Kia Orana! Rarotonga, the largest of the Cook Islands, is unquestionably one of the most relaxing places in the world to visit. It’s undeniable. White sandy beaches and glorious weather on a tropical South Pacific island tend to create that sort of atmosphere with little difficulty. In fact, it’s so transfixing that you’ll look at the green, jungle interior then back towards the beach and immediately start planning how you’re going to break it to your family and friends that you are quitting your job and moving to Rarotonga permanently. We are talking about a place that has five-digit phone numbers, only two bus routes (clockwise and anti-clockwise) and a maximum speed limit of 60 kilometres an hour. Rarotonga is glorious.
You get a sense that Rarotonga is a pretty relaxed place as soon as you land. At the international arrivals terminal, you’ll find a musician sitting in the middle of the baggage carousel playing the ukulele as you wait for your luggage. You are literally serenaded for visiting the country. You feel as though you have landed in a small country town; the type of place where the locals invite strangers over for a chat and make everyone feel welcome.
That’s only the beginning of this stress-free oasis.
Things to do in Rarotonga
The most stunning feature on Rarotonga is undoubtedly its white, sandy beaches. As an island completely encapsulated by a reef, it’s no wonder. Crystal clear water gives way to a myriad of brightly coloured fish, darting in and out of rocks and coral continuously. From the shore, they will readily swim around your legs as soon as you enter the water, cutting laps around your ankles for fun as you cool off in the tropical water.
It makes sense then that snorkelling is an extremely popular choice of activity. Not snorkelling whilst visiting Rarotonga is like going to the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin and asking for a Coke. Tour operators with their glass-bottomed boats (like Captain Tama’s and Koka Lagoon Cruises) provide day trip experiences that highlight both the beauty of the reef and island’s culture. Think dinner and a show with a few hours of snorkelling on the side: freshly cooked tuna and fried banana are served for lunch, followed by demonstrations, such as how to put on a sarong and the different uses for a coconut, to round out your day. In the meantime, you’ll be entertained by a concert full of drums and ukuleles and the tour guides use a unique brand of humour to educate and entertain.
Captin Tamas Lagoon Cruise, Muri Lagoon
If a tour isn’t your style, you can always do it yourself. Your hostel will be able to recommend where to hire snorkelling gear, with the shallow Muri Lagoon your first port of call for novice snorkellers. Plenty of places even hirer out SUP’s and kayaks for you to adventure on.
View from the cross island hike
For those who prefer the comfort of land, Rarotonga has a vast, mountainous, jungle interior. The hike across the island is not for the faint-hearted; it’s hot, humid, slippery and awesome all at once. Climbing tree roots like ladders, you ascend mountainsides to a viewing area halfway up the rocky outcrop Te Rua Manga (nicknamed The Needle). The resulting views of the island are worth the effort.
The three-hour journey can be done by yourself but there are guides available for a cost. A guided walk gives you a little local history, flora and fauna identification and the safe knowledge that you aren’t going to slip off the side of a mountain path and disappear into the Rarotongan jungle, never to be seen again. Pa’s Treks are fantastic, accurately classifying the uphill sections ‘cardio’ and downhill ‘yoga’. Regardless, prepare to sweat. A lot. You’re going to think you’ve sprung a leak.
The island is encircled by one main ring road that takes just sixty minutes to complete by bus. The alternative is to hire a bike, stopping at will. There’s an inner road that you can ride that will give you an even better appreciation of island life away from traffic, shops and tourists.
Everyone loves a market when on holiday (don’t deny it) and Punanga Nui Market in Avarua is where it’s at on Saturdays in Rarotonga. Fresh tropical fruit is readily available, black pearls appear frequently and traditional garments are popular items. Even jerseys from the local rugby and basketball competitions are available. It’s harder to find a cheap NBA jersey than it is Cook Island Basketball Association apparel. Culturally speaking, there are demonstrations of traditional dances by the local dance school, interrupted only by an MC relaying the most recent rugby scores or simply thanking people for visiting Rarotonga.
