Sitting halfway between Tahiti and Fiji, the Cook Islands are yet to be discovered by most Americans.
The vast majority of visitors who do come here are Australians and New Zealanders (for whom it’s a territory of their country). As opposed to Hawaii or the Caribbean, which are dominated by mega-resorts and major hotel chains, Rarotonga, the largest of the Cook Islands, has mostly mom-and-pop resorts along with weekly apartment and villa rentals.
If you’re looking for wild nightlife and dozens of attractions to fill your day, then Rarotonga is not for you. The island's 19 miles in circumference with one supermarket and two bus routes.
But if you seek somewhere to leave behind the stresses of the modern world, there's no better place. The easiest way to get here is via Air New Zealand’s daily nonstop flights from LAX.
Given its small size, there's no better or relaxing way to explore the island than to rent a bicycle for the duration of your trip. Scooters are also available for those less physically active. There are numerous rental shops around the island that will be happy to pick you up. These same shops often rent kayaks, surfboards and snorkeling gear as well.
Rarotonga is encircled by a reef that creates a protective lagoon around the island. The best beaches on the island are on its southern side. Both Raina (top) and Aora beaches are designated no-fishing zones with active coral reefs, making them the best snorkeling destinations.
For those who want calmer waters, on the southeast of island the encircling reef gives way to a series of barrier islands, creating the placid, crystal-blue Muri Lagoon (left).
Unlike more highly developed destinations, the only significant nightlife on Rarotonga are a couple of cultural shows.
High in the mountains overlooking the island, Highland Paradise is built on an original Cook Island Maori site. The original inhabitants all lived in the mountains for safety reasons, coming down to the coast only to fish and tend farms. Today the sight offers tours of the archaeological site during the day and a cultural show two nights a week.
A little less authentic but more highly produced show is put on by Te Vara Nui, a cultural village site in Muri Lagoon with a nightly buffet dinner and show. Both shows provide transportation.
The largest city on Rarotonga and the capital city for the Cook Islands is Avarua. This dwelling of 5,000 would barely rise to the moniker of village in most other countries, but represents the highest level of urbanity to be found in the Cook Islands. Be sure not to miss the Saturday market for souvenir shopping.
In Averua you'll find the small Cook Island National Museum and Para O Tane Palace (left). Averua also provides the largest selection of dining options on the island and Rarotonga’s only supermarket.
If you’re looking for fantastic cultural sights, great nightlife or thrill-seeking adventure travel, Raratonga's not your island.
If, however, you want to slow down, chill out and experience a tropical paradise with an authentic South Pacific cultural feel and some of the region's best snorkeling, then get to the Rarotonga soon – before the rest of the world discovers the island and turns it into another sterilized, packaged beach destination.