I had never heard of the Cook Islands before I started researching this trip, but the more I read, the more excited I became. (I chose it over a few other destinations, like Tahiti, under the mistaken impression that it was harder and more expensive to get there from the US than the South Pacific. Wrong. There are direct flights to both from Los Angeles, and while it defies logic, you can often find better flight deals from LA than neighboring islands/countries.) The Island’s main travel website (https://cookislands.travel/) describes this slice of paradise as what Hawaii was 50 years ago, but with modern conveniences. Apparently, this tropical paradise inspired the show “Survivor” (and yes, a season was filmed here). Travel tip: one caveat to the claim about modern conveniences. There is no such thing as free WiFi here. WiFi is available, but at a fee (around $10 for 500MB), and places that have WiFi are actually only hotspots. Now that I’ve been, well, I can’t say that I’d advise just anyone to run out and plan a trip.
Let me start with a positive: the beauty of this place (specifically: the island of Aitutaki) is unparalleled. See for yourself (pictured below: Ootu Beach and the lagoon)…
But before you fall into the trap I did (being so captivated by photos, and advice in other blogs about affordability and how it’s a great destination for solo travelers), let me offer some perspective. While it is a gorgeous country that I hope everyone gets to see at some point in their lives, it is not a great choice for (1) solo travelers (unless you are looking to get away, decompress, and have limited interaction with others), or (2) anyone on a budget. Admittedly, I visited during Christmas so perhaps there was a higher-than-usual percentage of couples and families, though something tells me the island is rarely full of solo travelers. Also, while you can manage to travel there on somewhat of a budget, probably far more affordable outside of Christmas holidays, you’ll still spend far more than other South Pacific islands (or Hawaii!). And it won’t be nearly as enjoyable of a trip when you’re pinching pennies. Here’s the best analogy I could think of: if you’re someone who doesn’t drink, gamble, go dancing or out to nightclubs or bars, if you prefer fast food to fine dining, if you hate crowds, sex, and impressive shows aren’t your thing… then why would you ever plan a trip to Las Vegas? Sure, Vegas offers other things too, but you’re going to have to spend a lot of time, energy, and effort to find them. Instead of forcing a bad fit, why not plan a trip somewhere else? That’s how I feel about going to the Cook Islands when you’re a solo traveler and especially if you’re on a budget. Go to Fiji or Vanuatu, both are beautiful, more affordable, and offer a much bigger range of things to do and see. [Important side note: Cook Islands are incredibly safe, so my advice about not going as a solo traveler is not at all like my advice about not traveling through India as a solo traveler. This has nothing to do with safety concerns!]
Before I get into more specifics, let me throw a couple more photos at you, taken during low tide out in the middle of the lagoon at Ootu Beach.
Getting to the Cook Islands
I detailed my travel to the Cook Islands in my prior post about traveling around the South Pacific, so I’ll just add a few details here. Flying to the Cook Islands was anything but cheap. I paid $720 for a round-trip flight from Auckland to Rarotonga (a 4 hour flight) on the budget airline; as expensive as this flight was, but given that I’m traveling there over Christmas holidays, it could have been worse. And getting to Aitutaki from Rarotonga (a 50 minute flight) added another 392NZD (~$263); this was a super bargain flight deal because I flew at 6am and took only 7kg worth of luggage in a carry on bag. No checked bag allowed at this price. Tickets often run as much as $400USD round-trip. (By the way: there’s only one airline (Air Rarotonga https://www.airraro.com/en) that flies to Aitutaki.) If you’re keeping track, that’s almost $1000USD spent before I even set foot in the Cook Islands. (And that’s not counting the flights from Vanuatu to Fiji to Auckland!) If going to the trouble of going to the Cook Islands, you must visit Aitutaki! In fact, it’s really why you should bother going to the Cook Islands. If you don’t want to stay overnight, Air Rarotonga offers a day trip from Rarotonga, with airfare included, for about 500NZD ($335USD). Be aware, you will be on a small plane for this flight.