Just about everything here is doable by yourself, which is part of what makes Rarotonga so great. So, while there are plenty of tour packages, don’t be afraid to have a go yourself.
Located in the middle of the South Pacific means that the weather on Rarotonga is generally beautiful, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t without its hiccups.
The average temperature during the year sits around 28 degrees Celsius dropping to an ‘uncomfortably’ cold 25 degrees during the dry season between June and August. Cyclone season, on the other hand, usually runs from December through to late March/early April, meaning that the weather will be hot, humid with a high chance of afternoon downpours.
All this means is that the fringe seasons of April/May and September/October are the best times to visit, but let’s face it – except for cyclone season, it’s a tropical paradise. If you look at the weather forecast you’ll be greeted with 28 degrees every day, 25 degrees every night with a chance of rain. Check it once and forget about it for the rest of your trip.
Rarotonga restaurants, bars and clubs
Without question, eating dinner at a beachside restaurant or bar must be one of the best ways to enjoy a meal at the end of the day – feeling the sand between your toes as you watch the sun slowly sink into the Pacific Ocean. There are multiple places like this all over the island, but the best sunsets are undoubtedly in the Arorangi District on the western side of the island. Alternatively, the Muri Night Market offers up some more local cheap eats by the beach.
Trader Jacks is one of the more well-known beachside restaurants, famed for its ocean views and relaxed atmosphere. It’s very easy to sit at the bar and have three too many beers whilst looking out over the water. Night shows are also very popular, with several resorts offering cultural shows, filled with dancing, music and delicious food – a Rarotongan Luau. For those that really want to experience Cook Islands culture, this is the way to go. The café scene in Rarotonga is strong as well, giving you the luxury of choice come lunchtime.
Rarotonga fish and chip shop
Rehab is the club of choice on the weekend if you really want to let your hair down. If you got a dollar every time you heard a New Zealand ex-pat say the words ‘Rehab is the place’ you could stay for an extra week. They also a bus pub tour, for those so inclined.
There are a few craft breweries as well. Matutu Brewing Company does daily ‘tours’, which involves a taste of all their beers in the process. It’s not like this is some kind of backyard operation, even if it is run out of a shed; they make award-winning beer. While they currently only make four beer variations, you’ll leave this NZ$15-dollar tour educated, tipsy, wearing a Matutu t-shirt and holding 1.5 litres of pale ale, having decided that Matutu Brewery is one of the most value for money experiences on Rarotonga – behind only mini golfing and sunbaking at your hotel.
Matutu Brewing Company
There are of course more things to do in Rarotonga not listed above – ATV tours, fishing charters, dive trips, mini golf courses, museums, traditional dance shows, cafes galore, paddle boarding the lagoon. The list is endless.
The locals are what really make this place, though. Smiling faces, proud of their culture and proud of their country, all of them mad about rugby and content just listening to some music, having a quiet drink. It’s this laid back, laissez-faire attitude that typifies Rarotonga in every way. It’s the kind of place where local children will always wave, and everyone loves to have a chat. It’s warm and inviting.
The reality is that the Cook Islands (including Rarotonga) don’t get the attention that they deserve. Their much larger neighbours like Hawaii, Fiji and Vanuatu attract a lot of the attention. Yet, you feel like the locals of Rarotonga prefer it that way. A local guide explained it to me like this: “People don’t come to Rarotonga to stay in large, pretentious resorts. They come to relax and do things the Rarotongan way; nice and slow.” It’s hard to argue with that.
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About the author
Michael Besley is a laid-back guy who loves travel, a relaxing beer and outdoor adventures- preferably all at once whenever possible. He lives in central Victoria, Australia, and his favourite destinations are anywhere throughout Southeast Asia and the Pacific. He writes the blog A Wayward View and you can catch his adventures on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.