The Cook Islands consist of 15 islands scattered over an area of about 2 million square kilometers in the Pacific Ocean. The islands are a paradise that invites you to come and get away from it all, to soak in the sun and thousands of years of Polynesian history and culture. Rarotonga is the largest and most visited island. However, I would definitely advise you to visit a few islands while you are here since once you leave the main island, you have miles of beaches virtually to yourself! We often think of the Pacific Islands as incredibly expensive and exotic destinations but this island, close to New Zealand, is actually very affordable. You get all the paradise benefits of a place like Tahiti but without the crazy prices!
Accommodation – You can expect to pay around 20-25 NZD per night for a dorm room and from 30-45 NZD for a private room. Kitchens are generally available at hostels, however, don’t expect free WiFi to be available everywhere. For those traveling with a tent, camping is not allowed in the Cook Islands. For budget hotels, prices start at 100 NZD per night for doubles. Prices for a private bungalow start around 150 NZD per night. Budget hotels rarely offer free WiFi, though many include A/C and grant access to a kitchen. For a hotel with a nice pool, expect to pay around 200 NZD per night. Airbnb is available here too. For a private room, prices start at 45 NZD per night while prices for private rooms are aroud 100 NZD.
Food – Lunch and casual meals cost between 10-25 NZD at most of the local haunts that line the beach. You can get seafood platters for about 10 NZD. Restaurant meals cost around 20 NZD for lunch and around 30 NZD for dinner. Fancier, western style cuisine can cost up to 40 NZD for a main course, so skip it if you can. Meatless vegetarian options are much cheaper. For a beer at the bar, expect to pay around 4 NZD. If you plan on cooking your own food, a week’s worth of groceries will cost between 50-70 NZD. However, be warned that groceries here are very limited, not very fresh, and pretty terrible overall. They come by ship and that doesn’t come very often. You’ll find yourself eating lots of canned and packed food. I would just stick to eating out!
Transportation – For taxis, expect to pay 3 NZD per kilometers. Bus tickets are around 4 NZD regardless of distance traveled, or you can buy 10 rides for just over 30 NZD. For inter-island travel, there is very little scheduled boat and ferry service. People generally stay on the main island. If they need to get around, there are frequent flights by Air Rarotonga (though they are not cheap). Round-trip flights to New Zealand will cost just under 400 NZD, while flights to Australia average over 500 NZD.
Activities – Organized activities are a bit pricey on the islands, but hikes or walks around the mountainous interior are free options. In some cases, a guide will really bring the islands to life. A favorite is a half day, four-wheel tour for about 75 NZD. A tour and dinner show package at Te Vara Nui Village will cost just around 200 NZD. Bike or canoe rentals are also a great way to experience the scenery of the island for around 25 NZD per day.
Suggested daily budget – 60-75 NZD / 45-55 USD (Note: This is a suggested budget assuming you’re staying in a hostel, eating out a little, cooking most of your meals, and using local transportation. Using the budget tips below, you can always lower this number. However, if you stay in fancier accommodation or eat out more often, expect this to be higher!)
Money Saving Tips
- Bike the islands – A great alternative to expensive taxis and costs around 25 NZD for a day’s rental.
- Eat the local food – A full plate of local food will only cost around 8 NZD if you stick to the small, traditional eateries instead of eating at the resorts and main tourist areas.
- Shop duty-free – If you plan on drinking wine or hard alcohol pick it up at the duty-free ahead of time. This will be cheaper than buying it on the island (beer might be cheap enough, but most other alcohol is on the expensive side).
Top Things to See and Do in the Cook Islands
- Muri Beach – This popular beach is situated on the southeast corner of Rarotonga and is protected by a lagoon. A kayak or canoe can be hired here for under 30 NZD for a day. There is good snorkeling too!
- Aitutaki Day Cruise – The southern island of Aitutaki boasts the world’s largest coral lagoons, inhabited by huge clams and multicolored tropical fish. For a package that includes round-trip flights to Aitutaki, expect to pay around 500 NZD per person.
- Scuba Diving – The dive sites on the Cook Islands are considered perfect for beginner divers because the sites are close to the shore and the currents aren’t too strong. A two-dive trip will cost around 100 NZD, while your Open Water certification will cost around 350 NZD.
- Te Vara Nui Village – Te Vara Nui Village is the cultural center where you can learn about the history of the native population. Ura Po is a popular thing to do. It is a dining and island night show on floating and fixed stages set in botanical gardens surrounded by waterfalls. Prices start at 30 NZD for adults and 20 NZD for children.
- Hiking – There are several excellent hikes around the main island of Rarotonga. The most popular trails include Papua Waterfall, Avana Valley and Raemaru Lookout. Each take around 2 hours to complete. Pa’s mountain treks offer quite strenuous three-hour hikes across Rarotonga, passing Te Rua Manga at 413 meters with great views toward the coast.
- Tinomana Palace – The palace is a two-story formation of coral and lime. It is located in Arorangi village and was constructed by the British. The name means ‘The Peace Brought by Christianity’.
- Traditional Dance Shows – These dances are based on traditional island stories passed down through the generations. There are many places here where you can combine a dinner and dance show. It’s a little touristy, but still festive and entertaining.
- Fishing – The Cook Islands offer exceptional opportunities for deep sea game fishing. The currents, reefs and submarine topography foster ideal conditions for wahoo, barracuda, dolphin fish, yellowfin and skipjack tuna, sailfish, marlin and mahi mahi. Prices will vary depending on how long you fish for and whether you book a private charter. Expect to pay at least 150-200 NZD per person.
- Go Kayaking – Kayaking is an easy, fun, and relaxed way to explore the lagoon around Rarotonga island. The best place for kayaking on Rarotonga is around Muri Beach and the southeast coast near four uninhabited islands. Expect to spend around 30 NZD for a half-day rental.
- Aitutaki Marine Research Center – This small research center is often working on some form of marine restoration and has green sea turtles which visitors are able to pick up. Admission is free, though they run on donations.
- Punanga Nui Market – This market in town is filled with many locally made crafts, produce, baked goods, musicians, and people.
- Arai-Te-Tonga Koutu-nui-Ariki – Not far from town lay the ruins of an ancient royal court. This particular area is where tribal feasts were held. There is a 10-foot platform and large stone pillars, though most of the area is overgrown.
- Papua Waterfall – This waterfall is at the end of a beautiful hike and has a natural pool to swim in.
- Brush up on your Marine Biology – The Cook Islands Whale and Wildlife museum is a tiny place, but offers lots of interesting displays of fossils and skeletons. It’s a good option for a stormy day, or if you just need to get out of the sun. Admission is 12 NZD for adults and 6 NZD for children.
- Snorkel the Maitai Wreck – In 1916, a boat carrying a load of Model T Fords sunk off the coast of Roratonga. The wreck is only four or five meters underwater, and clear visibility makes it great for snorkeling.