Looking for a family-friendly tropical holiday that’s off the beaten track? This haven of palm-fringed unspoilt beaches is the answer.
It’s the South Pacific paradise from central casting: powdery sand beaches shaded by palm trees, coral reefs swarming with colourful fish and hospitable locals who welcome all comers. The Cook Islands, a six-hour flight from Sydney, is a regional jewel with a fast-growing reputation as a destination par excellence for every generation.
These 15 volcanic islands cover a stretch of ocean the size of western Europe but when travelling with children it’s a good idea to narrow your sights to Rarotonga, the largest of the archipelago and home of the quaint capital, Avarua. Here, a 32-kilometre coastal road encircles a dramatically mountainous rainforest interior, while a fringing reef subdues the ocean into an improbably turquoise lagoon that girdles most of the island.
“Raro”, as it’s more commonly known, has no traffic lights, no sense of hurry and no building taller than a palm tree (yes, it’s the law). A place where it’s as easy to find a deserted beach as it is a relaxed oceanfront restaurant – and where aqua adventures are a given – Raro is also the ideal spot to luxuriate in doing very little. To aid that pursuit, here are five of the best family-friendly accommodations on the island.
Te Manava Luxury Villas & Spa
It’s oh-so private and perfectly situated. There may be no restaurant, or 24-hour reception but otherwise there’s no skimping on anything at this collection of 13 elegant villas. Seven of them sit directly on the beach just metres above the high tide mark, while the others are a skip down a sandy path – and all have their own generously sized plunge pool if the effort of getting to the big blue seems too great.
On Rarotonga’s south-eastern side, where the lagoon is at its widest, Te Manava embraces water sports by providing guests with kayaks, reef shoes and flippers, with a stash of snorkels, masks and paddles in each villa. This is a sister property of the Pacific Resort Rarotonga and you’ll have use of its kids’ club (in-room babysitting can also be arranged) along with its swimming pool and dining options, with a free shuttle service for the five-minute drive between resorts.
Luxe rating ⭑⭑⭑⭑⭑
Rates from $820 a night
Parents will like It’s the luxury add-ons that make Te Manava an alluring proposition, such as the tranquil spa, a champagne breakfast delivered to the room or a chef to cook a barbecue feast in your private courtyard.
Kids will like Te Manava’s bicycles, free for guests to use, are the ideal way to get around (don’t worry, parents – Cook Islands drivers take things slowly).
What kids say “I really loved the plunge pool, which was big enough for a game
of Marco Polo.” Frankie, 10.
On the stretch of Muri Beach that’s described by one local as “the Toorak of Rarotonga”, eco-conscious Nautilus puts on the barefoot Ritz while also putting out a welcome mat for the kids. Its 17 spacious villas with peaked thatched roofs are decorated in restrained Polynesian chic and each has its own private saltwater plunge pool. An airy dining pavilion and bar hug the glorious infinity-edge pool that looks over the lagoon and its alluring motu (uninhabited isle). The food is excellent – breakfast pits fluffy caramelised banana pancakes against smoked local fish with coconut-braised local spinach – and a spa sets the dial to parental pamper. Children will thrill to the unique kids’ concierge service, which pairs them with a carer who’s a teacher and adventure-leader in one.
Luxe rating ⭑⭑⭑⭑⭑
Rates from $645 a night
Parents will like There’s really no need to leave (especially with staff exhorting you to relax) but if the mood strikes you, they’ll plan a range of excursions such as taking in a boisterous Sunday church service or visiting a night market perfumed by the smoke of charcoal grills.
Kids will like The junior set aged between five and 12 will feel like royalty with their own personalised kids’ concierge – a service included as part of the tariff and tailored to the interests of each child. The caretakers might help woodblock-print a sarong known as a pareu or create a beach treasure hunt. There’s also guided paddling and kayaking in the calm waters.
What kids say “I loved watching a movie with popcorn with the other kids on the day it was raining and kayaking over to the little island to do hermit-crab racing.” Alby, six.
Pacific Resort Rarotonga
The palm-fringed pool is just one beneficiary of significant recent upgrades to this 30-year-old Cook Islands stalwart, helping it keep up with the resort Joneses. One of the larger Rarotonga properties, it still feels private and low-key thanks to meandering paths through lush tropical gardens. Premium family villas (sleeping up to five) enjoy a secluded semi-circular stretch of the resort’s grounds that feels a million miles away yet is only a minute from the pool. The kids’ club, known as the Beach Hut, fronts directly onto the sand and calm waters of Muri Lagoon and is a safe place for those aged six to 12. Also included with the tariff: a dose of quintessential Raro chill at the Barefoot Bar, where you can dine with your feet in the sand.
