The Cook Islands – a stunning archipelago of 15 primary islands in the South Pacific – has re-opened. Until fairly recently, couples, honeymooners and travelers seeking a sun-soaked getaway to the main tourist hotspots of Rarotonga and Aitutaki had to follow a string of Covid health and safety rules. With many of those rules now relaxed, it’s possible for vaccinated visitors to travel to the islands from the United States, via New Zealand, quarantine-free. You’ll still need proof of your Covid-free status by way of a negative Supervised Rapid Antigen Test (administered by a relevant health official) before you fly direct from Auckland to Aitutaki. But when you get there, expect few tourists and a local hospitality community primed and ready to greet you.
Here’s what to expect from a stay at Pacific Resort Aitutaki.
LOCATION: Nestled on the edge of what’s been described as the “world’s most beautiful” lagoon, Pacific Resort Aitutaki in Rapae Bay is the Cook Island’s answer to secluded, adults-only luxury. The five-star villas and bungalows – each with their own slice of the island’s white sand beach and turquoise lagoon – meld traditional Cook Island design with colonial-style hardwood and dark timber interiors and furniture. Intimate in scale, this resort features several distinct outdoor areas. There’s the jungle flanked pool, just a few steps from the lagoon, the Black Rock dining area encircled by giant volcanic boulders and a help-your-self beachfront sports bar with stand-up paddle boards and kayaks for exploring Aitutaki’s clear blue waters. Head into the resort’s central pavilion area to sit, relax and gaze out at the electric-blue ocean or spy resident goldfish splashing about in the resort’s in-ground lily pond. The main pavilion is where you’ll find the resort’s black pearl jewelry collection on sale in the air-conditioned gift shop. It’s also where you’ll access Rapae Bay Restaurant and Tiare Spa.
PERFECT FOR: Romance and relaxation. The seven square mile island of Aitutaki is what you expect from a secluded Pacific island and then some. Sunny days, warm breezes, expansive ocean views, turquoise lagoon, and glowing white sand beaches. Pacific Resort Aitutaki brings all this together, wrapping it up in a ribbon of laid-back luxury. Enjoy the days sipping cocktails from your private beachfront hammock. Grab a snorkel and reef shoes from reception to enjoy the lagoon’s warm waters and colored fish. Take a romantic champagne tour of Honeymoon Island with Teking Lagoon Tours on sunset. Hike up to Piraki lookout for views over the island. Hire a scooter to drive a loop of the island and meet the locals. The drive will take you about half an hour.
FIRST IMPRESSION: Stylish yet simple – and, right now, sublimely crowd-free. Arriving by resort minivan, check-in was quick and friendly. The airy, architectural entrance offers both an immediate view out to Aitutaki’s aquamarine lagoon (a clue to where you’ll spend most of your time) and shelter from the heat of the day (temperatures were in the mid 80s during my stay). The lush gardens, ubiquitous hibiscus flower arrangements and colorful tivaevae (Cook Island handcraft) fabrics adorning everything from lounge chairs to the reception staff make it clear you’ve arrived in Polynesia.
ROOM: There are five room options within the resort, ranging from the 667 square-foot, two-person premium beachfront bungalows to the largest 1,345 square-foot ultimate beachfront villas. With all 29 standalone suites set on the sandy edge of Aitutaki lagoon, and each with their own private deck and hammock, you certainly won’t feel deprived of water views or access. My 947 square-foot room, an ultimate beachfront bungalow, featured a super king bed, a day bed and a spacious, well-lit tiled bathroom. I spent my afternoons on the deck sipping chilled New Zealand chardonnay, reading, writing, and occasionally jumping in the lagoon to cool off. And while the suites are side-by-side, you simply need to roll down the deck blinds to block any view of your neighbors.
FOOD & DRINK: The resort’s open air Rapae Bay Restaurant is open for breakfast and dinner, serving mostly international dishes with a Pacific twist. Most mornings, I enjoyed espresso and a platter of fresh fruit such as paw paw (ninita), starfruit (raaparaapa) and pineapple (ara) on the clifftop balcony watching birds (pairs of white terns, mostly) and gazing out to sea. On my last day, I tried the pancakes served with Tahitian vanilla cream and mango syrup and wished I hadn’t left it so late so I could order them all over again. With Black Rock Cafe and Bar temporarily closed, I lunched at Avatea Cafe (a scooter ride away in Tautu), ordering chef Karin Crombie’s poached fish and purple beans, served with arrowroot and koru fries and a locally made chili jam. A two-minute scooter ride down the hill to Tamanu Beach Resort, I tried ika mata, the Cook Island delicacy of fresh fish marinated in lime and coconut. At night, expect Rapae Bay Restaurant to serve dishes such as grilled fish, rib-eye steak and classic Caesar salad. Check out the wine list for an ample selection of mostly French and New Zealand wines. Depending on the season, and if there’s still enough light outside, you might even see whales breaching out at sea while you drink a gin and tonic on the restaurant balcony.
ON THE WATER: Life in the Cook Islands revolves around the water and it’s possible nowhere showcases the glamor of Polynesia better than Aitutaki. Certainly, Hollywood greats such as Marlon Brando thought so when they touched down in Aitutaki lagoon in flying boats during the 1950s. These days, Teking Tours will pick you up from the resort for a full day of snorkeling and sandbar hopping, with a barbeque lunch as part of the Snorkeling Safari Tour. Aitutaki is ideal for safe snorkeling and swimming, as well as more adventurous pursuits such as kiteboarding, fishing and sailing boat charters.
HIGHLIGHTS: Friendly, down-to-earth service from everyone on the front desk through to the restaurant’s head waiters. Staff are both quick to respond to any question and request and forthcoming with tips and ideas on where to go and what to do. Tiare Spa’s 50-minute Te Tika Serenity Facial is a must-do for any long-haul traveler.
LOWLIGHTS: Limited wifi – I’m a travel writer what can I say! While you can order pay-as-you-go internet access at the resort, it’s not great. Buying a local SIM is your best option.
GETTING THERE: Travelers can fly from Los Angeles to New Zealand then onto Aitutaki with Air New Zealand, with no quarantine requirements. Before you depart New Zealand for Aitutaki, you’ll need proof of your Covid-free status (by way of a negative Supervised Rapid Antigen Test administered by a relevant health official).
- To book your flights with Air New Zealand, check out airnewzealand.com
- For all the latest Cook Island travel information, check out cookislands.travel/travelchecklist