Update in progress March 2018
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 requirements apply) are popular transport for locals and visitors and there are plenty of reasonably priced scooter and car hire options. There are also public buses that circle the island in both directions. Food and drink can be expensive as a lot of it is imported (see Food & Dining for price examples), however we dined out for most of our meals and prices were similar to what we would pay in NZ.
Good To Know
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 13,044 on Rarotonga, total population 17,459 (2016 Census information - includes non residents in the Cook Islands when the Census data was collected).
Currency: New Zealand dollar along with Cook Islands coins - $1, $2, and $5 dollars, and 5, 10, 20 and 50 cent coins.
Official Tourism website: www.cookislands.travel. The Visitor Information Centre is in Avarua next to ANZ Bank.
Transport: Public buses, scooters, cars and bicycles - pedal and electric. There are taxis but they don't drive around looking for fares, you need to call them. Raro Tours provide airport transfers, a lot of accommodation providers will also offer airport transfers (around $15pp one way).
Licence to drive: Cars - Visitors from Australia, NZ, US, Canada, UK and the EU can drive cars using their own licence, there is no need to get a Cook Islands licence. Scooters - If you want to hire a scooter and don't have a full motorcyle licence you need to get a visitors motorcycle licence - see Important - Please Read via Adventure Cooks Islands scooter hire.
Rarotonga International Airport: The airport is 3 kms from Avarua. Air Rarotonga provides domestic flights. Air New Zealand, Virgin Australia and Jet Star fly from NZ. There is an Air New Zealand International Lounge at the airport, when we checked in there was a sign saying the lounge was for members only, so as a plus one I lucked out, but you can always ask.
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 ATMs on the island.
Sunday: Sunday is dedicated to church, family and rest. Bars and eating establishments may be closed.
Prepaid mobile - A visitor SIM card from Bluesky is $49. Alternatively buy a local SIM card for $25 which is loaded with $20 credit. (Bluesky have offices at the airport and next to Avis in Avarua).
Water: If in doubt, boil the tap water. Bottled water is sold in village shops, and supermarkets. The local water is Vaima and it can be delivered to your accommodation.
Festivals and Events: Cook Islands Events Calendar.
Whale watching: July - October, A where, when and how to guide.
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.
24 hour, 7 day a week fuel & food: Oasis Energy in Nikao (west of Avarua, near the airport). Super Brown in Tupapa (east of Avarua).
Mosquitos / Travel Warnings: 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. Visit Safe Travel to see if there are any travel or health related warnings for the Cook Islands.
Early on Saturday morning Punanga Nui Market opens to sell local food and produce, and local art / craft work. You can buy souvenirs like colourful bags, Cook Islands Pate (drums), t-shirts and pareu (sarongs). It's likely you'll also see Te Korero Maori Cultural Dance Group perform. A number of tourist operators will be at the market so it's also a chance to find out more about what's offered on the island. The market is definitely worth visiting, there are some stalls open during the week, but Saturday is THE day to visit, it's best to get there before 12 noon.
Bounty Bookshop, Takuvaine Road (next to the Post Office)
Bounty Bookshop stocks guide books, magazines, fiction and non fiction, and some recipe books if you'd like to recreate local dishes at home. Newspapers include Cook Islands News (published daily, $2), and The Cook Islands Herald (published weekly).
Souvenirs can be purchased at Punanga Nui 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. Island Craft in Avarua is a good option if you're looking for carvings. Island Craft label their locally made work, beware of imported copies you may find in other shops.
In The Water
Captain Tama's Lagoon Cruizes, Muri
On a Captain Tama's cruize you can snorkel out near the reef in Muri Lagoon (best snorkelling of our trip in 2012), 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.
Koka Lagoon Cruises
The other day cruise option at Muri is Koka Lagoon Cruises (Sunday - Friday, departs 10am). Koka have also stacked up some excellent Trip Advisor reviews.
Ariki Adventures, Muri
Ariki Adventures offer a number of water based activities and tours including Glass Bottom Kayak Tours, Stand Up Paddleboard Tours, and Ocean Sea Scooter Safaris. I had a chat to a friendly guy from Palmerston North who did a 90 minute Sea Scooter Safari in Muri Lagoon. He enjoyed the sea scooters and the tour so much he said he would do the tour again and ..... he saw turtles.
There are plenty of snorkelling spots in Rarotonga and most accommodation will likely have snorkelling options nearby. In 2018 we stayed at Palm Grove Resort in Vaimaanga and saw lots of colourful fish out snorkelling, some really close to shore. We also saw lots of either sea cucumbers (known as 'vacuum cleaners of the sea'), or sea slugs? Whatever they were, was their presence a good or bad sign? I don't know.
