If you want to feel like a celebrity, go to Penrhyn.
I wanted to start with my overall impression because I find that if I list pros and cons in a blog post, later when I talk to people about the post they only remember the cons. And the full picture is that by the time we left, Penrhyn had a special place in our hearts and was very difficult to leave.
Pros: It is a beautiful atoll. Very few boats visit (we were the 8th that year and it was nearly the end of the non-hurricane season) and so the people are excited to see each yacht arrive. Yachts are an important part of their trading and supply line and your extras on board are a boon to the community. The singing in church is intense. You will be a guest of honor at every event that happens and you can count on at least a few feasts in a several week stay. The culture is very different than French Polynesia. Their religiosity is much more apparent and it is impolite to do anything but go to church and eat on Sunday (including moving your boat or kayaking). I had to wear a lot more clothing here than French Polynesia and I want to say that I blame the Christian missionaries for the fact that I had to wear sleeves in the tropics.
English speakers can chat freely with the locals who learn both Cook Islander Maori and English in school. You will be greeted on shore with an offer of coffee (don’t plan on hurrying anywhere) and likely leave with an invitation for another even or a gift of shell necklaces, a pumpkin or a watermelon. Children swam to our boat, and after seeing the sharks, got a ride back in our double kayak courtesy of Carol. The speeches directed at us at the last feast, for two other peoples’ birthdays, the day before we left had us both teary eyed.
The cons have to do only with the check in and check out procedure, more specifically the anchorage for doing so. The anchorage on the East side of Penrhyn, by the village of Te Tautua is fantastic. White sand, very few scattered coral heads, and under 20 feet. No fetch in the prevailing winds and the atoll breaks the wind. It is a much better anchorage than Suwarrow.
In contrast, the anchorage on the West side, by the village of Omaka is foul with coral (even in the spot marked as sand in the Compendium), and the water by Omaka is too cloudy to see what you are dropping in. We had our anchor caught when we tried to leave and had a bit of panic until we drove around and freed it. PLUS, you have more than 8 miles of fetch building and you are close by a lee shore. This is where you have to check in.
Partial solution: After checking in, it is possible to then check out by asking someone in Te Tautua (on the East side) to take you across to town in their aluminum skiff. We gave them a full tank of gas and went with them when they were already running an errand – win for everyone.
People complain about the fees for the Cook Islands which are high although nowadays the regular fees are well known so they shouldn’t catch anyone by surprise…but sometimes other fees are tacked on or at least proposed. We paid $50USD at Suwarrow for clearance into the Cook Islands (including health certificates) and for a 2 week stay. We paid nothing additional upon entering Penrhyn. On clearing out of Penrhyn we paid around $130 ($55 per person exit fee and $2.50 per day for a port fee based on size of vessel). However, the immigration/customs officer was out of town and the town secretary said there was an additional $50 fee for the officer’s time. Because this additional fee was not on the list of fees from Rarotonga (the capital), we politely declined to pay and with only minimal back and forth that fee was dropped .
Penrhyn is off the beaten path of cruisers. Most boats go the Southern route (Rarotonga and Aitutaki) or stop only at Suwarrow. Penrhyn is thus farther North than most people travel. We went there and left against the wind, but cruisers coming from Bora Bora should have a downwind sled ride and a similarly nice sail from there to Suwarrow or beyond as long as no convergence zones appear (a problem in the entire region).