IN A TUITUI SHELL*
The capital island of Rarotonga is about 1,870 miles (3,010 kms) northeast of Auckland, New Zealand, 708 mls (1,140 kms) southwest of Tahiti, 1,429 mls (2,300 kms) east of Fiji and 2,939 mls (4,730 kms) south of Hawaii.
The total land area of the country is just 236.7 square kms (91.4 square miles). But the Cook Islands' exclusive economic zone - the territorial waters - stretches for nearly 2 million square kilometres (772,395 square miles). That's slightly bigger than Indonesia or Mexico and nearly three times the size of Texas! And those waters are also the world's largest designated shark and whale sanctuary
The Constitution of the Islands explains the flag:
BLUE - is the colour most expressive of our Nation, it is representative of the vast area of the Pacific Ocean in which the islands of the Cook Islands are scattered. Blue also depicts the peaceful nature of the inhabitants of our islands. THE UNION JACK indicates our historical association with and membership* of the British Commonwealth. The 15 WHITE STARS represent the 15 islands of the group
* Author note: Although part of the British Commonwealth/Empire for more than 120 years, the Islands are not accepted or recognised as a full member in their own right of the Commonwealth of Nations
"Te Atua Mou E" which translates as "To God Almighty". One unofficial translation is: "To God Almighty, Ruler of the isles of the sea, Hearken our call, Protect us, Crown us with liberty, May peace and love reign supreme throughout the land"
The islands are 10 hours behind GMT. Daylight saving time is not observed - in other words, the clock doesn't go back or forward at any time. This is the current date and time in the Islands
The Islands are a Parliamentary democracy based on the UK model. Officially the Islands are an independent nation in free association with New Zealand. They gained independence on 4 August, 1965. The free association agreement means
The Monarch - His Majesty King Charles III following the death of HM Queen Elizabeth II - is represented by former deputy prime minister, Sir Tom Marsters. His official title is "His Majesty The King's Representative in the Cook Islands". The Cook Islands remains part of the Realm of New Zealand and His Majesty is thereby Head of State of the Cook Islands.
The nation is not a UN member in its own right although moves are underway to get full membership; New Zealand represents it. But the country became a member of individual United Nations Partner agencies in the 1980s and, through the years, these partner agencies have continued to provide support to the Cook Islands for various programmes
English and Cook Islands Maori are the official languages. About 90% of Islanders can read, write and speak both languages. In Cook Islands Maori, there are 14 letters: a, e, ng, i, k, m, n, o, p, r, t, u, v and the glottal stop which is written as an inverted apostrophe. On the Northern island of Pukapuka, they have their own language. Only about 2,000 people in the world speak PukapukanMORE ABOUT COOK ISLANDS LANGUAGES
New Zealand Dollar. The Cook Islands also has its own distinctive notes and coins which are in circulation alongside the NZ currency, and of equal value. They are not legal tender outside the Islands. The three dollar note is one of the most popular souvenirs, as is the one dollar coin with the ubiquitous deity, Tangaroa on it.
The only ATMs are on Rarotonga and Aitutaki. But a word of warning...check the machine screen to see how much you might be charged for taking out money; some of the Banks levy a hefty charge. Credit and some debit cards are widely accepted on the capital island and some places on Aitutaki. Rely on cash on the other islands
Opening hours on Rarotonga are 9 am to 3pm Monday to Friday. The banks are closed weekends and public holidays. Opening hours on the other islands vary.
