GoNOMAD DESTINATION MINI GUIDE
Rarotonga, Cook Islands
By Lucy Eglington
Rarotonga is the “capital” of the Cook Islands, the rest of which are a mixture of islands, atolls and coral cays lying in over 2.5 million square miles of ocean. The 15 islands are roughly divided into two groups, Rarotonga being the largest of the Southern group. The total population of the Cook Islands is about 18,000. 90% of these live in the Southern group, with over 10,000 people living on Rarotonga alone. Rarotonga and Aitutaki are the most visited islands, although all but two are accessible by air.
Imagine a tropical idyll with glittering lagoons and lush high volcanic peaks. Fill the landscape with fruits, vegetables and flowers, and with relaxed, friendly Polynesians. Now pinch yourself. If you’re awake, you’re probably in Rarotonga.
Many people say that the Cook Islands are like Tahiti 30 years ago — unspoilt and undeveloped, with the same intense beauty. Life is pretty quiet here — people work mainly on the land, which is all family-owned: no foreigners are allowed to buy land here. There is a high standard of living, aided by the fact that the Cook Islands are in free association with New Zealand. The islanders have automatic New Zealand residency, and many, particularly the younger generation, are lured to live and work there full time. There are more Cook Islanders living in New Zealand than in the Cooks themselves!
Please be a responsible traveler here — small island ecologies are delicate at the best of times. Rarotonga faces problems with waste disposal, land clearance, introduced species and over-fishing. Conservation schemes are in place and eco-tourism is increasingly popular, but these islands are so tiny (just 241 sq km in total) that they are incredibly vulnerable. Try to stay in locally-owned places and take locally-run tours. Avoid using goods which have excessive packaging, and don’t buy anything that looks like it would be better off still alive!
WHEN TO GO
Rarotonga is warm all year round. December through March are usually the wettest, warmest and stickiest months, with temperatures ranging from 23-29C. It’s drier and cooler (18-25C) from April to November. It rains year-round, but it’s usually a cooling afternoon shower. Hurricane season is November to March, but don’t let it put you off: they’re few and far between.
GETTING THERE AND AROUND
Rarotonga is one of the stopping-off points on the USA — Australasia route, and is easily accessible from Hawaii, New Zealand, Fiji and Tahiti. If you are flying across the Pacific with Air New Zealand, you can normally choose a stopover here without increasing the price of your ticket. Air New Zealand (USA) Tel: 310-648-7000.
Getting around Raratonga by bus is pretty easy. The island is round, with a single tarmac road ringing it and a secondary, parallel road about 500 yards inland, so exploring by bus is a no-brainer: one bus goes clockwise, the other counterclockwise. And should you manage by a feat of idiocy to get the wrong one, who cares? Its not as if you’re busy. You can just stay on and go all the way around: the whole circuit only takes about 50 minutes. Buses go on the hour, every hour from Cook’s corner in Avarua, and you can flag them down anywhere else along the route. The fare is US$1.50 for two rides, and US$7 for a 10-ride ticket.
Car rentals are a bit more difficult. To rent a car you must first visit the police station in Avarua, and pay US$5 for a local driving license. If you want to rent a motorbike, you’ll also have to take a US$2.50 mini “driving test” (basically a ride up and down the street. If you stay on the bike, you passed). Many rental companies have multi-day deals, and it’s wise to shop around as prices vary. TPA Rentals charges from about US$18 per day for a car.
Mopeds are fun to ride, and the lack of local traffic means that you’ll be relatively safe. These start from about US$10 per day, and can (cosily) seat two people. They’re available all over the island.
Bicycles are a perfect way to see the island. In a car, you risk seeing everything in two days. Walking is all very well, but it’s pretty hot. Far better to pedal along the flat roads, with a fresh breeze cooling you down and a bottle of water in your basket. Cycling along bone-shaker roads, dodging dogs and chickens and stopping for chats with the gently reserved, laid-back locals is brilliant fun in itself. It takes three hours to circle the island at a very leisurely pace, and it’s a great way to get into the villages. Bikes are available just about everywhere, and they cost from US$2.50 per day. Try and get a mountain bike, as the inland road is painfully potholed!
To and From Other Islands
Air Rarotonga flies between Rarotonga and most of the other islands. Flights to Aitutaki cost $142 (return), and the flight takes about 50 minutes. You’ll be treated to a spectacular view of both the islands and the view as you come in over Aitutaki’s 11km lagoon has to be seen to be believed. Tel: 22888, Fax: 20979.
