Tahiti and Fiji are wonderful and popular for a reason, but if you’re looking for an authentic South Pacific experience for less, consider a visit to the Cook Islands. Many say the Cook Islands are what Fiji was like 50 years ago — before the international chain hotels moved in.
The Cook Islands have a special significance for me as my 100th country — and one of my favorite destinations as I originally covered when I wrote about three secret islands you can visit with points and miles.
In this post, I’m going to share five reasons why these beautiful islands should be at the top of your list — and how to get there with points and miles.
Note: This post is part of my multi-post series on under-the-radar alternatives to popular travel destinations.
Reason #1: The Cook Islands are more than just spectacular beaches
I’m far too restless to spend all my time lounging on a beach. Fortunately, the Cook Islands has so much more to do.
For those who like an active vacation, the Cook Islands feature the best hiking in the South Pacific. The strenuous cross-island trek goes deep into the jungle that covers the volcanic core of Raratonga, the main island, to reach The Needle, a unique rock formation that holds spiritual significance. In 2002, the Dalai Lama declared it one of the world’s eight remaining energy points.
Besides hiking, there are lively night markets, only mildly cheesy cultural shows, and even brewery tours to keep busy.
If that’s not enough — there’s an absurdly fun pub crawl party bus that’s open to all ages. The party bus circles Rarotonga and makes stops at a range of hidden bars and seems to be as popular with locals as it is with visitors.
Reason #2: The beaches really are spectacular.
On Rarotonga, you’re never more than 20 minutes from a stunning beach. The snorkeling is excellent and you’ll usually have the coast to yourself. However, if you’re after postcard perfect jaw-droppingly beautiful beaches, you’ll have to hop onto a short flight to Aitutaki, which features the most stunning lagoon on earth. Unlike nearby Fiji, you can expect to have these beaches all to yourself. During my lagoon tour, we sometimes had an entire island to ourselves.
Besides gorgeous tortoise water, the lagoon is special because it features miles and miles of ultra-shallow water. You can literally walk from island to island.
Reason #3: The food is fresh, tasty, & cheap
Most South Pacific dining is limited to whatever food a resort offers — which can sometimes be underwhelming and overpriced. Not here. The local food takes full advantage of the abundance of local ingredients and seafood and is surprisingly healthy. When visiting, I recommend trying:
- Ika Mata: The best ceviche you’ve ever had. This dish is usually made with fresh seafood, coconut milk and lime juice.
- Rakau – Stewed taro leaves with coconut cream made in a traditional earth oven
- Poke – Unlike the Hawaiian variety, Poke in the Cook Islands is banana and tapioca dessert pudding. So good.
Above all else though, I recommend getting a burger at Vili’s Takeaway, a shack off the side of the road in Raratonga. They claim to have the best burgers on the island. I disagree. They might have the one of the best burgers in the world. Rumor has it that the bacon placed on every burger is extra delicious because the local pigs are fed a diet of tropical mangoes.
Reason #4: It’s one of the few places in the world to go jet blasting
Raratonga’s small airport is one of two in the world where gawkers can experience the force of a ‘jet blast’ as planes takeoff and land. Just look up the flight schedule and plan to arrive on the road outside the airport a few minutes beforehand. Do be careful, jet blasting can be dangerous.
Reason #5: You can get there with points and miles
The very best option to get to Raratonga from the United States is to hop on the once-a-week Air New Zealand nonstop from Los Angeles. Finding availability is challenging, but not impossible.
If you’re willing to make a quick stop in Auckland and travel in economy class, Air New Zealand offers abundant award availability almost every day of the week.
I recommend using the 30-day calendar view on United search tool to find award seats.
United charges 35,000 miles for economy and 80,000 for business for one-way awards to the Cook Islands. To book, transfer Chase Ultimate Reward points at 1:1 ratio to United. Alternatively, transfer American Express Membership Reward points to Aeroplan, LifeMiles, or ANA to book the same flights.
The Chase Ink Business Preferred is currently offering 80,000 bonus points after spending $5,000 in the first 3 months of account opening. That’s enough points for at least two economy award flights to the Cook Islands or one business class award. The Chase Sapphire Preferred is offering 60,000 bonus points after spending $4,000 in the first 3 months of opening, enough for two economy awards.
If you prefer to top off your American Express Membership Rewards balance, consider The Gold Card by American Express, which is currently offering 35,000 miles after spending $2,000 within the first 3 months. This card is especially valuable as it earns 4x points at restaurants and supermarkets, which means those points rack up fast. It’s the perfect card to pair with the no-annual fee Amex Blue Business Card.
As always, Juicy Miles award consultants, are always happy to find and book award flights to the Cook Islands.
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