Have you ever heard of the Cook Islands? If you have, you probably have this image in your head of a tropical paradise at the end of the world. And what kind of tropical paradise! No traffic lights, no McDonald’s and no building taller than a coconut tree.
The Cook Islands has several islands, Rarotonga being the hub and biggest. Why is this little island in the middle of the South Pacific ocean so special? Because there is so much to do and yet remains unspoilt. There are beaches with nobody on them, turquoise lagoons, friendly locals and delicious food. This is gonna be your second (Polynesian) home!
1. Pristine beaches
Beachlovers will not be dissapointed when visiting Rarotonga. All beaches are free and open to everyone. Rarotonga is surrouned by a shallow lagoon, therefore the sea is usually calm. In general the beaches have a sandy bottom with some corals and seagrass spread around. Some of the beaches we enjoyed the best:
One the prettiest beaches on the island is Titikaveka with shady palmtrees and bright turquoise water. You can find it just bit further South of Muri Beach. It’s great for snorkelling or just do nothing and chill on the beach.Tripadvisor voted this beach as one of the top 25 beaches in the South Pacific so you should not miss this.
Black Rock Beach
This beach stands out for the huge black rocks that make a cool contrast with the light blue waters surrounding them. Located the Western side of Rarotonga, it’s one of the best spots for swimming, snorkelling and catching an amazing sunset like you have never seen before!
The most populair beach of them all, and for a reason. Located on the South-Eastern side of Rarotonga, you can do all sorts of activities here like kitesurfing, kayaking, lagoon cruises and standup paddle boarding. Snorkellers can swim all the way to the Motu’s (little islands in the lagoon) to corals, turtles, moray eels and lot’s of fish. If you are done playing in the water (are we ever though?!) there are many restaurants, bars and cafe’s to fill your empty tummy.
Aroa Beach and Marine Reserve
On the South-Western part of the island is another great beach for sunbathing and snorkelling. It’s easy to find because it’s opposite The Rarotongan Beach Resort. Just park your scooter, grab your stuff and jump into that gorgeous water.
2. Easy to get around
Getting around Rarotonga is easy with only one mainroad of 32 kilometers around the island. There are no traffic lights and just two roundabouts in the city centre of Avarua. Keep in mind that you have to drive on the left-hand side of the road. The speed limit is 50kmph which is in our eyes ideal to explore the roads. In town areas it is 30km per hour. Best transportation is per scooter or bus. You can hire a car but that’s more expensive and not really needed, unless you have a big family. We looked at electric bikes too, but these were twice as expensive as the scooters so that decision was quickly made. Don’t even think about hiring a normal pushbike, unless you want to sweat your ass off every time.
Travel by scooter
Hiring a scooter in Rarotonga is as much a cultural experience as a practical one. We love the freedom that it gives us to explore places on our own schedule. Just to give you an idea, it takes about 45 minutes if you want to scooter around the whole island. Petrol is quite cheap, you can go 3 times around with a full tank. If you already have a drivers license with your scooter/motorbike license on it, you can rent a scooter without any problems. Sometimes they ask you to drive around for a minute so they can check your ability to drive.
If your driver’s license doesn’t cover this, then you will need to obtain a Cook Islands Visitors Motorbike License (40 NZD) obtained at the Cook Islands Police Department. You will have to do a theory and practical test, but no worries, it’s really easy. Just don’t fall off your scooter and you will manage to get the license.
We rented our scooter with BT rentals (near Rarotonga Backpackers) and had a great experience! Brendan is an easygoing and friendly Cook Islander with good quality (almost new) scooters, we even got to choose our own color. He has two cute dogs and a funny cat who loves to get your attention.
Note: Beware of wandering dogs and gravel! We have been chased by dogs a couple of times. The roads can be slippery due to rainfall so be careful and wear a helmet all the time as this is mandatory for tourists. You will see some people ignoring this, but better safe then sorry.
Travel by Cook Island bus
If you don’t want to rent a scooter, the second best option is to take the public bus. There is a time schedule that runs in a clockwise and anti-clockwise direction. In the weekend there is a different schedule, as in the evenings. From Monday to Saturday the Night Bus runs every hour from 6.00 pm to 11.00 pm. On Sundays there is no night bus.
The Clockwise Route
From Cooks Corner in the main township of Avarua, the bus circles the island via Tupapa, Muri Beach, Titikaveka, Arorangi and past all major accommodation then past Rarotonga Airport returning to Avarua. This bus starts from 7:00 am Monday to Saturday till 4:00 pm. Sunday the bus runs only on the hour, starting at 8.00 am with a break between 1.00 and 2.00 pm, the last departure for Sunday is 4.00 pm.
The Anti-Clockwise Route
From Cooks Corner in Avarua, the bus circles the island via Avatiu Harbour, past the Airport on to Arorangi, Titikaveka, Muri Beach passing all major accommodation, returning to Avarua via Tupapa. Departure starts from town at 8:30 am and runs up to the last departure at 4:30 pm. Note: On Saturday this bus only runs to 1:30 pm.
