Cook Islands Travel Articles

Adventure Life
Dock going out into the crystal blue ocean
Adventure Life
Snorkel the clear, tropical waters
Adventure Life
A snorkeler walking along a white sandy beach.

The Famed Cook Islands

The Cook Islands are located in the South Pacific Ocean, about equidistant between Hawaii and New Zealand. They are named after Captain Cook, who discovered them in 1770. Made up of two groups, which consist of six low-lying coral atolls (ring-shaped coral reefs) in the north and nine elevated, volcanic isles in the south, the land area of the Cook Islands cover about 93 square miles, making them about one and half times the size of Washington, D.C. A striking feature of many of the Cook Islands is the stunningly beautiful lagoons, which are home to diverse marine wildlife and are ideal for snorkeling and diving.

The surrounding seas teem with turtles, brightly colored fish, whales, dolphins, and sharks. The occasional seal may even be found near the shores of some of the southern islands. Many bird species also make their home on the islands, including Rarotonga flycatchers, Mangaia kingfishers, terns, frigates, and red-footed boobies.

Cook Islanders are mostly Maori (Polynesian), with 88% of the population falling in that category. Another 6% are part Maori, with the remaining 6% of other ethnic origin. English is the official language, but most people are bilingual, speaking both English and the indigenous Maori language.

The Cook Islands fulfill many people’s visions of paradise: warm, sunny weather, white sand beaches, sparkling turquoise water stretching out in all directions, gentle ocean breezes and exotic palm trees. With the friendly people, vast diversity of wildlife, and activities such as snorkeling, scuba diving, exploring uninhabited islands, and joining in the dancing on an ‘Island Night,’ the Cook Islands are an extraordinary vacation spot.

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Cultural Look at the Cook Islands

Cook Islanders are mostly Maori (Polynesian), with 88% of the population falling in that category. Another 6% are part Maori, with the remaining 6% of other ethnic origin. English is the official language, but most people are bilingual, speaking both English and the indigenous Maori language.

Cook Islanders are highly religious, a result of British missionaries coming to the islands in the 1800s. Today over 60% of the people belong to the Cook Islands Christian church, while 17% are Roman Catholic, 8% are Seventh-Day Adventists, and the remaining 15% ascribe to other, mostly Christian, denominations. On some of the islands, businesses are closed on Sundays and the people celebrate a day of rest.

Music and dancing are very popular in the Cook Islands. Cook Islanders take dancing very seriously, with each island having its own unique dances that the people begin learning in childhood. Visitors to the islands are given the opportunity to join in the dancing on ‘Island Night,’ when the hotels put on performances that include the dancers leading guests out onto the dance floor, where they can show off their talents.

The singing on the Cook Islands is beautiful and moving. The people love to sing in harmony; church hymns are popular. As with dances, each island has its own songs, and the talents of the singers can be experienced throughout the year at various festivals and events. Besides singing, the people participate in string bands that play at hotels, restaurants, and concerts.

Cook Islands art is also distinctive. Local painters and artists have developed original styles of woodcarving, basalt sculptures, and limestone carving. Traditional weaving in the outer islands includes mats, basketware, and hats. Coconut palm fiber is finely woven to create rito hats, which are the local equivalent of Panama hats and may be worn to church on Sundays. Tivaevae, the making of handmade patchwork quilts, is another major art form which was introduced by missionary wives in the 19th century. Since its introduction it has become a popular communal activity. Tivaevae can be bought in both Atiu and Rarotonga, for those interested in bringing home a lovely local souvenir.

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Explore Island Environemt

The Cook Islands are some of the most exotically beautiful isles in the world. Turquoise waves lap against white sand beaches, where one can lie in the sun or beneath the cooling shade of tall coconut palm trees. The many lagoons are perfect places to swim—the water is warm, calm and clear, and filled with colorful tropical fish.

Conservation has long played a significant role in the Cook Islands. The traditional raui system, in which access to a particular resource or area is forbidden for a given period of time, is still in place today. Today, many parts of the islands are set aside as wildlife or marine sanctuaries, national parks, reserves, or rauis. The Island of Takutea, long known as a breeding ground for a large number of birds, and has been a wildlife sanctuary since 1903, while the entire Suwarrow Atoll has been a national park since 1978. Many of the waters surrounding the islands remain unexploited, making them a safe haven for the creatures that make their homes there.

