Updated December 2016 (web update only, Rarotonga is on the list to visit in 2017)
Kia Orana, Rarotonga is a popular island holiday destination for Kiwis and has an impressive tourism infrastructure for an island of its size. At 32km in circumference it's relatively small, and you can drive the flat, coastal road in around 45 minutes. A reef encircles the island and in parts the water is clear, the sand golden and the fish life colourful. The climate is tropical and the average temperature is around 24°C. (Cyclone season runs November - April but cyclones aren't frequent visitors and arrive with prior warning).
The island has accommodation to suit a backpacker budget and beyond, self contained rental accommodation is plentiful and there are good quality resorts and luxury villas. Scooters (new helmet laws and licence fees apply) are popular transport for locals and visitors and there are plenty of reasonably priced scooter and car hire options. There's also a public bus that circles the island. Food can be expensive as a lot of it is imported, however we dined out for all our meals except breakfast and prices were similar to what we would pay in NZ.
Language: Cook Islands Maori (15 dialects spoken over the 15 islands that make up the Cooks), English is widely spoken. Cook Islands Maori Dictionary.
Capital: Avarua on Rarotonga.
Population: Approximately 13,097 on Rarotonga, total population around 17,791 (2011 Census information).
Currency: NZ dollar along with $1, $2 and $5 Cook Islands coins.
Official Tourism website: www.cookislands.travel. The Visitor Information Centre is in Avarua next to ANZ Bank.
Transport: Public buses, scooters, cars, bicycles, some taxis although more the phone and book variety. Raro Tours provide airport transfers.
Rarotonga International Airport: The airport is 2-3 kms from Avarua. Air Rarotonga provides domestic flights. Air New Zealand, Virgin Australia and Jet Star fly from NZ.
Religion: Over half the population belongs to the Cook Islands Christian Church. Others may be Mormons, followers of the Baha'i Faith, Seventh Day Adventists or Jehovah Witnesses.
Banks: ANZ, Bank of South Pacific and Bank of the Cook Islands. There are a number of ATM's on the island.
Sunday: Sunday is dedicated to church, family and rest. Bars and eating establishments may be closed.
Water: If you've got a strong constitution you might like to drink tap water (boil it first), we went for the bottled variety just incase. It's possible to get large bottles refilled rather than buy additional bottles.
Time: 22 hours behind NZ, leave on a Tuesday afternoon flight, arrive early am Tuesday morning. Flight time from NZ - 4 hours.
Festivals and Events: See Events - Cook Islands.
Whale watching: July - October, A where, when and how to guide. Cooks Islands Whale & Wildlife Centre.
What to wear? Casual dress is the way to go, although if you intend to go to church pack something smart. Cover up when you're at the market, in town or in villages, as you will see the locals doing.
24 hour, 7 day a week fuel & food: Oasis Energy in Nikao, near the International Airport.
Mosquitos: I'm a mosquito beacon but they weren't an issue in the coastal area, although I may have been lucky. It's best to go prepared, if you explore the island's mountainous interior you'll definitely need repellent.
On Saturday morning from 6am Punanga Nui Market opens to sell local produce and local art / craft work. You can also buy souvenirs like colourful bags, t-shirts and pareu (sarongs), and sample rukau (includes taro leaves and coconut cream) and ika mata (a raw fish dish). Music is integral to Cook Island culture and you're sure to be entertained, we were lucky to see the two best little buskers in Polynesia perform.
Bounty Bookshop, next to the Post Office
Bounty Bookshop stocks guide books including Papa Mike's Cook Islands Handbook. If you'd like to recreate local dishes there are a few recipe books to choose from. Newspapers include Cook Islands News (daily, $2), and The Cook Islands Herald (weekly). There's also a free Cook Islands Sun Visitor Guide (published twice a year and distributed around town).
