The Cook Islands and Fiji are two fantastic holiday destinations in the heart of the South Pacific. Both countries offer great landscapes, fantastic beaches, and welcoming locals. Still, they differ in culture because Cook Islanders are Polynesians, while Fijians are Melanesians.
For the last few years, we have lived in the Cook Islands, getting to know all the inhabited islands, their warm-hearted people, and the island lifestyle. Likewise, we have traveled all over Fiji several times and fell in love with this country and its great inhabitants.
So, we are happy to share our experience and knowledge about these two countries to help you decide which country would be a better fit for your trip to paradise – the Cook Islands or Fiji.
The Cook Islands or Fiji – where to travel? The Cook Islands are a Polynesian paradise, with stunning beaches and lagoons and volcanic islands but little shopping and entertainment. The much larger Fiji is part of Melanesia, offers more things to do, is a great mix of beach- and city life, but more touristy.
In this article, we compare the Cook Islands and Fiji in general to give you a better idea of what you can expect and do there.
Cook Islands or Fiji? Location & Islands
The Cook Islands are right in the center of Polynesia and in the middle of the South Pacific, about 3,200 kilometers/ 1,988 miles northeast of New Zealand or 2,300 kilometers/ 1,429 miles southeast of Fiji.
The country consists of 15 islands, of which 12 are inhabited and stretches over nearly 1,500 kilometers/ 932 miles from south to north. It is pretty small with a total landmass of 240 kilometers2 / 149 miles2.
The islands divide into a northern and southern archipelago, with Rarotonga in the south being the main island and Avarua the capital.
The lagoon of Aitutaki and the northern islands are how you envision pure paradise, flat atolls with largely unspoiled turquoise lagoons and white sand beaches. In contrast, most of the southern islands are of volcanic origin, forming a stunning rough landscape, with cliffs, many caves, terraces, valleys, and isolated lagoon areas. The northern archipelago is one of the most remote places in the world where you can completely unwind from daily life.
On the other side, Fiji is part of Melanesia and about 2,600 kilometers/ 1,616 miles northeast of New Zealand and away from the Cook Islands.
Its archipelago consists of 332 islands and 522 islets, of which around 110 are permanently inhabited, and has a large landmass of more than 18,000 kilometers2/ miles 2. However, 87% of the population lives only on the two largest islands Viti Levu, with the capital Suva and Vanua Levu.
Fiji splits into four divisions – central, west, north, and east – of which western Fiji is the leading tourist destination. This includes Nadi, the Coral Coast, and Denarau on Viti Levu and the island groups of the Mamanucas and Yasawas, northwest of Viti Levu.
The Fijian islands offer you a mixture of fantastic mountain ranges, some of them hosting caves and magnificent beaches and lagoon areas. And if you want to get away from it all and enjoy off-the-beaten-track places, you can head out Taveuni Island and the beautiful islets in the east of Fiji, like the Lau Archipelago with stunning Vanua Bavalu, Cicia, and Lakeba (and many more).
What Does That Mean for Your Travel Planning?
If you are looking for great beaches and crystal-clear water for swimming and snorkeling, you can choose Cook Islands or Fiji because both have stunning places. And everything within reach if your arrival point is Rarotonga or Nadi International Airport.
However, traveling becomes more complex in both countries if you want to visit the remote off-the-beaten track’s islands, like the northern Cook Islands, or the northern and eastern parts of Fiji.
Since Fiji is much larger than the Cook Islands (75x bigger, to be precise), there is much more for you to do if you want to get active. You can enjoy the vast wilderness, amazing beaches, and city lifestyle you won’t find in the Cook Islands. But, if you aim for a less-touristy relaxing beach vacation without heaps to do, the Cook Islands are the first choice. It is simply more laid-back.
When it comes to international flights, Fiji is better positioned. It is a hub for dozens of flights daily from or to other South Pacific states such as Samoa, Tonga, Vanuatu and Hawaii, North America, Asia, Australia, and New Zealand.
