Get a Maori tattoo, snorkel in a pristine lagoon and take to the stage for a traditional dance - these Polynesian atolls offer a wide range of experiences. 1. Aitutaki A scenic 40-minute flight north of Rarotonga are the jewel-like islets and atolls that make up Aitutaki. Life here marches to a slow beat; the only time residents move with any urgency is during island dances. The main draw is a great sapphire lagoon with shallow waters ideal for swimming and snorkelling. Often described as the most beautiful islands in the South Pacific, Aitutaki's scenery has proved irresistible to producers of reality-television shows. Accommodation options range from the modest to the marvellous. Compare rates at www.cook.pacific-resorts.com/aitutaki.html . 2. Muri Lagoon (bottom) If time constraints prevent a trip to Aitutaki, then Muri Lagoon on the main island of Rarotonga is a postcard-perfect consolation prize. The 3km-strand of sand seldom feels crowded and the gin-clear waters, coral formations and white powder beaches convert even the most lethargic sunbathers into watersports enthusiasts. Windsurfers, kayaks and sailboats are available for hire. Sails Restaurant ( www.sailsrestaurant.co.ck ) has the best spot on the beach and serves Polynesian-influenced cuisine. It has a thriving sideline in waterside weddings. 3. A cycle ride The stupendous scenery of Rarotonga is ideal for exploring by bicycle. A quiet coastal road rarely strays more than a few metres from the water's edge and brings you back to where you started after three or four hours of leisurely pedalling. Inland, a green carpet of vegetation softens the angular peaks, waterfalls beckon and rustic village huts peep out from behind coconut groves. Cars and motorcycles can be hired but why fill the frangipani-scented air with noise and fumes? 4. Cross-Rarotonga trek (top right) The four-hour cross-island trek through unpopulated terrain and cloud forest is best tackled in the dry months, between May and October. Hazards include poor signposting, a slippery staircase of gnarled tree roots and the occasional leech. However, from the highest point - Te Rua Manga or The Needle - sweeping views of surrounding hills (top left) make all the huffing and puffing worthwhile. The trek ends at scenic Wigmore's Waterfall, where it is customary to jump into the pool fully clothed and wash off mud, sweat and mosquito repellent. 5. Avarua In the north of Rarotonga, the capital of the Cook Islands, is a low-key service centre caught in a South Pacific time warp that enhances its charm. Post offices, supermarkets and internet cafes are rare in the archipelago but can be found in Avarua. The town is busiest on Saturdays, when the Punanga Nui market is in full swing. Between shopping for giant papayas and avocados, locals swap gossip and discuss church outfits for the following morning. Fishermen sell the daily catch and a local band serenades shoppers with ukulele tunes. 6. Island nights Compared with the jaded native dance performances staged by tourist boards and fancy hotels in other countries, cultural shows in the Cook Islands seem refreshingly authentic - and good fun too. Girls dance with sensual passion while guys with the physiques of rugby players gyrate with gusto. Pay attention to the moves because volunteers are often asked to join the show. Hotels put on island nights in rotation, so there is always somewhere to go and wiggle your hips. Ticket prices include a buffet meal. 7. Accommodation More Cook Islanders live overseas than in their birthplace, so there are plenty of empty houses available for rent. Accommodation ranges from simple cottages to luxury homes. Rates are reasonable and what you lose in room service you gain in independence. Fully furnished places with well-equipped kitchens start from HK$2,350 a week and are usually only a few steps from the sea. See www.ck/private.htm for a selection of properties. If room service and a spot of pampering are a priority, Pacific Resort ( www.pacificresort.com ) at Muri Lagoon is the upmarket option, with beachfront villas set amid tropical gardens. 8. Palmerston Island Located 500km north of Rarotonga, beyond the radar of most tourists and rarely visited even by the supply boats, is the time-capsule atoll of Palmerston. The outpost remained uninhabited until 1862, when William Marsters, an English carpenter, settled there with his two Polynesian wives and started a dynasty. Today, each of Palmerston's 50 inhabitants is a descendent of Marsters and speaks the Victorian Gloucestershire dialect their forefather used. Determined adventurers can visit the island aboard research vessel Bounty Bay, which will be dropping anchor at Palmerston in July next year. See www.pacific-expeditions.com for itinerary details and fares. 9. Church Pedal past a bright white church on Sunday and you'll hear the rapturous choral harmonies of the faithful. Cook Islanders are devout Christians and enthusiastic churchgoers. Men turn out in their starched Sunday best and women wear floral prints and wide-brimmed palm-frond hats. Visitors receive a hearty welcome and are likely to be invited back to the minister's house for tea and cakes. Services begin at 10am and are conducted in English and Maori. 10. Tattoos Long associated with Polynesian culture, the art of tattooing is very much alive in the Cook Islands, despite efforts by 19th-century missionaries to eradicate the practice. Traditionally, tattoos represented clan affiliation or a boy's initiation into manhood and incisions were made with sharpened fish bones dipped in dye. These days, intricate Maori designs have become a global fashion statement. Tetini Pekepo, better known as 'T', has a studio in Avarua and an international reputation. Pick out a design and pretend not to feel any pain.