Cook Islands Library & Museum Society, Avarua
Open Monday - Friday 9am - 1pm; Saturday 9am - 12.30pm; late night Tuesday 4-7pm
We didn't visit during opening hours but if you're interested in reading about the Cook Islands during your stay the library will have books that aren't available in libraries back home, some books may also be for sale. Visitors can pay $30 to join the library and $10 is refunded when all borrowed books are returned.
Shopping hours are generally 9am - 4pm during the week and until 1pm on Saturday. Resort and village shops may be open in the evening and on Sunday. For 24 hour petrol and food head to Oasis Energy near the airport in Nikao. Bargaining isn't practiced in the Cook Islands.
Souvenirs can be purchased at the market and from souvenir shops around the island.
Ukuleles are a popular choice, some are made by prisoners and sold in the Prison Craft Shop in Arorangi.
Look for the sign to the Prison opposite Edgewater Resort. Open 8.30am - 3pm, Monday - Friday.
Perfumes of Rarotonga sell handmade perfumes, a range of body care products, perfumed candles, liqueurs and Noni juice. There's two locations - Cook's Corner in Avarua (also has a Fudge Factory) and the factory shop near the airport.
Tivaevae Collectables is in Nikao, you can also shop online.
In The Water
Captain Tama's Lagoon Cruizes
On a Captain Tama's cruize you can snorkel out near the reef in Muri Lagoon (best snorkelling of our trip), eat a BBQ lunch on the beach, and learn how to *tie a pareu (sarong). You'll be entertained by No Strings Attached - a string band made up of Captain Tama's crew. The crew will swap the ukuleles for a coconut or two and give a coconut husking and tree climbing demo, and finish with a hilarious coconut show. *You can buy a '7 Ways to Tying a Pareu' information card from a souvenir shop.
The trip takes 4.5 hours (11am - 3.30pm) and includes a cruise in a glass bottom boat, 45 minutes of snorkelling (gear supplied if required), BBQ lunch, awesome entertainment and transfers from accommodation if needed - $79 adults. We recommend the trip for a seriously good laugh, and good snorkelling.
The other day cruise option at Muri is Koka Lagoon Cruises (Sunday - Friday). Koka have also stacked up some excellent Trip Advisor reviews.
Aroa was our second best snorkelling spot after Captain Tama's cruize (if you stay at The Rarotonga Beach Resort & Spa it's your snorkelling patch). We parked next to the sign for Aroa Horse Riding, the water was clear and calm, the beach sandy and there are some trees for shade.
Edgewater Resort & Spa offer fish feeding and snorkelling as part of their activity schedule. We didn't make the sessions but we went into the water twice. It had rained every day for a week prior to our arrival and had been windy, so that's probably why we found the water too rough and not clear. (If you've snorkelled off the beach at Edgewater in good conditions we'd be interested to know how you found it - thanks Kaye, see comments section below).
Muri Lagoon is a beautiful setting and it's a good spot for paddle boarding and kayaking. We went snorkelling once and there were a few fish around but it's certainly worth going out on a boat cruise to get closer to the reef, although reviewers also suggest heading out around the small motu (islands).
A few sources note lagoon pollution including The Cook Island News (WATSAN project moving ahead). Run off from farms (fertilisers and manure) as well as inadequate waste water and sewerage systems are cited as part of the pollution problem. The popularity of the lagoon is also no doubt contributing to the decline of healthy coral and fish life. It's a challenge for us all as tourists, tourism operators and local populations to preserve our environment but also benefit from the economic advantages that tourism brings, especially to countries like the Cook Islands where tourism is a major income earner. Koka Lagoon Cruises donate 2% of their sales to the Rarotonga Lagoon Conservation Trust. Captain Tama's website has information about their environmental contribution and clam repopulation initiative. As visitors we can dispose of rubbish responsibly, avoid standing on coral and take short showers to help conserve water and reduce waste water.
Papua (Wigmore's) Waterfall, Vaima'anga
You'll see a small sign on a power pole for Wigmore's Waterfall near the shell of a hotel that would have been part of the Sheraton chain had it been completed. (A lot of government money was invested in the hotel, all sorts of problems occurred and the project was never finished. We were told the foundations and shell have been assessed and they're only fit for demolition - more detailed information).