Travel Tip #1 (on what to do with your checked bag when heading to Aitutaki): Air Rarotonga will store bags for passengers on domestic flights for a super cheap fee (2NZD/day)! You just leave your larger bag with the airline at the check-in counter. Travel Tip #2: if you fly back into Raro on the last Air Rarotonga flight of the day (arrives to Raro at 8pm), and are leaving for Auckland later that night (flight is at 1:30am, but don’t hold your breath that it will leave on time), you don’t have to stand around the tiny airport for 5.5 hours. The Island Resort & Hulu Bar is across the street from the airport and they will let you hang out and wait as long as you’d like until your flight! Travel Tip #3: given the frequency that Jetstar is delayed in flights to Rarotonga (and to a much lesser degree, other airlines), there’s a solid chance you’ll end up needing to book an extra night in a hotel and/or will lose out on a night you had booked on the island. To protect yourself against this and not be out any money, make sure you have travel insurance before going to the Cook Islands.
Travel Tip: pack loads of very strong bug spray! I have never gotten so many mosquito bites as in the Cook Islands (yes, Rarotonga was worse than Aitutaki)- everyone at my hostel and who I met had the same experience. This was despite being covered in bug spray daily. Yet another reason Hawaii, Fiji, and Vanuatu beat the Cook Islands for me.
Accommodations in Raro
Due to the high price of air fare, I opted to save where I could, which meant another hostel. I booked a bed for three nights at the Rarotonga Backpackers (http://www.rarotongabackpackers.com/) based on good reviews, proximity to the beach, and primarily- affordability ($17/night). As for beach proximity: low tide started by early afternoon and the ocean was so shallow from that point until after dark there wasn’t enough water to swim in, so the oceanfront location wasn’t as great as advertised. And when I arrived to my hostel that first night and opened the door to my dorm room it hit me: booking rooms in hostels without air conditioning when I’m going to hot islands is not a smart plan. As I laid on my very thin mattress (think of a pull out couch mattress, where you can feel the bars below you) that night, dreaming about finding a different hotel to move to for the next two nights. After a relatively sleepless night, the next morning I reminded myself: the hostel was my compromise to make up for the expensive airfare. At least, the room was clean and the other people staying there were lovely, which made up for how stifling hot it was in the dorm room at night. And we had the cutest pack of beach dogs that lived there/nearby. They were all super sweet, though my favorite is pictured below.
Plus, the weather in Rarotonga was the worst I’d encountered in the South Pacific; the sky was gray and it rained off and on for most days.
In fairness, this was bound to happen at some point. Apart from a mostly gray and somewhat rainy day in Santo (which you might have not even noticed from my blog or photos, because I enjoyed myself so much I couldn’t be bothered to complain about the weather!), I’ve had brilliant weather for my travels over the last couple of months, despite traveling around the South Pacific during the rainy/cyclone season. Would have been a shame to have spent a lot on a fancy beach bungalow with such crappy weather. But if private bungalows are what you want, Backpackers has a few of these right on the beach, and at prices way more affordable than bungalows at the fancy resorts. And I did get one spectacular sunset to enjoy, plus lots of love from the sweet pack of dogs that live on the beach nearby. Bottom line: Backpackers is the most budget-friendly option on the island of Rarotonga, and I saved a lot staying there, but was very excited to get to my private room at a “resort” in Aitutaki.
Things to Do in Rarotonga
The answer: not a lot. Though this island has far more beaches, bars, and restaurants than you’ll find when you travel to the outer islands. There is a lovely market that is held once or twice a week; I went on Saturday morning.
This market is far bigger than any I had been to in Fiji or Vanuatu, but it also lacked produce and fruit (and what was being sold was pretty expensive)–the market is mostly prepared food and souvenirs. I did find an amazing deal; for 10NZD I got a take away container full of four vegetarian dishes packed so full it lasted me three meals!
Transportation in Raro
On Monday through Saturday there are buses running clockwise and counterclockwise around the island. It will take you around 1 hour to ride the bus around the entire island, at a cost of 5NZD (one-way) or 9NZD (round-trip, which allows you to get off for one stop). I quite enjoyed the bus and it’s a great way to see the island. However, the cost adds up quite quickly so if you plan on venturing away from your accommodation much it’s probably worth renting a motor scooter, which is the primary vehicle on the island.
