Rarotonga, Cook Islands

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The Cook Islands are a South Pacific nation with a traditional Polynesian culture and governmental ties to New Zealand. Of the nation's 15 islands, Rarotonga is the youngest, geologically speaking, and it serves as the point of entry for most visitors. The landscape hints at the relaxed lifestyle its 10,000 residents enjoy: There's only one main road—without a single stoplight—following the 32-kilometer (20-mile) perimeter. 

The island's most visible landmark is a towering granite pinnacle known as the Needle, which rises from razor-backed ridges. Rarotonga’s other main calling cards are its Muri Lagoon, a dazzling patchwork of soothing blue hues, and its extraordinary people. Cook Islanders have a passion for Polynesian drumming and dancing, which they perform with an old-school, hip-swinging intensity that gets even bystanders’ hearts racing. The singing at Sunday church services is equally inspiring.

The capital, Avarua, has fewer than 6,000 people and a handful of shops, restaurants and bars. While scooters are the primary mode of transport, the convenient bus line loops around the island in 55 minutes, which simplifies independent sightseeing and trips to the beach. Sports activities range from leafy treks across the island to diving among lionfish and moray eels.

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