Listopedia: The Cook Islands Bucket List
I’ve fallen in love with a brand new country – one I never thought would be on my “most recommended” list but it’s made its way right to the top – the Cook Islands.
The Cook Islands doesn’t reside there because of its aqua blue waters. It doesn’t even reside there because of the palm trees, amazing cocktails or incredible snorkeling. No, this place has made its way onto my must-experience list purely through its spirit.
It was the moment we got on the plane that I knew this trip would be different. Each seat was full of travellers flying home to Rarotonga to see their families for Christmas. The festive spirit was in the air and smiling faces, big hugs and sparkling headdresses were all around.
The Cook Islands is a country of many hidden treasures, so I’m sharing my absolute favourites to inspire you for your own tropical honeymoon adventure.
Attend Church on Sunday
It’s not often I recommend going to church on a holiday. But church in the Cook Islands is something special. The Ngatangiia Cook Islands Christian Church, open to the public on Sundays, welcomed us with open arms on our first Sunday in Rarotonga. We took our place at the back of the church and watched as the congregation began filling the pews. They were dressed in beautiful floral printed dresses and straw woven hats awaiting the service to commence in Cook Islands Maori.
Our limited knowledge of the local language meant that we had to guess what was happening as the service got underway – we didn’t need to know the words to be floored by what happened next. The front rows burst into song, the back rows joined in and soon the different “parts” sung joyously and with heart – the harmony was perfect and I couldn’t help but get a lump in my throat.
As is the Cook Islands spirit, the pastor invited visitors to stand – we, along with a handful of others, were invited to sing a carol in English. I must admit I shook in my boots. But as we finished the first verse, the entire congregation stood and joined with us for the chorus. It was one of those moments that perfectly summed up the welcoming joy we hadn’t stopped feeling since our feet touched the ground.
Our church visit ended with a delicious morning tea held next door. Two ladies sought us out and pulled us in to a buffet filled with local tropical fruits, home baked cakes and encouraged us pull up a chair with plenty of smiling faces eager to meet us and hear our story.
Get your passport stamped at One Foot Island
My friend has been all around the world and has stamps from everywhere, even Antarctica. That’s amazing I say, but do you have a One Foot Island stamp?
One Foot Island sits in Aitutaki lagoon. One of the first stops for the coral route boats, this uninhabited island (and wedding ceremony hotspot!) is unequivocally the ultimate tropical dreamland.
It also houses a teeny tiny post office, which can legally stamp your passport with a giant foot stamp.
Our time in Aitutaki had been cloudy and grey, but the first rays of sunshine came out when we reached this little piece of paradise. The water shone, the sand sparkled and the palm trees swayed in the breeze as we pulled ashore. Passport stamps complete, we spent a good hour snorkeling, exploring the sand bars and taking desktop wallpaper worthy photographs.
Te Vaka Cruise welcomed us with a fresh coconut as we boarded. A BBQ lunch on board followed, snorkeling amongst the giant trevally, a stop over on two islands on the Aitutaki lagoon and plenty of stories and Island hospitality.
Pick up local coconut produce at Rito
I’m a lover of finding the best in local produce in a new country and right on the island of Rarotonga is a local coconut oil manufacturer – Rito Cook Islands.
Started by husband and wife team Robert & Susan Wylie, the duo source coconuts from around the island, pressing them in their backyard factory to create coconut oil and their own range of products – from the straight cold pressed oil to dressings, wedding favors and even skincare.
Purchasing their products (we cook with our Rito Coconut oil and I use the Rito mask and body lotion) is a fantastic way of taking a piece of Cook Islands home with you.
Dine by the lagoon at Samade On The Beach
It was on our final night in the honeymoon hot spot of Aitutaki that we experienced the magic of Samade On The Beach.
Located on Ootu beach, this restaurant has the prime position for a romantic sunset dinner.
Cocktails complement an Island-style menu, showcasing local delicacies such as Ika Mata (raw fish marinated in coconut cream and lime juice) and Island Fries (made of taro, arrowroot and kumara). We gobbled up the famous local curry and ocean fresh scallops served with local raku (a tropical spinach) while the waves lapped gently on the shore.
