Discover blue lagoons and white sand beaches on this tiny island nation between Hawaii and New Zealand

Only about 8,000 Americans travel to the Cook Islands a year — Photo courtesy of David Kirkland / Cook Islands Tourism

When you start daydreaming about an island getaway, it’s time to put the Cook Islands on your bucket list. Believe it or not, you can travel to this South Pacific archipelago on the cheap if you plan ahead.

The tiny island nation sits between Hawaii and New Zealand and has everything you’re looking for in a tropical escape: empty beaches, zero traffic, no tour buses, and, as islanders like to say, no buildings taller than a coconut tree.

The first tip on saving money on a trip to the Cook Islands is to avoid traveling during the peak season, June through August, when Australians and New Zealanders tend to escape winter temps.

That works in our favor for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere. The best time to book a trip to the Cook Islands is during the low season, between November and April (our winter), when fewer people visit and deals on hotels and activities abound.

Only about 8,000 Americans travel to the Cook Islands a year, so consider this a vacation with serious bragging rights. It’s unlikely many friends in your group chat have been there (yet). Here’s how to enjoy a tropical vacation to the Cook Islands without breaking the bank.

How do you get to the Cook Islands from the US?

Fly direct from Honolulu to Rarotonga in the Cook IslandsFly direct from Honolulu to Rarotonga in the Cook Islands — Photo courtesy of DarrenTierney / iStock Via Getty Images

To get to the Cook Islands, fly direct from Honolulu — Hawaiian Airlines is the only U.S. carrier that offers a nonstop route to Rarotonga, the largest and most visited of the Cook Islands. You can also get to Rarotonga via New Zealand, Tahiti, and Australia.

Nonstop flights to and from Honolulu depart on a weekly basis and generally take around seven hours each way. This is probably the most expensive part of your trip, but low-season fares are significantly cheaper than those in the high-season months.

Since it’s less expensive, maybe splurge a little if you can. First-class seats on Hawaiian Airlines have lots of great perks, including reclining leather seats, personalized large-format tablets, and a menu filled with things like roasted kabocha squash, garbanzo beans with curry, and pineapple yuzu cake.

Are the Cook Islands an expensive place to visit?

A great cheap thing to do is grab food and free performances at the Punanga Nui MarketA great cheap thing to do is grab food and free performances at the Punanga Nui Market — Photo courtesy of Zemina Zaferakis / Z Bella Photography

The most expensive portion of your trip to the Cook Islands is getting there. But once there, it’s easy to find cheap places to eat and things to do. The best way to keep within your budget is to travel like a local.

Penny-pinching travelers will appreciate the favorable exchange rate. Prices at restaurants already include tax, and tipping isn’t customary. Keep in mind that credit cards are widely accepted, but cash is necessary for many of the markets.

When it comes to getting around Rarotonga, the public bus is an easy and cheap option. Go in for an economical 10-ride pass, which should accommodate most weeklong stays.

Two buses go around the perimeter of the island: The Clockwise bus leaves on the hour, and the Anti-Clockwise bus every 30 minutes. There’s only one main road, so it’s hard to get lost. Scooters and bicycles are also available to rent.

Where to stay: Cook Islands hotels, hostels, luxe resorts, and more

Use complimentary kayaks and paddleboards to explore small islands from Pacific Resort RarotongaUse complimentary kayaks and paddleboards to explore small islands from Pacific Resort Rarotonga — Photo courtesy of Zemina Zaferakis / Z Bella Photography

Find the cheapest rates for Cook Island accommodations any month during the low season, but particularly in February. There’s a stay for every budget in Rarotonga, from hostels to full-service resorts.

On the low end, you’ll find dorm-style rooms to garden bungalows and private beachfront studios from Rarotonga Backpackers. Backpacker rates are the lowest and include amenities like free local calls, communal kitchens, washing machines, and inexpensive transfer tickets to and from the airport.

