Love in Paradise: A Couple’s Travel Guide to the Cook Islands

Muri Beach Cook Islands

Are you seeking the perfect South Pacific hideaway for a romantic, relaxed honeymoon or holiday? Discover why Cook Islands could be the ultimate romantic getaway for couples of all ages with our comprehensive holiday and honeymoon guide!

Words: Rhonda Bannister

The Cook Islands
The Cook Islands

Scattered over almost two million square kilometres of ocean and roughly halfway between Hawaii and New Zealand (not too far from Tahiti), the Cook Islands group comprises 15 main islands, some with only 50 people living there. The largest island with a population of just over 16,000 is Rarotonga, a picturesque paradise that, at times, will take your breath away with its jewel-like beauty. There’s something magical here, but I can’t define it easily. Indeed, the scenery is spectacular, but it has more to do with the local people and their warm Polynesian charm that gets under your skin and makes you feel so welcome.

You will not find the frenetic energy of Bali or Thailand here, and it’s totally different from its Pacific neighbours of Fiji and Vanuatu. The Cook Islands most resemble the islands of French Polynesia, which isn’t surprising, seeing as that’s where the original settlers came from. If you want quality time together peppered with a pinch of adventure and a potful of romantic dining options, this is the place to find it.

A Romantic Sense of Arrival

Even our arrival at Rarotonga International Airport is unique. As the aircraft descends to the runway, all we can see above and below is blue on blue; the water so close, we could have high-dived into the shimmering lagoon from our seats. Then towering mountains cloaked in emerald green foliage and riotous red flowers dominate our view, creating a gorgeous canvas of tropical splendour and a gob-smacking sense of arrival.

By the time we unpack suitcases at our luxury resort, a mere 30 minutes after our flight from Sydney landed, we’re already captivated by this tropical island paradise. There’s nothing quite like the sultry heat of the Pacific and the pungent perfume of colourful tropical flowers wafting through the air to get the romantic juices flowing, and if the couple we spy frolicking and kissing in the lagoon, steps from our deck are any indication, this could be nature’s Viagra without the side effects!

Getting Around

There’s only one road circumnavigating the island and hugging the coastline where most Cook Islanders live in villages, and this is where four-and five-star resorts, private villas, holiday houses, restaurants and bars are located; in short, it’s the life-stream of the island.

Waterfall cook islands

Staying here is like stepping into a more gentle, by-gone era where local kids roam freely, jumping into the lagoon from old concrete pylons, riding push bikes in little groups along the roadway and walking through the main town of Avarua without an adult in charge.

You can now use your Australian licence to hire a car, or if you want a keepsake, get the Cook Islands licence for about $20 at the Police Station. It only takes 45 minutes to drive around the island, and we found it a great way to get our bearings and suss out where we would spend time over the coming days. The road follows the coastline with evocative images of the sparkling blue lagoon on one side and the lush, vibrant mountainous interior on the other. The local clockwise bus runs on the hour every hour from Cook’s Corner in town and anti-clockwise on the half hour, $5 one way, $8 round trip, so it’s not necessary to have a car to get around the island.

Best Honeymoon Islands

For couples who love nothing more than the kiss of the sun and the caress of the ocean on their skin, the almost deserted beaches with their shaded picnic areas and sedate waters are the places to be. Most people spend their time only moving from resort to lagoon, lagoon to restaurant – and here’s a fantastic thing – most resorts and restaurants are on the waterfront!

Eat & Drink

No holiday is complete without trying out the local dining scene, and with no shortage of great places to try, from fine dining to casual cafes and bars, you’re assured of a tantalising taste of the Pacific.

Trader Jacks Bar & Grill is situated on the water close to town and has been an iconic watering hole for almost 40 years. Built and run by legendary publican Jack Cooper, who sadly passed away in 2022, you will probably end up here on more than one occasion. Serving a great pizza as well as a detailed menu heavy on seafood, the restaurant sits on top of the bar with great views across the water.

For dinner or a special lunch, Tamarind House, located just out of town, is a long-time favourite with locals and visitors. Set in an old renovated house in a beautiful garden with spectacular lagoon views, this is the place for a romantic dinner under the stars.

Driving anti-clockwise from town, you’ll find the sublime Antipodes Restaurant perched on a cliff at Black Rock. Time your visit at sunset and enjoy the organic Mediterranean-inspired cuisine and the stunning views of the ocean and sky painted in shades of lilac and gold by the setting sun.