By law the following are public holidays: Every Sunday, Good Friday and Easter Monday, Christmas Day and Boxing Day, New Year's Day and 2nd January, Anzac Day (25th April each year), Queen's Birthday (HRH Queen Elizabeth II)* - First week of June on all Islands except Palmerston which celebrates the birthday of the late Queen Victoria instead, Ra O Te Ui Ariki (House of Ariki) public holiday - first week of July, Constitution Day - 4th August but sometimes observed as a public holiday on a nearby day designated by the government
*Following the death of HM The Queen in September 2022, the government will have to decide whether to create a new holiday
As long as you're staying no more than 31 days (90 days if you're a New Zealand citizen), your valid passport is the only entry permit you need, along with proof of onward journey, the means to support yourself while on the islands and somewhere to stay. THE ENTRY VISA IS GRANTED ON ARRIVAL AND IS FREE. You can stay for up to 12 months in total if you're a New Zealand citizen and up to eight months if you're not, but you'll need to extend your entry permit at the Department of Immigration in Rarotonga or apply on line form before travel. In both cases, you pay a fee for the privilege.
Entry by sea is via the designated ports, 1) Avatiu Port, Rarotonga, or 2) Arutanga Port, Aitutaki. However, all islands are now open. Entry and exit laws apply and visiting sailors should contact the customs service for details
Mobile (cell) phone services are provided by Vodafone. 4G and 3G are available on Rarotonga and Aitutaki. 3G only is available on Mitiaro, Atiu and Mauke. On all other islands, it's 2G (GPRS).
If you want to use your own phone, your service provider will have to have a roaming arrangement with Vodafone, or you will need a phone which isn't locked to a provider. The best advice is to check with your own provider before your travel. Vodafone also offer a visitor SIM which provides data, and texts and calls to selected international destinations. The cost varies according to what you want included and for how long you want the SIM to last. Costs beyond the inclusive package are very expensive compared to the UK, Europe and the US .
Vodafone is the sole provider. 4G and 3G services are available on Rarotonga and Aitutaki only. 3G only is available on Mitiaro, Atiu and Mauke. You can access the internet on other islands but you'll be using 2G. There are also plenty of wifi hotspots on the capital island and quite a few on Aitutaki. Some accommodation providers on Mauke and Mangaia also have them. Be warned though...connection speeds will seem slow to very slow to European and American visitors. A recent report said it was among the slowest in the world. An undersea cable has been laid to deliver high speed internet access to Rarotonga and Aitutaki, but work is still in progress to agree how the service will be provided and how much it will cost
Faster service soon: In November, 2022 Vodafone Cook Islands and the government signed an agreement to improve connectivity in the outer islands. The aim is to provide service similar to that on Rarotonga by upgrading to 4G networks
SHOPPING, EATING AND DRINKING Everything has tax included in the price
TIPPING Tipping isn't expected and is contrary to Cook Islands custom.
DEPARTURE TAX LIke so many countries these days, the Islands charge you a departure tax. This is now "hidden" in your air fare, whereas previously you had to pay it in cash on departure (not the best memory to have as you head for home). The tax applies only to international travel; there is no tax on inter-island flights.
If you're 18 or over you're allowed to bring in 4.5 litres of beer OR 2 litres of any other alcoholic beverage including wine, spirits or liqueur. Limits on tobacco are 200 cigarettes OR 250 grams of tobacco OR 50 cigars OR a mixture of all three not exceeding 250 grams . Other goods bought duty free must not exceed a value of NZ$750 and you can't combine with others you're travelling with; this is per individual. If you bring in more than your allowance, you must declare it and pay duty. Failure to do so will result in seizure of all similar items.
Solar panels have replaced diesel generators and that also means all of the islands now have a continuous supply of electricity (previously some only had it available for around 12 hours). However, on some of the outer islands solar energy storage is failing and this affecting supplies. Output is 240 volts-50 hertz cycle which is the same as the UK, Australia and New Zealand .
PLUGS AND PLUG SOCKETS ...look like this. They're the same type as in Australia and New Zealand. Sometimes the plug has only two pins and that means there is no earth (otherwise described as "ungrounded ")
WATER: IS IT SAFE TO DRINK?
