The Cook Islands, located between New Zealand and Hawaii, are the epitome of idyllic island paradise life. Famous for their crystal clear waters and white sandy beaches, these 15 little atolls sparkle like gems. Each has its own unique culture and special ambience but the real pearls are waiting to be discovered amongst the outer islands in the south. These are remote, romantic, serene settings certain to have you considering the simple things in life and breathing in the fresh South Sea air a little deeper.
Here are the top five Southern Cook Islands.
Known as the Land of the Birds, Atiu Island is over eight million years old and has a thriving ecology to prove it. In its limestone caves spot the tiny rare bird Kopeka, which uses its sonar sense to navigate its flight through the dark of night. In the dense jungle, see the endangered Kakerori and the blue kingfisher, and explore Anatakitaki Cave chambers, which house ancient Rakanui family artifacts. Without pubs, clubs or restaurants, Atiu is a true island hideaway.
An island plateau with a population of 180 people, Mitiaro offers a unique homestay experience on its west coast, in a traditional Cook Island hut with a local family. Walk, talk, dine and sing with the friendly Mitiaro locals. Head inland to see an abundance of organic fruit and vegetables growing and, as long as you're wearing sturdy shoes, walk across the limestone layers of the makatea to visit the ancient fort, Te Pare, which was constructed to protect the island from the Atiu warriors.
The oldest island in the Pacific and the southernmost of the Cook Islands, Mangaia boasts more than 18 million years of history. An imposing coral cliff makes this makatea the most dramatic. It drops away to a spectacular wetland below, watered by a vast underground system. Explore caves (Teruarere is the most impressive) and climb crevices that were made by the forefathers into steps.
The most beautiful of the Cook Islands - and the island most often used by international film crews - Aitutaki's reputation is for romance. An hour's flight from Rarotonga, this tiny atoll, fondly referred to by many as "Honeymoon Island", is indeed the perfect honeymoon location. You can even hold a private wedding ceremony at one of the pristine white churches and pick up a special souvenir at Saturday's markets. Go snorkelling, bone fishing and explore the spectacular lagoon.
The only island upon which Captain Cook set foot, Palmerston is utterly remote and surrounded by reef. With internet access for just four hours a day and supplies delivered only a few times each year, Palmerston promises privacy amongst its swaying palm trees. The warm, friendly population is descended from Palmerston's first inhabitant, the English-born William Marsters. His original home, constructed from shipwrecked timber and driftwood, still stands today, more than 150 years later. For the adventurous traveller, this is the Cook Island's most intriguing outpost.