The Cook Islands and French Polynesia are two absolutely stunning travel destinations located in Polynesia in the heart of the South Pacific. They have many things in common, and yet they are quite different.
We have lived in the Cook Islands for several years and got to know all its inhabited islands. In the same way, we’ve also spent a lot of time in French Polynesia’s island world over the past decade.
So, we are happy to share our experience and knowledge about these two countries to help you decide which island nation would be a better fit for your trip to paradise – the Cook Islands or French Polynesia.
The Cook Islands or French Polynesia – where to travel? The Cook Islands are a beach holiday destination at moderate costs, with awesome islands but little shopping & entertainment. French Polynesia’s islands offer more activities, beach- and city life but are upscale destinations at higher costs.
In this article, we compare the Cook Islands and French Polynesia in general to give you a better idea of what you can expect and do there.
Cook Islands or French Polynesia? Location & Islands
The Cook Islands are right in the center of Polynesia, in the middle of the South Pacific. They consist of 15 islands, of which 12 are inhabited and stretching over nearly 1,500 kilometers/ 932 miles from south to north.
The islands divide into a northern and southern archipelago, with Rarotonga being the main island and Avarua the capital.
The northern islands are flat atolls with largely unspoiled turquoise lagoons. In contrast, most of the southern islands are of volcanic origin, forming a rough landscape, with cliffs, many caves, terraces, valleys, and isolated lagoon areas.
French Polynesia is Cook Island’s next neighbor in the eastern corner of Polynesia and only 1,200 kilometers/ 746 miles away. Out of its 118 islands, 67 are inhabited. Tahiti is the main island, with the capital Papeete. The islands of French Polynesia are spread over almost 2,000 kilometers/ 1,243 miles.
The country splits into five island groups: Best known are the Society Islands, with Tahiti, Bora Bora, and Moorea (and 11 more islands!), with fabulous lagoons and a vibrant underwater world. The largest island group, the Tuamotus, comes with 78 stunning pristine atolls and hosts the world’s largest lagoon.
While the remote Marquesan Islands, Gambier Islands, and the Austral Islands are rather rough and of wild volcanic origins, with partly high rugged mountain ranges and beautiful secluded beaches.
What Does That Mean for Your Travel Planning?
So, if you are after great beaches and crystal-clear water for swimming and snorkeling, both the Cook Islands and French Polynesia offer you stunning atolls and lagoons. They have a couple of volcanic and mountainous islands, where you can hike, discover caves and untouched wild landscapes. In the same way, they host some remote islands off the beaten tracks, where you can get away completely.
When it comes to international flights, French Polynesia is better positioned. There are connections to North and South America, Asia and New Zealand and Australia, and various other Pacific countries. The same applies to the in-country flights, where Air Tahiti regularly serves 47 islands.
While there are far fewer connections to and within the Cook Islands. Internationally, flights are coming in from New Zealand, Australia, and French Polynesia. You can catch a flight to each island of the southern group 2-3 times per week, but there is only one weekly flight to the northern archipelago, to the atoll of Manihiki. To all other northern islands, you can get only by charter flight, special tours, or ship.
As a tip: If time (and money…;-) is not a problem, you can combine a trip to the Cook Islands with French Polynesia because there is a weekly direct flight connection between Rarotonga and Papeete.
Cook Islands or French Polynesia? Tourism & Prices
About 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 (before Covid).
Compared to the size and population of the country, the Cook Islands receive many visitors. However, most of them are rather middle-class tourists, which is why accommodation categories range from simple to upscale, and there is a large selection of restaurants – all in the moderate price range.
You can head out for various activities on the water and excursions on land. However, there is hardly any nightlife and, in principle, no shopping opportunities. The shops offer what you need for a beach vacation.
On the contrary, French Polynesia has around 282.000 inhabitants, of which nearly 70% live on Tahiti and makes it the most populated island. The annual tourist numbers were recently around 300,000 (before Covid).
