If you are dreaming of a family friendly South Pacific island getaway, a Cook Islands vacation is the perfect choice. With lush tropical hillsides, miles of unspoiled beaches, and calm turquoise waters, the Cook Islands are unquestionably ideal for a romantic getaway, but also terrific for families with the abundance of activities, culture and natural beauty.
From hotels with kids clubs, kid menus and children-focused activities, to an island brimming with family friendly adventures, Rarotonga, the largest island in the Cook Islands, is a destination the entire family will enjoy. With a weekly direct flight to the main island of Rarotonga it’s an easy escape from Los Angeles. To help plan your fabulous tropical island holiday, check out our recommendations on where to stay, eat and what to do.
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Guide to a Wonderful Cook Islands Vacation
If you are like most people you are thinking “Ohh! I’d love a Cook Islands vacation. But wait, where is that exactly?”
See that red dot in the middle of the ocean? That is the Cook Islands, which are comprised of 15 islands (volcanic) or actually small coral atolls in the South Pacific Ocean. Below the equator, but not crossing the International Date Line, these small islands pack a big punch for family adventure.
The two main islands are Rarotonga and Aitutaki, with more than 10,000 of the country’s 15,000 inhabitants living on Rarotonga. The island is 32 km (20 miles) in circumference. To put that into perspective, I drive my son 12 miles each way to school every day! Aitutaki is known as “Honeymoon Island” for it’s idyllic white sand beaches and romantic vibe.
9 Amazing Things to Do in the Cook Islands
Being such a small island, there is an abundance of things to do in the Cook Islands for individuals and families. There were so many activities on offer and that we participated in that it was hard to narrow it down! I have included many of the activities we participated in with a mini-review so you can more easily narrow it down yourself. There is definitely more available than most people on a Cook Islands vacation will have time for.
1. Glass Bottom Boat Tour
The glass bottom boat tour is a staple activity for everyone while visiting Rarotonga. It’s a great way to get out on the water, into the water and to see Rarotonga from the banks of another small island across the lagoon. The benefit of the glass bottom boat is that for children who cannot snorkel, it gives them an opportunity to see a few fish without ever having to get in the water. It also provides parents a safe place to leave them with another adult to trade off snorkeling. The visit to the small island for lunch was a highlight for my son with coconut tree climbing and coconut cracking demonstrations. We went with Koka Lagoon Cruises, but Captain Tama’s looks to be an almost identical excursion, even sharing the small island for lunch.
2. Attend Island Night
Island Night on Rarotonga is the Cook Islands version of the Hawaiian luau providing great fun and insight into the Polynesian culture. It is a grand experience definitely worth the splurge. Many hotels offer an island night as well as two other establishments – Te Vara Nui and Highland Paradise. We did the Te Vara Nui which was *amazing*! The food, production and music was amazing. It’s a late night and expensive to experience the Island night festivities, but definitely worth it for children who are interested in the culture, music and costumes of the islands.
3. Go on a Storytellers Eco Bicycle Tour
The Storytellers Eco Bicycle Tour is one of the favorites with tourists visiting the island. They offer several different types of tours and depending how busy they are can even customize one for your family. The tour is well-paced with bits of cycling, including some gentle uphill and exciting downhill runs, broken up with stops for stories and fruit tastings. For families with small children, there are carts to pull your children behind you. The guides are fantastic with small children as well, making sure they are engaged and entertained. The littles definitely like the fruit foraging! Bicycling through the back roads with the lush mountains looming overhead is magical and a must do for anyone visiting the island.
4. Get Dirty on a Raro Buggy Tour
Rartonga’s newest adventure tour, Raro Buggy Tours, departs daily in awesome go cart type buggy’s that are able to take 2 persons, including children 6 years & over. Be prepared to get filthy! You will traverse back roads, unroads and go completely wild when you see a stretch of mud! Wear clothes you can get super dirty, bring your drivers license, sunscreen and sunglasses. It’s a great adventure that showcases another side of the tropical beach side paradise most people envision.
