The Cook Islands are situated 3,500km (2,200 miles) northeast of New Zealand and 1,000km (600 miles) southwest of Tahiti in the South Pacific, forming part of Polynesia. The 15 islands fall into two groups: the scattered Northern Group are all coral atolls while the Southern Group is of volcanic origin. Most of the larger islands include lagoons surrounded by small areas of fertile land above which rise volcanic hills.
Rarotonga is the largest and highest island with a rugged volcanic interior, its highest peak being Te Manga, at 652m (2,140ft). Coral reef surrounds the island and the population lives between reef and hills where rich soil supports both tropical and subtropical vegetation. Most of the island is covered by thick evergreen bush. Most of the larger islands include lagoons surrounded by small areas of fertile land, above which rise volcanic hills. The best beaches in the Cook Islands are found on Aitutaki, which is part of the eight-island Southern Group. The Northern Group comprises seven islands, the largest being Penrhyn, Manihiki and Pukapuka.