As a child, there were always a few places that seemed impossibly far away. The Cook Islands and Bora Bora – two paradise destinations in the Pacific Ocean – were exactly that. Luckily, these islands can be reached by adventurous travelers, but as both are quite different, making the right decision between the Cook Islands or Bora Bora is very important.
Having spent time in both, we compare them below, showing you what to expect in each, and some of the best places to visit.
Cook Islands or Bora Bora: Which should you visit?
If you want gorgeous white sand beaches, and crystal clear swimming water then Bora Bora and the Cook Islands will both be perfect. Each has an unbelievable coastline, however they also offer quite different vacations.
Bora Bora specializes in upmarket resort holidays, and has become an exceptionally trendy destination in recent years. The scenery and lagoons on the island – and in French Polynesia in general – are spectacular, and we believe they are better than the Cook Islands.
However as such a popular destination, Bora Bora has become quite commercialized and overbuilt with resorts, and the overwater bungalows that it’s famous for are incredibly expensive. The cheapest often cost around 500 USD a night. The more expensive, upwards of 2000 USD a night.
In contrast, the far-flung Cook Islands are much cheaper, far less commercialized, and they feel more remote, rustic, and authentic. Don’t expect to find a McDonalds in the Cooks!
The lack of resorts in the Cook Islands means there are many independent accommodation options, covering a variety of budgets. Food costs are cheaper in the Cook Islands too. What all of this means is that a vacation in the Cook Islands tends to involve more integration with the local community, whereas one on Bora Bora is more secluded as most accommodation is in luxury resorts.
However as a tourist hotspot, there’s more excursion options in Bora Bora. It’s also easy to visit neighboring islands in French Polynesia – like Tahiti and Moorea.
The Cook Islands, in contrast, are more spread out and so it’s harder to reach the different islands. The upside of that, is that the beaches and most beautiful spots are never busy. In fact sometimes it feels like you have entire beaches just to yourself. However excursion wise, there is a lot less going on in the Cook Islands than Bora Bora.
Below we look at both islands in a little more detail, along with some of our favorite places to check out in each. Then we compare the culture and local food you can expect in both!
Rarotonga – the main island in this archipelago – is exactly how you’d imagine a remote island nation to look. Rugged mountains jut out of the ocean, surrounded by a coastline of white sand, and then a turquoise ring of blue. One of our favorite beaches is Muri Beach on Rarotonga. The water is crystal clear, the snorkeling fantastic, and the sand powdery soft.
The beaches throughout the Cook Islands are some of the best you will come across in the Pacific, and the more remote you go, the better they tend to become. Plus, with so few resorts here, they truly are unspoiled. Head to One Foot Island on the pristine Aitutaki atol for breathtaking beaches and a feeling like you’ve stumbled across heaven on earth . The contrasting hues of blue at the lagoon surrounding the island of Aitutaki is out of this world beautiful.
We could talk about beaches all day when it comes to the Cook Islands, however this archipelago has a lot more to offer than just sand.
The shallow lagoons throughout this island nation are perfect for snorkeling. Aroa Marine Reserve – a protected marine area – is a great place to start. You can reach the reef from the shoreline here which makes it perfect for kids and adults. Expect to see lots of multicolored reef fish, so make sure you take a great underwater camera with you – like this one.
While the Cook Islands are the perfect place to spend a day lazing on the beach, if you want to be active why not go for a hike. Rarotonga has a lush forested interior that is perfect for walking. There are several ancient trails that criss-cross over the island, and walking them will provide you with spectacular views.
One of our favorites is a marked trail that takes you to a dramatic peak called The Needle – you can find a map of the trail here. Plus the great thing about the Cook Islands is that there are barely any venomous insects or animals, so it’s a very safe tropical island to hike in.
The French Polynesian island of Bora Bora is undeniably beautiful when it comes to sparkling blue lagoons, and picturesque palm trees languidly lining its sandy beaches.
It’s the perfect place for an upmarket holiday where you can easily while away your time in Bora Bora’s iconic overwater bungalows on stilts, sipping cocktails on the beach.
For one of our favorite beaches though, head to Matira Beach for white sands surrounded by greenery.
Although best known as a romantic destination, the turquoise lagoons of Bora Bora provide the ideal conditions for kayaking, snorkeling, diving, kite-surfing and other water sports.
One of our favorite areas is Bora Bora Lagoon. This colorful reef is a great snorkeling spot to watch rays, reef sharks, and countless multi-colored fish!
If you want a break from the sea, you can also opt to trek through the island’s jungles! Hikers will revel in climbing Bora Bora’s highest peak, Mt Otemanu. This old volcano is best scaled with a local guide, but it will be well worth it. The dramatic volcanic peaks on this island – and French Polynesia – are breathtaking, and the views unmatched. (Recommend: Hiking in Bora Bora).
