Breakfast at Ikurangi Eco Resort in the Cook Islands comes from the resort's own organic gardens © Courtesy of Ikurangi Eco Resort
If you fly all the way to the Cook Islands, you can expect some of the most alluring accommodations in the South Pacific.
You’ll feel right at home amid this island nation’s easy-going vibe, staying lagoon-side and barbecuing up a storm, or enjoying your own private Polynesian art exhibition on Rarotonga’s southern coast.
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Swim with tropical fish in a unique swimming pool, or escape from the (only slightly) busier coastal villages as you enjoy laid-back glamping at a sprawling tropical plantation. Around 50 minutes north by plane, Aitutaki offers an elevated stay for lagoon tours and seasonal whale watching.
Here are a few unique accommodations you’ll find only in the Cook Islands.
The art decorating the Motu Villas comes from the owners' private collection © Courtesy of Motu Villas
Take in a Pasifika art showcase at Motu Beachfront Art Villas
Look for the bright red art installation and you’ll know you’re in the right place. Reminiscent of a moai from Rapa Nui (Easter Island), a dramatic sculpture by New Zealand–based Samoan artist Fatu Feu’u towers above the entrance to this resort on Rarotonga’s southern coast. Outdoor works by other Cook Islands and Pasifika artists combine with lagoon views, and each of the 10 villas at Motu is also decorated with striking art, all part of the personal collection of owners John and Rose Dunn. There are also colorful contributions from local schools, with the villa’s whitewashed reception area enlivened with a striking canvas from a talented 12-year-old, sitting side by side with a screen-printed work from renowned Pacific artist Kay George.
Beyond Motu’s focus on promoting art, a portion of profits are directed toward supporting health and education programs on Rarotonga, and there’s a thoughtful approach to environmental initiatives in all the resort’s operations. Reusable water bottles are filled with triple-filtered water, cleaning products are all eco-friendly and e-bikes are provided so guests can negotiate Ara Tapu, Rarotonga’s 32km (20-mile) coastal loop road, with ease.
A safari tent is one of the options at Ikurangi Eco Resort in the Cook Islands © Courtesy of Ikurangi Eco Resort
Go glamping amid mountain vistas at Ikurangi Eco Retreat
On an island destination fringed by coastal accommodation, Ikurangi Eco Retreat’s sheltered inland location makes it one of Rarotonga’s most unique places to stay. Options include two safari-style glamping tents with colorful and private outdoor showers, and a brace of traditional are (Cook Islands Māori for “home”): spacious, high-ceilinged garden bungalows. Breakfast with a healthy spin combines bircher muesli or chia pudding with papaya, mango and other tropical fruits from Ikurangi’s own organic gardens, part of a lush plantation framing the property.
The resort’s other eco-friendly and sustainable credentials include a saltwater swimming pool, recycling and composting initiatives, and a dedication to paying all team members a living wage. Canine guest relations manager Molly works closely with co-owners Vicki and Alan for treats and pets, and complimentary bikes and snorkeling gear are available for when guests do eventually move on from the verdant mountain views here and head out toward Rarotonga’s coastal highlights.
Enjoy an all-around waterfront stay at Muri Lagoon Villa
At this waterfront property right on Rarotonga’s Muri Lagoon, there’s a seamless transition from a well-tended tropical garden to a sandy beach and the sheltered waters of the South Pacific beyond. That’s probably why a morning kayak out to the nearby islet of Motutaakoka is always a popular pre-breakfast option for guests. Soaring cathedral ceilings reinforce the property’s two-bedroom spaciousness, while guests can choose to dine either on the deck, or right beside the lagoon shaded by a glade of pine trees.
Relaxed options for self-catering include picking up fresh fruit at Saturday morning’s Punanga Nui market, or buying tuna, wahoo or mahi mahi to grill on the barbecue. (Look out for villa co-owner Paul Lynch selling his very own Paul’s Rarotonga Hot Sauce. Chances are he'll give you a free bottle to enjoy with your fish.) Good paddleboarding and snorkeling are just a short walk away, and the street eats of the Muri Night Market are popular with both “Raro” locals and visitors to the island.
Take a dip in the unique pool at the Ocean Escape Resort & Spa Cook Islands © Courtesy of Ocean Escape Resort & Spa
Make a splash in Ocean Escape Resort & Spa’s unique swimming pool
Rarotonga’s newest oceanfront resort is also the island’s only place to stay with its own mini-coral reef in the swimming pool. Harnessing a sustainably repurposed piece of coral, Ocean Escape’s reef is the highlight of a pool refreshed tidally by water from the South Pacific; plunge in to swim with a diverse community of more than 20 different tropical fish species. The basin has even been used to rehabilitate injured hawksbill turtles from the nearby lagoon.
Beyond Ocean Escape’s unique aquatic attraction, co-owners Jade and Barry Weizman have established a stylish adults-only property with a strong focus on sustainability. Drinking water is UV-treated rainwater, bathroom water is repurposed for the resort’s lush gardens and solar panels generate all the resort’s electricity. Spacious two-story villas have full kitchens for guest chefs to make the most Rarotonga’s seafood, tropical fruit and plentiful fresh produce; future plans include a Mediterranean-style tapas bar with ocean views. Location-wise, Ocean Escape is equidistant to good cafes, bars and markets in both Avarua and Muri Beach.
During the whale migration in Aitutaki, you’ll probably see more passing humpbacks than fellow guests © ChameleonsEye / Shutterstock
Sip a drink while watching whales swim by at Moana Villa
Visit the Cook Islands archipelago of Aitutaki from July to October, and there’s a good chance you’ll be able to swim with migrating humpback whiles hanging out in the warm South Pacific waters with their calves. Stay at Moana Villa, high above the coastal village of Amuri, and you’ll also have the perfect vantage point from which to observe whales passing by just beyond Aitutaki’s world-famous lagoon. Pro tip? Pack good binoculars to really maximize this special experience.
Three bedrooms, a spacious wraparound deck and a fully equipped kitchen combine to make Moana Villa the ideal location for families or groups of friends spending a few days on sleepy Aitutaki. It’s just a short journey by car or scooter to Aitutaki’s main wharf at Arutanga, the departure point for lagoon tours and deep-sea tuna-fishing adventures, and its uniquely elevated position ensures the villa is cooled by South Pacific trade winds. Fresh organic fruit and vegetables are sold just down the road by Sonja at Tauono’s Garden Cafe, while some of the Cook Islands’ most innovative cafe fare is served at Avatea Cafe in the village of Tautu. Schedule an Aitutaki stay to include Thursday’s Island Night cultural performance at Tamanu Beach Resort.
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