3. Good snorkeling
Rarotonga is destination you can visit all year round. The water temperature ranges from 23°C to 28°C and is usually crystal clear. The lagoon makes it easy to swim and snorkel, it’s a populair activity. Just be careful near the passages in the reef as the current can be strong there. Explore the live coral reef all around the island by snorkelling right off the beach, jump on a SUP or arrange a dive trip.
BONUS: Between July & October you can see humpback whales from the beach!! The end of the reef is at some places of Rarotonga not far away and you can see the “spray of water” that the whales blow out, as well as their backs. We have mainly seen them on the beaches in the west coast.
How is the snorkelling and diving on Rarotonga? Is a question we asked ourselves as well when we planned our visit. The answer to this question is depending on how much you have seen already. Being active divers and snorkellers ourselves, we have seen amazing spots in Egypt, Thailand, Indonesia and Australia. That makes us a bit spoiled when it comes to snorkelling and diving. Rarotonga is definately a place where it’s fun to dive and snorkel but it won’t come up in our top ten.
The best spots for snorkelling:
Aroa Lagoon Marine Reserve (beside The Rarotongan Beach Resort)
This is a beautiful location to explore coral reefs in the blue shallow water. Try to go snorkeling during high tide, as most places are not suitable for it during low tide.
Inside the lagoon it’s mainly sandy bottom, rocks and seagrass but that doesn’t mean there is no sealife. Try snorkeling just left of Muri Beach Club. For more corals and tropical fish head to the motu’s (little islands). Take a kayak if you don’t feel comfortable swimming all the way. Not so adventurous? Book a lagoon cruise with Captain Tama’s for a fun experience on the lagoon. We didn’t see them, but heard people have seen moray eels and giant travelly’s and huge clams in Muri Lagoon.
Fruits of Rarotonga, Tikioki
This side of the lagoon has good snorkeling compared to other parts. As it’s a Marine Park you will get to see a lot of colorful fish and coral bommies. Turtles and Moray eels are also seen often. Check the currents before you wander off to far, fins will help.
If there are south-easterly winds, then this is the calmest place to snorkel. It has a lovely beach too and one of our fav spots to hang out.
4. Endless adventures
Rarotonga is not a big island but there is plenty to do! Most activities are involved with the beautiful lagoon such as kitesurfing, scubadiving, paddleboarding or fishing. The inland of Rarotonga is a real jungle and very exciting to explore. You can book tours on a quad, buggy, go on a guided hike or take a scenic flight around the island. Try shooting arrows at the archery, play (mini)golf or take a walk around the Botanic Gardens. You can stay for two weeks easily without getting bored.
If the sun goes down, the adventures at night begin. Friday is the biggest day for nightlife and with plenty of open-air bars and nightclubs you will have a good time. Party animals can start their night with the Party Bus tour and end in populair nightclub Rehab. It’s really safe at night, we have been driving around a lot on our scooters and it didn’t feel unsafe once.
5. Glorious food
There are over over 100 cafés and restaurants on Rarotonga, enough to choose from. Food in general is not cheap but you can make it as expensive as you want. Across the island there are some supermarkets if you want to cook your own meals. We stayed at Ratotonga Backpackers (which we can really recommend) and made most of our meals to stay within our budget. There are so many cafes and restaurants, from a casual burger to five star dining. If you are looking for the most delicious food on the island, pick one (or all!!) of the places below.
Muri Night Market
This is by far our favorite place to get the best home-made food. Try out local foods from family run stalls in a fun and friendly environment for the whole family. The night market is open from 5 pm, four days a week on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday. There is so many to choose from for example curry’s, fish, locals dishes and the best desserts you can think of.
Tip: This sounds horrible but get your dessert first! As there is only 1 dessert stall they are sold out really quickly. We can still taste their out-of-this-world cheesecakes…. Prepare to gain a couple of kilo’s haha.
Besides all the great food, they have regularly free entertainment too like dancing, music and singing. The market is located near Muri Beach and not missable due to all the colorful lights. As there are no EFTPOS facilities, remember to visit an ATM first.
Maire Nui Gardens & Cafe
This little cafe lies in a botanic garden which is worth a visit. After 15-30 minutes you have seen it all and is it time to taste some of that yummy food. They claim to have the best lemon meringue cheesecake of Rarotonga (you get we are cheescake lovers) which we had to try ofcourse. They have also fresh salads made with local produce, overall very healthy products.
Punanga Nui Market
One of the best ways to connect with the friendly locals is to visit the Saturday morning market. Tourists and locals come together to enjoy delicious local food, local music, dance performances and authentic Cook Islands crafts. The food here is fresh and you can get good deals too. Try one of the local dishes: Ika mata (marinated raw fish), poke, rukau, maniota, goat curry and fresh sashimi. Oh and if your there anyway, grab a fresh coconut and some fruit too!