The same applies to the in-country flights, where Fiji Airways regularly serves 11 island destinations.
Besides, you can use various ferry or boat services to do island hopping, like on the Yasawas & Mamanucas with the comfortable Hop-on-Hop-off Yasawa Flyer.
There are far fewer connections to the Cook Islands. Internationally, flights are coming in once or twice per day from New Zealand, Australia, and French Polynesia.
Domestically, you can catch a flight with the local Air Rarotonga to each of the southern islands 2-3 times per week.
But there is only one weekly connection to the northern archipelago, to Manihiki. And to all other northern islands, you can travel by charter flight, special tours, or ship only.
Also, there is no regular (ferry) boat service between the islands.
Cook Islands or Fiji? People & Culture
The Cook Islanders are Polynesians who originally came from East Asia to the Pacific and settled the islands of Hawaii, French Polynesia, Samoa, Tonga down to New Zealand – and also the Cook Islands.
Spoken languages are English and Cook Island Maori, with various Maori dialects across the outer islands.
The first thing that will strike you about the Fijians is that they are darker and taller than the Polynesians, and have curly hair. They are Melanesians, and origin from the Lapita people like the inhabitants of Papua New Guinea, New Caledonia, Vanuatu, and the Solomon Islands.
In the past centuries, the indigenous people of Fiji mixed with former sugar cane workers from India. That’s why you will find many Indo-Fijians who also look Indian – which makes up the second large ethnic group.
The spoken languages of Fiji are Fijian and English.
What Does That Mean for Your Travel Planning?
So, in terms of origin and culture, Fiji and the Cook Islands are very different. Yet in both countries, you can experience the fascinating culture and very welcoming people.
In the Cook Islands, everything is about the Maori culture – of the past and present. You can join colorful dancing & drumming shows and visit heaps of ancient Maori sites. Also, local people give you great insights into their heritage and origin around their homes.
And in everyday life, you will see traditional lifestyle everywhere – and taste it with all the delicious dishes 😉
While the Fijians had an eventful and exciting past as sailors, warriors, and cannibals, and you can get an insight if you go to cultural events and various places of worship. And if you visit the fantastic historical museum in Suva, with many incredible exhibits, such as a 1: 1 replica of the first ships Fijians used to sail across the Pacific.
Everyday life on the remote Fijian islands is very traditional and family-based. In contrast, on the main island of Viti Levu, you will find modern (business) life and a mixture of the Fijian and Indo-Fijian lifestyles.
Cook Islands or Fiji? Population, Visitors & Prices
Around 17,500 Cook Islanders live in the Cook Islands. Visitor numbers have increased over the past few years and are currently up at 170,000. Compared to the size and population of the country, the Cook Islands receive many visitors, with the majority coming from Australia and New Zealand.
Accommodations in the Cook Islands range from simple to upscale, and there is a large selection of restaurants where you can taste a lot of great fresh local food – all in a moderate price range. You won’t find any of the well-known hotel- or restaurant chains. Still, there are a few luxurious hotels, such as the Pacific Resort, on Rarotonga and Aitutaki. But is an awesome experience to stay in traditional guesthouses of the locals, especially on the outer islands.
Excursion-wise, you can head out for many awesome activities on the water and also some on land.
However, there is hardly any beach or evening entertainment and, in principle, no shopping opportunities. But the shops offer what you need for a relaxing beach vacation.
On the contrary, Fiji has nearly 903,000 inhabitants, and the annual tourist numbers were recently around 894,000. And here, too, most of the visitors arrive from Australia and New Zealand.
Fiji offers accommodations in all price ranges and restaurants with a wide variety of cuisines. On the main island Viti Levu, you will also find many superb hotels and places to eat from the well-known chains. Besides, Fiji has some very exclusive luxury resorts, such as the Laucula Island resort, a private island next to Taveuni Island in Fiji’s northeast. But the best experience is to stay in a Bure, which is a traditional Fijian house.