It’s possible to get to some of the remote islands by using the inter-island shipping services, but unless you’ve got some good books and no schedule, it’s probably not a good idea. The ships are erratic, and it may be weeks before they return to a particular island: you could be stranded for quite some time!
The Cook Islands are a popular yachting destination, so if you feel like an adventure on the high seas you could hang around the harbor in Avarua: someone might let you work your passage around the islands.
Rarotonga’s most obvious draw is its incredible natural beauty. The island itself rises to graceful jungle-covered peaks, while the coast is ringed by palm-fringed white sand beaches and shallow lagoons packed with a huge diversity of tropical fish. Flowers jostle in the velvety tangles of undergrowth in a crazy riot of colors and smells, and the roads are lined with fragrant frangipani and technicolor hibiscus for you to pop behind your ear. A walk anywhere here is to see nature brazenly displaying her fertility: fruit is literally falling off the trees with pawpaw, mangoes, coconuts and bananas growing alongside the dusty tracks.
Rarotonga has beautiful beaches galore. One of the most popular is Muri Beach, about 23km from Avarua. It is a three-kilometer stretch of white sand which gently slopes into a safe, shallow lagoon containing four tiny islets, or motu. Muri Lagoon is the most popular place on the island for watersports and you can rent windsurfers, canoes, dinghies and snorkelling gear here.
Rarotonga’s coastal capital of Avarua has all the amenities, plus cafes, restaurants and bars. It’s a tiny town, and it’s a people-watcher’s dream: huge, stately ladies putter about on tiny mopeds, wearing vast, flowing, tent-like dresses with bold hibiscus, banana and palms printed on them.
- The Seven in One Coconut Tree
Beside the big roundabout in the center of town stands the famous Seven-in-One Coconut Tree. This group of trees is supposedly all one tree, grown from an amazing seven-sprouted coconut, brought all the way from the island of Takutea.
- The National Culture Centre and National Museum
The National Culture Centre houses the National Museum, which has a small collection of South Pacific and Cook Islands artifacts. Admission is free, but donations are appreciated.
- Punanga Nui
A five-minute stroll out of town towards the charming Avatiu harbor brings you to the Punanga Nui outdoor market. It’s open all week, but Saturday mornings are the busiest. The locals come here to sell produce and handicrafts, and there are several takeaway food stalls if you’re feeling hungry.
- The Cultural Village
The Cultural Village is 7 km from Avarua on the inland road (Tel: 21314). Here you can enjoy a non-tacky “island culture” day. A well-spent US$20 has you watching folks making tapa (cloth made from beaten bark and then painted with plant dyes), looking around a traditional village and watching demonstrations of fishing, weaving and woodcarving. At lunch, you’ll feast on breadfruit, suckling pig and other traditional foods baked in an umukai, or ground oven. Afterwards, you’ll watch dancers undulate the hot afternoon away. Join in, if you dare! In the afternoons, Circle Island culture tours are available. The combined price for the village and the tour is US$30.
- Inland Drive/Trek
One way to see the lush island interior is to make an Inland drive. There are two drives which extend inland along streams, petering out after about 3km. From then on, you’ll have to walk if you want to go further. The end of the Avatiu drive marks the beginning of the Cross-Island Trek. This is the most popular walk on the island, and takes a good three to four hours. It’s worth making the effort if you can, because the trek takes you across the jungle-clad, hilly center via “the needle”, which has a fantastic view. Don’t try to climb the actual needle (unless you like hospital food), as it’s very high and very sheer. Near the end of the walk, you’ll welcome the cooling sight of Wigmore’s waterfall, a lovely waterfall plunging into a fresh, sparkling pool.
- Island Night
One way to try traditional South Pacific fare and see traditional dancing displays is to attend an “Island Night.” Some say the Cook Islanders are the best dancers in Polynesia. The Victorians were shocked by their suggestive wigglings, and you might be too! There is an island night somewhere on the island most evenings. An inexpensive, less “put on for the tourists” option is at the Staircase Restaurant on Thursday nights (see BEST EATS).
Many visitors to Rarotonga choose to visit the nearby island of Aitutaki, an absolute “must-see.” Famous for its immense jewel-like lagoon, it could well be the most beautiful island in the world, certainly in the Pacific. See BEST ACTIVITIES AND TOURS for more info.
BEST UNUSUAL ATTRACTIONS
- Highland Paradise
On a high slope behind Aorangi, about 9km from Avarua. It’s the site of an ancient village, and Raymond Pirangi takes tours of the site and its beautiful botanical garden whilst regaling you with ancient tales and legends. A traditional umukai lunch is included in the US$15 price tag.
