Cook Islands or Hawaii: Essential Facts to Help you Choose

Island Awe - Cook Islands or Hawaii

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The Cook Islands and Hawaii are both great tourist destinations if you are dreaming about palm trees and relaxing on the beach. 

They both sit in the same time zone and are mirror images of each other with respect to the equator (The Cooks lie about the same distance to the south of the equator that Hawaii is north). 

For this reason, you might expect the weather of these two locations to be quite similar, which is correct. Both are warm and sunny year-round with moderate temperatures (22°C-28°C). The slight difference is that Hawaii experiences rainfall during the winter months, whereas the Cook Islands get their rain in the summer months. 

The Cook Islands or Hawaii, where to go? Both tropical island destinations are of volcanic origin with fantastic mountain and beach landscapes. While the Cook Islands are perfect for a laid-back and less expensive stay, Hawaii has more activities on offer but is more touristy and expensive.

Let’s further analyze these two stunning travel destinations so you know what to do and expect while you’re there! We lived in the Cook Islands for a few years and also visited Hawaii a couple of times, so we are happy to share the details.

Cook Islands or Hawaii? Location and Islands

IslandAwe Beach on Mitiaro Eltje
Cook Islands or Hawaii – Gorgeous Beach With Makatea Rocks on Mitiaro (Cook Islands)

Flying is the best way to travel to the Cook Islands. It will take you about nine hours flight time from Los Angeles, four hours from New Zealand, and six hours from Sydney. Four different airlines are flying from the Cook Islands to America, New Zealand, and Australia. The unique geolocation of the Cook Islands makes it a great place to stop over for a vacation when flying between the US, Australia, and New Zealand. 

The Cooks consist of 15 islands, 12 of which are inhabited. These islands can be divided into two categories: the Southern Cook Islands and the Northern Cook Islands. 

If you want to relax on some stunning beaches or enjoy scuba diving while staying in a resort hotel, consider planning your trip to Rarotonga. If hiking is your thing and you want to visit a volcanic island at the heart of a fantastic coral reef, head over to the southern islands like Atiu. If you’re looking for seclusion and crystal clear waters, Aitutaki is one of the world’s most stunning atolls to find this.

Getting around the Cook Islands can sometimes be a hassle. While the southern group of islands is perfectly accessible by air, the northern group relies on intermittent boat services, which highly depend on weather conditions. There is only one weekly flight to the northern Archipelago, which serves Manihiki, the islands of the pearls. To reach the other breathtaking atolls Pukapuka and Penrhyn, you need to consider a charter flight.

Air Rarotonga is the country’s only airline, but the good news is it’s a good one. There are several flights throughout the week to Aitutaki and one every weekday to the islands of Aitu, Mauke, Mangaia, and Mitiaro. 

On the other hand, traveling around an island is quite easy. You can rent a scooter or a car (you must be 16 or older and have your international license in English or translated in English). Riding a bicycle around the islands is easy because the main roads are flat.

IslandAwe Hawaii Kauai Beach 1
Cook Islands or Hawaii – Stunning Beach on Kauai (Hawaii)

As for Hawaii, there are two ways to get there, by boat and by air. But it is recommended that you book a flight instead of sailing because a long cruise can spoil the joy of arriving on Hawaii’s shores.

Hawaii consists of 8 islands, 7 of which are inhabited. Oahu is the most popular island, with 4.7 million visitors annually. It is primarily defined by the state capital of Honolulu, Pearl Harbor, and the famous beach Waikiki. 

Oahu is a true hotspot for tours, shopping, surfing, nightlife, and dining. If you’re looking for a peaceful retreat with beautiful landscapes, Kaua’i is the place to go. If you’re seeking bits of everything; relaxing at the beach, hiking up to waterfalls, nightlife, then Maui is truly a tropical paradise. 

Hawaiian Airlines is Hawaii’s primary inter-island carrier, while Mokulele Airlines is a commuter airline. 