Final Thoughts on Raro
It is a nice island and there is a lot to do compared to the outer islands, and it is far more affordable than the outer islands. But I found it to be underwhelming and one to two days is enough here. Raro is best thought of as a jumping off point to Aitutaki; I would not consider it a destination itself.
I booked my final two nights on the northern island of Aituaki, because I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to stay in one of the most beautiful islands in the world. And beautiful it is!
Getting to Aitutaki
Because flight information is above, I’ll just leave you with photos of our tiny 14-passenger plane and the beautiful sunrise, and first images of Aitutaki, I took from the plane, as well as the cute airport in Aitutaki.
Though it is breathtaking, and the people are nice, there are caveats to the rest of my experience in Aitutaki.
Accommodations in Aitutaki
I’m going to start this section with my Travel Tip for Hotels in Aitutaki: do not, under any circumstances, stay at Ranginui’s Retreat. Because Aituaki is so small and much less inhabited than Rarotonga, there are fewer options for accommodations, and overall the island is more expensive. I booked myself two nights at Ranginui’s Retreat (I made my reservation through Booking.com; $109 for two nights in my own private room) based on “affordability” (in quotes for a reason) and location. RR is located on Ootu Beach, which is frequently called the most beautiful lagoon in the world.
The reviews of Ranginui’s weren’t great, but they were decent so I set my expectations low and presumed it would be the equivalent of a budget hotel… and I was still underwhelmed. The owner and manager, Steve, has all the warmth and compassion of a wet cloth, and he seems to have adopted the work philosophy of doing the absolute bare minimum to keep this place running, which means the level of service you get is CRAP. Yes, Ootu Beach is jaw-dropping and the place to spend time when in Aitutaki; but it is also a public beach and lagoon so you can still spend your days here. The “facilities” offered at Ranginui’s definitely don’t add anything to the location, and again, service is non-existent. For example, I was in contact with Steve prior to my arrival; Ranginui’s offers transportation to/from the airport, but limited hours so I ended up walking ~40 minutes each way myself.
Yet during none of these emails did he bother to mention critical information if traveling to Aitutaki around Christmas: most of the island shuts down and the restaurants that do stay open book up well in advance, so call or email prior to your arrival in Aitutaki to make dinner reservations. Because he failed to inform me of this until after I arrived, I spent hours my first day getting rejected by restaurants across the island. When I came back to the “retreat” in tears, because it was Christmas Eve and I was worried I wouldn’t be able to eat dinner anywhere, Steve got visibly uncomfortable and just said “I’m not sure what to tell you.” In fairness to him, he did recommend I check out The Boat Shed, which turned out to be my favorite place on the island, and I was able to get dinner reservations for Christmas Eve. But Steve didn’t so much as lift a finger (or make a phone call) to try and help a customer, traveling alone for the Christmas holidays. You can imagine how helpful he was when I asked him what would be open on Christmas day (he just gave me a map of the island and circled various restaruants and bars that might be open, and suggested I drive around the island and ask them if they would be open). The room itself was aesthetically fine- it was clean, I had a bed and private bathroom, and even a small fridge.
But in every possible way this was a private hostel and not a “retreat” or even a budget hotel. There was no A/C or overhead fan, just a small desk fan that didn’t begin to make the room cool at night; though nights cool off nicely in Aitutaki, the building the cheapest rooms are in does not front the water and spends the day baking in the sun, so I would guess my room was around 85F/29C each night. That made it almost impossible for me to sleep. I did receive one towel for the shower, but no soap (not even to wash your hands), shampoo/conditioner, or lotion, no beach towels, and if you want to snorkel- Steve charges for that too (snorkeling gear has been free at every other place I’ve stayed so far in the South Pacific, hostel or resort!). Oh, and while it’s common for hostels and hotels to preclude you from entry into your room after checkout, my experience (literally every other place I’ve stayed in the world) is that you can still use common areas and facilities. Not at Ranginui’s! The only thing Steve let me do was to use the hose near the pool (“but not the pool”, which was literally a quote, emphasis from him) to rinse off after swimming in the ocean- because I hated the thought of spending the rest of the day, and then two flights, covered in (and smelling like) salt water. Charming. (I should add that Ranginui’s was less than half full, so it’s not like Steve was concerned about my interfering with other guests’ use of the facilities.)