The road to the public waterfall is around 2km and mainly sealed. It's in a bush setting and reviewers note the mosquitos and the possibility of a water trickle rather than a waterfall. If you do Pa's cross island trek it ends at the waterfall.
Tours / Island Nights / Cultural Villages
Adventure Cook Islands (Island Way Adventures) - Padi dive courses, dive and snorkelling trips, Trip Advisor reviews
Akura Charters Rarotonga, Trip Advisor reviews
Captain Moko's Fishing Charters, Trip Advisor reviews
Captain Tama's Lagoon Cruizes, Trip Advisor reviews
Koka Lagoon Cruises, Trip Advisor reviews
Raro Reef Sub, 4 trips daily, Trip Advisor reviews
Seafari Fishing Charters, Trip Advisor reviews
Adventure Cook Islands (Island Way Adventures) - treks, mountain bike tours
Coconut Tours - quad bike and 4WD tours, Trip Advisor reviews
Pa's Treks - Cross island trek and nature walk, Trip Advisor reviews
Raro Buggy Tours
Raro Tours - Island Discovery Tour
Raro Safari Tours - 4WD tours, Trip Advisor reviews
Takitumu Conservation Area, guided tours only, Trip Advisor reviews
On the town
Raro Pub Crawl
Raro Tours - Going Troppo Night Life Tours (every Friday or groups by arrangement)
Crown Resort & Spa, Island Feast & Cultural Show
Edgewater Resort & Spa, Island Night
Highland Paradise, Drums of our Forefathers - Sunset Cultural Show & Feast
Te Vara Nui Village, Over-Water Night Show & Buffet Dinner
Te Vara Nui Village - Cultural Village Tour Trip Advisor reviews
Highland Paradise Cultural Centre, tours, cultural show and feast, Trip Advisor reviews
There are two roads that circle Rarotonga, the coastal road Ara Tapu (Sacred Road, 32km) and the inland road Ara Metua (Ancient Road, 29km). We didn't drive on Ara Metua for a long distance but if you want to see farmland and get a bit closer to the mountainous interior of the island you might like to make the detour. The only way to cross the island is on foot, Pa's Treks can guide you. The maximum speed limit is 50km, it's 40km in towns and villages.
They might not have the Harley badge but motorised two wheels are the preferred ride for plenty of locals and visitors. The coastal road is in good condition, the only danger may be a wandering bird or animal. Note: New helmet laws came into effect in October 2016 - see Safe Travel (official advice from NZ government). Also see Cook Islands Police for new fees introduced in November 2016.
A few scooter hire options: Polynesian Rental Cars (6 locations), Tipani Rentals (opposite Edgewater Resort), Island Car & Bike Hire (3 locations), and Rarotonga Rentals. Harley Davidson island tours were once offered, but not longer, might be an opportunity there for a Harley rider who could get used to island life.
A clockwise and an anticlockwise bus runs around the island - $5 one way, $8 return or buy a 10 trip ticket for $30. Buses leave from Cook's Corner in Avarua. A clockwise only bus runs at night.
We found a taxi outside the airport on arrival and paid $30 to get to Edgewater Resort. If you're going to worry about whether taxis will be waiting it's just as easy to book a transfer - see Useful Facts above. (If you book a package with a travel agent transfers will usually be included). In Tonga and Samoa taxis drive around looking for business, this isn't the case in Rarotonga, they're the phone and book variety.
We hired cars from the friendly staff at Polynesian Rental Cars at Edgewater Resort. First up - Volkswagen Golf convertible, $65 a day + petrol @ $2.70 per litre + $9 to lower excess from $2000 to $500. On our last day we hired another car and left it at the airport ($15 charge, drop the keys at the airport office). There was a mix up with our booking and we got a Nissan March convertible. We dubbed the March the last resort car - it didn't like reverse, had a rattly exhaust, plenty of body dings and clunking sounds came from underneath, but it was worth twice the price for the laughs we had in it. Other rental car options: Avis, and Island Car & Bike Hire.