If you’re looking for a taste of several islands within seven days, there is a cruise line that operates year-round in Hawaii, the Norwegian Cruiseline. Taking the bus may be a little problematic, as it is meant for locals and not tourists carrying suitcases. The most convenient way to get around is to rent a car but consider that car rentals may be pricey. 

Cook Islands or Hawaii? Culture and Traditions

IslandAwe Mangaia On the Plane 1

Cook Islanders are mainly Polynesians. The culture of this area is incredibly diverse. The northern islands were settled a long time ago, around 8AD. In contrast, the southern islands were flocked later on by people from the Society Islands and Tahiti who soon inhabited the area.

You will notice that Cook Islanders are fun-loving and friendly, but at the same time, they are conservative and generally religious people who hold on to their customary way of life and culture. 

The art of music and dancing is of great significance to the Cooks, and you will see 4 or 5-year-olds performing in the traditional dances with fantastic skill and pride.  

Speaking will not be a problem as nearly everyone in the Cook Islands speaks English.

Apart from English, the other official language is Cook Islands Maori, also known as Rarotongan. So you won’t need to learn a new language, but if you want to broaden your vocabulary, look up a few essential phrases – the locals really appreciate it! Just remember, “Kia Orana” means hello. Thank us later!

Hawaiian Culture, on the other hand, is an ancient blend of ethnic influences and unique traditions. And these days, since Hawaii is part of the US, people of Polynesian origin and various other ethnic groups populate the islands.

Culture is one of the aspects that makes Hawaii so unique. Much more than breathtaking sunsets, attractive beaches, and world-class surfing, the culture of Hawaii influences all aspects, including language, religion, fashion, and cuisine. 

One of the most popular customs of Hawaiian culture is the gifting of the “Lei”. It is a garland made of a series of objects strung together with the intent to be worn. It is used to mark special occasions and is also presented as a welcome gesture. Be sure to only take it off in private; you don’t want to come off as offensive. 

Dance and music play a crucial role in Hawaiian culture as well. Hula is one of the customary dances done wearing coloring costumes and grass skirts, featuring the signature hip swaying. 

Cook Islands or Hawaii? Population and Visitors

The permanent population of the Cook Islands is pretty low, around 17,500 as of 2020, but they do get a good number of visitors every year, with almost 168,000 visitors in 2019, pre-covid. 

Due to COVID, however, the number of visitors dropped by a drastic 99.3% in mid-2020 and eventually hit zero due to the closing of borders. But now, as life is coming back to normal, the Cook Islands have re-opened their borders and are waiting for tourists with open arms. 

However, if you’re looking for a place that is not too crowded, especially compared to other islands like Fiji and Hawaii, then the Cooks is the place to go. 

Almost all of the lodges, shops, and restaurants are owned and operated by locals. You can stop and relax on a secluded beach or chat with the locals in their front yard and feel totally welcome. 

You won’t feel like you are being viewed as a source of money. People won’t come up to you and offer to take you on a tour or provide some service in exchange for some fee. It’s safe to say you won’t be treated like a tourist. 

The population of Hawaii is much more than on the Cooks, approximately 1.4 million as of 2019. 

However, the locals are mostly friendly and welcoming, especially on the freeway. They will let you cut in front of them – just give them a friendly shaka.

If you get acquainted with some locals, you might even be invited to a dinner at their home. Overall, Kauai has the most friendly bunch of people. 

If you don’t mind big crowds and a lot of people, then Hawaii is the place for you.

During the peak covid period, tourists’ total visitor arrivals fell to 2.4 million in 2020, 74% less than 2019. 

But as things are returning to normal, Hawaii is hustling and bustling with tourists once again, and more than ever before. So much so that hotel bookings have to be done weeks in advance, and the shortage in car rentals is making the tourists hit the roads locally. So be prepared!

Cook Islands or Hawaii? Price Levels

Many people think that the Pacific is filled with expensive islands and resorts, but that isn’t true, and the Cooks are proof. 

Visiting the Cook Islands will be more affordable compared to neighboring countries, including Hawaii. Currently, five nights in 3 to 4-star accommodation at Rarotonga will be starting at 315 NZD per person. But if you’re looking for luxury resorts, they’ll be about 600 to 1000 NZD a night. 

