Rarotonga, Cook Islands Guide

Rarotonga, Cook Islands in the South Pacific

Rarotonga beach, Cook Islands
Beach at Rarotonga, Cook Islands

By Lucy Eglington

WHERE

Rarotonga is the “capital” of the Cook Islands, the rest of which is 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 is the largest of the Southern group.

The total population of the Cook Islands is about 17,500. 90% of these live in the Southern group, with over 14,000 people living on Rarotonga alone. Rarotonga and Aitutaki are the most visited islands, although all but two are accessible by air.

WHY GO

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 — unspoiled and undeveloped, with the same intense beauty. Life is pretty quiet here — people work mainly on the land, which is all family-owned.

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 an automatic New Zealand residency, and many, particularly the younger generation, are lured to live and work there full time.

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 that 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

By Air

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

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?

It’s 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. There are three buses in the entire country, and in Rarotonga, one of them runs clockwise and the other anti-clockwise. A single ticket is $3.40 or you can buy 10 rides for just over $20.

Car rentals are a bit more difficult. To rent a car you can use your home country license. To ride a scooter in Rarotonga, you need a motorcycle license, not a car license.  A foreign (NZ or any other country) car driver’s license does NOT allow you to ride a scooter in the Cook Islands.

Many rental companies have multi-day deals, and it’s wise to shop around as prices vary.  Car rentals cost from about US$85 per day for a car.

rarotongo bike riding
Circling the island on Rarotongo by bike.

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$16.00 per day. Try and get a mountain bike, as the inland road is painfully potholed! Bike Rentals in Rarotonga

To and From Other Islands

Air Rarotonga flies between Rarotonga and most of the other islands.  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: +682 22 888,  airraro.com

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.

MAJOR ATTRACTIONS

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.

Beaches

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 that gently slopes into a safe, shallow lagoon containing four tiny islets, or motu. Muri Lagoon is the most popular place on the island for water sports and you can rent windsurfers, canoes, dinghies and snorkeling gear here.

Avarua

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.

seven in one coconut tree, Cook Islands biodiversity
Seven in one coconut tree in the Cook Islands.

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

Cultural Village Dance on Rarotonga, Cook Islands
Cultural Village Dance on Rarotonga, Cook Islands.

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$55 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. Afterward, 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$55.

Inland Drive/Trek

One way to see the lush island interior is to make an Inland drive. There are two drives that 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.

Aitutaki

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.

BEST UNUSUAL ATTRACTIONS

Highland Paradise
Tel:+01993 838 805
On a high slope behind Arorangi, about 9km from Avarua, the site of an ancient village. The Audley company takes tours of the site and its beautiful botanical garden whilst regaling you with ancient tales and legends.

Rarotonga Breweries
Tel:+682 26 657
The Rarotonga Breweries are a 10-minute walk from the town center. Their hours are 10 AM to 6 Pm, Monday thru Saturday. Pop in and have a glass of Cook’s Lager, the local brew, on them.

The Beachcomber Gallery
Tel: 21939
Occupies a restored Sunday school building, and houses a display of local arts, crafts, jewelry among a whole host of other things. There’s a workshop out back where you can see shell carvings and black pearl jewelry 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.

Snorkeling

Snorkeling is good all around the island, and most hotels and hostels will have the gear you can borrow or rent. Though if you’re looking for something more along the lines of a tour, the cheapest being the Half Day Muri Lagoon BBQ Lunch Cruise.   Read reviews about snorkeling in the Cook Islands on Trip Advisor.

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 water 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!

Dive Raratonga SCUBA boat.
Dive Raratonga SCUBA boat.

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 Dive Rarotonga (Tel:+682 21873).

Whale Watching

Humpback whales migrate through the area in August and September and whale-watching trips. Whale watching guide to Cook Islands

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: (682) 55096) takes trips for US$150 per person, including lunch.

Other watersports include windsurfing, dinghy sailing, kayaking, and outrigger canoes.

There are all kinds of grassroots tours on offer based on Raratonga’s natural beauty, culture and resources. Amateur naturalist? Interested in traditional medicine? Take a guided walk into the forested center, 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
Tel: +682 25325
email bookings@rarotours.co.ck                                                                                                                                             Circle island cultural and historical tours, taking 3-4 hours. website

Cook Islands Tours and Travel. This official site lists dozens of day trips and activities on the islands.
Tel: +682 29435
website
Offers made-to-measure tours all around the island.

Air Rarotonga
Tel: +682 22 888                                                                                                                                   email bookings@airraro.com

Among other packages, offers a – “Aitutaki/Atiu two island four-night combo”, including two nights accommodation on each of the specified islands with complimentary breakfast. Air Rarotonga also has scenic flights over Rarotonga.

BEST ALTERNATIVE

Sunday Church

The old religion had around 70 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 10 am every Sunday. Everyone is welcome to attend, and it’s worth going just to hear the languid, harmonious singing.

BEST LODGINGS

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
Tel: +682 28 543
Just 5 mins walk from Avarua. You can rent a bungalow and there are other options. website

The Paradise Inn
Tel: 20544

Tucked behind the main road has spacious, modern units with a sleeping loft, sitting room, kitchen, and bathroom. Units cost around US $78. no website

Most visitors to Rarotonga stay outside Avarua, and there are hotels and guesthouses all along the coast road.

Vara’s Beach House
Tel: +682 23 156
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. Airbnb listing

Rarotonga’s Beach Bungalows
Tel: 21546
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.  website

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.

BEST EATS

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
Tel: 26464
In Avarua. Offers outdoor tables overlooking the sea, and is a popular bar and grill venue. Dishes include seafood, steaks, and pasta. website

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.

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.

BEST ENTERTAINMENT

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 end of July into August is Cultural Festival Week, with food, music, and dance just to start off the celebration.

The Te Mire Ura, Dancer of The Year Competition 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’ 1960 declaration of independence ( though the celebration wasn’t est. till 5 years later). This is a 10-day extravaganza of feasting, dancing, performing arts, cultural displays, and sports events.

The beginning of November sees the international Cook Islands Sevens Rugby Tournament.

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.

BEST SHOPPING

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, you can find many carvings of his image. Baskets and woven products are popular as they make inexpensive gifts. Look out for mats, purses and fans.

Shells and shell jewelry 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-colored pareus (sarongs) make a great souvenir, 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 or return transportation as well as proof of adequate accommodations and sufficient funds. 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 is now included in all international airfares.

MONEY AND COMMUNICATIONS

The currency is New Zealand dollars and US$0.66 = (roughly) NZ$1. 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, though these connnections tend to be slow and expensive. Luckily, 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 tap water is safe to drink on Rarotonga unless there’s been 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 be aware Dengue is present on the islands. Recommended travel vaccinations include the Hepatitis A, Hepatitis B, and Typhoid.  Check with your doctor or travel clinic at least a month before you plan to travel, just in case.

OTHER NOTES

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 westernized, don’t forget that culturally, this is still a traditional place, and your dress and demeanor should reflect that.

On Rarotonga, pareus (a single piece of cloth fashioned into a dress), 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.

BEST RESOURCES

A comprehensive site for the Cook Islands with loads on Rarotonga.

The Cook Islands Tourism Authority
Tel: 682- 29435 / 29436, Fax: 682-21435
email: headoffice@cookislands.gov.ck 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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