Does a real-life version of paradise exist on earth? Many who have holidayed in the Cook Islands would say the Polynesian nation of 15 tropical islands scattered across the South Pacific Ocean comes very close. Beach lovers, watersports enthusiasts, true romantics and sun-worshipping families are drawn to the relaxed pace and stunning natural beauty of island life in the Cooks, situated halfway between Sydney and Hawaii. To make the most of a visit to the Cook Islands, dive in to the beautiful clear waters, join in community events with welcoming local people, and sink in to the relaxed pace of island time.
1. That otherworldly lagoon
With its azure blue waters and magnificent eco-system of marine life and lush shoreline, Aitutaki Lagoon provides a stunning backdrop for photographs and romantic seaside enjoyment. Dive in the tropical waters for a refreshing swim or stake a claim on some prime beach real estate and laze the day away while you enjoy the out-of-this-world scenery.
2. Join the family
Cook Islanders have a way of making visitors feel like family members, and nowhere more so than on a progressive dinner tour of islanders' homes. The five-hour wine and food experience happens twice a week (Monday and Thursday) and visits three island homes, where traditional meals are served, family-style.
3. Eat clean
Eat local, fresh and naturally organic when you tuck into the Cook Islands national dish, ika mata, a delicious blend of fresh tuna marinated in lime juice, coconut milk and a touch of chilli. Other top picks from the catch of the day menu: just-caught mahi mahi, wahoo and marlin.
4. Dip into Muri
Enjoy Rarotonga's most popular swimming spot, Muri Lagoon beach, and try your hand at stand-up paddle boarding, snorkelling or wake boarding. Many of the island's best resorts are located here on the eastern side of Raro, and the white sandy beach hums with activity.
5. Plant both feet
Don't miss One Foot Island, a popular lagoon cruise daytrip from Aitutaki's main island. Untouched and gorgeous, it's been named the best beach on the planet. Don't forget to get your passport stamped and post a letter from the island.
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6. Drink up
Beer is a magic elixir in the Cook Islands, a refreshing way to end the day or get the party started. Locally brewed beer includes popular drops from Cooks Lager Brewery and the Matutu Brewing Company, which offers a brewery tour. Bush beer is another thing altogether, a potent brew made from fermented bananas, oranges or other fruit, a concoction dating back to missionary times.
7. Raise the roof
Time your visit to coincide with Sunday morning service in one of the Cook Islands' beautiful white coral and limestone churches. The joyful sounds of the dressed-in-white congregation members singing in worship is a stirring experience. Meet the locals during refreshment time.
8. Make a night of it
Join in an island night out and be treated to unforgettable traditional dancing, tale-telling and a communal feast to satisfy even the biggest appetite. At Te Vara Nui Cultural Village, an informative history lesson precedes a well-orchestrated show and delicious buffet dinner.
9. Spoil yourself
Cook Islands’ black pearls are legendary for their quality and lustre, and there's no better place to buy them than in Rarotonga. Treat yourself to a gorgeous ring, pendant or bracelet. It's prudent to ask for a certificate of authenticity.
10. Browse the market
Get amongst the action on Saturday mornings when farmers and fishermen bring their produce to sell at the community markets. At Punanga Nui Cultural Market in Rarotonga, you'll also find noni juice, colourful sarongs, embroidered quilts, handmade jewellery, wood carvings and woven baskets. On Aitutaki, the Saturday market takes place at Aratunga Wharf.
11. Climb to the peak
The physically fit might like to challenge themselves to ascend Te Rua Manga, Rarotonga's highest peak, as part of a cross-island trek through the verdant interior. It's advisable to hike with a local expert guide, who can share their insights about the island's eco-system on the way.