- Rarotonga Breweries
The Rarotonga Breweries are a 10-minute walk from town centre and give free 15-minute brewery tours on Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays at 2pm, followed by a free glass of Cook’s Lager, the local brew.
- The Beachcomber Gallery
Occupies a restored Sunday school building, and houses a display of local arts, crafts, jewellery and a whole host of other things. There’s a workshop out back where you can see shell carvings and black pearl jewellery being made.
BEST ACTIVITIES AND TOURS
There’s plenty to do here, and here’s the crux, if you can be bothered. But you can’t. You won’t know what day it is, and you won’t care, either. The smallest thing will be a heinous effort, because “Island Lethargy” has claimed another victim. Your worries will mysteriously vanish, your body will turn plump and recumbent, and your skin a rich, nutty brown. But if you absolutely have to do something, Rarotonga won’t let you down. For more options, find interesting tours in the Cook Islands.
Snorkeling is good all round the island, and most hotels and hostels will have gear you can borrow or rent for US$2 — US$5. The coral spit opposite Fruits of Rarotonga is allegedly the best spot on the island, and the owners will watch your belongings while you go in. Inside the lagoons you are safe, but avoid going too close to the breaks — the currents through the reef are strong and there’s no coastguard to save you! You’ll also want to wear shoes in the shallows: the coral is very sharp, and there are stonefish in the lagoons. Disguised as stones, they lurk on the bottom and have a series of highly venomous spines along their backs. Not surprisingly, they don’t like being stepped on!
- SCUBA Diving
Although not up to Fiji standards, diving is popular in Rarotonga, which has quite a diversity of fish life among canyons, caves and drop-offs. Visibility is good, and seldom drops below 20m. There are a number of dive operations, among them is Cook Island Divers (Tel: 22483). A one-tank dive costs US$30; a PADI open water certification from US$220.
- Whale Watching
Humpback whales migrate through the area in August and September and Pacific Divers (Tel: 22450) offers whale-watching trips.
- Deep Sea Fishing
Just outside the reef, you can try your hand at deep-sea fishing and it’s possible to catch world-class tuna, mahi mahi, sailfish and marlin off these shores. Among others, the MV Seafari (Tel: 20328) takes trips for US$40-50 per person, including lunch.
Other watersports include windsurfing, dinghy sailing, kayaking and outrigger canoes. Aquasports (Tel: 27350) on Muri Beach has a huge selection of gear to rent, with lessons for the uninitiated. If you’re not into swimming, they also have glass-bottomed boat tours for US$20, including lunch.
There are all kinds of grassroots tours on offer based around Raratonga’s natural beauty, culture and resources. Amateur naturalist? Interested in traditional medicine? Take a guided walk into the forested centre, and across the island’s peaks. It is a pleasure to be shown the diversity of nature’s creations by someone local sharing centuries of accumulated knowledge.
- Raro Tours
email email@example.comCircle island cultural and historical tours, taking 3-4 hours and costing US$12.
- Tangaroa Tours
Offers a range of tours including a circle island tour (US$12), a highly recommended horticulture and agriculture tour (US$10), a cross-island walk (US$15) and a Friday nightlife knees-up tour! (US$10). The cross-island walk is highly recommended, although it can be very hot and you’ll need a good pair of shoes.
- Cook Islands Tours and Travel
Offers made-to-measure tours all around the island, from around US$15 a head.
- Air Rarotonga
Offers day trips to Aitutaki, leaving at 8am and returning at 6pm. The US$140 includes flights, a tour of Aitutaki and a cruise in the amazing lagoon, with snorkeling and lunch.Air Rarotonga also has scenic flights over Rarotonga. A 20-minute flight costs just US$25 per head. You can go most days, depending on the weather.
- Sunday Church
The old religion had 71 gods, but now that things are mainly Christian, there’s just the one. The church in Avarua is a lovely white painted building made from coral in 1853. The main service in all the island’s CICC churches is at 10am every Sunday. Everyone is welcome to attend, and it’s worth going just to hear the languid, harmonious singing.
On Rarotonga you can stay in a luxury beachside huts, hotels and hostels. Alternatively, if you’re planning a longer stay, you can rent your own house. You are supposed to have pre-booked accommodation before arriving in the Cook Islands, but as long as you put the name of a hotel on the immigration form, you’ll be fine.
- Atupa Orchid Units
Just 5 mins walk from Avarua. You can rent a bungalow for US$35 for four people sharing, US$22 for one or two, or US$10 for a bed.