5. Learn About the Animals at the Whale & Wildlife Center
Looking for something a little off the beaten path? Check out the Whale & Wildlife Center a bit inland from the airport. It’s a small museum packed with information, exhibits and interactive pieces for children to explore. If you need a change of pace from the beach, this is a good afternoon excursion.
6. Go Native with Pa’s Trek’s
While this is not necessarily something most children will enjoy, Pa’s Trek was a highlight of our visit. My 5.5 yr old is obsessed with plants and was very excited to spend some time with Pa learning about the medicinal nature of the plants growing on Rarotonga as well as time to hike into Pa’s jungle. Many visitors choose to do Pa’s cross island trek that takes you up and down through muddy steep terrain through the middle of the island. Had it not rained the previous night we would have loved to do that adventure, but Pa felt it was a little too slippery for us. If you plan to do a trek with Pa, take strong mosquito repellent and good traction hiking shoes.
7. Explore the Island with Raro Mountain Safari Tour
For families (or individuals) with mobility issues, the Raro Mountain Safari Tour is the perfect way to see the tops of mountains to inland jungle to picturesque beaches. The tour takes visitors in the back of an open sided jeep through the back roads explaining about the different plants and fruits that grow on the island, to historical parts of the island explaining more about the Cook Islands history all the way up to the top of a mountain with a view out to the ocean. It’s a great way to see a ton of the island without doing a ton of work! For smaller kids, it can get a bit boring since there is a lot of driving and talking and not a ton of time outside of the vehicle to run wild. If they do make it through, they will be rewarded with a nice lunch and a place to safely run around.
8. Splurge on an Aitutaki Day Tour
If you really feel like a splurge, take an unforgettable day trip to Aitutaki. It is a very long day, but is worth it if you do not have time to visit any of the other islands during your stay. Starting bright and early, you will depart Rarotonga’s airport in a small 15-20 seater plane heading over the ocean for about 45 minutes to Aitutaki and it’s pristine turquoise lagoon. From here, you will be transported to a boat where you will spend the rest of your day. Cruising the lagoons around Aitutaki, you will visit picturesque One Foot Island, TV island where many TV and films have been shot as well as a chance to snorkel the great blue waters with massive fish! For small children, it will be a long day, but if they can entertain themselves on the boat, they will be happy to explore the small islands and swim in the calm waters during stop offs. This was definitely a highlight for me on our visit.
9. Go Snorkeling
This is something that is a given when you visit an island in the South Pacific, but just in case you need reminding, you must snorkel! There are several great spots for spotting a variety of fish. If you don’t do one of the boat trips, you will still have plenty of opportunities to see amazing sea life close to shore. The best snorkeling we found was out front of the Rarotongan Beach Resort. Even those who are not staying at the hotel can visit the beach to snorkel. Just walk through to the restaurant area and you can find a spot easily. Visit the snorkel hut to see maps on the best places to snorkel in the reserve.
Otherwise, a decent second option is the area opposite the Fruits of Rarotonga juice bar. The fish we saw here were very similar to what was at the Rarotongan, although it was a bit more spread out. No matter where you go, definitely go. The fish were beautiful!
Where to Stay – Cook Islands Resorts
When looking for accomodation for your Cook Islands vacation, you will find many hotels are adults only, however, there are a few family friendly full service resorts on the main island of Rarotonga. We stayed in two of the top 3. While there are other smaller hotels that allow kids as well as plenty of apartment/home rental options, these are our top recommendations for a relaxing stress-free holiday in a tropical paradise.
The Rarotongan Beach Resort & Spa
The Rarotongan Beach Resort & Spa is one of the oldest hotels in Rarotonga providing an iconic beach resort experience. Situated on a beautiful lagoon reserve, your room will be steps from the sand, surf and outstanding snorkeling. Apart from the location, the facilities of the Rarotonga will cater to your ever need. All rooms have mini-fridges, kettles with tea/coffee and plenty of space to lay out all your belongings inside and out. The hotel has a grand resort feel that will appeal to most visitors.
