we went for it. Now we get to tell everyone that we can swim far enough to get to another island.
9 Drive the Inner Road
Built in the 11th century, the Ara Metua road deserves a little respect.
Get a map and pay attention to where there is a cut-off that goes in land and then follow until it takes you back to the main road. While it doesn’t go all the way around the island, you have to get off and one a couple times, it is a fun excursion off the beaten path and you will see more of the local life rather than the touristy sections. Oh, and most roads are not marked and tend to look like driveways, but don't let that stop you. Locals are very forgiving.
10 Take A Picture
Pick times of the day, early morning or late evening, to just drive somewhere for the sole purpose of taking a picture. The Islanders we ran into had no problem having their photo taken. During the Easter Weekend, we ended up at a fish catching opportunity. In the US, someone would have looked at us funny (not to mention accusingly) as we snapped away. Here, in the Cooks, they gladly held up their prize catch for us to burn into digital history. It took a long time to get here; make the most of your memories and go out, on purpose, to take pictures.