It's cruisey driving in Rarotonga but still remember to follow road rules. We were in a bus that rear ended a small car, thankfully no one was injured but the car was severely damaged.
Sport & Recreation
Rarotonga Golf Club, visitors welcome.
Coco Putt 18 hole mini golf.
Paddle board and boat hire - Captain Tama's, Muri;
Rarotonga Sailing Club, Muri.
Cook Islands Game Fishing Club, Tupapa (open from 1pm Monday - Saturday, visitors welcome).
Rarotonga Hash House Harriers.
For those self catering, CITC Supermarket is located half way between the airport and Avarua. We shopped at Foodland in Avarua.
Visit the Punanga Nui market on Saturday, and road side stalls for good value produce. You can also take food from home, as long as it's not fresh, declare it at Customs on arrival.
Kikau Hut, Arorangi
Colourful Kikau Hut is owned and operated by hospitable Kiwis. We ordered a chicken satay entree, two main fish dishes, two glasses of NZ wine and lemon cake to share for dessert, the bill was around $90. (Kikau Hut is within walking distance of Edgewater, and Sunset Resorts).
Spaghetti House Pizzeria & Grill, Arorangi
We recommend booking a table at Spaghetti House as it's part of the large Edgewater Resort. Service was friendly, and the pasta dishes were good value. Mike's a creme brulee fan and highly recommends it. Dinner for two including NZ wine, one garlic bread, two mains, one dessert and coffee came to $62. (Spaghetti House is located just outside Edgewater Resort on the main road).
Tamarind House Restaurant, Pue (just outside Avarua)
Tamarind is located in a restored colonial style house by the sea, a couple of minutes drive from Avarua. We dined in the evening and it was beautifully lit with candles and fairy lights. Staff were delightful, and served one of my favourite dishes of the trip - a smoked chicken and tropical fruit salad with a honey and lime dressing. The $88 bill included two glasses of NZ wine, two mains, and a lovely lemon sour cream cake to share for dessert. (If you're staying at Club Raro Tamarind House is within walking distance).
We didn't dine at Alberto's but if you enjoy a steak and like big portions it gets good reviews. We visited during the day (Alberto's opens at 5.30pm) and were impressed with their Cook Island marketing style - there's a menu on display as well as a customer comments book. There's also a blackboard for reservations. (Alberto's is walking distance from Edgewater, and Sunset Resorts).
Cafe Salsa, Avarua
If Cafe Salsa could dance its way across the Pacific and onto the coffee filled streets of Auckland or Wellington it would be serious competition in the best cafe stakes. Open Monday - Saturday, 7.30am - 3pm. See the website for menus.
Flying Boat Fish 'n' Chips / Cook Islands Game Fishing Club, Tupapa
Flying Boat on Facebook
Order your fish 'n' chips from the cute blue and white boat that sits on the sand, a few steps from the sea. Add a beer from the Game Fishing Club at the same location. Flying Boat opens at 11am, Game Fishing Club from 1pm, both are closed on Sunday. (Another fish 'n' chip option is Palace Takeaways next to Avatiu harbour in Avarua).
Le Bon Vivant, Avarua (and Muri Village)
If you're looking for something light like a pastry, paw paw muffin or sandwich, Le Bon Vivant is a good option. They also serve platters and wine to match. There's art work on the walls, a nice courtyard, and it's one of the few eating options that had free water for customers. Open from 8am Monday - Saturday for breakfast and lunch.
Cook Islands Tours take visitors to local homes to enjoy home cooked food and learn a little about how local people live.
Drinks / Happy Hours
Matutu Brewing Company brew Mai (lager) and Kiva (pale ale). Tours of the brewery in Titikaveka can be arranged by request, and t-shirts can be purchased via the website.