Rarotonga and Aitutaki have reticulated water supply systems. On the other islands of the Southern Group limited reticulation is provided and augmented by rainwater catchment and storage. The atolls of the Northern Group rely on rainwater from roof catchments and groundwater. The main water supply on Rarotonga is not potable (not yet certified as safe for drinking) but many resorts have their own filtration systems and there are also water stations on Rarotonga and Aitutaki which will have signs saying whether the supply has been treated for drinking. If you're in any doubt about a supply check first that it's safe. And remember...water is precious in the islands, so please use it thoughtfully
On-site septic tanks and soak-aways are the common system of disposal throughout the islands. The largest hotels have their own wastewater treatment plants
The National Health Service in the Cook Islands is of a good standard relative to the needs of the country. The system is managed by the Ministry of Health (Te Marae Ora) and provides an 80-bed central hospital and A&E service on Rarotonga. All the other islands have hospital or clinic provision. Difficult clinical cases are referred to New Zealand for specialised treatment. There are no dangerous animals, no poisonous insects and no lethal viruses such as malaria indigenous to the Cook Islands.
A few words about Covid
There have been just over 7,000 cases since the first was recorded on 13 February, 2022 and two deaths. In January, 2023 there was a small new spike with most instances on Rarotonga and a few on Aitutaki, Atiu, Mauke and Mangaia, but cases are now rare. Travel and border controls remain changeable
A few words about dengue feve r
This is a mosquito-borne virus indigineous to tropical and sub tropical regions including the Cook Islands, and there is no vaccine against it. It causes flu-like symptoms and sometimes - although very rarely - these can develop into something more serious. The last major outbreak was in 2009 and a lesser one in 2021. I get occasional emails asking about it. In my opinion (and I am not a medical professional), you really shouldn't worry about it at all, but for definitive information, please have a look at the World Health Organisation fact sheet and make your own decision
Homosexuality was legalised on 14 April, 2023 when MPS voted to repeal laws that had been in force since 1969. The change was effective from 1 June, 2023. Gay marriage was banned in 2000 and remains illegal. Public displays of affection are still likely be considered offensive. But with the law change, LGBT+ people can now visit the Islands safe in the knowledge that their rights are protected.
Just a few years ago, I always told people you were more likely to be hit by a falling coconut than be a victim of crime. That's still absolutely true in the outer islands, but sadly no longer on Rarotonga. Increasingly, tourists have become targets so the message from the police is not to abandon your common sense. Don't leave valuables lying around if, for example, you're going swimming or snorkelling. The top box or space under the seat on a scooter is not a safe place to store things. And lock away cash, jewellery and other valuables in a hotel safe. All that said, crime is still relatively rare
Driving licences from Australia, Canada, the UK, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, the USA and EU member countries are now accepted in the Islands. Previously you had to queue up at police headquarters to get a Cook Islands licence, and if your country isn't in that list you still have to (but the licence itself is a great souvenir!). You are allowed to drive the same class of vehicles as in your home country provided it's a full licence (provisional licences are not acceptable) and you're 16 or over. Cook Islands visitor licences are valid for 30 days.
If you want to ride a scooter or motorbike and you're not licenced to do so at home, you need to take a theory and practical test, the total cost of which is NZ$40. Tests are held Monday to Friday only and you'll need to present your passport to police for identification.
Since October, 2020, crash helmets have been compulsory for ALL bike and scooter riders on Rarotonga. Failure to wear one will result in an on the spot fine by police of NZ$250
Breathalyser testing was introduced in 2008, and if you are involved in an accident, your alcohol consumption could result in a prison sentence. Speed guns are also in use with on the spot fines. The limit on most of the island is 50kph (31mph), but just 30kph (18 mph) in town (Avarua) and on a stretch of the main road near Muri (between Avana Bridge in Ngatangiia and Parengaru Bridge in Titikaveka
In a tuitui shell?
* The tuitui is the fruit of the candlenut tree which was introduced to the Islands by the early Polynesians. It's nearly as prolific as the coconut palm. The nut is inside a very hard shell. Before candles, Islanders pierced the nuts with wooden skewers and set light to them. They burn very slowly and last for hours. Well, I thought it was more interesting than saying "in a nutshell"! Photo: Gerald McCormack/Cook Islands Biodiversity Database