Popular snorkelling spots include Fruits of Rarotonga at Tikioki beach which is located between Muri and Titikaveka. Look for the little lime green Fruits of Rarotonga cafe/shop, opposite is parking, a bus stop, and beach access for snorkelling. If you don't have gear you can hire it from Chantal's Concierge across the road.
A few sources note lagoon pollution including The Cook Islands News - WATSAN project moving ahead, newer articles - Can Muri Lagoon be saved?, Lagoon National Disaster. 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 a percentage of their sales to the Rarotonga Lagoon Conservation Trust and 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. Most sunscreen is likely toxic to sea life so we've both bought rashies to help with sun protection, the added benefit is less sunscreen going into the water.
Papua Waterfall (also known as Wigmore's Waterfall), Vaima'anga
Look for the SPCA sign and have some money ready as there is now a charge - $5 per car, $2 per scooter. It's around a 2km drive to the waterfall which is in a bush setting. Reviewers note the mosquitos and the possibility of a water trickle rather than a waterfall (depending on rain fall).
The turn off to Papua Waterfall is near the shell of a hotel that would have been part of the Sheraton group had it been completed. There's a fascinating story behind the hotel (see Google) - a curse, dodgy dealings, and failed attempts by new developers to get the project back on track. In December 2017 The Guardian ran a story about the hotel, and noted a potential New Zealand developer with Chinese backing has plans to finish the project ......
Tours / Island Nights / Cultural Villages
Adventure Cook Islands (Reef to See) - Padi dive courses and dive trips, Trip Advisor reviews
Marlin Queen Fishing Charters, Trip Advisor reviews
Akura Charters Rarotonga, Trip Advisor reviews
Captain Moko's Fishing Charters, Trip Advisor reviews
Ariki Adventures - glass bottom kayak tours, paddle board and snorkel tours, sea scooter tours
Raro Reef Sub, 4 trips daily, Trip Advisor reviews
Seafari Fishing Charters, Trip Advisor reviews
Raro Quad Tours - quad bike tours
Pa's Treks - Cross island trek, and nature walk, Trip Advisor reviews
Raro Buggy Tours - Trip Advisor reviews
Raro Tours - various group and private tours offered
Raro Mountain Safari Tours - 4WD tours, 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
Islander Hotel, Night Show & Buffet on Tuesday nights
Rarotongan Beach Resort & Spa - Legends of Polynesia Umu Feast & Drum Dance Show
Te Vara Nui Village, Ara Tapu
Highland Paradise Culture Centre, Arorangi
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 is 50kph outside of built up areas, 40kph in towns and villages, and 20kph around schools during school time. In Muri and Avarua the speed limit is 30kph.
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, although there are potholes, also watch out for wandering birds or dogs. Note: New helmet and licensing laws - if you don't have a motorcycle licence you'll need to get one to hire a scooter - see Please Read information via Adventure Cook Islands.
A few scooter hire options: Polynesian Rental Cars (6 locations), Tipani Rentals (opposite Edgewater Resort), and Island Car & Bike Hire (3 locations). 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. Note: Check your insurance to make sure you're covered to ride a scooter.
Bus - Main Bus Stop at Cooks Corner, Tutakimoa Road in Avarua
A clockwise bus departs Cooks Corner on the hour heading toward Tupapa. An anti-clockwise bus departs Cooks Corner at 30 minutes past the hour heading towards Nikao (towards the airport). It takes around 50 minutes for the buses to do a lap of the island, tell the driver where you want to get off when you board. See Busaboutraro for the schedule. Note: On Sunday the clockwise bus departs Cooks Corner from 8am - 12noon and then 2pm - 4pm. There is no Sunday night bus, or Sunday anti-clockwise bus service.
Cost - $5 one way, $8 return, $16 for a day pass or buy a 10 trip ticket for $30 (buy tickets from the driver).
There are a few bus stops around the island, if you're in an area without a bus stop you can signal the driver, don't be shy, otherwise they'll whistle on by. There are some popular spots where people get on and off - Fruits of Rarotonga and Black Rock (for snorkelling), Charlie's Bar in Titikaveka, and Muri Village. Note: On one of my bus trips some passengers were using the bus to get to the airport and the driver charged them $2 for each piece of luggage. Fair enough, as he said the bus is for people, not bags, so it's best to organise an airport transfer.
You will probably find taxis outside the airport when you arrive, if not someone will be able to organise one for you. Taxis aren't cheap in Rarotonga though and an airport transfer will likely be better value. In Tonga and Samoa taxis drive around looking for business, this isn't the case in Rarotonga, they're the phone and book variety.
