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Cook Islands in a nutshell header
Cook Islands location map
The capital island of Rarotonga is about 1,870 miles (3,010 kms) northeast of Auckland, New Zealand, 708 mls (1,140 kms) southwest of Tahiti, 1,429 mls (2,300 kms) east of Fiji and  2,939 mls (4,730 kms) south of Hawaii.
The total land area of the country is just 91.4 square miles (236.7 square kms).  But the Cook Islands' exclusive economic zone  - the territorial waters  - stretches for nearly 2 million square kilometres (772,395 square miles).  That's slightly bigger than Indonesia or Mexico and nearly three times the size of Texas!   And those waters are also the world's largest designated shark and whale sanctuary and soon to be the world's largest marine park.
The Constitution of the Islands explains the flag:
BLUE - is the colour most expressive of our Nation, it is representative of the vast area of the Pacific Ocean in which the islands of the Cook Islands are scattered. Blue also depicts the peaceful nature of the inhabitants of our islands.  THE UNION JACK indicates our historical association with and membership of the British Commonwealth.  The 15 WHITE STARS represent the 15 islands of the group.

The islands are 10 hours behind GMT.  Daylight saving time is not observed - in other words, the clock doesn't go back or forward at any time.  This is the current date and time in the Islands.
Parliamentary democracy based on the UK model.   Officially the Islands are an independent nation in free association with New Zealand.  They gained independence on 4 August, 1965.  The free association agreement means:
HM The Queen
  • The Cook Islands Government has full executive powers
  • The Cook Islands can make its own laws and New Zealand cannot make laws for the country unless authorised by Government
  • Cook Islanders keep New Zealand citizenship
The Monarch - Queen Elizabeth II - is represented by forrmer deputy prime minister, Sir Tom Marsters.  His official title is "HM the Queen's Representative in the Cook Islands".  The Cook Islands remains part of the Realm of New Zealand and Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II is Head of State of the Cook Islands.

The Islands are not a UN member in their own right (New Zealand represents them), but the country became a member of individual United Nations Partner agencies in the 1980s and, through the years, these partner agencies have continued to provide support to the Cook Islands for various programmes

English and Cook Islands Maori are the official languages.  About 90% of Islanders can read, write and speak both languages. In Cook Islands Maori, there are 14 letters: a, e, ng, i, k, m, n, o, p, r, t, u, v and the glottal stop which is written as an inverted apostrophe.  On the Northern island of Pukapuka, they have their own language.  Only 2,000 people in the world speak Pukapukan
Cook Islands $3 dollar note
Bikes everywhere
Driving licences from Australia, Canada, the UK, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, the USA and EU member countries are now accepted in the Islands (previously you had to queue up to get a Cook Islands licence which was also a great souvenir!).  You are allowed to drive the same class of vehicles as in your home country provided it's a full licence (provisional licences are not acceptable) and you're 16 or over.

If you want to ride a scooter or motorbike and you're not licenced to do so at home, you need to take a theory and practical test, the total cost of which is NZ$40.  All non-residents must also wear a crash helmet. Tests need to be booked at police headquarters in Avarua.

Cook Islands flag

Mobile (cell) phone services are in the process (Jan 2020) of being migrated to Vodafone.  4G and 3G are only available on Rarotonga and Aitutaki.  On all other islands, it's 2G (GPRS).   There are lots of hotspots  - click here for details of those on Rarotonga and here for Aitutaki

If you want to use your own phone, your service provider will have to have a roaming arrangement with Vodafone, or you will need a phone which isn't locked to a provider.  The best advice is to check with your own provider before your travel. 

Vodafone also offer a visitor SIM which provides you with 3GB of data, and 300 texts and 30 minutes of talk time to anywhere in the world.  It costs NZ$49.

Shopping, eating and drinking   Everything has tax included in the price
Tipping   Tipping isn't expected and is contrary to Cook Islands custom.
Departure tax:  LIke so many countries these days, the Islands charge you a departure tax.   This is now "hidden" in your air fare, whereas previously you had to pay it in cash on departure (not the best memory to have as you head for home).    The tax applies only to international travel i.e. there is no tax on inter-island flights.


