Photo: Air Rarotonga
Aitutaki is most visited island after Rarotonga, and Air Rarotonga run day trips (every day except Sunday) which include transfers to and from your accommodation. You'll get a whirlwind tour of the island, before boarding a traditional boat for a leisurely cruise around the crystal clear, turquoise blue lagoon which is one of the wonders of the natural world.
You'll stop off at some of the stunning little islets (motus) in the lagoon, including One Foot Island where you can buy unique stamps and get your passport stamped at the post office which sets up there daily. American visitors might recognise it also as one of the locations for the reality show, "Survivor Cook Islands". Other motus have been used as locations in the UK's Channel 4/E4 show, "Shipwrecked" and are often included in the tour. All are stunning
And there's plenty of time for swimming and snorkelling (gear provided) among the fantastically colourful fish and giant clams. You might even (as I did) see rare turtles skipping through the water. At around NZ$600, it's not exactly cheap, but the price includes return flights and a barbecue of just-caught fish during the cruise. So, if you only do one excursion during your visit to the Cook Islands, this has to be it (and I promise you no one has paid me to say that!).
Flights depart Rarotronga airport at 8 am and return from Aitutaki at 530 pm. You can book through the tourist office in Rarotonga, at your acommodation or direct with Air Rarotonga
Several of the Southern Group islands are less than an hour's flying time from Rarotonga, but the airline schedules mean you will have to stay at least one night. Mangaia, Mauke, Atiu and Mitiaro are all options if you can spare a day or more away. They're all very different, so choice is a matter of personal taste. Here's a thumnail sketch of each....
It's not quite the British Lake District or akin to the Great Lakes of the USA, but sizeable freshwater lakes are the unique feature of Mitiaro - with the largest about the half the size of the whole island. There are also crystal clear pools in limestone caves, but little in the way of beach. Tourism is still in its infancy,MORE ABOUT mitiaro
It's called the garden of the islands and colourful plants and flowers are everywhere. It's also a very peaceful place, with a slow pace of life and very few visitors. Make sure you take the time to stop and chat as the locals are among the most welcoming in the IslandsMORE ABOUT mauke
The Maori name for the island translates as 'land of the birds', and there are more on Atiu than any other island in the Cooks, including some very rare species. But even if you don't know a chaffinch from a chicken, there's plenty to see and do. Some will tell you there are no beaches to speak of but even though they're few and small, they are stunningMORE ABOUT ATIU
It's the oldest island in the Pacific and you can see evidence of that wherever you go. Rugged rocks are everywhere and walking outside the villages can be very tough on the feet. At the same time, the island is very lush - almost anything grows there. If you're British, you can expect a particularly warm welcome because the fiercely independent islanders have a very deep affection for the UK. Accommodation is pretty basic.
Northern group islands, Manihiki and Penrhyn (also known as Tongareva) are famous for their black pearl production which is an important part of the Cook Islands economy. Both are about five hours flying time away from Rarotonga and very expensive to reach because of the high cost of fuel. Services to Penrhyn are on a charter basis only. Pukapuka in the far north is also accessible by air, but services are few are and far between, and dependent on fuel supplies. And you could be waiting weeks for a return service if you can get there in the first place - but perhaps you won't care!
One Cook Islands tour operator advertises a "Northern Trailblazers" tour which takes you to some of the Northern Group islands as part of a five day package but despite repeated inquiries, they won't say if there are any plans to offer it in 2024.
Four other islands - Nassau, Rakahanga, Palmerston and Suwarrow - are accessible only by boat and services are best described as "very occasional". If you're determined to visit, keep an eye on the pages of the daily paper, Cook Islands News which publishes details of shipping movements, or ask at the harbour to see if any visiting yachts are heading that way. And make sure you have months rather than weeks to spare! Takutea and Manuae are uninhabited and no commercial vessels visit them. Strict access controls are in place and trespassers can be prosecuted
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