The land of the islands themselves is rich, with the volcanic soil combining with the tropical location to make the area ideal for growing a number of crops, including copra, citrus, pineapples, bananas, tomatoes, beans, yams, taro, pawpaws, and coffee. Primary industries include fruit processing, tourism, fishing, clothing, and handicrafts. The Cook Islands’ exports reflect these industries: copra, papayas, fresh and canned citrus fruit, coffee, fish, clothing, pearls and pearl shells.

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Islands Cuisine

Tropical regions have a large variety of culinary possibilities, and the Cook Islands are no different. Popular ingredients include fresh fruit—papayas, lemons, limes, coconuts, bananas, mangos, musk melons—all of which make for a refreshing taste for the palate, not to mention a healthy breakfast!

Shellfish, fish, and crabs are other delectable options. One recipe for traditional fermented mitiore calls for capturing tiny white crabs on the beach at night, tying them into a muslin cloth, lightly pounding them with a kitchen mallet until they are slightly mashed, and sprinkling the juice over finely grated coconut. Most recipes use coconut, as the coconut palm can be found on all of the islands. Some fish are served raw—maroro (flying fish), tuna, or other white fish is marinated for a couple of hours with salt and lemon or lime and then served with coconut cream and cooked root vegetables. Other recipes include cutting raw white fish or shellfish (crab, lobster, shrimp) into cubes and pickling them, creating a succulent and finely-flavored dish.

For those who prefer their fish to be cooked, Moana-Roa Mahimahi is a delectable option, with the fish poached in coconut cream and served atop a bed of greens and garnished with fried ginger and fresh lime. Sea cucumbers (matu rori) are also a delicacy, cooked with sautéed onion and garlic and served with crusty bread or cooked root vegetables.

Other local dishes include breadfruit (kuru) stew, cooked taro leaves, and various salads such as raro tarati, traditional pawpaw, and pickled fish. Adventurous visitors will enjoy the plethora of unusual dishes that can be sampled in the Cook Islands.

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Cook Islands Geography

The Cook Islands are located in the South Pacific Ocean, about equidistant between Hawaii and New Zealand. They are named after Captain Cook, who discovered them in 1770. Made up of two groups, which consist of six low-lying coral atolls in the north and nine elevated, volcanic isles in the south, the land area of the Cook Islands cover about 93 square miles, making them about one and half times the size of Washington, D.C. This handful of islands is scattered across 850,000 square miles of ocean, spreading over an area the size of Western Europe.

The northern atolls are the result of volcanoes which later sank, leaving coral reefs around low plateaus. Further volcanic action killed the reefs, thus creating razor-sharp bands of coral called makateas. Many of the makateas also boast limestone caves throughout. Some of the caves are ancient burial sites, while others are filled with water and make perfect swimming spots. Another striking feature of many of the Cook Islands are the stunningly beautiful lagoons, which are home to diverse marine wildlife and are ideal for snorkeling and diving.

The islands are sparsely populated, home to only 21,000 people, most of whom live on the higher southern islands. Rarotonga is the largest, a roughly circular isle covering about 26 square miles, with the magnificent Te Manga volcano dominating the island at 2,138 feet above sea level. The capital city and administrative center, Avarua, is located on the northern coast. Both the Cook Islands’ Parliament buildings and the international airport are located near the city. Rarotonga is home to over 12,000 people, about 65% of the islands’ population, with about 9,500 living in Avarua.

Another 25% of the population is scattered on the other southern islands, while the remaining 10% live in the northern group. Only two of the fifteen islands are uninhabited, Minuae and Takutea, both of the southern group. These two islands, though they have no human population, are sanctuaries for some spectacular wildlife, including turtles, sharks, manta rays, and many varieties of birds and lizards.

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History of the Cook Islands

The Cook Islands were most likely settled by Polynesians from Tonga and Samoa around 600 AD. The language and culture of the islands is very similar to that of Tahiti and the Society Islands. One thousand years later, Spanish explorers were the first Europeans to discover this island group. Over the next two centuries, various groups of European explorers mapped the islands, but they were finally named for Captain James Cook, who sighted them in 1773.

Missionaries began arriving in the early 1800s, and after 1820 Christianity spread rapidly, becoming the largest influence in both the political and social spheres. Today, the majority of Cook Islanders are Christian, with about 60% of the people members of the Cook Islands Christian Church. Rarotonga, the largest island both in area and population, was declared a British protectorate in 1888. Thirteen years later, in 1901, this authority shifted to New Zealand, and by this time the boundaries included the rest of the southern islands as well as the northern atolls.