- The Paradise Inn
Tucked behind the main road has spacious, modern units with a sleeping loft, sitting room, kitchen and bathroom. Units cost US$30/40/42 for 1/2/3 people. They also have a couple of single rooms for US$24.
Most visitors to Rarotonga stay outside Avarua, and there are hotels and guesthouses all along the coast road.
- Vara’s Beach House
A hostel-style house right on Muri beach, which is arguably the best beach on the island. It has plenty of extras such as outrigger canoes, bikes and mopeds for hire, but the beach house can be noisy at night. They also have a luxurious villa on the side of the hill, about 5 minutes walk from the beach and a much more peaceful place to sleep. However, there are no sea breezes to blow the mosquitoes away, so bring some coils. Dorm rates are US$9 per person, or US$10 each to share a double/twin. Discounts are available for stays longer than 5 days.
- Ati’s Beach Bungalows
On the Western side of the island, it sits on a lovely stretch of beach with a great view of the sunset. Beachside studio bungalows are US$60, and the deluxe beachside units (which sleep up to seven) are US$125. Ati’s is famous for its delicious, gut-busting Sunday Island Buffet.
Because Rarotonga is such an idyllic island paradise, it has no shortage of sumptuous, honeymoon-style hotels. Sokala Villas has seven romantic-looking timber villas right on Muri Beach. They are all beautifully designed and despite being on a sparkling, shallow lagoon, some have their own private swimming pools. Prices are from US$150 to US$220 per villa.
If you want to rent your own house, you can do so by the week. This is probably the most economical option. A basic, two-bedroom house for four people starts from about US$50 per week. Cook Islands Tours and Travel and Vara’s Beach House (mentioned above) may be able to help you. For more accommodation options, find unique Cook Islands hotels.
There are restaurants and cafes all around the island, and in all the big resorts. Be careful what you order — the prices can be expensive, as much of the food has to be imported from New Zealand.
- Trader Jack’s
In Avarua. Offers outdoor tables overlooking the sea, and is a popular bar and grill venue. Dishes include seafood, steaks and pasta.
- Staircase Restaurant and Bar
Tel: 22254On Avarua’s outskirts. Has great food at great prices, and live music every night. Main dishes cost about US$5, and they have one of the best “Island Nights” on Rarotonga at US$8 a head, every Thursday night. Reservations are a good idea.
- Blue Note Café
Nicely positioned on the main thoroughfare through Avarua, and it’s a great place to sit and people-watch. They have a reasonably-priced menu of coffees and snacks.
- Fruits of Rarotonga
In Tikoiki, 3km from Muri Beach. They sell delicious jams made from homegrown fruit, delicious smoothies, and their freshly-baked banana or pineapple muffins. These come hot from the oven, smothered with jam and cream, for only US$.50.
- Flame Tree (at the end of Muri Beach)
One of Rarotonga’s finest restaurants. The cuisine is up to international standards, with a varied and exotic menu. Starters are from US$5, and main courses cost anything up to US$15. Reservations are recommended,
Most accommodation places are self-catering, so you‘ll be able to cook your own meals. If you want to economize on food, try to eat local produce — fresh seafood is delicious and cheap, there’s an abundance of fresh vegetables and fruits are everywhere, literally falling off the trees. Local people will often be willing to sell you a few pawpaws or mangoes, if you ask politely. The best places to find locally grown produce are at the Punanga Nui market in Avarua, and in the local stores along the coast.
At the market, you’ll also get to try many of the local coconut-based puddings. They’re delicious, but they’re certainly not Weight Watchers and neither are many of the locals. When the film Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (a WWII prison camp drama) was made here, the producers couldn’t find any extras that looked thin enough and, as a result, had to fly 500 people in from New Zealand!
Traditional food is not normally available in restaurants, and the best way to try it is to attend an Island Night or pay for an umukai, where you’ll enjoy a feast cooked in an umu (ground oven). Dishes might include mouth-wateringly delicious ika mata (raw fish in coconut milk, lime juice and spices). Taro, the local root vegetable, looks and tastes like a greyish, month-old potato; the Kumara (sweet potato) is much tastier. You’ll also be served roasted suckling pig (puaka), breadfruit, taro leaves cooked in coconut milk, octopus, local fish, and a selection of fruits such as pawpaws (papaya), bananas and mangoes.