Toes-in-the-sand-dining is part of the Cook Islands experience, and you’ll find the best casual food and wine at Manuia Beach Resort’s On The Beach Restaurant & Bar; Wilsons Bar & Restaurant at the Castaway Resort, Vaima Polynesian Bar & Restaurant in Vaimaanga Village and Sandals Restaurant & Barefoot Bar, Pacific Resort, amongst others.

One of our favourites for a long, relaxing lunch was the Rarotonga Sailing Club on the white sands of Muri Beach, probably the island’s best swimming spot. Spending a couple of hours in the hottest part of the day, settled on the shaded deck with a cold beer and plate of fish and chips while watching the local school kids learning to sail, is a unique Raro experience.

Best Adventure Activities

couple on boat Cook Islands

There are many pursuits here for adventurous couples, including rip-roaring quad bike tours or 4WD adventures, mountain biking, game fishing, scuba diving and snorkelling, kitesurfing and horse riding. Trek across the island, climb The Needle, a rugged peak near the island’s centre, and swim in Wigmore’s Waterfall. More sedate activities include a lagoon cruise with snorkelling and a BBQ lunch.

Related: Discover more adventurous pursuits in the Cook Islands here.

Immerse in the Culture

Cook Island local

Many resorts have ‘Island Nights‘ cultural shows where the locals share their history through traditional song and dance. Our #1 pick for cultural immersion is to spend a day with the Pirangi family, descendants of the original High Chief Tinomana, in the mountain refuge of Highland Paradise, set on a historical and crucial tribal site high above the village of Arorangi. Here you can witness village life as it has been for more than 500 years, and in the evening, enjoy the pulsating Sunset Cultural Show of singing and dancing while feasting on local cuisine prepared in the Polynesian style. We also loved the dance show at the Te Vara Nui Cultural Village so check that one out as well.

Become a local for a day or night by joining a Progressive Dinner tour visiting three different local’s homes to dine and socialise; join an Avarua Historical Walking Tour through downtown for an insight into the islanders history and customs, and on Sunday morning, visit a local Christian Church where you will be blown away by the fabulous singing of the church choir and even enjoy morning tea mingling with the congregation.

Aitutaki – Honeymoon Island

Aitutaki Lagoon
Aitutaki Lagoon

A visit to the Cooks would only be complete by visiting divine Aitutaki, often cited as the world’s most beautiful island. Star-crossed lovers agree and claim this island, just a 45-minute flight from Rarotonga, is like heaven on earth – a honeymooner’s paradise of silky white sand, crystal blue waters and a diamond-studded evening sky. But you don’t have to be a young honeymooner to enjoy the bounties of Aitutaki, as its beauty transcends any age barrier.

Whether you factor in a few nights here as we did or fly over for a day cruise on the lagoon, I implore you to include it in your budget and itinerary. We stayed in a toes-in-the-sand bungalow at Aitutaki Lagoon Private Island Resort for two nights, and it was sensational. The highlight of our stay was a full-day cruise across the lagoon to One Foot Island with Vaka Cruises aboard a Polynesian-style boat with snorkelling, lunch, live music and singing, and lots of fun and laughter included. Believe everything you have read about Aitutaki Lagoon because it’s impossible to oversell its beauty. It is so other-worldly it looks like a photographer dropped in and photo-shopped the colours of sea, sky and flora.

Aitutaki Lagoon Private Island Resort
Aitutaki Lagoon Private Island Resort

So if you could do with some island time to relearn the art of relaxation, check out the Cook Islands’ various holiday and honeymoon options.

Getting to The Cook Islands:

At the time of writing Jetstar has direct flights from Sydney and  Air New Zealand flies direct from Auckland.

Best time to Visit:

The weather is perfect during the drier months of June to August, but flights and accommodation are more expensive as it’s high season. The shoulder months of April, May, September and October still get great weather, and it’s not so crowded. From December to March, storms and cyclones can happen.

Need to Know:

  1. Due to the Cook Islands being in the middle of the ocean, getting online isn’t cheap, so leave your computer at home and talk to each other!!.                  
  2. The currency in the Cook Islands is the New Zealand dollar. You may occasionally be given your change in Cook Islands cents and dollars. If that does happen, make sure to spend them all as they can’t be exchanged anywhere else in the world.
  3. Tipping is not customary in the Cook Islands. In fact, it can be seen as offensive. This is because the Polynesians view it as receiving something for nothing and believe they owe you something in return.
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