Cook Islands - Attractions
Avarua, the capital of the Cook Islands and Rarotonga's main town, lies in the middle of the northern coast. Until recently, Avarua was a sleepy little port, very much the image of a South Seas trading centre. The town had quite a facelift to spruce it up for the international Maire Nui festival in 1992, and it's had some development since, but its relaxed, friendly ambience remains. The focal point of the town is the traffic circle, located toward the eastern end of town near Avarua Harbour. Just east of the circle is the Seven-in-One Coconut Tree, a group of trees growing in a perfect circle of their own. Legend has it that they've grown from the same seed.
Among the reminders of the missionary era of the 19th century are the Papeiha Stone, named for the first person to preach the Christian gospel in the Cook Islands; and the CICC Church, dating from 1853 and graced with a beautiful graveyard. Over at the Library & Museum Society you can check out books from their extensive Pacific collection and peruse displays on basketry, weaving, musical instruments and photographs in their small museum.
Aitutaki ranks behind Rarotonga in the visitor contest, and it lacks the sheer physical beauty of its larger neighbour, but it has charms all its own. For a start, it sits at one corner of a triangular lagoon dotted with lovely motu (small islands). And it's historically interesting, with a number of impressive marae (pre-European religious meeting grounds) that are open to visitors. Aitutaki also has one of the best 'island nights' dance and music performances in the Cooks.
Arutanga is the main village - a sleepy place with a weathered 1828 CICC church, the oldest and one of the most beautiful in the Cooks, with lots of carved wood and stained glass windows. There are lots of funky little shops, and the view of the coastline from the end of the jetty is superb.
There are some impressive black basalt marae stones near the southeastern shore, many among the largest in the islands and each with its own name. Maungapu, on the northern end of the island, is just 125m (410ft), but the easy half-hour hike is worth it for the great view of the island and the lagoon. The lagoon itself is a wonder: dotted with sandbars, coral ridges and 21 motu - and free of sharks. Among the motu worth visiting are Maina, which has great snorkeling and red-tailed tropicbird nests, and Tapuaeta'i, also known as One Foot Island, which boasts a perfect beach and brilliant turquoise waters.
The airport is at the northern end of the island; there are daily flights between Aitutaki and Rarotonga. The island is popular with yachties, though you could get there via passenger freighter.
Rarotonga is a lush, beautiful place, fringed with beaches and crowned with mountains at its centre. Two concentric roads ring the island, and most of its attractions are on or near one of them. On the western coast, Άrorangi was the first mission-built village and was meant to be a model village for the rest of the island. The main place of interest is the 1849 CICC Church, where Papeiha, the islands' first Christian preacher, is buried. Rising up behind Άrorangi is the flat-topped peak of Raemaru, a good destination for a day hike.
The Cook Islands Cultural Village, on Arorangi's back road, is a great experience: you'll learn more about traditional Cook Islands culture in one day here than you probably will for the rest of your stay. Guided tours visit a number of traditional huts and include demonstrations on Cook Islands history, Maori medicine, ancient fishing techniques, coconut husking, woodcarving and dancing. The tour is followed by a feast of traditional foods accompanied by yet more dancing.
Near the southern coast of the island is Wigmore's Waterfall, where the Papua Stream drops into a cool, natural swimming pool. You can drive all the way to it, though the last stretch is rugged and calls for a 4WD, or take a fine hike from the coast road. You can continue on the Cross-Island Track to Rua Manga (the Needle), a 415m (1360ft) peak with a great view to the northwest and the south. The cross-island trek takes two to three hours, and there are public buses at either end.