In March 2018 we hired a Toyota Yaris from the friendly staff at Avis in Avarua. It was low season in Rarotonga so there was an excellent deal for $35 a day for a minimum three day hire. Petrol was $2.08 a litre. If you're keen on a convertible, we saw a few Mini Cooper convertibles around the island, Polynesian Rental Cars is one option for hiring those and Island Car Hire & Bike Hire have Nissan Micra convertibles. Note: Visitors from Australia, NZ, US, Canada, UK and the EU can drive cars using their own licence, there is no need to get a Cook Islands licence.
For those self catering: CITC Supermarket is located half way between the airport and Avarua, Foodland is in downtown Avarua on the main road, Prime Foods is on St Joseph Road in Avarua, and Wigmore's Supermarket (open on Sunday) is in Vaimaanga.
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
We had dinner at colourful Kikau Hut during our first trip to Rarotonga in 2012. 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. We returned for dinner in 2018 and recommend it as a family friendly, good value dining option. Pasta dishes are priced from $15.50, pizza from $18, and dessert from $8.50. There are other main meal choices like pork cutlets, fish, and chicken as well as gluten free options including pizza. (Spaghetti House is located outside Edgewater Resort on the main road, open 7 nights from 5pm).
Tamarind House Restaurant, Pue (east of Avarua)
Tamarind House is a restored colonial style property by the sea, a couple of minutes drive from Avarua. It was closed for an annual holiday when we visited Rarotonga in 2018, but on our first trip 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).
Cafe Salsa, next to CITC Shopping Centre, downtown Avarua
Cafe Salsa has plenty of seating both indoor and out, and a long all day breakfast/brunch menu priced from $10.50 for triple eggs. One morning I had the 'rise and shine' - a coconut filled with rolled oats, bananas, berries, chia seeds, almond milk and fresh local fruit, it looked and tasted good and at $15.50 came with a free refill, not that I could manage it. They brew Roasted Addiqtion coffee and have an equally long drinks menu that includes milk shakes, smoothies, iced coffee, juice and nu (young drinking coconut). Open Monday - Friday 7.30am - 3pm, and 7.30am - 2pm on Saturday.
The Cafe, inside the Beachcomber Building (BCA Gallery) at the intersection of Ara Tapu and Makeatinirau Roads, Avarua
I spent a hot morning walking to both of the museums in Avarua and The Cafe is well placed to take a break for a cold drink and a snack. The Cafe is in the open air courtyard of the Beachcomber Building and has a retro / record theme with a record player (choose a tune) in one corner as well as books and magazines to read. I sat cooling off with a glass of apple juice and a paw paw muffin while listening to waves crashing in the distance. Another visit for morning tea found The Cafe busy with locals taking five for coffee. Open Monday - Friday 9am - 3pm, Saturday 9am - 1pm.
Matutu Brewery, Tikioki (look for the sign on the side of the road with tour times)
Matutu Brewing Company brew Mai (lager) and Kiva (pale ale). Every week day at 12noon and 1pm brewery tours are offered for $15pp, pick up can be arranged for an extra $10pp. It's not a tour as such as the rustic brewery is small, but the guys behind it are passionate about what they do. We enjoyed learning about the beers, the brewery (the kit came from Tuatara Brewery in Wellington), and the origins of the beer names and labels. We also got to sample the Mai and Kiva along with their coconut stout, and liked their craft beer bottle collection. If you develop a taste for Matutu beer you'll find it at a lot of bars and restaurants in Rarotonga.
Hula Bar at The Islander Hotel opposite the airport probably has the best happy hour on the island - $3.50 beer, $4 spirits and $5 wines all day from 11am. When we called in for a beer we had the seaside bar to ourselves but I imagine it's a very popular place to be in the evenings. Also in Nikao is Vaiana's Bar & Bistro on the beach and it also has a happy hour.
As you're travelling around Rarotonga keep an eye out for happy hour signs, another option is The Barefoot Bar at Pacific Resort in Muri which has happy hour at both 4pm and 8.30pm.
Where We Stayed
Palm Grove Resort, Vaimaanga (2018)
Palm Grove has 22 self-contained bungalows set over five acres, choose either a garden setting or beachfront. We stayed in a well equipped Garden Studio a few steps from the pool and a short walk across the road to the beach. We saw plenty of colourful fish out snorkelling, there were a lot of sea slugs though.
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, 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 $$$$$
The Rarotongan Beach Resort & Spa, Aroa - Trip Advisor reviews $$$
Resorts with Kids ClubsEdgewater Resort & Spa