Highest Point:  Te Manga, Rarotonga, pictured right.  2,139 ft (652 m)
Lowest lying island:   Manihiki (13 ft, 4m above sea level at its highest point)   
Te Manga
17,434 people live in the Islands.  According to the latest (2016) census, three quarters of them  (13,007) live on Rarotonga,   Just over 1,100 people live on the six Northern Group islands where the population is declining most rapidly.   Palmerston has the fewest people (58).  Manuae and Takutea are deserted.  
Ethnic diversity
Polynesian, 81%.  Mixed Polynesian, 16%.  European, 2%.  Other, 1%.
Life expectancy
Women, 71 years.  Men, 69 years.

Digging up sweet potatos
The National Health Service in the Cook Islands is of a good standard relative to the needs of the country.  The system is managed by the Ministry of Health and provides a 90-bed central hospital on Rarotonga, seven outer island hospitals, 13 outpatient clinics, 5 healthcare centres and 58 maternity-child clinics.  Difficult clinical cases are referred to New Zealand for specialised treatment.  There is a comprehensive and compulsory immunisation program for all new-born children.  There are no dangerous animals, no poisonous insects and no lethal viruses such as malaria indigenous to the Cook Islands.

A few words about dengue fever
This is a mosquito-borne virus indigineous to tropical and sub tropical regions including the Cook Islands, and there is no vaccine against it.   It causes flu-like symptoms and sometimes - although very rarely - these can develop into something more serious.   The last major outbreak was several years ago although there has been a minor outbreak on Rarotonga and Aitutaki this year (2019). It's mentioned here only because I get occasional emails asking about it.   In my opinion (and I am not a medical professional), you really shouldn't worry about it at all, but for definitive information, please have a look at the World Health Organisation factsheet and make your own decision
Solar panels have replaced diesel generators on 11 of the 13 inhabited islands and that also means all of the islands now have a continuous supply of electricity (previously some only had it available for around 12 hours).  Output is 240 volts-50 hertz cycle which is the same as the UK, Australia and New Zealand. 

* The tuitui is the fruit of the candlenut tree which was introduced to the Islands by the early Polynesians.  It's nearly as prolific as the coconut palm.  The nut is inside a very hard shell.  Before candles, Islanders pierced the nuts with wooden skewers and set light to them.  They burn very slowly and last for hours. 
Well, I thought it was more interesting than saying "in a nutshell"!

Candlenut Tree
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3G and 4G services are available on Rarotonga and Aitutaki only.  You can access the internet on other islands but you'll be using 2G.   There are also plenty of wifi hotspots on the capital island and quite a few on Aitutaki.  Some accommodation providers on Mauke and Mangaia (including Babe's Place and Atiu Villas)  also have them.   Be warned though...connection speeds will seem slow to very slow to European and American visitors  

Rarotonga shop
Those arriving in the country are allowed to bring in two litres (in total) of wine, spirits and liqueur or 4.5 litres of beer.  Limits on tobacco are 200 cigarettes, or a total of 250 grams of tobacco products which include cigars.  Other goods bought duty free must not exceed a value of NZ$750

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Rarotonga and Aitutaki have reticulated water supply systems.  Water usage is not charged at the moment.  On the other islands of the Southern Group limited reticulation is provided and augmented by rainwater catchment and storage.  The atolls of the Northern Group rely on rainwater from roof catchments.  [Author's note:  water is precious in the islands, so please use it thoughtfully]

"Smelly stuff"!
On-site septic tanks and soak-aways are the common system of disposal throughout the islands. The largest hotels have packaged secondary wastewater treatment plants.

Cook Islands plug and socket
Plug sockets and plugs
look like this.  They're the same type as in Australia and New Zealand. Sometimes the plug has only two pins and that means there is no earth (otherwise described as "ungrounded") 
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If you want a greater insight into the Islands and its people, have a look at my special report on the findings from the latest census.    Click here
New Zealand Dollar.  The Cook Islands also has its own distinctive notes and coins which are in circulation alongside the NZ currency, and of equal value.  They are not legal tender outside the Islands.  The three dollar note (left) is one of the most popular souvenirs, as is the one dollar coin with the ubiquitous deity, Tangaroa on it.

