One of the most rewarding parts of a Cook Islands holiday is the opportunity to learn about local beliefs and cultural practices – doubly so if it includes a traditional and delicious umu feast. Visiting a cultural village or joining an educational tour is a great way to experience authentic island life, and these are five of the best.
Te Vara Nui Village, Cook Islands
The biggest and most established cultural village experience in the Cook Islands, Te Vara Nui is a hugely entertaining night out for the whole family. Book the 'Combo Extravaganza” and your evening starts with a village tour, including demonstrations of traditional practices like fishing and navigation, weaving and handicrafts, and cooking and plant medicine. Then onto the buffet dinner, with a wide range of island and European dishes. The night ends with a one-hour performance in a spectacular waterfall garden setting. One of Rarotonga's most popular attractions, for good reason.
For centuries this village site was home to the Paramount Chief of the Arorangi district, known as the Tinomana Ariki, and his tribe. With the advent of Christianity in the early 1800s the village was abandoned and for 150 years its ruins lay under thick jungle growth. Now the tribe's descendants have reopened and rejuvenated the site, offering a fascinating insight into traditional tribal life in this part of western Rarotonga. Highland Paradise offers guided and self-guided tours during the day, and a sunset cultural show and umu feast on selected weekday evenings.
Atiu Tumunu Experience
Located 187 km off Rarotonga's northeast coast, the island of Atiu is a beautiful, unspoilt and culturally distinct part of the Cook Islands. It's also very remote, and chances are that your holiday won't include a stop there. But you can still get to know Atiu life right in the heart of Rarotonga. The Atiu Tumunu Experience centres around the tumunu, a kava-like ceremony which involves the drinking of 'bush' beer made from fresh oranges (introduced to Atiu by Christian missionaries) which is brewed in a barrel carved from the base of a coconut tree. As well as the tumunu ceremony, visitors help with lunch preparations – picking rukau (local spinach), making fresh coconut cream and preparing the umu – and visit a marae, before sitting down to a delicious lunch.
Island Discovery Tour
Perfect for first-time visitors, Raro Tours' Island Discovery Tour is a lively and entertaining introduction to Rarotonga's geography, history and culture. The three-hour air-conditioned coach tour takes you past the island's most significant landmarks and spiritual sites, including maraes, early Christian churches and places like Black Rock, where spirits were traditionally believed to depart for the afterlife. Raro Tours is a highly professional outfit, with guides who are widely praised for being friendly, enthusiastic and informative.
Punarei Cultural Tour
This unique tour of northwestern Aitutaki is about as far from an off-the-shelf tourist experience as you can get. Tour guide Ngaa is also an archaelogist and one of the leading experts on the island's history and traditions, both pre- and post-Christianity. You'll be driven to one of the marae sites he is actively excavating for an introduction to ancient Aitutaki life and custom, then returned to a reconstructed hillside village for music, storytelling and a magnificent feast. Unlike many similar tours, this is a hands-on experience: you'll help gather the hibiscus leaves to lay at the base of the umu cooking pit and before you eat you'll need to weave your own plate from pandanus leaves. A fascinating and memorable day out.