Related to its size and inhabitants, the number of tourists in French Polynesia is rather low. The country aims to attract fewer but well-off visitors. There is less choice of accommodation, and the majority of it is in the high-priced range. Restaurants offer all types of cuisine and are generally more expensive than in the Cook Islands. Nonetheless, there are also a couple of inexpensive food options, and groceries are mostly cheaper than on the Cook Islands as they are subsidized by motherland France.
Since French Polynesia has many more residents and larger cities, there is a whole lot more of entertainment and shopping options.
What Does That Mean for Your Vacation Planning?
If you want to get away from it all and enjoy a nature-loving quiet vacation on a lower budget, 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 more variety, beach and city life and a wider choice of what to do, French Polynesia offers you more. But you also have more people around, and the prices for accommodation and restaurants are higher.
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.
PS: We find that established cost of living websites are beneficial when you want to get a better idea of the current price level. Check it for the Cook Islands or French Polynesia to see average prices for products and services in both countries.
Cook Islands or French Polynesia? When to Travel
Both island states extend over a large area, and this is why the climate on the islands varies.
In the Cook Islands, 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 temperatures averaging 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 colder months are also drier, and the recommended better travel time.
The weather situation in entire French Polynesia is similar to the northern Cook Islands, with a comfortable temperature averaging 27°C / 81°F, 29°C / 84°F from November to April and 26°C / 79°F from May to October.
Only the far south Austral and Gambier Islands are colder with an average temperature of 23°C / 73°F throughout the year. The average of the warmer month from November to April is 26°C / 79°F and 21°C / 70°F during the colder period from April to October.
May to October are the more preferable months to travel for French Polynesia, as these are a bit colder and less humid.
Natural Hazards: There have been tsunamis in the Cook Islands and French Polynesia, connected with earthquakes in South America and Japan. However, they have not caused much damage. Fortunately, both countries are not on the usual routes of tropical cyclones, and these rarely occur.
What Does That Mean for Your Travel Planning?
If you want to play is safer in terms of warm and sunny days, French Polynesia is the better choice for you. All the leading travel destinations, like the main island Tahiti, Moorea, and Bora Bora, are further up north than the comparable islands of the Cook Islands, such as Rarotonga and Aitutaki, and around 4°C / 39°F warmer and less rainy.
Of course, the weather for South Pacific islands is generally difficult to predict, but French Polynesia is, according to the stats, the drier and warmer option.
Cook Islands or French Polynesia? Language & Currency
The Cook Islands is a self-governing Island State in a free association with New Zealand. Cook Islanders are New Zealand citizens, and the currency is the New Zealand Dollar (NZD).
Cook Islanders are of Polynesian Heritage. Spoken languages are English and Cook Island Maori, with various Maori dialects across the outer islands.
The inhabitants of French Polynesia are of Polynesian origin, too. Since the country is an overseas territory of France, the locals are French citizens, and the spoken languages are French and Tahitian.
The currency is the CFP-Franc (Franc Pacifique) which is linked to the Euro with a fixed exchange rate.
What Does That Mean for Your Travel Planning?
Both countries have stable currencies. This means that you do not have to worry about any major currency fluctuations regarding the costs of your trip.
Language-wise, you can get on with English on all of the Cook Islands.
This is also true for the more touristic islands of French Polynesia. However, you would need to speak some French if you visit the more remote islands. For example, you find hardly any person speaking English on the Marquesan Islands.
Aitutaki or Bora Bora & Rarotonga or Tahiti?
We have also compared the great main travel destinations within the two countries for you:
The most awesome lagoons Aitutaki and Bora Bora, but also the two countries’ main islands Rarotonga and Tahiti.
And we’ve also added insights into Moorea, Tahiti’s sister island, which compares very well to Rarotonga.
So, if you’d like to dive into the island details, take a look at:
- The Cook Islands or French Polynesia: Aitutaki or Bora Bora
- The Cook Islands or French Polynesia: Rarotonga or Tahiti
- The Cook Islands or French Polynesia: Rarotonga or Moorea
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 look at our website including lots of photos and videos about each and 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