Forget Fiji’s all-inclusive, private-island compounds. Stop pining for an absurdly priced, one-percenter’s beach escape in Bora Bora. There is an alternative—a South Pacific for the rest of us—scattered across the deep-blue sea some 650 miles from French Polynesia: The Cook Islands epitomizes down-home Polynesia, down to its core. A place where homegrown is the norm from the locally sourced meals to the sustainably farmed black pearls, and a veritable powder keg of adventure potential brims with deserted-island beaches, world-class watersports, and jagged volcanic peaks cloaked in misty jungles.
Despite all this, the Cook Islands often gets pigeonholed as a wedding and honeymoon hotspot. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but this too-simple stereotype has the effect of flattening a culturally, historically and naturally rich country—whose 15 lush, atoll-ringed islands sprawl across nearly 700,000 square miles of tropical open ocean—into a white-sand-beach backdrop for destination nuptials.
But that wedding stereotype wavers as soon as I touch down in the capital seat of Rarotonga. What I find instead are infinitely inviting islands that embody all the classic South Pacific tropes—the Gauguinesque vistas, the placid lagoons, and the smells of hibiscus and wild guava heavy in the sea air. Even better, the landscape is unmarred by ostentatious development. Handmade signs mark local landmarks, chickens join my morning forays up rainforest hiking trails, and there’s not a chain hotel in sight.
Cook Islanders, like most Polynesians, straddle the line between the modern world and their traditional past as warriors, tribal groups and accomplished navigators. Ancient seafarers from the Cook Islands contributed to New Zealand’s native culture—both groups are called Maori—and that kinship continues to shape the islands today.
A New Zealand protectorate until 1965, the Cooks retains many artifacts of its colony status: Cook Islanders share the Kiwi accent, New Zealand’s currency is used interchangeably with the local tender, and most arriving visitors will do so on board an Air New Zealand flight, which operates direct from Los Angeles to Rarotonga before continuing on to Auckland, just a few hours away.
Minutes after disembarking this flight myself, I drop my bags in an impeccable beach bungalow flanked by brilliant white sand. Truth be told, however, I harbor an innate impatience for basking on beaches, no matter their snow-whiteness. And so, I grab my gear and burn out the door to hitch a boat ride beyond the fringing lagoon with Steve Lyon, of Pacific Divers.
The atoll lagoons that surround the islands are a core feature both to local life and to visiting vacationers in the forms of food, protection and recreation. Ancient geologic forces created coralline rings around each island that protect shallow interior lagoons perfect for flats fishing, snorkeling and paddling. But outside these rings, the reefs drop quickly like exposed cliff faces into thousands of feet of open ocean—something I see first hand when Lyon moors his dive boat near the edge of the drop, and I roll backwards off the boat.
As I descend into a playground of submarine volcanic rock formations coated with thick blankets of stony corals, I kick alongside boulders big as two-story houses that lean precariously over the abyss. And I let myself sink slowly into the blue water while jacks stalk baitfish along the ocean’s edge.
For inside-the lagoon exploring, it’s hard to find a place more idyllic than the island of Aitutaki. Situated about 160 miles north of Rarotonga, and accessible via its U.S. military-installed, WWII-era airstrip, little Aitutaki is renowned for its otherworldly, triangular atoll lagoon, laced with shifting sandbars and pockmarked by 15 palm-fringed islets (called motus). These meandering spits of sand have made this one of the most sought-after spots in the chain—especially among the aforementioned wedding crowds, who flock to these desert-island backdrops.
A full day floats away in a flash when I tour the lagoon with a long-standing local company, Bishop’s Cruises. I snorkel shallow coral heads, where giant clams the size of briefcases filter feed in the sun-drenched water, and take a walk around Honeymoon Island, whose sparse scrub interior harbors dozens of nesting frigate birds with fluffy, gray chicks peeping out from beneath their mothers’ protective bodies.
The main attraction, however, is Tapuaetai, aka One Foot Island. Despite being a tourist-typical island lunch stop—complete with the “world’s smallest post office,” where visitors can get a souvenir stamp in their passports—this tiny motu is the epitome of a South Pacific paradise. After a picnic of fresh fruit, fish and cold beer, I take a walk up the beach and a long float back down the channel separating it from the sandy tailings of nearby Tekopua Island. The incoming tidal current funnels into the deep passage, creating a natural lazy river that flows peacefully alongside swaying coconut palms.
Back on Rarotonga, I settle in along Muri Beach. This area on the eastern coast is the island’s main beach activity center, with oceanside hotels, restaurants and watersports operators, though even on busy days the atmosphere is lazy and decidedly uncrowded. The lagoon here offers a perfect place for windsurfing, kayaking and stand-up paddleboarding among four nearshore islets.
It’s also the ideal base for exploring Rarotonga’s formidable interior. Looking inward from the coast, the island seems almost impenetrable, a wall of sheer cliffs and toothy spires interwoven by a lattice of green jungle. Solo-hiking on the Cross-Island Track, I pass under laden wild guava trees, push through shoulder-high ferns wet with morning rain and navigate ground cover so thick it seems entirely possible—if I were to stand still for more than moment—encroaching vines could overgrow my limbs, absorbing me into the spongy forest floor like a downed log.
For a rowdier ride than my peaceful walk in the woods can provide, I turn to Coconut Tours, which offers jungle-track ATV treks. Since the vast majority of land in the Cook Islands is family owned and passed down over generations, access to these interior regions requires a local guide who has prearranged passage with local landowners. Along the way, I pass small villages, pens of prized pigs, and stop to sample wild fruits and medicinal plants—not to mention fish-tailing through deep valleys, skirting steep ridges, and powering waist deep through a dozen river crossings and mud holes before rinsing off at a local swimming hole.
Granted, the Cook Islands certainly has earned its reputation as one of the Pacific’s premier destination-wedding spots. The desert-island beach backdrops are tough to beat. But this affordable, accessible island encompasses so much more. Just below the surface, the islands’ genuinely friendly atmosphere and homegrown adventure-travel streak simmers like a volcano, threatening to erupt into the South Pacific’s newest must-visit. Get in on the ground floor before it blows up—and anyway, why should the honeymooners have all the fun?