Well and truly full, we thought we might escape without dessert, but dessert board is definitely worth waiting for.
Take a Cultural Tour
Hands down our favourite experience in Aitutaki was the Punarei Cultural Village Tour. Ngaa Kitai Taria, a trained archaeologist, leads a group who have joined together to create a village that replicates the way the people of Aitutaki used to live, and seeks to educate visitors about the original, lost Aitutaki culture.
The culture tour is a fascinating insight into the history of the island. We began by nominating a ‘leader’ for our ‘tribe’ and were welcomed by a mock initiation ceremony. We visited re-created traditional huts and heard stories of how life once was. The garden’s papayas, mangoes and pineapple trees are cultivated amongst tropical plants, replicating traditional landscapes.
Food – my favourite part – is a huge focus of this tour. The entire group is involved in putting together a traditional “Umukai” (under ground) feast. We wove leaf covers for the umukai before helping to place our lunch (chicken, pork, fish and pumpkin) on the hot black stones, which we covered with layers of banana leaves, palm fronds, our own umukai covers and finally heavy wool blankets.
Some time later, after more exploring of historic sites, we ate the carefully prepared feast, which had been cooking as we explored. The Umukai feast was accompanied by papaya salad, breadfruit salad, and tropical fruits. We ate off palm frond plates we’d woven ourselves.
This is not an off the shelf experience, but rather something that leaves its attendees with a sense of spirit and learning that can’t be found anywhere else in the Cook Islands.
Take a Lagoon Cruise
The most renowned feature of the Cook Islands is the aqua lagoon and there is no better way to experience it than being on it!
From the isle of Rarotonga, we travelled onto the lagoon with Captain Tamu’s Lagoon Cruises. Our glass-bottomed boat ferried a bunch of eager tourists and the team (our fearless leader was named “Chocolate”) to a secret snorkeling spot. In its pristine blue waters I’m not sure what impressed me more – the water colour or the tropical fish!
A BBQ Lunch on an uninhabited island – mahi mahi fish, banana and plenty of papaya and potato salad was a welcome treat after a morning spent in the water and the amusing “island style” entertainment show put on by the crew had our group departing the island in very high spirits.
Drink a Mojito at Nautilus Resort
Being the newest resort on Rarotonga, Nautilus has a lot to live up to and a lot of competition, but after spending four nights in this little part of the island, I can assure you, it’s worth the hype.
Each room has an infinity pool (blissful) and the on site restaurant mixes up some of the best cocktails on the island. The “Nauti Mojito” (and I’ve had a few mojitos in my time) was the best way to cool down on a hot day and the added touch of the locally grown sugar cane stick? Pure island magic.
Attend a Cultural Show
If you’re a social butterfly and love a night full of lights, sound and music then a cultural show on the island is for you. On our final night in Rarotonga we visited Te Vera Nui Village and were seated by the lagoon ready for the night to begin. A buffet dinner (highlights were the sushi and local fish mahi mahi), a long drinks list and the setting sun kept up occupied until the show began.
The show tells the story of a warrior and his daughter. Dancers doing everything from hula dancing to fire breathing are mesmerizing. If you feel you’re missing out, the dancers will soon be making you shake your hips just as much as they did (though with much less aplomb!).
Hit Up the Punanga Nui Markets
Held every Saturday morning right in the centre of Avarua, the Punanga Nui Cultural Market is filled with island wares (the perfect place to pick up a souvenir), local produce and plenty of freshly cooked island-style food. And if you’re into black pearls, the market sells a plethora of them!
If you want to shop where the locals shop, enjoy live music and a sense of community, these markets are a must visit.
Tick the Cook Islands off your Bucket List
The Cook Islands is truly an amazing place to be. It ticks all the honeymoon boxes – picture perfect views, plenty of sunshine, fantastic food, amazing cocktails and plenty of spots to curl up and relax. But it also has a welcoming spirit and a sense of culture that is unforgettable.
If that isn’t honeymoon perfect, I’m not sure what is.
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