The Moko Kids Club is renowned on the island with auntie Rose at the helm. The kids all adore her and for good reason. Besides the warm staff here, kids will enjoy the indoor trampoline and play areas for the younger set with a video game room for the teens. Daily activities are planned around the resort from feeding the fish in the reserve to painting seashells and dying t-shirts for kids to drum lessons and snorkeling sessions for the adults.
Our only complaint here is that when paying with a credit card, patrons are charged a service fee. If this was common throughout the island, it would be acceptable, but considering the Rarotongan is the only establishment we encountered with this credit card policy, we were quite disappointed. Get out plenty of cash in advance and pay your charges as you go rather than waiting until the end as you might with most resorts.
The Edgewater Resort & Spa
The Edgewater Resort & Spa is a large facility with multi-story hotel blocks situated right on the beach. What it lacks in ambiance, it makes up with exceptional sunset views and excellent service. Rooms are quite basic, with none having direct beach access (from patios or balconies), however, all rooms come with mini-fridges, kettles and tea/coffee. There are no lifts, so if you have mobility issues, request a bottom floor unit. You do not stay at the Edgewater for the looks of the hotel, rather for the beautiful beaches, lagoon access and convenience to other parts of the island.
The kids club at the Edgewater is a great space for children to spend the day. The majority of the play area is outside, giving the children access to the beautiful warm weather, fresh air and sand play, while being away from the water in a safe and loving environment. There is a trampoline, arts/crafts facilities as well as TVs for children.
Our favorite part of the Edgewater Resort were the sunsets. It is situated just perfectly to capture the full breadth of each day’s sunset, with beautiful palms framing your photos. The kids menu here is also great. We didn’t experience it, but we also heard that the Island night at the Edgewater is fantastic and of great value.
The Pacific Resort
The Pacific Resort Rarotonga is the one true luxury resort on the island that is also family friendly. This is one of the most popular resorts for a Cook Islands vacation so make sure to book early if you want to stay here. Unfortunately we weren’t able to stay a the resort during our visit as it was fully booked, but we did spend some time exploring the grounds. The Pacific Resort is a beautifully manicured property with luxury villas offering a great feel of serenity throughout located on one of the most family friendly lagoons on the island, Muri Beach.
The lagoon is a center point of activity with paddle boards, kayaks, as well as the starting point for several lagoon cruise trips. The location of the Pacific Resort is also ideally located near Muri which offers restaurants, cafes and souvenir shops within walking distance. It is also located a little past the halfway point of the island making most places on the island relatively accessible.
Where to Eat in Rarotonga
Even for a small island located in the middle of the ocean, there is an abundance of places to eat. During our week long stay we didn’t get to explore as many as we had planned since many of our daily excursions included meals (which is pretty great by the way!), but we did find a few favorites that we continue to crave. If you are without a full board hotel or needing some variety, below are a couple of the great places we tried while in town that are worth getting out for.
Mooring Fish Cafe
The Mooring Fish Cafe is a small outdoor cafe serving excellent fish sandwiches. They are massive and very filling. The cafe also offers fish fingers for kids as a cheaper alternative. Seating is outdoors on shared picnic tables with a beautiful view of the lagoon. The Mooring Fish Cafe is the lunch destination for the Raro Buggy Tours recommended below if you plan to do that tour. This was our favorite place during our Cook Islands vacation.
Muri Night Market
We are suckers for night markets and this was a fantastic family friendly option on the island. The night market at Muri Beach is held on Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday from 5:00 pm for delicious local food at great prices. Live entertainment is on Thursday nights which provides a great fun atmosphere. Most stalls are cash only, so bring plenty!
Edgewater Resort & Spa
Even after we had checked out of the Edgewater Resort, we found that we continued to return for the food. The kids menu is great with healthy options like grilled chicken salad. But the biggest draw is the fabulous sunset! Service is slow, especially on nights when the island night is going on inside, so don’t go when you are in a rush!
