At the very centre of the Polynesian triangle,the Cook Islands consist of 15 islands scattered over some 2 million square kilometres of the Pacific Ocean. It is bordered to the west by Tokelau, the Samoas and Nuie and to the east by Tahiti and the islands of French Polynesia. It lies in the Tropic of Capricorn, latitude from 9-22 degrees. The islands north to south, are Penhryn, Rakahanga, Manihiki, Pukapuka, Nassau, Suwarrow, Palmerston, Aitutaki, Manuae, Mitiaro, Takutea, Atiu, Mauke, Rarotonga and Mangaia. With a land area of just 240 square kilometres, the islands range from low coral atolls to the mountainous majesty of Rarotonga, the largest island of the group and home to the capital, Avarua.
It was during the Great Polynesian Migration (which began about 1500BC), that our ancestors first arrived in these islands. Their giant double-hulled canoes - ‘Vaka’s’ - guided by the stars and the power of ancient Polynesian navigation, arrived here approximately 800AD. It is said that Chief Toi arrived in the Cook Islands during the original migration. Toi presided over the creation of a grand road, built of coral, laid through the inland swamps. This all-weather road is still in existence, despite being almost 1000 years old. Now tar sealed, it lies inland and is called the Ara Metua. When the early explorers arrived on Rarotonga, they were staggered to find the Great Road of Toi and while there’s much in the way of legends to explain its presence, the original reason for its construction remains shrouded in mystery.
The first Europeans were the Spanish explorers Alvaro de Mendana, who sighted Pukapuka in 1595 and Pedro Fernandez de Quiros who sighted Rakahanga in 1606.
There was no further European contact until over 160 years later in 1773, when Captain James Cook, for whom the island group was eventually named, sighted Manuae atoll which he named Hervey Island. On a later voyage, he also discovered Palmerston, Takutea, Mangaia and Atiu in 1777.
The ill fated Captain William Bligh sighted Aitutaki in 1789. Legend has it that Aitutaki’s highest point, the 124-metre Maungapu, is the top of Rarotonga’s Raemaru Peak, stolen away by local warriors. Shortly after Bligh, on April 28th 1789, on the same vessel, mutineer Fletcher Christian sighted Rarotonga following the famous “Mutiny on the Bounty”. However Rarotonga’s official discovery is credited to Captain Phillip Goodenough in the Cumberland in 1814, whilst seeking sandalwood.
Aitutaki was the first island in the Cook group to embrace Christianity when the Reverend John Williams of the London Missionary Society arrived in 1821. Travelling with Williams was a young missionary, Papeiha, from the Society Islands, who stayed on when Williams continued his travels and dedicated the rest of his life to his task. The CICC Church, construction of which started in 1828, is the oldest church in the Cook Islands and has a memorial to John Williams and Papeiha.
A favourite stop for whalers in the 1850s, the British flag was raised in 1888 at which time Aitutaki and Rarotonga were included in the boundaries of New Zealand.
Today, our international airport in Rarotonga handles daily connections by modern jet aircraft. Your local travel agent can assist you with reservations and planning your holiday, thus making the discovery of the Cook Islands much easier for you than for our ancestors.