The only ATMs are on Rarotonga and Aitutaki.  But a word of warning...check the machine screen to see how much you might be charged for taking out money; some of the Banks levy a hefty charge.   Credit and some debit cards are widely accepted on the capital island and some places on Aitutaki.  Rely on cash on the other islands

Homosexuality is generally accepted, although officially illegal (for men, not women).  Sex between men in the Cook Island is punishable by up to seven years in prison and gay marriage was banned in 2000.  Although a laissez-faire attitude is taken to tourists, public displays of affection would be considered offensive.  But all that said, LGBT people can visit the Islands  safe in the knowledge that they will not be persecuted or harassed.  A group in Rarotonga (Te Taiare Association) also works for and on behalf of LGBT+ people and has it's own website. The first ever Pride day was also arranged for 27 March, 2020 but has now been postponed indefinitely (along with many other events) as a response to the coronavirus
News update: A committee of MPs has proposed making same sex relationships  illegal for both men and women with penalties of up to seven years in prison, but this is mired in controversy.  Parliament will make a decision about this during 2020.
If you're arriving at Rarotonga airport and want an alternative to the bus or self-drive, look out for the registered, privately operated green taxis driven by members of the Cook Islands Taxi Association.   Customers pay NZ$3 a kilometre with a minimum charge of NZ$10 a journey and a maximum of NZ$50 after 16 kilometres.   All Association members conform to a code of conduct.   A WORD OF WARNING though...airport transfers start at NZ$15 and rise to NZ$20-35 for trips beyond Aroa Beach or Super Brown Supermarket.  So, even if you're going a very short distance, you will still pay the minimum fare, and the charge is per person which means you could be paying a lot to go not very far.  If you're returning to the airport from Muri, expect to pay around NZ$40.

PETROL AND DIESEL is priced per litre.  The cost is similar to the UK.   Americans will think it's very expensive.   Prices are higher on the outer islands than on Rarotonga.  Petrol stations are plentiful on the capital island, but few and far between (and often just part of a shop) on the outer islands.
Police motorcyclist
Just a few years ago, I always told people you were more likely to be hit by a falling coconut than be a victim of crime.   That's still absolutely true in the outer islands, but sadly no longer on Rarotonga.   Increasingly, tourists have become targets so the message from the police is not to abandon your common sense. 

Don't leave valuables lying around if, for example, you're going swimming or snorkelling.  The top box or space under the seat on a scooter is not a safe place to store things.  And lock away cash, jewellery and other valuables in a hotel safe. All that said, crime is still relatively rare.

DRINK DRIVING AND SPEED LIMITS   Breathalyser testing was introduced in 2008, and if you are involved in an accident, your alcohol consumption could result in a prison sentence.  Speed guns are also in use with on the spot fines.   The limit on most of the island is 50kph (31mph), but just 30kph (18 mph) in town (Avarua) and on a stretch of the main road near Muri (between Avana Bridge in Ngatangiia and Parengaru Bridge in Titikaveka

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"Te Atua Mou E" which translates as "God is Truth".  The words mean: You are the ruler of our country.  Please listen to our voices as we call to you, protect and guide us and give us your crown of truth so we can be successful and so that love and peace will rule forever over our beloved country.  There's a truly beautiful rendition of it here 

By law the following are public holidays:  Every Sunday, Good Friday and Easter Monday, Christmas Day and Boxing Day, New Year's Day and 2nd January, Anzac Day (25th April each year), Queen's Birthday((HRH Queen Elizabeth II) - 1 June in 2020  All Islands except Palmerston which celebrates the birthday of the late Queen Victoria instead, Ra O Te Ui Ariki (House of Ariki) public holiday - 3rd July in 2020, Constitution Day - observed on 4th August in 2020
As long as you're staying no more than 31 days (90 days if you're a New Zealand citizen), your valid passport is the only entry permit you need, along with proof of onward journey, the means to support yourself while on the islands and somewhere to stay.  And you can sort out the accommodation on arrival
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You can stay for up to five months more (i.e 6 months in total), but you'll need to extend your entry permit  -  at the Department of Immigration in Rarotonga.    New Zealanders can apply for a three month extension and other nationals for a month at a time.  In both cases, you pay a fee for the privilege