If you’re traveling to Bora Bora from June to November then it’s also peak whale-watching season! Humpback whales migrate here to breed during this time, and can even be spotted while snorkeling around the island.
Cook Islands or Bora Bora: Explore the sights and experience the Pacific
As Bora Bora is more focused on resort-based holidays, interaction with the community and culture tends to be limited. That’s unless you make a trip away from the private island resorts, and into nearby population centers in French Polynesia.
The service at resorts and hotels in Bora Bora is exceptional though – it’s their specialty after all.
Expect good service in the Cook Islands too, but this is a laid back nation, and things can move a bit slow. Waiters can take their time, and buses sometimes arrive late. It’s all part of this island’s charm.
Below we look at the culture in each island, and what you should expect if you choose to visit!
The Cook Islands’ culture is a mix of Polynesian and European influences. Traditional forms of governance still exist like the House of Ariki, which is a parliament made up of high chiefs. Albeit their role is mainly symbolic.
Stories and music are a big part of Cook Islands heritage. If you’re lucky you will get to watch an Ura. This popular traditional dance is a sacred Maori ritual which involves telling the story of the islands through dance.
The locals in the Cook Islands are skilled wood carvers and basket weavers, so have a go at learning these skills yourself. Or if you want to skip that part, make your way to Punanga Nui Market in the capital Avarua where you can browse locally made handicrafts and grab a souvenir.
With your interest piqued in Cook Islands culture, why not visit Te Ara Cook Islands Museum of Culture? The little exhibits here will take you back centuries as you delve through the history of this fascinating place.
Visiting the French Polynesian island of Bora Bora affords visitors a unique opportunity to delve into the lives of early settlers and learn more about the arrivals from Europe. From the famous story of the ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’ to the oral history shown through dance and song, you can learn a lot through the cultural experiences on offer here.
Try your hand at spearfishing and learn the incredible meanings behind traditional Maori tattoos. On islands like Bora Bora and nearby Tahiti, you will also find dance performances of the ‘Ori Tahiti’, and there are also places to take lessons with locals.
A trip to Bora Bora’s only town, Vaitape (pop: 5000) is worth it in order to experience some of community life. Although the town is focused on the tourist trade, a visit here will give you the chance to try out local cuisine. Some of which we recommend later in this article.
Cook Islands or Bora Bora: A taste of island life
With both being tropical island paradises, expect an abundance of fruit, coconuts and fresh fish. Below we pit the Cook Islands vs Bora Bora as we look at the local cuisine on offer.
For something very traditional, try Ika mata. This dish is made with raw fish and coconut milk – it’s a true island combination! Another seafood dish worth trying is curried eke – aka octopus curry.
Like many islands in the Pacific, earth ovens (umu) are still used to cook, especially during special occasions. After a fire is lit, volcanic rocks are placed over the fire until they heat up sufficiently. Then meats such as chicken, pork, or seafood, as well as unripe bananas and breadfruit have the hot rocks placed on top of them in the earth oven. The smokey flavor is fantastic, and the whole effort is an enjoyable social gathering.
For something sweet, try Banana Poke. This traditional dessert is a combination of bananas mixed with milk and sugar which is then baked and garnished with coconut milk. It’s delicious.
In Bora Bora, the food is mainly seafood based. Try raw fish with coconut milk. Usually, this is made from tuna or bonito fish. It is sliced into cubes and marinated in coconut milk, lemon juice, onion, cucumber, tomatoes, garlic and spring onion.
With such a big Chinese-Polynesian population, there is a wonderful fusion of cuisines on French Polynesia. Chao men (fried noodles with vegetables, meat and shrimp), chicken with lemon sauce, chao chap (roasted duck), and mapo tofu are popular dishes on the islands. Raw fish is also very prominent in Chinese cooking on French Polynesia.
A notable French influence in Bora Bora also shines through in sweet treats such as firi firi (Tahitian doughnuts) and banana crepes. A favorite breakfast food is coconut bread!
Cook Islands or Bora Bora: Which should you visit?
If time and money weren’t limited, then we would recommend visiting both of these island paradises. However if you’re looking for sun, sea and sand at an inexpensive price – and also a bit of culture – then the Cook Islands is probably the better choice than Bora Bora.
This archipegalo has fantastic white sand beaches and turquoise lagoons that have a real secluded feel, and is much less overbuilt compared to Bora Bora.
However if you have an image in your head of a tropical island getaway that includes sipping cocktails from a coconut, and spending more time sunbathing at a high-end resort than anything else, then Bora Bora will be better.
This French Polynesian paradise – which almost exclusively centers its tourist trade on upmarket resorts – can be very expensive though. However this island may be the world’s most beautiful, and the hotel service you receive will be exceptional.
Recommended for your trip to the Cook Islands or Bora Bora
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