If you’re working around a budget, you can eat pretty cheaply on a food cart or at a market like the Muri Night market, where most dishes will cost you 16 NZD (10 USD).

You can find sausages for 2 NZD (1.30 USD), a burger combo for 9 NZD (6 USD), and fish and chips for 10 USD. At higher-end restaurants, you can expect to pay 37 NZD (24 USD) for a seafood platter and 5 USD for a glass of wine. 

Transportation costs range from 10 to 40 NZD for backpacking and luxury, respectively. 

On the contrary, a trip to Hawaii will cost you considerably more, but if you’ve saved up enough, it will definitely be worth it. For a night (double room) in 2-3 star accommodation, count 105 USD on Big Island, 125 USD on Kauai, and 135 USD on Honolulu, where you will also have to pay parking fees. For luxury living, prices can go beyond 1000 USD. 

For food, expect to pay somewhere between 10 and 15 USD for breakfast, from 15 to 30 USD for lunch, and even more for dinner. 

At high-end restaurants, you will pay about 80 USD for one dish and a drink. But if you’re on a budget, fortunately, there are small food trucks where you can eat locally for a comparatively low price (about 15 USD for one dish plus a drink).

For transportation, expect to pay 30 USD a day if you take the taxi and 50 USD per day renting a car. 

So, in general, if you are willing to spend 270 USD a day, head over to Hawaii, but if your budget is anywhere between 100 and 150 USD, the Cooks is the place for you. 

If you want to know more about it, here is a more detailed price comparison between the Cook Islands and Hawaii.

Cook Islands or Hawaii? When to Travel

There is really no bad time of the year to visit the Cook Islands. In the summer months, January and February, the temperature is still a comfortable 29°C, while in the winter months, June to August, it’s a mild 25°C. 

The rainy season is from December to April, and there is a slight risk of tropical cyclones. But usually, the showers are short, and most of the day may still be sunny.

The dry months are June to August, but this is also when New Zealanders and Australians take their winter vacations, so you might want to book well in advance if you plan on visiting in the drier months. 

The most suitable time to visit the Cook Islands is in October and November, which is not the peak holiday season and also the dry season. 

Hawaii’s perennial yet pleasant warm weather also makes it a good tourist destination at any time of the year, with temperatures ranging between 23°C and 30°C. 

However, the best months to visit Hawaii are between March and September, when it rains the least and temperatures are the highest. This is the perfect time if you are looking forward to enjoying the beautiful beaches and waters. 

But if you are trying to avoid Hawaii’s hurricane season, it is best to book your flight before June 1st or after November 30th. Although hurricanes are rare in Hawaii, it’s better to be safe than sorry. 

So, there you have it, folks – the Cook Islands or Hawaii? 

If you don’t mind the crowd and are ready to spend a good amount of money on your trip, book your flight for Hawaii. Also, all Hawaiian islands are in easy reach, and lots of activities are on offer.

In contrast, if you are on a budget and looking for a quiet and relaxing holiday, the Cook Islands is the place for you – as they say, “the Cook Islands is like Hawaii fifty years ago”. There are no high rises, no chain stores, no Mcdonalds, not even a stoplight. 

So the choice is up to you, but wherever you go, the Cook Islands or Hawaii, we wish you a fun and memorable trip! 

Where to Get Detailed Information About the Entire Cook Islands…

Want to learn more about the Cook Islands? Surf through our website for everything you need to know, plus aesthetic visuals of all the inhabited islands!

Additionally, we have a travel guide covering all the following details:

  • How to get to Rarotonga, Aitutaki, Atiu, Mangaia, Mauke, Mitiaro, Palmerston, Pukapuka, Nassau, Manihi, Rakahanga, and Penrhyn (plus all contact details and geocodes)
  • Best time for traveling
  • Useful facts and statistics
  • Details on the infrastructure
  • Tips on where to shop and what to eat

Plus a lot more… Dig in the Cook Islands Travel Guide for all 12 inhabited islands of the country!

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