In the 1960s, with international anti-colonial sentiment rising, the Cook Islanders began to press for autonomous rule. In 1965, this effort bore fruit, making the Cook Islands one of the first Pacific Island groups to become self-determining. For over 40 years now the Cook Islands have been a self-governing state in free association with New Zealand. New Zealand thus is in charge of the islands’ defense and foreign relations, but it may not pass laws on the Cook Islands without the islanders’ consent.

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Islands Politics

Since 1965 the Cook Islands has been a self-governing region in free association with New Zealand. The Cook Islands are fully responsible for their internal affairs, while New Zealand still maintains responsibility for external affairs and defense, in consultation with the islands. However, the islands have been working towards an increasingly independent foreign policy since the 1980s. Since 2005, the Cook Islands has diplomatic relations with 18 other countries. The islands are run by a self-governing parliamentary democracy, with a legal system based on New Zealand law and English common law.

Queen Elizabeth II, then, is official chief of state, with the High Commissioner Kurt Meyer the representative of New Zealand, while the local head of government is Prime Minister Jim Marurai, with Terepai Maoate in the role of deputy prime minister. The prime minister is usually the majority party leader or the leader of the majority coalition, which is decided after legislative elections. Elections are held every five years, with the most recent on September 7, 2004. The Cook Islands People’s Party holds 10 of the 25 seats in parliament, while the Democratic Alliance Party holds 9, Demo Party Tumu holds 4, and one seat is held by an independent.

The House of Ariki, with as many as 15 hereditary chiefs, has a great deal of influence and gives advice on matters of tradition and custom. However, the group has no legislative powers.

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What to Expect of Cook Islands Weather

The Cook Islands experience a typically tropical climate. Summers are hot and humid with more rainfall and the possibility of tropical storms, while winters are cooler and drier. As the islands are south of the equator, the rainy summer season lasts from November to April, with cyclones a threat from November until March. During this time Rarotonga sees temperatures of 85°F and above, and the days follow a pattern of bright sunny mornings that turn into late afternoon cloudbursts, which are sometimes accompanied by strong winds, thunder and lightning.

Winters last from May to October, with temperatures averaging around 77°F during the day and dropping to 66°F at night. Watch out for the occasional chill night—the lowest winter temperature was recorded in 1965 when the mercury fell to a bitter 48°F! The winter months are also considered the dry season, and with the cease of rainfall and tropical storms, this season is the best one in which to visit the Cook Islands.

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Diverse Wildlife of the Cook Islands

The Cook Islands, being both tropical and remote, are home to a diversity of wildlife. The surrounding seas teem with turtles, brightly colored fish, whales, and sharks. The hawksbill turtle, which is a critically endangered species, and the green turtle can be found swimming near the islands. Divers may also see golden trevallys, chevron barracudas, white tip and black tip reef sharks, graceful manta rays, coconut crabs, and grey reef sharks. Various species of dolphins and whales also swim the warm waters.

Many bird species can be found on the islands. The endangered Rarotonga flycatcher is one, while the Mangaia kingfisher is a rare subspecies found only on the isle of Mangaia. Brightly colored fruit doves, red-tailed tropicbirds, petrels, terns, noddies, frigatebirds, kopekas, and red-footed boobies are other species that frequent the Cook Islands. Several species of geckos and skinks also enjoy the tropical climate.

Vegetation varies greatly between the southern volcanic islands and the northern atolls. The coconut palm can be found everywhere, but the richer soil of the volcanic islands gives sustenance to flowering trees such as the casuarinas, hibiscus, frangipani, Poinciana, and bougainvillea. Pandanus and breadfruit trees can also be found, as well as the spreading banyan tree. The world’s largest banyan covers a quarter acre of the southern island of Mauke—and it’s still spreading! The atolls, on the other hand, have very little fresh water and poorer soil, and are not able to support the same variety of plants.

The northern atoll of Manihiki boasts another marine species: the black-lip pearl oyster. Manihiki’s lovely lagoon, two and a half miles across and completely enclosed by 40 small islets, is home to this rich resource. Black cultured pearls are the most valued export in all of the Cook Islands, with an estimated 250,000 pearls contributing NZ $18 million to the economy each year.

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