Auntie Pat’s Coco Candy
A small road side stall selling coconut candy chips is a great buy upon arrival. Don’t wait until the last day like we did! Stop as soon as you see it and grab a few samples and take some back to the hotel to nibble on during your stay. We loved the cinnamon and honey chips. So delicious! Put it in the fridge though because it brings the ants out like crazy!
There are a ton of other cafes and restaurants throughout the island. We even tried Mexican food which was average, but decent considering how far away we were from Mexico. Regardless there is something for everyone no matter what you wish to eat on your Cook Islands vacation.
Getting Around the Cook Islands
There are several options for getting around the island during your Cook Islands vacation. We rented a car, which was fantastic to have for flexibility and the ability to fully explore the island at our leisure, but it also isn’t a necessity. There are local buses that go around the island – clockwise and counterclockwise throughout the day. The cost is not super cheap ($5 NZ), so it’s useful when you want to go further distances. Additionally, many restaurants and almost all activities offer pick up and drop off services as a bonus to their services. If you plan to do a ton of activities, you may not need a car for many days of your trip.
For families with older children or who are just more adventurous, you can also hire scooters for daily use which is more economical than a car and a great way to explore the 20 mile island. Alternatively, many people rent bicycles to get around the island. This is particularly handy if everyone in your group can ride a bike easily as the main road on the island is flat.
It is not necessary to book your vehicles in advance. It is easy enough to book at the airport upon arrival, along the main road or at any of the hotels. The Edgewater has a rental car agency on site.
Things to Know for Your Cook Islands Vacation
Cook Islands History
The Cook Islands are named after British explorer Captain James Cook who visited the islands in 1773 and 1777. The islands became a British Protectorate from 1888 and were included within the boundaries of New Zealand. They remained part of New Zealand until 1965, at which point they became a self-governing territory. However, today New Zealand is still tasked with overseeing the country’s foreign relations and defense. The Cook Islands, along with several other territories make up the Realm of New Zealand.
Cook Islands Population
Closely linked in culture and language to the Maori in New Zealand, about 87% of Cook Islanders are Polynesian Cook Island Maori. Through legends handed down by each generation, it is believed that the Polynesians arrived to the islands in 800 AD. Inhabitants of the northern islands are believe to have come from Samoa and Tonga, with the Southern Islands’ populations coming from the Society Islands and the Marquesas. It is thought that voyagers from the Society Islands are the ones who brought religion, cultural traditions, medicine and the Maori language to the Cook Islands.
Cook Islands Currency
The main currency used in the Cook Islands is the New Zealand Dollar. However, they do have their own local currency which includes triangle coins. I can’t wait to collect some of these!
Surprisingly, the Cook Islands are only 3 hours behind Pacific Standard Time. The Cook Islands are one of the last places on earth to see the sun set each day (American Samoa being the last). This is either going to be great for adjusting or hard with a child who will wake up at 3 a.m.!
Cook Islands Language
Cook Islands Maori is the official language, but we found that everyone spoke English. Even though you can get by in English, it’s fun to learn a few words in the local language. Here are some that we practiced.
Kia orana = Hello (literally, “may you live long”)
Aere ra = Goodbye
Meitaki = Thank you
‘Ae = yes Kare = no
Mataora = happy
Kai = food
Ra = sun
Moana = ocean
Maunga = mountain
‘Ura = to dance
A Cook Islands vacation means you are virtually forced to go on a digital vacation. Internet is extremely expensive on the island and not very speedy. Internet rates are pretty universal on the island with the small package costing $10 NZ dollars, with larger data packages going up to NZ $50. Your data will go quickly even with minimal usage. So plan to unplug, and enjoy your tropical paradise only checking in occasionally.
Our recent trip to the South Pacific paradise of the Cook Islands was all that I expected and so much more. From the depths of the turquoise waters to the top of the lush tropical mountains, the Cook Islands are breathtaking, energizing, and refreshing for all ages. A definite add to your South Pacific Island bucket list!
Have you been to the Cook Islands? What are your favorite places?
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