Aside from attending an Island Night or a Friday night knees-up, if you like going to festivals, you’ll be right at home here. The islanders need little excuse to party, and not just for a day at a time either. As well as all the usual Christian holidays and the 11(!) public holidays, here is a selection of the longer extravaganzas:
- The second week of February is Cultural Festival Week, with arts and craft displays, and tivaevae (applique-work quilts) competitions.
- Mid-February sees the international Cook Islands Sevens Rugby Tournament.
- Annual Dance Festival Week is during the third week in April, with dancing displays and competitions from all over the islands. The islanders take their dancing pretty seriously, and the hotly contested male and female dancer of the year titles are decided here.
- In July, the 5-week long Song Quest begins. Musicians, singers and performers come to Rarotonga to compete and to bask in the glory of stardom.
- The biggest festival on the yearly calendar, Constitution Day begins on the Friday before the 4th of August, celebrating the Islands’ 1965 declaration of independence. This is a 10-day extravaganza of feasting, dancing, performing arts, cultural displays and sports events.
- Tiare (floral) festival week is held during the last week in November. The week starts off with a food festival, and all of Rarotonga is decorated with flowers. There are float parades, a miss Tiare pageant, and flower display and arrangement competitions.
As well as a host of “I love Tahiti” t-shirts and posters of bare-breasted beauties, Rarotonga has a good selection of interesting handicrafts at affordable prices. There are a number of shops dotted around the island as well as in Avarua.
Woodcarvings are a popular buy, from drums to models of Tangaroa. The god of the sea and fertility, Tangaroa is a popular symbol of the Cook Islands, and a 30-cm carving will set you back about US$20-25. Baskets and woven products are popular as they make inexpensive gifts. Look out for mats, purses and fans.
Shells and shell jewellery are available everywhere. Before you buy these, please think twice. They may be beautiful, but they are also an important part of the marine ecosystem.
Pearls are farmed in the Northern Cook Islands, and are an important export. Very rare black pearls are available here, and they’re considerably cheaper than those in Tahiti. Brightly-coloured pareus (sarongs) make a great souvenir from about US$5, along with lurid Hawaiian-style shirts, coffee beans and scented oils and soaps made in the local perfume factory.
VISAS AND DOCUMENTS
You don’t need a visa to come here but you do need a passport and proof of onward travel. 31-day visitor’s permits are issued on arrival. If you’re lucky enough to have more time, you can apply for extensions of up to 5 months. Departure tax for adults is NZ$25.00 (US$12), free for children of two and under.
MONEY AND COMMUNICATIONS
The currency is New Zealand dollars and US$1 = (roughly) NZ$2.
There are no ATM’s in the Cook Islands. The Westpac and ANZ Banks in Avarua are open Monday to Friday 9:00am — 3:00pm, and will do cash advances on major credit cards. You can also change travellers’ checks and cash at some large stores and hotels, and at the tiny bank at the airport. Major credit cards are accepted throughout the island in most places, but check first.
Phone, fax, email and Internet services are available 24 hours from the Telecom Cook Islands office in Avarua. However, most accommodation has international phoning facilities, and many have (expensive) Internet access.
HEALTH AND SAFETY
The worst medical problems you’re likely to encounter here are lethargy and sunburn. But for minor problems, medical and dental services are available. The tapwater is safe to drink on Rarotonga, unless there’s been a heavy rain, in which case it may appear brown. On the other islands, people drink specially-collected rainwater. There is no malaria in the Cook Islands, but mosquitoes are rife in inland areas. Repellents with DEET can provide protection. You do not normally need vaccinations for the Cook Islands, but as always, check with your doctor or travel clinic at least a month before you plan to travel.
Cook Islands Maori (similar to New Zealand Maori), is the original language but many of the Islanders speak English, the common language between the various island dialects. Although everything here appears quite modern and westernised, don’t forget that culturally, this is still a traditional place, and your dress and demeanour should reflect that.
On Rarotonga, pareus, t-shirts and shorts are fine. Swimwear is for the beach only, and don’t sunbathe nude or topless. If you visit a church, your shoulders should be covered and ladies should wear a skirt, not shorts or sarongs, and cover their knees. Wear a hat if you can.
Be friendly, polite and respectful, and if you are with a partner, public displays of affection should be avoided. On the other islands, attitudes are more traditional still and you should take that into account if you are planning a visit.
A comprehensive site for the Cook Islands with loads on Rarotonga.
The Cook Islands Tourist Authority
Tel: 682- 29435 / 29436, Fax: 682-21435
Has an office in Avarua, and is the best resource to help you out with maps, tours and what’s on in the islands.
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