Fiji is a country where you should take a bus, rent a vehicle or jump on a boat – or hike – and explore the land that is so vast and fantastically contrasting. And find gorgeous places like in the picture on the left.
If you feel like more entertainment or a shopping tour, just hit the bigger towns like Nadi, Suva, or Port Denarau.
What Does That Mean for Your Travel Planning?
If you want to get away from it all and enjoy a nature-loving quiet vacation with not many people around you, the Cook Islands may be a better choice for you. However, because of the limited shopping opportunities, take everything with you that you do not want to miss.
On the contrary, if you after a wider choice of what to do including beach and city life, Fiji offers you more. But it’s also more touristy and many more people around.
However, both nations are very similar once you leave the main islands and make your way to the outer islands. Everything is still very unspoiled there, without the hustle and bustle and crowds of tourists.
The price level in Fiji is generally lower than on the Cook Islands. The many hotels and restaurants in Fiji keep prices low, and groceries are cheaper because they are mostly produced in the country. While in the Cook Islands, most supplies have to be imported from New Zealand, which drives up prices.
PS: We find that established cost of living websites are beneficial when you want to get a better idea of the current price levels. Check it for the Cook Islands or Fiji to see average prices for products and services in both countries.
Cook Islands or Fiji? When to Travel
The Cook Islands extend over a large area from south to north, and this is why the climate on the islands varies.
The northern island group is close to the equator and enjoys a more stable climate. Averaging temperature is 27°C / 81°F throughout the year. While the southern islands, including the main island Rarotonga, reach an annual average of 23°C / 73°F. In the warmer month from November to April with an average of 25°C / 77°F, and from May to October colder with 22°C / 72 °F.
The weather situation in entire Fiji is similar to the northern Cook Islands, with a comfortable temperature averaging 26°C / 79°F all year round.
For both nations, May to October are the more preferable months to travel, as these are a bit colder and less humid.
Tsunamis occur only very rarely, both in the Cook Islands and in Fiji.
Unfortunately, Fiji lies on the usual routes of tropical cyclones and is hit often and also severely. Cyclone season is from November to May.
While the Cook Islands are luckier and rarely see a cyclone.
What Does That Mean for Your Travel Planning?
If you want to play is safer in terms of warm and sunny days, Fiji is the better choice for you. This is because their islands are further up north than the Cook Islands’ main travel destinations Rarotonga and Aitutaki, and around 3°C / 37°F warmer and less rainy. Unless you travel to the northern archipelago of the Cook Islands, where the conditions are the same compared to Fiji.
The disadvantage of Fiji is, if a cyclone hits you, that it usually rains for days – and of course, it is also very windy.
And a tip: We experienced night temperatures going down to 15°C / 59°F in both countries, so it can get quite cool. This is why you should pack a couple of warm clothes.
We hope you enjoyed our article about these two excellent Island vacation countries in the South Pacific. Even better, if it helps you decide where you want to go next – maybe to the Cook Islands or Fiji? However, have a beautiful trip!
P.S.: If you’re interested in details on what to do in Rarotonga, we’ve rounded up 12 insider tips for Rarotonga. And we also have 12 Insider tips for the breathtaking lagoon of Aitutaki for you 😉
Where to Get All Detailed Information About the Entire Cook Islands…
If you are interested in getting more details about the entire Cook Islands, have a look at our website, including lots of photos and videos about every inhabited island.
But then we have tons of additional information for you on each of the following topics in our Travel Guide of the Entire Cook Islands, including all contact details and geocodes of the described locations:
- How to get to Rarotonga, Aitutaki, Atiu, Mangaia, Mauke, Mitiaro, Palmerston, Pukapuka, Nassau, Manihiki, Rakahanga and Penrhyn
- Facts and Stats
- Best time to travel
- What to do in case of an emergency
- Tips where to stay, eat and drink
- Tips where to shop
- Everything about the infrastructure
- Points of interest around the island
- Top Tips