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The Cook Islands’ Secret Travel Recipe, Best Served by Locals

  • Ethan Gelber
  • 26 January 2009

The Cook Islands are best known for their pristine beaches and warm lagoons, the kinds of retreats that usually appeal to travellers in the South Pacific Ocean. Most visitors therefore end up on the two most popular and easily reachable islands, Rarotonga and Aitutaki. However, the Cook Islands have so much more to offer, especially the kinds of secrets that locals keep close to their chests – and that are a recipe for a truly local experience.

There are many forms of beauty in the Cook Islands

There are many forms of beauty in the Cook Islands

To try it, you must venture to the more secluded and uncommercialised islands, like Atiu and Mangaia, where you can experience the Pacific as it once was – like Hawaii 50 years ago or Tahiti 30 years ago.

Atiu

Atiu is home to an incredible abundance of exotic and rare birds, many easily visible almost everywhere you go. One particularly memorable species is the Kakerori, one of the 10 rarest birds in the world. It was close to extinction before a colony was introduced to Atiu. It now thrives – to the delight of tourists and locals alike.

Exploration of the Cook Islands brings you very close to nature

Exploration of the Cook Islands brings you very close to nature

Other Atiu attraction include a coffee plantation, one of the few left in the world where the beans are completely organically grown and still 100% sun-dried; the Anatakitaki and Vaitypuranga caves, where you can see the Kopeka bird in its natural environment; and the Fibre Arts Studio, where the Tivaevae (quilt) is made by local ladies (mamas) under the supervision of Andrea Eimke, a long time island resident. With advance notice, visitors can work with the mamas.

No visit to Atiu is complete without taking part in a Tumunu, at which is drunk an alcohol made from wild oranges. The once-secret and illicit practice of brewing it has emerged from the jungle (where it still occurs) and become a strong local tradition. Invitations can be arranged to join a local Tumunu gathering, an opportunity not to be missed.

The secret to getting to Atiu on a slim budget is to combine a flight to Atiu with a visit to Aitutaki so that it coincides with the once per week (on Wednesday) 35-minute direct Air Rarotonga flight in each direction. Not flying through Rarotonga will save you around NZ$200 (US$100) in airfares. If time is too short for this to be planned, consider taking a tour.

The astonishing Makatea Cliffs, an ancient exposed coral bed, of Mangaia Island

The astonishing Makatea Cliffs, an ancient exposed coral bed, of Mangaia Island

Mangaia

Mangaia is the second largest and southernmost of the Cook Islands. It is the oldest coral island in the world, thrust up out of the sea twice, over a million years ago. This left a fortress-like outer ring, known as the Makatea Cliffs, composed of the first ancient atoll’s original reef. It’s hard to believe that all those years ago the interior of the island was a lagoon, especially now with all the crops planted there.

Mangaia has some amazing underground attractions (like Tere’s cave or the Te-rua-rere cave) open to exploration with the help of a guide, who will no doubt talk about the local history as well. Some caves were used as burial sites, while others have massive stalactites and stalagmites. One cave goes right under one of the towns!

Do some caving on Mangaia Island the way it used to be done - by the light of a genuine torch

Do some caving on Mangaia Island the way it used to be done - by the light of a genuine torch

If staying above ground is more your cup of tea, try bike riding or four-wheel driving through the sparsely populated island’s breathtaking scenery. Hiking trails belong to anyone moving at a more leisurely pace to beautiful secluded beaches, where you can walk under the overhanging Makatea coastal cliffs and admire it from the outside.

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beaches, caves, Cook Islands, food & drink, handicrafts & shopping, islands, local knowledge, Oceania, Polynesia, responsible travel, whl.travel,

3 Responses to “The Cook Islands’ Secret Travel Recipe, Best Served by Locals”

  1. Wullus says:

    Magnificant….those Cook Islands ! I hope residing there….some day..

  2. Rarotonga Cook Islands is one of the most enchanting of the South Pacific destinations. Many describe it as the Hawaii of yesterday – great for a holiday, easy to explore, lots of accommodation, plenty of good independent restaurants and enough attractions and day tours to keep you busy. There is something very unique and exciting in traveling around the island on a moped with the wind in your hair, passing local villages and colorful houses with the fragrance of sweet scented flowers all around.

  3. hospital says:

    Thank you very much very nice article
    Great information! Very useful for me. Thanks a lot.

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