Where We Stayed
Edgewater Resort & Spa, Arorangi
Edgewater is the largest resort on the island, it's family friendly and has a Kid's Club. The resort had a stay 5 pay 3 deal for garden rooms and we booked for that reason. Trip Advisor reviews for garden rooms were varied. Our expectations weren't high but we were happy with our room, it was on the second level at the back of the property, was spacious, and had a sliding door out to a small balcony.
There were tea and coffee making facilities, flat screen TV, bar fridge, an air conditioning unit (a bit noisy but didn't bother us too much), and an in room safe (you might think it doesn't work, it probably does, persevere with the instructions). The bathroom was a decent size, nicely tiled and in good condition. The room was clean and serviced daily, the decor and some fittings could be upgraded but we had no complaints. Tropical buffet breakfast was included and was more than adequate - fresh fruit, gluten free options, muffins, cereals, tea, coffee, toast, and juice.
Note: If you would prefer to stay at a smaller, more modern resort in the area for a similar price, I recommend you take a look at the garden/pool side studio rooms at Sunset Resort. Sunset has consistently excellent Trip Advisor reviews. Whilst we didn't stay, we did go to Drum Beat Bar for happy hour and the photos on the website are representative of the exterior of the property. It's not an option for all families though as it has a no children under 12 policy.
Activities at Edgewater
There's a swimming pool, tennis courts and games room, plus a schedule of daily activities, most are free. Activities can include fish feeding, water volleyball, ukulele and drumming lessons, and sarong making and tying. On Sunday there's a bus service to church. The onsite shop Treasure Chest sells competitively priced souvenirs.
We went to a drumming session and tapped out a few tunes, but it's You Tube who can show you how it's really done. We also attended an informal history and cultural session led by Tick Daniel's, and highly recommend it. One of the more curious things he mentioned was remote Palmerston Island, the only Cook Island where English is the native language. Englishman William Marsters arrived on the uninhabited island in 1862 with at least one Polynesian wife. He went on to father 17 or 23 children (depending on the source) and died in 1899 at age 78 with 54 grand children. The Masters (changed from Marsters probably due to pronunciation) family were granted ownership of the
island in 1954.
The following is a random list of accommodation options with the exception of The Cooks Oasis Holiday Villas - a well priced self contained property recommended to us by fellow Kiwis. If you're booking your trip independently Rentraro.com manages around 80 tourism rental properties. (Rentraro won an Air NZ Supreme Award for Excellence and Innovation in 2011). Island Hopper Vacations is another option.
Aroko Bungalows, Muri - Trip Advisor reviews, $
Coral Sands, Arorangi - Trip Advisor reviews, $
Lagoon Breeze Villas, Aroa - Trip Advisor reviews, $$
Manea Beach Villas, Muri - Trip Advisor reviews, $$
Muri Beach Resort - Trip Advisor reviews $$
Muri Hillside Guest Houses $$
Muri Retreat - Trip Advisor reviews $
The Cooks Oasis Holiday Villas, Arorangi - Trip Advisor reviews $
Backpacker / Budget
Aremango Guesthouse, Muri - Trip Advisor reviews
Backpackers International, Aroa - Trip Advisor reviews
Club Raro (via Booking.com), Avarua - Trip Advisor reviews
Rarotonga Backpackers, Arorangi - Trip Advisor reviews
Crown Beach Resort & Spa, Arorangi - Trip Advisor reviews, $$$
Edgewater Resort & Spa, Arorangi - see above and Trip Advisor reviews $$
Little Polynesian, Titikaveka - Trip Advisor reviews $$$$$
Pacific Resort, Muri - Trip Advisor reviews $$$$$
Rumours Luxury Villas & Spa, Muri - Trip Advisor reviews $$$$$
Sea Change Villas, Titikaveka, Trip Advisor reviews $$$$$
Sunset Resort, Arorangi - Trip Advisor reviews, $$
Te Manava Luxury Villas & Spa, Muri - Trip Advisor reviews $$$$$
The Rarotongan Beach Resort & Spa, Aroa - Trip Advisor reviews $$$