THE COOK ISLANDS lie at the very heart of Polynesia and consist of 15 islands scattered over half a million square miles of the Pacific Ocean divided into two distinct groups: the Southern Cook Islands and the Northern Cook Islands of coral atolls. They lie in the centre of the Polynesian Triangle, flanked to the west by Tonga and the Samoas and to the east by French Polynesia.
The Southern Group, of which Rarotonga is the main island, also comprises Aitutaki, Atiu, Mitiaro, Mauke and Mangaia. These are high and fertile and most of the inhabitants live there. The Northern Group are the low coral atolls of Penrhyn, Manihiki, Rakahanga, Pukapuka, Nassau and Suwarrow, which is a national park. Also part of the Cooks are the atolls of Manuae, Takutea and Palmerston Island. White-sand beaches ring the nearly circular island of Rarotonga.
The friendly Polynesians are legendary; warm, charming and generous, having their own language and government and enjoying a vigorous and diverse culture with significant differences between each island. Indeed, the outside world has not yet spoiled this tropical paradise. Despite some 90,000 visitors a year to the capital island, Rarotonga, the Cooks are islands of staggering beauty, largely unspoiled by tourism.
Tourism is the country’s number one industry, the leading element of the economy, far ahead of offshore banking, pearls, marine and fruit exports. A popular art form on the islands is Tivaivai, often likened to quilting. The Cook Islands offer a rare opportunity for people from the cities of the world to experience a different type of holiday. There are no high-rise hotels and very little hype.
The islands are famed for great snorkelling and diving sites, excellent sport fishing and a relaxed, easy going lifestyle. At Ara Metua, there is an all-weather paved road that is centuries old: The “Great Road of Toi” paved with volcanic rock. The open-air stone temple at Arai-Te-Tonga Marae formed the royal court of the Ariki (high chief) and remains a sacred place to Rarotongans.