The Cook Islands are in the same time zone as the Hawaiian Islands, but it might feel like you’re a world away. Out here, buildings are no taller than a coconut tree and the largest island is just 26 square miles (around 67 square kilometers). Yet, visitors will be pleased to find modern luxury and conveniences abound in this idyllic archipelago.
Hawaiian Airlines is excited to offer the island nation’s only non-stop flights to and from the U.S., between Honolulu (HNL) and Rarotonga (RAR), launching from May 2023. Consider this your introduction to the beautiful Cook Islands, where “kia orana” is the local greeting, meaning “may you have a long and fulfilling life.”
Photo by Cook Islands Tourism | Vegetation-covered volcanic peaks are the “skyscrapers” of Rarotonga, the main island where buildings are no taller than the highest coconut tree.
1. Immerse yourself in culture on Rarotonga
After a relaxing 5.5-hour flight from Hawaii, you’ll arrive in Rarotonga, the main island in the Cook Islands. The main island beats with cultural gems like the Te Ara – The Cook Islands Museum of Cultural Enterprise, which proudly displays historic artifacts and sells 100% locally made products in the gift shop. Head inland to explore the tropical rainforests of the Takitumu Conservation Area, home to unique plant and bird species like the kakerori (Rarotonga monarch) found only in the Cook Islands. Better yet, join a guided tour by foot, bicycle, quad or charter boat to gain a deeper sense of place. Many tours offer immersive visits to cultural villages, where you can hear heritage stories firsthand and pay respects to marae (sacred places). Save time to snorkel or scuba since Rarotonga is known for its crystal-clear waters and the brilliant coral reef that surrounds the entire island. Ariki Adventures also hosts a unique sea scooter experience that benefits the Cook Islands Sea Turtle Conservation Society. For trail seekers, popular hikes include the Cross-Island Trek, ending at the seasonally spectacular Papua Waterfall (Wigmore's Waterfall).
Photo by Cook Islands Tourism | The ringed lagoon of Aitutaki makes for exciting (and easy) underwater adventures, many of which are accessible from a waterfront bungalow.
2. Play in the pristine waters of Aitutaki
Rarotonga is a launching point to the archipelago’s other islands like the secluded Aitutaki, set on a stunning turquoise lagoon. The picture-perfect atoll is prime for snorkeling, with local lagoon cruises shuttling you and gear to the top underwater spots like the Purple Wall, the Wreck of the Alexander and a giant clam farm. For a self-guided tour, Pacific Resort Aitutaki’s Aquatic Eco Trail marks five different lagoon habitats that support colonies of puffer fish, giant moray, sea cucumbers and more. Kiteboarders love Honeymoon Island for its long sandbar and shallow flats, accessible by water taxi, while stand-up paddleboarders will launch from the calm waters of Ootu Beach. If you crave time to unwind, sign up for the SpaPolynesia romi romi massage, a signature Cook Islands treatment at Aitutaki Lagoon Private Island Resort. Just don’t miss the chance to get your passport stamped at the world’s smallest post office on Tapuaetai (One Foot Island), an islet in Aitutaki Lagoon.
Photo by Cook Islands Tourism | Atiu’s stunning cave networks showcase the unique coral uplift of the island.
3. Go into the jungles and caves of Atiu
You won’t find any nightclubs in Atiu but rather an abundance of natural wonders, some of which are subterranean. Unleash your inner Indiana Jones with the island’s intricate cave networks that weave through makatea (coral uplift) in the dense jungle. Atiu Eco-Adventure guides groups to the three caverns of Anatakitaki Caves, while other operators lead select tours to the iconic cave pools of Vai Akaruru. Atiu is also known as Enuamanu (land of the birds), a fitting moniker considering it is home to some 11 native birds, from the boisterous blue kingfisher to the rare kopeka (Atiu swiftlet), which nests in the island’s limestone caves and navigates like a bat using sonar. Eco tours with George “Birdman” Mateariki will help you spot the endangered bird species along the island’s ancient trails. Adult imbibers might then enjoy capping the day with Atiu’s tumunu tradition, a strong beer brewed in the base of a coconut tree.
Photo by Cook Islands Tourism | Escape to the picturesque beaches of Mangaia, where secluded coves are sheltered by coral limestone.
4. Fill your camera roll on Mangaia
The Cook Islands’ southernmost and second largest island, Mangaia, is a photographer’s dream. Secluded beaches like Araoa Beach have blissful stretches of sand tucked between raised coral limestone, making for dramatic perspectives. At low tide, zoom in on the colorful marine life at the Tuaati rock pool or focus on the 1904 Saragossa Shipwreck near the village of Tamarua. Mangaia is also home to its own fair share of cave networks, from the extensive Tuatini Cave to the glittering Te Ruarere Cave, all of which are best explored with a local expert and slower shutter speeds. For inspired images of the local community, wake up early for the Friday morning markets and church services — just be sure to ask for permission before snapping a shot. Bring a tripod to Avarua Landing, a perfect place to catch the sunset and see fishermen returning home. Food photographers also won’t miss the chance to capture (and eat) a famed Mangaian donut.
Book your non-stop flight to the Cook Islands
Luckily, the Cook Islands are only a plane ride away from the Hawaiian Islands. As the only airline to offer non-stop flights between the Cook Islands and the United States, Hawaiian Airlines is excited to welcome guests to this unique archipelago of the South Pacific. Search flights now.