Fiji, Bora Bora, and Tahiti usually get top billing when it comes to islands in the South Pacific Ocean. While we definitely can't argue with the beauty and charm of those destinations, it's worth noting that the relatively undiscovered Cook Islands -- just west of Tahiti and east of Fiji -- are equally appealing and just as accessible. Here's how you can get there, and four activities you can do once you arrive.
Air New Zealand is the only airline that serves the islands from the U.S., flying direct from LAX to Rarotonga International Airport every Sunday evening and returning Saturday night. Starting on November 5, the weekly departures will move up a day earlier to Saturday, while flights from Rarotonga will take off on Friday nights. For flights in August, we found round-trip fares from $833. Good to know: Resorts are about 10 minutes away from the airport, and it takes less than an hour to drive the whole island -- there aren't even any traffic lights in sight.
Plan on exploring beyond the main island? Air Rarotonga -- the country's national airline -- offers daily flights to eight of Cook's 15 islands, including Mangaia, Atiu, Mauke, Palmerston, Aitutaki, Mitiaro, Pukapuka, and Penrhyn. Round-trip flights from Rarotonga to Aitutaki in August, for example, are from $404 NZD ($284 USD).
When you want to do something other than relax on the beach, here's how you can spend your time.
1. Bonefishing. Aitutaki, with its sand flats-filled lagoon, is teeming with bonefish -- making this island one of the world's best places to try your hand at bonefishing. However, be warned that those little (and, in some cases, big) fish are skilled at evading capture.
2. Kitesurfing. Trade winds and optimal water conditions on Aitutaki and Rarotonga prevail throughout the year, meaning these parts are ideal for catching waves.
3. Cultural and historical tours. Soak up the history and culture of the islands. Spend some time on Rarotonga to check out its Beachcomber Art Gallery, displaying art from local and New Zealand artists. Set out for Highland Paradise, where you'll find entertainment, reenactments, traditional buildings, weaving, and other activities spread across lush gardens; admission is from $30 NZD ($21 USD).
4. Diving. Whether you're a beginner or experienced, the Cook Islands offer plenty of opportunities to explore aquatic life through diving; look out for schools of tropical fish, sea turtles, eels, barracudas, and reef sharks. There are several companies that offer diving tours, including Adventure Cook Islands and Dive Rarotonga.