The 15 Cook Islands are scattered between Tahiti and Samoa, in an ocean area about one-third the size of the continental United States, yet all together they comprise only 241 sq. km (93 sq. miles) of land -- a third the size of New York City. Two-thirds of that is on Rarotonga, which is only 32km (20 miles) around. With only 21 sq. km (8 sq. miles), Aitutaki is a mere speck in comparison.

The Economy

More than half of the country's gross domestic product comes from tourism, black pearls (its number-one export), and agriculture, mainly tropical fruit and juices. It relies to a large extent on overseas aid and cash sent home by islanders living abroad. Many Cook Islanders have pulled up stakes and left for better employment, education, and healthcare in New Zealand, resulting in a decrease in population. The exodus has resulted in a shortage of labor, especially in the tourism industry (don't be surprised to see Australians and Fijians working at the major hotels).

The Cook Islanders

The Cook Islands have a population of about 18,000, more or less, because the figure fluctuates as some islanders move to New Zealand and others return. More than half reside on Rarotonga. A majority of the population is of Polynesian descent. In culture, language, and physical appearance they are closely akin to both the Tahitians and the Maoris of New Zealand. Only on Pukapuka and Nassau atolls to the far northwest, where the residents are more like the Samoans, is the heritage significantly different.

Modern Cook Islanders have maintained the warmth, friendliness, and generosity that characterize Polynesians. Like their ancestors, they put great emphasis on family life. Within the extended family, a guiding principle remains share and share alike, and no one ever goes without a meal or a roof over his or her head. In fact, they may be generous to a fault: Many of the small grocery stores they run reputedly stay on the verge of bankruptcy.

Although not a matriarchy, Cook Islands culture places great responsibility on the wife and mother. Women are in charge of the section of land upon which their families live. They decide which crops and fruit trees to plant, they collect the money for household expenses, and, acting collectively and within the churches, they decide how the village will be run. When the mother dies, the land passes jointly to her children.

In addition to those who are pure Polynesian, a significant minority in the Cook Islands is of mixed European-Polynesian descent. There are also a number of New Zealanders and Australians plus a few Americans and Europeans, most on Rarotonga. There are very few Chinese or other Asians here.

Why Hurry? -- Cook Islanders live by the old Polynesian tradition known as "island time." The clock moves more slowly here, as it does in other South Pacific islands. Everything will get done in due course, not necessarily when you want it done. In other words, service can be slow by Western standards. But why hurry? You're on vacation.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.