In Avarua, the best burgers and takeaway for a cheap price. The famous Palace Burger is a huge tower of burgers for if you are extra hungry. We dare you to eat one!.
Charlie’s Café and Bar
Right on the beach this is a very busy restaurant and beach bar. The food is great but you need to be willing to wait for it. Try the fresh Yellowfin Tuna Sashimi.
Local food stalls along the road
You don’t have to worry when you get food along the roadside, it’s all fresh and delicious. Get some of the fruits you have never seen before, they taste amazing. It’s a good way to engage with the friendly locals as well.
If you look for a good beer, look no further then the Brewery near the airport. You can do a tour and free tastings as well. Best thing is, if you buy a 1 liter bottle you can get a cheaper refill the next bringing that same bottle!
6. Amazing hikes
Rarotonga is blessed with green mountains and dense jungle. You can do a couple of hikes if you’re feeling active. For hiking on Rarotong you need a good degree of fitness. There are no dangerous animals on the island so at least your safe from that. All hikes can be done on a self-guide tour as long as you’re be careful, have good footwear and take plenty of water. Best is to let your accommodation know when you go for a hike, just in case.
The jungle of Rarotonga is refreshingly undeveloped and feels like Jurassic Park without the dinosaurs. You will walk between roots, through streams and climb rocks to get to the best viewpoints. There is green vegetation everywhere, keep and eye out for Papaya or Banana trees if you want a snack. Don’t attempt any of the hikes when it’s going to rain or has been raining the day(s) before.
Raemaru Track (Raemaru, 350m)
Moderate | 3.1km return | 90 mins average time | 15m rock climb to summit
The starting point for this track is located on the back road in Arorangi. This back road is actually quite fun to drive around and explore. From the main road, locate Friendly Mart Convenience Store and take the inland road. Once you come to the backroad intersection, turn right following the yellow marked signs ‘Raemaru Track’. Take another inland road in 80m (look for the yellow Raemaru sign). Follow to the end until you come to the start of the trek. Park on the side and follow the path to start the track.
Cross Island Track (Te Rua Manga 434m)
Moderate – Hard | 6km cross island track | 3hrs – 3.5hrs average time
This is the most populair track of Rarotonga and an impressive one. The Cross Island Trek on Rarotonga is true to its name as it does cross the entire island. It’s recommended that you begin the trail in the North and head South. Taking the public bus is the best option because it’s a one way track. Going there by scooter is possible but then you have to take the bus back to the starting point which is not ideal. You don’t need a guide as there will be lot’s of others hiking this trail. Just follow the orange markers all the up to the top.
Te Kou Summit Track (414m)
Hard | 8km return | 5hrs – 6 hrs average time
This one is a hidden gem! Believe us when we say it’s one of the hardest and scariest hikes we have ever done. That being said, it has one of the best views we have ever seen too! To find the start, go to Avarua and onto Happy Valley Road. Better leave your scooter down the path that’s going up as it’s very rocky and steep. This is for real adventurers as you will push yourself through bush, across fields and over streams. Sometimes it’s unclear which way to take the track, we followed the little strings of fabric tied on the treebranches and that worked (thank you for whoever did that).
This is al still pretty ok untill you reach the start of a steep long track up the summit with about 20 knotted ropes. We had no idea what to expect when we hiked this trail and would love to have gloves by that time. This is a dangerous part of the track, very slippery and tree roots everywhere. You will need a lot of arm power to reach the top. From this point it takes nearly an hour to reach the viewpoint. The last few meters go over a narrow ridge with steep slopes on each side. We realized that if you slip here, you will be dead for sure! It get’s your adrenaline pumping for sure. When you finally arrive.. Holy Moly what a view! You can see all the way to the lagoon and everything in between. The photo’s say it al….
7. Interesting culture
Being an island in the South Pacific there is a lot of cultural heritage. From a swaying local dance to hand-made jewellry and angelic voices in the church, you need to experience Rarotongan culture. For the best craft, go to Punanga Nui markets. We bought a “lei” which is a necklace or in our case a headpiece made out of lovely smelling flowers. Many crafts are made with palm leafs, sarongs, pearls, shells and flowers.
There are many opportunities to visit a cultural show with dancers, singers, rhytmical drums and fire acts. Near the end of the show they get some people out of the crowd to participate in one of their dances, so much fun! Usually an island night like this is accompanied by a tasteful dinner before the show.
At Te Vara Nui Village you will meet local Cook Islander Maori people who will tell you their stories and share knowledge during the Cultural Village Tour. On Sundays, travellers are welcome to attend a church service. The majority of locals are Christian and the island has 24 of the white-brick churches. Enjoy the beautiful hyms and peaceful athmospere but remember to dress respectfully.
For a fun local experience, visit Tumutoa Discovery Walking Tour with guide Ngametua Mamanu. He shows you the local fruits, vegetables and marine life and demonstrates how the Cook Islanders harvest and prepare their food.