Rainblow flag
Cook Islands in a nutshell header
Cook Islands location map
The capital, 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  space the size of Indonesia or 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 is represented by forrmer deputy prime minister, 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.
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.   Find out more about the languages of the Islands.
Cook Islands $3 dollar note
Bikes everywhere
Foreign driving licences are now accepted in the Islands (previoulsy you had to queue up to get a Cook Islands licence).   You are allowed to drive using a full valid licence from your own country (i.e. provisional licences are not acceptable).   You can drive only the same class of vehicles as in your home country, and your licence must be in English.  If it's in any other language, you will have to provide an authorised translation. 

Driving is on the left hand side of the road, as in the UK, Australia and New Zealand

Cook Islands flag
Mobile (cell) phone services have only been available since the end of 2003 and are provided by TCI (Telecom Cook Islands) using the GSM900 network and both 3G (on Rarotonga) and 2.5G Edge technology for data.   You can hire a local mobile in Rarotonga from the Telecom office near CITC.  If you want to use your own, your service provider will have to have a roaming arrangement with TCI, or you will need a phone which isn't locked to a provider.   Service is available on all islands, but is best on Rarotonga and Aitutaki.  Find out the latest information about using your mobile in the Islands on the TCI website.

Telecom Cook Islands has also created a SIM card package especially for visitors.  The Telecom Traveller card costs NZ$49 and lasts 30 days.   It's preloaded with 20 minutes of local calling, which can be also be used to pay for international calls, 100 text messages and 100MB of data.  And when you've used that up, the additonal charges are very reasonable compared to the UK and Europe.  Again, check out the TCI website page for full details.   Author's note:  This will only work with phones that are not locked to a home network.

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
14,974 people live in the Islands.  According to the latest (2011) census, 73.6%  (10,572) live on Rarotonga, and 20.2% in the rest of the Southern Group of islands.  Just 6.2%  live on the six Northern Group islands where the population is declining most rapidly.   Manuae and Takutea are deserted.  
Polynesian, 81%.  Mixed Polynesian, 16%.  European, 2%.  Other, 1%.
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.

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.  It's mentioned here only because I get occasional emails asking about it.   In my opinion, you really shouldn't worry about it at all, but for definitive information, please have a look at the World Health Organisation factsheet
Diesel generators provide electricity with output at 240 volts-50 hertz cycle which is the same as the UK, Australia and New Zealand.  Rarotonga, Aitutaki and Mauke have a continuous supply.  On the other islands, it's available for at least 12 hours a day.

* 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
Telecom Cook Islands website lists more than 100 countries and their service providers who currently have roaming arrangements with the local operator

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3G services are available on Rarotonga and 2.5G on every other island.  There are also plenty of wifi hotspots on the capital island and quite a few on Aitutaki.  If you're on any of the other islands, you'll find at least one near the local Telecom Cook Islands (TCI) office.  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 European and American visitors.    The TCI website has details of all wifi hotspots

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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Pay as you go phones will NOT work on any network.   US and Canadian users note: You need a phone capable of working on the GSM 900 or 1700 networks. 

Rarotonga and Aitutaki have reticulated water supply systems.  Water usage is not charged. 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]
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.   It includes information on everything from the number of computers to coconut consumption!  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.  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 in particualr aka vaine (transgender or transexual women).  And a new employment law includes the right not to face discrimination because of sexual orientation.
Phone in coconut
If you're looking to get to and from Rarotonga airport or want an alternative to the bus or self-drive, look out for the green taxis run 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$15and rise to NZ$20 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. 

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.
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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