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?
There are lots of holiday properties to rent around Rarotonga, giving you the privacy and flexibility of your own space. There are many holiday homes around the coast, some with lawns leading straight onto the white sands of beautiful beaches. Options range from the large and luxurious, to smaller, cheaper properties. You’ll also find some beautiful spots inland, with views of forest, mountains, gardens or coast, some with their own pools. There are several advantages to booking a holiday home rather than a resort - you can choose who to spend your holiday with, and won’t need to share space and facilities with the masses. Since it’s easy to find fresh fruit, vegetables and fish at the market, it’s nice being able to throw a tuna steak on the barbeque, or whip up some ika mata, while gazing out to sea. Since the island is compact, it’s always easy to get to a beachside bar or a restaurant when you feel like somewhere new, but it’s luxurious to have your own verandah or garden to relax in, in peace, without anyone but your near and dear around.
Attractions and activities around Rarotonga
The Cook Islands are a popular destination for New Zealanders who want to visit an unspoilt, island paradise. 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. 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 clear waters of the lagoon are safe for children and great for snorkelling. 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. In Avarua, the biggest town, you’ll find art galleries, the main market, and some small museums.
Things to know
To drive in Rarotonga, you can use your driver’s licence from home for up to six months, if your licence is in English. It’s easy to hire a scooter or car to get about with - drive on the left, don’t drink and drive, wear a helmet on motor-scooters. Or there’s the bus, which travels on the hour clockwise, with another going anti-clockwise.
“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.
On Sundays, many locals will be at church in the morning. There are lovely churches dotted around the coastal road; you can join the congregation, and experience the wonderful singing - it’s a thrilling and beautiful sound of massed voices. Dress appropriately, it’s church, not the beach…You may be invited for morning tea afterwards too.
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.
Top Rarotonga events
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 28th July to August 5th. 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.
Visitors looking for a sporting event could aim for the Rarotonga International Triathlon Festival which takes place in May - with a 1500m lagoon swim, 41km bike and 10km run.
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.
www.cookislands.travel/NZ - Cook Islands Tourism