Some say paradise can never be found but anyone who agrees may not have been to Rarotonga. This is the jewel of the Cook Islands – a group which sprawl across the South Pacific covering an area akin to that of Western Europe. Looking for white sand, coral-filled lagoons, palm trees and a jungled island interior? Check to all of the above. There are only 2 roads: a coast road and a ring road about 500 metres further inland, so traffic won't be an issue. Beware of the time though. Island time – or 'Raro time'. It's mesmerising. It will dance between the tide and the rhythm of the local drumming and you'll feel... Well, come and find out how it feels.
You can get a great introduction to Rarotonga by catching the bus that circumnavigates the island in under an hour. Avarua is the main town, port and yacht hub on Rarotonga and the capital of the Cook Islands. You can easily explore Avarua on foot in a day. The Cook Islands Cultural Village is about 7 kilometres from Avarua, showcasing Polynesian and Maori culture, traditional food and dancing. However, the tops things to do in Rarotonga remain swimming, snorkelling and diving (Muri Beach and its lagoon offer some of the best opportunities for all three). Hiking the mountainous jungle interior, including the Takitumu Conservation Area, is also popular and one of the benefits of hiking here is the lack of snakes, insects or generally bitey things.
Mango-lovers will delight in knowing this fruit grows wild here and is cheap and plentiful in summer; other tropical fruits, like passionfruit and guava, are also readily available in season. At any time of year you can get your hands on starfruit, pawpaw and coconut. Seafood fans can find fresh reef fish by the harbour in Avarua daily. Other locally-grown produce includes taro, sweet potato (kumara), breadfruit and island spinach known as 'bele'. Don't fancy foraging for dinner? Rarotonga restaurants, in addition to those at the resorts, offer fast food, seafood, Italian and Mexican options. With 2 breweries on Rarotonga – Matutu Brewery and Cook Islands Brewery – consider asking to try the local beer.
Where to Stay
Most Rarotonga accommodation can be found along the coast, though not all are right on the beachfront with Pacific Ocean views – some face the jungled hinterland. There are upmarket resorts, apartments, bungalows and budget-friendly properties too. Rarotonga is divided into 3 main hotel zones: south-east coast; properties around Titikaveka and Muri Beach; and the west coast. As Muri Beach has the best swimming and snorkelling on the island, this is a popular spot. There are cheap digs at Avarua but no beach and if you're over on the west coast you'll be treated to stunning over-water sunsets.
You don't really have to bargain or haggle here – just slip into island time and potter around the open air Punanga Nui Market by Avatiu Wharf. It's held daily, stocking crafts and fresh food; Wednesday is arts and crafts day and Friday is feast night. Saturday is a big produce day. You can find colourful sarongs and other clothing around the island, at reasonably cheap prices. Rarotonga shopping also offers locally-made soaps, oils and perfumes.
Rarotonga like a Local
Flights to Rarotonga can be readily booked at any time and many visitors use Rarotonga as a base from which to explore the Cook Islands more broadly. Aitutaki is famous for its postcard-captured turquoise lagoon; Atiu is the third-largest of the Cook Islands and is known for its beaches and caves. Mangaia, at 10 million years old, is one of the oldest islands in the Pacific and famous for its juicy pineapples; while Palmerston Atoll is home to a wealth of wildlife, including birds, turtles, dolphins, whales and coconut crabs. Whenever you visit though, enjoying Rarotonga like a local means letting the sun and sea wash your worries away.