It is true that the surrounding resorts are much more expensive, but you get so much more for your money. And paying around $55/night for what is best described as a hostel room is still expensive! If budget is what you need, there are a few cheaper options on the island, so you’re better off going for one of those. If you want something more comfortable but can’t afford the expensive resorts on the island, you should still look elsewhere. A beachfront bungalow at Ranginui’s will cost you somewhere around $160/night, and that’s without A/C (and with the shit level of service I’ve described). But there are options cheaper than this, at facilities that are much more modern and comfortable (including A/C, which I’m stressing so much because trying to sleep in a sweatbox is just awful and makes you realize a tent on the beach would have been more comfortable- and loads cooler). And although they may not be right on Ootu Beach, Aitutaki is such a tiny island it won’t take you long to get there and enjoy it for the day.
I found myself desperately wishing I had spent (a lot!) more upfront to stay somewhere comfortable, because at least I would have been able to sleep and not be so stressed about whether I would find a place to eat (resorts save space for their guests, so it’s not such a source of stress). But by the time I looked into changing, I would have had to spend at least $300 on top of the $109 I had already spent for Ranginui’s, and I talked myself off the ledge: I can suck anything up for two days, and better to have the extra money to spend elsewhere.
If you have the budget: when trying to figure out where I could find Christmas dinner, there were two resorts who were incredibly helpful. One went so far above and beyond to help me, that I could only think: if this is the level of service you’re willing to provide to someone who is not a customer, I can only imagine the incredible service they must provide to guests at their resort. This resort is Pacific Resort (https://www.pacificresort.com/) and yes, you will pay to stay there (rooms begin at around $470/night), but you will no doubt enjoy it. Or for something slightly more affordable that will also ensure a great stay and experience, the second resort that helped me out was Aitutaki Lagoon (http://www.aitutakilagoon.website/). They advertise rooms starting at about $350/night and are located on a private little island on the spectacular lagoon Ranginui’s is on.
If the prices above seem too expensive, I’d like to ask you to go back to the beginning and read my advice again. This is an expensive island and if you want to enjoy yourself and not fall prey to spending so much to get here, to only tolerate (and that’s being kind) your accommodations, you’re going to have to plan on spending some real $$$. That’s why this is a great destination when you’re not on a budget or if traveling with others- splitting the cost at either place would make this a nice, but not budget-busting holiday.
Food in Aitutaki
As I was here over the Christmas holiday, and this is one of the few places in the world that really does shut most things down for days around the holidays, several places the locals raved about (Koru Cafe, for example) were closed. But I did have some of the best meals I’ve had in months in Aitutaki at The Boat Shed and this wonderful little take away place, The Fish & Chip Shop. Both were affordable (the takeaway place was downright cheap) and seriously SO DAMN GOOD. I ate three different meals at the Boat Shed, and spent 5 hours during my last day on the island (while waiting for my walk to the airport) relaxing there; there was absolutely no rushing me out and no pressure to buy more of anything, at any point. And the fish sandwich I had at The Fish & Chip Shop was one of the best sandwiches I’ve ever had in my life. Unreal it was so good. For 9NZD (~$6USD).
Things to Do
When I was there, there were only a handful of options: spend time in the ocean/at the beach; ride a motor scooter around the island (will only take 30 minutes, and that’s at an island-wide speed limit of 40kmh/25mph); and, eat and drink in one of the open restaurants. Lagoon cruises are very popular on this island, but very little was operating due to the Christmas holiday; the only one I saw departed from Aitutaki Lagoon Resort (with its guests only, no doubt), on Boxing Day. Sadly, that meant I missed out on a lagoon cruise. One of my favorite things to do was to ride a scooter around the island, and one of my favorite spots to ride up to was Piraki Lookout, an amazing lookout point where you can see the east and west coasts of Aitutaki.
Final Thoughts on Aitutaki & The Cook Islands
The Cook Islands are lovely, and I challenge anyone to show me someplace in the world more beautiful than Aitutaki (because I’d love to go there too!). But, after spending so much time in Hawaii, Fiji, and Vanuatu, all of which are beautiful island paradises that are WAY more affordable and offer WAY more options for things to do and see, the Cook Islands is definitely a luxury trip that is best kept for a special occasion.