A good mid-price option are the bungalows at Aro’a Beachside Inn. The 12 units overlook a secluded beach and crystal blue lagoon, where you can swim, snorkel, and kayak just steps from your door.

Or book a stay at The Black Pearl Beach Side Apartments, another great option for budget-minded travelers. There’s an on-site pool, the beach is right across the street, and units are fully equipped for longer stays.

Higher-end properties like Sea Change Villas and Pacific Resort Rarotonga are cheaper during the low season, too, but the rates are still around $400 a night. The latter offers extras like complimentary breakfast, paddleboards, kayaks, and sun loungers.

Cheap eats around Rarotonga in the Cook Islands

Find tropical fruits and vegetables at markets and cafes in the Cook IslandsFind tropical fruits and vegetables at markets and cafes in the Cook Islands — Photo courtesy of Gerold Grotelueschen / iStock Via Getty Images

If you’re looking to cook your own food, eat in your bungalow, or just grab a bite while out exploring, know that grocery store food can be marked up pretty high, as most of it is imported from Australia or New Zealand.

Instead, make a beeline for quick, affordable grub at the Muri night markets in Muri Beach Village. There you’ll find food truck fare, fresh fruits, and seafood, plus plenty of crafts for keepsakes and gifts.

The Saturday morning Punanga Nui Market in Avarua, the capital of the Cook Islands, is full of island specialties, like tuna just pulled from the waters, coconut buns, organic coffee, locally made chutneys, and ika mata, or marinated raw fish with lime and coconut sauce. Watch some free entertainment, including island dancers performing to live music, while you eat.

Pro tip: While exploring the island, keep an eye out for locals selling nu (young coconut) on the side of the road; it’s nature’s own electrolyte. Just leave change in the honesty jar.

What to do in the Cook Islands: Snorkeling, hiking, and more

Snorkel through the gorgeous coral reefs around the Cook IslandsSnorkel through the gorgeous coral reefs around the Cook Islands — Photo courtesy of chameleonseye / iStock Via Getty Images

With the crystal blue waters, soft sandy beaches, and amazing reefs surrounding Rarotonga, ocean time should be on your short list of things to do.

Bring your own or rent gear to flipper-kick through marine parks and reserves, like the Aroa Lagoon Marine Reserve or the Fruits of Rarotonga in Tikioki. The latter is a marine park home to coral bommies and a spectacular array of fish, like butterflyfish and bluefin trevally.

If you want to swim with eagle rays and turtles near the shore or learn how to spearfish, check out the tours with Go Local Cook Islands.

Or explore the land around Rarotonga on foot. Take a sunrise trek to the top of Arore Mountain with Arore Mountain Adventures for dreamy views of Muri Lagoon, the motus (little islands), and jagged mountains.

Explore Aitutaki in the Cook Islands

Find absolute serenity cruising around Aitutaki, an outer islandFind absolute serenity cruising around Aitutaki, an outer island — Photo courtesy of David Kirkland / Cook Islands Tourism

Beyond Rarotonga, Cook’s outer islands are well worth a visit. Aitutaki, a lovely series of small islands surrounded by a reef in a large lagoon, is about a 40-minute flight via Air Rarotonga. The day tour includes a flight to and from Aitutaki, a truck tour by land, and a six-hour boat cruise around the lagoon.

Take advantage of low-season rates for a stay at the Pacific Resort Aitutaki, a five-star, adults-only resort. It might still be a splurge, but the 29 beach bungalows with large verandas, outdoor showers, and gorgeous ocean views are worth it.

Visit One Foot Island in Aitutaki’s lagoon with Platinum Cruising Aitutaki or a half-day charter with Wet & Wild. While there, swim with fish like giant trevally and Napoleon wrasse, see purple coral gardens, and spot some of the largest clams in the world.

In the evening, treat yourself to dinner at Avatea Cafe, located near the village of Tautu. The fish curry with garlic naan, poached fish with coconut sauce, and butter chicken pizza are a few must-try dishes.

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