Palmerston

Palmerston is home to about 60 people, plenty of turtles, rare seabirds, and some of the Cook Islands’ most succulent parrotfish.

It’s an atoll whose highest point measures four metres above sea level. It’s also the only island in the Cooks group on which Captain Cook ever set foot.

Palmerston is almost 500 kilometres northwest of Rarotonga and comprises seven motu, or islets, all with English names – Palmerston, North, Lee To Us, Leicester, Primrose, Toms, and Cooks. English is the primary language, because prior to an Englishman’s arrival in the mid 1800s, the island was uninhabited.

His name was William Marsters and he bore 17 children to multiple Polynesian wives, whom he met on the northern islands, then resettled with on Palmerston. Today, the Marsters family numbers more than a thousand, but only about 60 live on the island. There are only a couple of non-family members living on Palmerston.

The lucky tourists who have had a chance to visit (there is no airstrip) speak endearingly of the island’s lagoon, teeming with colourful fish, protected green turtles, and busy marine life. It’s a secluded sanctuary, both for turtles and seabirds, but also for travellers who have the good fortune to visit. A BBC headline called it “the island at the end of the earth.”

In the 1950s, a British lieutenant commander was shipwrecked on Palmerston for nine months. He wrote about it in his book, ‘On the Wind of a Dream: A Saga of Solace’. His daughter later said those months were “his favourite time in life.”

People are captivated with Palmerston’s unadulterated beauty and obvious abundance. Locals live off fish, taro, and breadfruit, and they also treat the red-tailed tropicbird as a delicacy. Their days revolve around fishing and preparing food; some people earn an income exporting fish to Rarotonga.

Palmerston lacks a petrol station, grocery store, and hospital. There are no restaurants and no hotels.

Arranging travel to Palmerston can be tricky; boats leave irregularly from Rarotonga, and the journey can take more than a week. Travel and accommodation must be arranged ahead of time. Also, remember to take something for your hosts. If you ask anyone who’s been there, they’ll tell you all the pre-planning was more than worth it.

Palmerston, Cook Islands
A good catch of fish
Beach on Palmerston Island
Aerial view of Palmerston
William Marsters headstone