Luxe rating ⭑⭑⭑⭑
Rates from $445 a night
Parents will like At 2pm each day the resort’s glass-bottomed boat, which resembles a floating hut, heads out to the reef for snorkelling. You’re guaranteed to see fish of all stripes and colours.
Kids will like The Beach Hut kids’ club is no glorified babysitting service. Consider it island outreach, where children have a choice of cultural activities, including making flower garlands, local dance and language lessons and catch-and-release octopus hunting.
What kids say “The banana and chocolate smoothies at the restaurant are the best.” Frankie.
Rarotongan Beach Resort & Lagoonarium
Heed that word, “lagoonarium”. Embracing a kilometre-long section of groomed Aroa Beach fronting Aroa Lagoon Marine Reserve, Rarotongan Beach Resort raises the stakes on activities both on-water and in-water. There’s daily fish feeding, guided or do-it-yourself snorkelling adventures (beginners can take lessons in the swimming pool) and kayaks and stand-up paddleboards waiting on the beach to take their turn on the dazzling aquamarine waters. This is a resort for families that want plenty of choice. Daily pursuits for adults and kids range from the strenuous (beach volleyball) to the cultural (palm-frond weaving) and dining options cover cosmopolitan and casual – and there’s a gym where you can work off either choice.
Luxe rating ⭑⭑⭑
Rates from $381 a night
Parents will like The Rarotongan is on the south-western side of the island, making its beach bar the perfect spot for a sunset cocktail. If you want to kick on for dinner à deux, the kids’ club screens movies each night.
Kids will like On the second storey of the resort, the sprawling Moko’s Kids Club is a vibrant diversion for youngsters of all ages, equipped with an indoor trampoline, musical instruments and Lego. There’s a separate Teen Zone where air hockey, table tennis and games consoles will keep boredom at bay.
What kids say “I thought the big slide was really cool and I loved the pool with the waterfall over the rocks.” Alby.
Sea Change Villas
Choosing the best beach on Raro is a bit like choosing a favourite child but Turoa Beach, on the stunning Titikaveka Lagoon, is the darling. Claiming a piece of this hallowed real estate, Sea Change Villas generally caters only for guests aged 16 and over but it makes an exception for its Lagoon View Executive Villa, which accommodates children as young as 12. Like the other 11 villas on the property, this three-bedroom hideaway has a private swimming pool and an elegant timber fit-out. The ace up its sleeve? A games room equipped with table tennis, darts, table soccer and more. Drag yourself away from the villa to paddleboard or kayak on the glassy Titikaveka waters, grab a snorkel and mask, fire up the communal barbecue or borrow a bike to explore the sleepy southern side of the island.
Luxe rating ⭑⭑⭑⭑
Rates from $1722 for three nights
Parents will like This is self-contained family holidaying at its finest. The Lagoon View Executive Villa includes sunlounges and a swing chair by the good-sized private pool and an outdoor dining suite. A laundry and comprehensively kitted-out kitchen will keep everything ticking along.
Kids will like Let’s call it a draw between the villa’s games room and the endless attractions of Turoa Beach.
What kids say “I’d love to keep beating my dad in table tennis every night.” Harriet, 12.
Fun all-ages activities you can only do in the Cook Islands
Zoom off-road through a coconut plantation and the grounds of an abandoned hotel on a custom-made buggy built for one or two. It’s wet and incredibly muddy (that’s half the fun) and afterwards you can jump straight into the ocean to clean off. All you need is an adult with a driver’s licence and a sense of adventure.
No visit to the Cook Islands is complete without a trip to Aitutaki Island. Within a stunning coral reef and surrounded by an other-worldly blue lagoon, this isle, a 40-minute flight from Rarotonga, is an easy day excursion. A six-hour cruise will transport you to picturesque uninhabited islands with the extra excitement of swimming with giant trevally.
Hike the needle
Discover the mountainous interior of Rarotonga on a guided cross-island walk. The signature three-hour trek, suited to families with older children, goes to the base of the “needle” – a dramatic volcanic rock formation that adds to the island’s Jurassic Park comparisons.
On your bike
A cycling tour with a heart, Storytellers takes you into the ancient hub of Rarotonga on its 1000-year-old inland road, Ara Metua. You’ll visit taro and arrowroot plantations, say hello to pigs on traditional farms and finish with lunch and a dip at a secluded beach.
The history of the Cook Islands is told through story, dance and food at the five-hour cultural immersion to be found at Te Vara Nui Village. The traditional dance and music spectacular performed on an overwater platform is a highlight, replete with the hip-swivelling moves of a proud Polynesian culture.