If the high prices of French Polynesia are a deterrent, the Cook Islands offer a similar environment at half the price. Rarotonga resembles Moorea on a smaller scale, with more budget places to stay and fewer flashy resorts. "Raro" abounds in entertainment possibilities and things to do—a great choice for the active traveler.
The shortlist of "musts" on Rarotonga includes an island night dance show, a bicycle ride around the island, a swim in the Muri Lagoon, and a hike up to the Needle on the Cross-Island Track. The main town Avarua has two museums and various monuments associated with 19th century missionaries. The finest snorkeling is at Titikaveka on the southeast side of the island.
The second-most visited of the Cooks is Aitutaki, where the accommodations are quite good. The snorkeling at Aitutaki is even better than on Rarotonga and it's another nice place to hang loose. The lagoon trips by boat to One Foot Island are very popular and traditional dance shows are staged at the resorts almost every night.
However, to get a real feel for the Cook Islands, you must travel beyond this rather touristy pair to an outer island. Outer islands such as Atiu, Mauke, and Mangaia receive far fewer visitors but they do have tolerable facilities and are ideal for the intrepid.
Most of the people on Atiu live in the center of the island. Deep caves penetrate the island's uplifted limestone ring, and Atiu has the added attraction of tumunus where bush beer is served. Mauke is similar and even less visited. Mangaia has some of the most spectacular elevated coral formations in the world. All three islands have regular flights from Rarotonga and a few small lodgings, although other visitor facilities are scanty—they're that unspoiled.
Due to infrequent and expensive transportation, the Northern Group is seldom visited by tourists. In recent years these far-flung atolls have been rediscovered thanks to the cultured pearl industry.