Kia Orana, it means more than a simple hello. Kia Orana literally means ‘may you have a long and fulfilling life’. And that’s how you are greeted in the Cook Islands, even by strangers. It is the essence of the Maori people and their culture.
The Cook Islands are made up of 15 tiny islands in paradise that a small nation calls home. Accessible by a 4 hour flight from Auckland, NZ. All 15 islands combined cover just 240sq km. We spent nine days in the Cook Islands, staying in Rarotonga for four days and Aitutaki for five days. Survivor and Shipwrecked, two reality TV shows were filmed in the Cook Islands.
Upon arrival at Rarotonga airport, we were greeted by the sounds of a ukulele being strum along to a traditional song sang by the same local pensioner who plays every night for the new arrivals. Before we knew it, we had a beautifully scented ‘ei being draped over our heads and welcomed with a cheerful Kia Orana. Island life had begun. We took a pre-booked taxi to our accommodation Muri Lagoon View Bungalows which cost $20/£10pp with luggage. If you land during the bus operating hours, you can take the local bus from the airport to your accommodation for $5 and if you have luggage it’s $2 per bag per person. Unfortunately, it rained heavily for 2 out of the 3 days we had in Raratonga but we did get one beach day in.
Where to stay:
Muri Beach Resort An intimate island style resort in an absolute beachfront location in Muri.
Where to eat:
Vili’s Burger Joint Burgers from $7/£4. We loved the Vili’s Burger, the handmade beef patties are delicious!
The Moorings Fish Cafe Grab a huge fresh fish sandwich or salad from $13/£7 enjoy the music and soak up the views.
Beluga Cafe Our place to go for breakfast, lunch or just a coffee.
What to do:
Paddle board or kayak Muri Lagoon
Koka Lagoon Cruise Daily tours, Adults $79/£40 Children $40/£20
Hire a scooter* (licence required) or car from Rarotonga Rentals to tour the island and find hidden gems. Alternatively jump on the bus for $5 one way or $16 for unlimited day travel. Flag down the bus, one goes clockwise and the other bus goes anti-clockwise, and tell the driver when you want to get off.
Hike The Needle. The Needle is a 3.7 mile moderately trafficked loop trail located near Avarua, Rarotonga that features a waterfall and is rated as moderate. The trail is primarily used for hiking, walking, nature trips, and bird watching and is accessible year-round. Just make sure you carry water and insect repellent.
Aitutaki Day Tour – if time is short, this is a great option to experience the paradise of Aitutaki. A 40 minute flight, tour of the island and a 6 hour Vaka Cruise with lunch is included with Air Rarotonga. Tours Monday – Saturday.
Flying from Rarotonga to Aitutaki with Air Rarotonga took just 40 minutes. Flights start from £105 one way including luggage with several departures per day, 7 days a week. Oh and the views from the tiny aeroplane are incredible. Yes you can do a day tour to Aitutaki but in my opinion, Aitutaki is the jewell in the crown so we encourage you stay a little longer on the island of Aituakti. It maybe smaller than Rarotonga but there is so much beauty to discover and roads off the beaten path to wander.
Strickland, our host of the Airbnb we booked picked us in arrivals (a cute little shelter at the end of the runway) with a customary ‘ei and a warm Kia Orana, of course. We jumped into his van and he gave us a commentary along the way about the island, where to eat, where the best beaches are and where to book tours from. After days of solid rain in Rarotonga, I was ecstatic to see bright blue skies and an even brighter coloured ocean. It really is something to be seen to be believed. He picked us two ripe dragon fruits from what looked like a cactus in his garden.
We met his wife Naomi, a retired teacher, who promised to teach me how to make my own ‘ei. We hired a scooter from our hosts and obtained our Cook Island’s driver’s license from the police station for $2.50/£1.25 much easier and far cheaper than what we read we would have to do to obtain one in Rarotonga. All we had to do was show the police officer our UK driver’s licence and then we were free to explore the island, taking any and every road we came across with anticipation of what delights we may discover.
The locals always smiled or waved at us as we scooted past. It felt very welcoming, especially as our Airbnb property was set within a local village. We spent hours zipping along the roads dodging the fallen coconuts and scrambling mud crabs. Sometimes we wondered if we were the only tourists on the island. We saw pigs tied up to trees, cockerels roaming freely (if you can catch it, it’s yours), unusual fruits growing on the trees, school kids playing football or diving off the jetty. The gardens were all well kept and it seemed like the owners proudly mowed their lawn daily and tended to their tropical flora and fauna with real pride. It really gave us a great insight into local life, even Tom, our neighbour, welcomed us with freshly picked banana’s and papaya from his garden.
We had an island date night and put on our nicest clothes, ‘ei included and made our way to The Pacific Hotel for a 3 course meal. We wanted to taste the local cuisine and so we ate Ika Mata – raw tuna marinated in coconut milk and lime. Delicious. Andy learnt to husk a coconut using traditional tools – we even heard the loud thud as a coconut dropped from the towering palm tree onto the grass.
Whilst Naomi taught me how to make my very own ‘ei, I noticed her small round sewing tin was that of a union jack design. As we made our ‘ei together, we discussed Prince Harry stepping away from Royal duties and Brexit finally happening as well as the local culture and lifestyle in the Cook Islands. I asked Strickland and Naomi what they thought of tourists wearing ‘ei and they said, with big smiles, that they like it because it shows they see the beauty in their culture. In the Cook Islands, the ‘ei is a symbol of friendship, love and respect and are worn to mark special occasions, special people and special objects. Naomi said she loves wearing flowers in her hair, and so do I. I wore an ‘ei every day whilst on the islands out of respect and appreciation for this beautiful country.
While you may nearly always see the vivid turquoise ocean popping between the endless array of palm trees, you will always feel the warmth of the people and their tropical paradise. You’ve got to love a little paradise.
Where to stay:
Live like a local Airbnb a pretty 3 bedroom house within the village. $100/£50 per night.
Where to eat:
Koru Cafe Open 0700 – 1500 daily serving coffee, breakfast and lunch. Don’t forget to check the specials board.
Pacific Resort two dining options, Black Rock and Rapae Bay within the 5* hotel. Ika Mata is a must try!
Roadside restaurants are scattered along the main roads and are perfect for a quick, low cost bite.
What to do:
The Vaka Cruise $125/£62pp. Six hours on board a Polynesian Vaka with a fun local crew, string band and delicious lunch. Three idyllic islands are visited with the main draw being One Foot Island, just make sure you ask a crew member to share the story behind the island’s name. We loved the tour so much we went on it twice and we got a discounted price of just $80/£40pp for the second tour.
Thank you for taking the time to read my travel blog, I truly hope it has inspired some wanderlust. Don’t forget to let me know your thoughts or if you have been to the Cook Islands.
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