Guide image

Photo: from Bookabach property #22032

Rarotonga rises up from the Pacific in volcanic peaks, a dark green island surrounded by a clear, turquoise lagoon. Cloud-forest softens the craggy ridges of the interior, giving way to lush plantations and gardens closer to the coast, and coconut palms fringe the pristine beaches. While Rarotonga is the largest of the fifteen islands that make up the Cook Islands group, the road that rings the coast is just 32kms long, so you can tootle around it on a scooter in less than an hour. Why hurry though, when you can idle away the day so pleasantly on the golden beaches, snorkelling in the crystal waters of the lagoon, shopping, exploring or hiking?

The Cook Islands are a popular destination for New Zealanders who want to visit an unspoilt, island paradise. It feels like an easy step from home, because of the close ties between the countries, and the shared language and currency. It’s a great place to relax- the crystal clear waters of the lagoon are safe for children and good for snorkeling. You can head out over the reef to dive, try deep-sea fishing or surf if you’re game. There are lots of activities inland too- you can take guided walks or hike across the island, explore the interior by jeep or quad bike, go horse-riding or visit a cultural centre. There’s shopping, restaurants, bars and night clubs, in a laid-back, small-scale way. It’s easy to get a Cook Islands drivers licence (just pay your money) and then hire a scooter or car to get about with. Or there’s the bus, which travels on the hour clockwise, with another going anti-clockwise. People come here for a tropical wedding, for a blissfully warm break from winter at home, or at any time just to enjoy the beauty and warmth of the Cook Islands, the people, culture, and environment.

“Kia orana!” is the greeting in the Cook Islands, meaning “may you live on”, and the greeting feels warm and genuine, a natural thing to say in this laid-back and friendly place.  “Meitaki” means “thank you”, and you can get by for a week with those words and a smile, since everyone can speak English.

Cook Islanders are thought to have arrived from the Society Islands in around 500 A.D. There were six main tribes on Rarotonga, each headed by a chief or “ariki”. People originally lived inland, where the rocky peaks were easier to defend from inter-tribal attacks. The Cook Islanders are a sea-faring people, with an impressive tradition of ocean-going vaka and navigation. Some people believe that Rarotonga is “Hawaiki” -  the mythical homeland from which ancestors set off in the waka that brought Maori to Aotearoa, New Zealand. Captain James Cook sailed through the Cook Islands region in 1773 and 1777, and Christian missionaries arrived in Rarotonga in 1823. As tribal leaders accepted Christianity, they were encouraged to leave the inland strongholds and move to the coast. By 1901 all the islands were annexed by New Zealand. The Cook Islands gained independence in 1965, but all Cook Islanders still have New Zealand citizenship.

Events during the year celebrate Cook Islands culture and history. “Te Mire Ura” the Dancer of the Year Contest, takes place in April. Cook Islanders are famous for their fantastic dancing and this contest sees dancers from throughout the islands compete, with sections for all ages. Dancers wear gorgeous costumes made from natural fibres, leaves, flowers, shells and feathers. “Te Maeva Nui”  is “the greatest celebration”: a week of festivities celebrating independence, with dance, drumming, music, crafts and food, from 29th July to August 6th. The air is sweetly scented in October, with the week-long Tiare Festival, with garlands and floral arrangements celebrating the gardenia and other wonderful flowers. November sees paddlers take to the water en masse for the Vaka Eiva canoeing festival.

Where to stay


What to do

  • Visit the Punanga Nui market in Avarua on Saturday mornings. It’s the place to shop for fresh fruit, vegetables and seafood. There are pareus and other souvenirs for sale and dancers and singers often perform.
  • Go snorkelling at one of the marine reserves, marked by a “ra’ui” sign. Tikioki, the beach opposite “Fruits of Rarotonga” is a good place to snorkel.
  • Enjoy the stunning Cook Islands dancing and drumming, at various cultural centres, “island nights”or festivals.

More info

www.cookislands.travel/NZ - Cook Islands Tourism

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Fresh vegetables Rarotonga's Saturday market Photo: Saturday market in Rarotonga
Rarotonga beach view Photo: Rarotonga beach view
Saturday's market - delicious Photo: Delicious pastries at the market

Tips for family holidays

  • If you fly in Friday night you can stock up on great produce at the Saturday morning market.
  • You can bring some dairy, meat and snacks into the country with you
  • The buses are great, or hire a car or motorbike for extra convenience
  • Learn about humpbacks at the Whale Centre and see big coconut crabs!
  • Catch fantastic dance and music, at the market or an "Island Night".
  • A lagoon cruise can be fun - with coconut husking, music, snorkeling and great food.
Piwa perched