Cook Islands or Vanuatu: Essential Facts to Help you Choose

Cook Islands or Vanuatu

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The Cook Islands and Vanuatu are idyllic travel destinations sitting approximately 3,600 kilometers apart in the Pacific Ocean. The Cooks are to the south of the ocean, while Vanuatu is towards the southwest. 

Both destinations offer stunning scenic views and a dreamy island getaway, yet they have many aspects that make them different. To choose the archipelago that suits your requirements best, it’s essential to delve into the details – exactly what we’re going to help you with!

The Cook Islands or Vanuatu – where to go? The Cook Islands feature tropical temperatures, limestone caves, and deserted beaches, with the archipelago being covered in evergreen bush. On the other hand, Vanuatu is a much lesser developed but more touristy country, featuring fascinating coral reefs, canyons, and active volcanoes.

Having visited both destinations, we would love to share our experiences and fun facts about each archipelago with you, so you can confidently choose one out of the two — the Cook Islands or Vanuatu?

Cook Islands or Vanuatu? Location & Islands

IslandAwe Cook Islands Aitutaki Honeymoon Island
The Cook Islands or Vanuatu? Beautiful Lagoon of Aitutaki, Cook Islands

The island country of the Cooks is located in Oceania to the northeast of New Zealand. It is a part of the Realm of New Zealand, meaning Cook Islanders are also New Zealand citizens. 

The Cook Islands comprise 15 islands scattered over 240 square kilometers — approximately the size of a medium-sized city. On the other hand, they span a whopping 2,000,000 square kilometers of sea!

The best way to get to the Cook Islands is by air, with Rarotonga International Airport being the main gateway. You can get around inhabited islands using public transport, while inter-island traveling relies majorly on domestic flights on the country’s only national carrier, Air Rarotonga. Alternatively, there are ferry boat services, but their unreliability means catching one can be quite a hassle.

IslandAwe Vanuatu Tanna Port Resolution Beach
The Cook Islands or Vanuatu? Beach at Port Resolution, Tanna Island, Vanuatu

In contrast, Vanuatu features a chain of 13 major islands, coupled with many other smaller ones. Taken together, the archipelago consists of over 80 islands, with approximately 65 of these being inhabited. The land area occupied by Vanuatu is 4,700 square kilometers while adding in the water totals it to 12,000 square kilometers.

There are two ways to get to Vanuatu. Grab a flight and touch down in Port Vila, a gateway to the island of Efate. If you’d like to enjoy the wonders of Vanuatu’s waters, take a cruise and sail its coast. 

To get around Vanuatu, locals mostly flag down privately owned mini-buses as there’s no official system of public transportation. You can travel between islands by catching a flight on the airline ‘Air Vanuatu’. Alternatively, you can take ferries between the main islands, although they’re not available often. 

How Does That Affect Your Travel Planning?

If you’re looking for a serene island country with lots of beach days, either one of Vanuatu and the Cook Islands is ideal. However, Vanuatu is very underdeveloped, with many of its locals living in rural areas in poverty (you’ll still see smiles on their faces, though!), while the Cooks are more developed. 

So, if you’re looking for a destination that is more set up in terms of development, the Cook Islands are where to go.

Both archipelagos are equally accessible by air. If you’re looking for a thrilling cruising experience and wish to enter your destination by water, Vanuatu is better placed. 

Cook Islands or Vanuatu? The Culture

IslandAwe Cook Islands Mauke Divided Church

Cook Islanders are mainly Polynesian people who stick to their religious practices, customs, and traditions. The art of dance and close harmony singing is practiced from the early years of their lives, and festivities and parades are wholeheartedly celebrated.

The official language of the Cooks is Maori (also known as Rarotongan). However, English and the Pukapukan language are also used.

Photo: Cook Islands or Vanuatu. Divided Church in Mauke, Cook Islands

Vanuatu is occupied by Melanesian people, though you can also find communities of the British and French. Being a culturally diverse country, Vanuatu celebrates traditional festivals with full spirit. Common traditions include woven clothing, skin painting, elaborate headwear, and carvings. In some rural areas, people still live in tribes and celebrate centuries-old customs.

Although over 112 languages are spoken in the land, the three official languages are French, Bislama, and English. Bislama is spoken most frequently, followed by English.

How Does That Affect Your Travel Planning?

If you wish to explore diverse cultures and mingle with several different types of people and communities, Vanuatu is where to go. Especially their old traditions are unique and worth experiencing. If you’d rather like to get to know Polynesians and their traditions, the Cooks are a perfect option.

The food of the Cook Islands is dominated by fish, taro, and rice with vegetables, while Vanuatu’s cuisine features fish, pork, yam, and other roots. That’s just a generalization, though. You can find plenty of other delicious dishes to devour in each destination!

Cook Islands or Vanuatu? Population & Visitors

IslandAwe - Vanuatu Efate Beach Scene
The Cook Islands or Vanuatu? Scenic Beach on Efate, Vanuatu

The Cook Islands have a low permanent population hovering around 17,500. However, it attracts a considerable number of visitors, with almost 170,000 right before Covid-19 reared its ugly head. 

Vanuatu has a much higher permanent population — 307,000 residents were recorded as of 2020. The number of visitors pre-covid was 256,000, which is also more than the Cook Islands. 

2020 saw a massive decline in the number of visitors to both destinations as countries closed their borders and travel bans were placed. But with things gradually coming back to normal, tourists are beginning to explore these archipelagos again.

How Does That Affect Your Travel Planning?

Vanuatu has a much higher population than the Cook Islands, with visitor numbers being higher as well.

This means if you’re looking for a more secluded stay, the Cooks are your go-to destination. If you don’t mind sharing your space with other folks, you can plan a trip to Vanuatu. 

The locals of both destinations are friendly people who warmly welcome tourists to explore their land, so both destinations score equal points in terms of hospitality.

Cook Islands or Vanuatu? Price Levels

The Cooks are one of the most reasonable island countries to visit in the South Pacific. Good accommodation generally ranges between $200 and $350 a night, while a bus ride would cost you $3 to $4. Meals can get slightly pricey as the Cooks rely on imports instead of local produce. A cheap meal would be around $10.

Vanuatu isn’t an expensive country to visit either, though the amount you spend depends largely on the experiences you choose to have. A 3-star hotel costs around $90 per night, while a 4-star one is priced at $180. 

Flagging down metered taxis means you can land a good bargain, but generally, you can expect to pay $1 to $2 for a trip around town. Additionally, eating at a cheap restaurant would be around $10 to $15.

How Does That Affect Your Travel Planning?

The same quality of accommodation is cheaper in Vanuatu than in the Cooks, so are the bus fares for moving around. Meals in both destinations cost more or less the same.

This means if you wish to keep your trip light on the pocket, Vanuatu is where to go. If you’re in to splurge a bit more, the Cooks will suit you.

However, remember that there are cheap and luxury options in either destination, so the real determinator of the amount of money spent is the type of vacation you wish to have.

Cook Islands or Vanuatu? When To Travel

IslandAwe Cook Islands Mitiaro Coastline
The Cook Islands or Vanuatu? Stunning Coastline on Mitiaro, Cook Islands

The Cook Islands enjoy a warm climate dominated by sunny days all year round. Occasional rainfall can be expected between December and March, resulting in higher humidity levels. However, the showers are brief, and the temperatures still remain above 22°C, so they won’t affect your travels much.

During the rainy season, there’s also a risk for tropical cyclones, floods, and tsunamis. Of all hazards, the risk for cyclones is the highest.

Vanuatu experiences similar weather conditions, with a wonderful subtropical climate. November to April are the wet months with an average temperature of 28°C, while the rest of the year is relatively dry. Generally, the temperatures are mild and the skies are blue all year long.

Vanuatu is susceptible to natural hazards, including floods, cyclones, and sea level rises during the wet season.

How Does That Affect Your Travel Planning?

The year-round tropical climates of both destinations mean the weather doesn’t have much say when choosing between the Cook Islands or Vanuatu. However, be sure to pick the months that are the most suitable for each destination.

Tourists mostly book their trips for the Cooks between May and August, which is clearly the best time to visit. If you want to enjoy pleasant temperatures while avoiding the influx of tourists, the best months for you are October and November. If you want lower price levels (and would bear a few showers for that), consider December to March.

For Vanuatu, May to September are the best months to visit when the weather is nice and dry, and the risk of natural hazards is low. However, July and August is the prime visiting time for European tourists, so you’d want to avoid booking your trip during these two months. 

So, that’s about it, folks. We hope you can now reach a more educated decision and choose the location that can give you the exact experience you’ve been yearning for. 

The Cook Islands or Vanuatu? You now know!

Want To Learn More About The Stunning Cook Islands and Vanuatu?

Visit our website to explore every nook and cranny of the Cook Islands, including aesthetic visuals of all the inhabited islands!

Additionally, we have the most comprehensive Travel Guide of the Cook Islands, covering the following for all 12 inhabited islands:

  • How to get to the islands of Rarotonga, Aitutaki, Atiu, Mangaia, Mauke, Mitiaro, Palmerston, Pukapuka, Nassau, Manihi, Rakahanga, and Penrhyn (plus their 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

We are also happy to share more stories and beautiful pics of Vanuatu on our website. For more details about captivating Vanuatu have a look at their official tourism site.


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