Rarotonga, the main island in the Cook Islands, is one of the most relaxing places in existence. White, sandy beaches and beautiful weather on a tropical, South Pacific island tend to create that sort of atmosphere effortlessly. You will look up at the lusciously green, jungle interior and then back towards the beach and immediately start considering how you’re going to break it to your family and friends that you are quitting your job and moving there permanently to begin life as a coconut farmer. We are talking bout a place that has five-digit phone numbers and a maximum speed limit of 60 kilometres an hour. It’s glorious.
That being said there are a few things that you should do on your visit that are non-negotiable.
1. Snorkelling the Lagoon
It seems like a bit of a no brainer when you visit a South Pacific island destination that you’ll go snorkelling at some point. It is even more straight forward on Rarotonga, an island completely encircled by a placid lagoon. It’s like a beer lover visiting the Guinness factory- it just makes sense.
Like every reef, there are sections that are better than others so while it is possible to just grab some snorkel gear and go for a splash, it is far more beneficial to go with a provider.
A couple of companies, like Captain Tama’s, provide a whole day lagoon cruises. You begin being serenaded by the crew armed with ukuleles and an eclectic repertoire of songs. Their medley of punchy showtunes, sung in the local islander style, is particularly enjoyable.
A short boat ride in a glass bottomed boat with a short local history of the area (“My friends, my friends. I am captain Hey-Hey. I want to tell you about this island. I want to say it is a beautiful island.”) leads to a snorkelling experience. Bright coloured tropical fish dart in and out of the rocks, caring very little about your presence and, if you’re lucky, turtles and the local moray eel can also be spotted.
Afterwards, you are rewarded with another musical performance and a feed. Freshly caught tuna and fried bananas cooked on a barbeque never tasted so good. You finish up with a coconut show and sarong demonstration. Time for one more swim and back to the main island.
What strikes you most is how much fun the crew all have. Although, undoubtedly, they do it multiple times each week, they all seem legitimately happy to be there. It is infectious.
Tours run for about NZ$80. You can book through your accommodation but it is cheaper if you pay them directly on the day.
2. The Cross Island Hike
Rarotonga may be an island but it has a vastly mountainous, jungle interior. The hike across the island is not for the faint hearted; it is hot, humid, slippery and awesome all at the same time. Climbing tree roots like a ladder as you ascend the mountain sides to the viewing area half way up the mountain nicknamed ‘the Needle’ (really) is a reality. The views of the island are worth the effort.
The track is basically signposted and almost well-defined (for the most part) but there are a few sketchy sections that can cause confusion. Narrow, slippery, slightly overgrown trails will do that. Large trees and vines extend in every direction, dominating the landscape, in complete contrast to the sandy beaches on the exterior of the island. Be prepared for all the elements- sun, rain, sweat and bush chickens- making sure you get some proper directions before you start. It is a three hour journey and you will need to have a good level of fitness.
If getting lost in the jungle isn’t your thing then the alternative is to get a guided tour- and the best in the business is Pa. Part history lesson, part cultural tour, Pa’s tour makes a strenuous trip comfortable and educational- a real eco-tour. Your guide will also carry fresh fruit for you to snack on and replenish those lost energy stores. He will also carry a machete as long as your arm, making you feel like a real jungle trekker.
Pa’s tours cost NZ$70 and includes lunch.
3. Saturday Punanga Nui Market
Markets can sometimes be a dime a dozen. The same old souvenir leather bracelets and knock off sunglasses. To a certain extent, the Saturday Punanga Nui Market on Rarotonga is probably the same. The difference is in the atmosphere. Fresh tropical fruit is readily available. Black pearls appear frequently, many stalls stocked with (mostly) reasonably priced pieces. Traditional garments are also a popular item but my favourite items included jerseys from the local rugby and basketball competitions. It’s harder to find NBA singlets than it is to find Cook Island Basketball Association apparel.
Culturally speaking, demonstrations of traditional dances, interrupted only by an MC relaying the most recent rugby scores, took centre stage. While several locations throughout the island offer traditional Night Shows- dinner and traditional dance performances of an evening – the daytime show at the market is just as enjoyable, if not more affordable; donations to the traditional dance school the only request.
Elsewhere on the island, the Muri Night Market offers a more food based kind of arrangement you can peruse. These run more frequently than the weekly Saturday market and provide some good cheap eats.
4. Matutu Brewery
Ok, so a visit to a small, craft brewery that operates (legally) out of a (well kept) shed wont be high on the list of places a lot of people would consider visiting. Fair enough. And at an hour long, the tour itself isn’t all that lengthy. I know, I’m not exactly talking it up. But for a beer lover, I learnt more about the brewing of beer in that hour than I had in my previous 32 and a half year existence. The crew running the show know their shit and explain everything nice and slow so that even the laymen can grasp the different processes required to create a tasty beverage. And the beer is tasty; my loving partner even enjoyed it (as much as she didn’t want to be there) and I haven’t seen her ever drink a beer for the entire length of our relationship. That’s a tick.
Its not like this is some kind of backyard operation; this is award winning beer (literally). While they currently only make four beer variations at the moment, you get a good taste of each of them. At NZ$15 dollars I walked with a singlet, 1.5 litres of pale ale and slightly tipsy, deciding that Matutu Brewery was one of the most value for money experiences available on Rarotonga.
NOTE: For the ethically inclined, and in step with the rest of the environmentally minded Cook Islands, Matutu recycle their bottles aiming to make as minimal impact on the environment as possible, discounting businesses that return empty beer bottles.
5. Cycle the Circuit
Let’s be clear here; Rarotonga is an island where it only takes one hour on a bus to do a complete lap on the main road. Sixty minutes to get back to where you started. And while public transport is a viable and trustworthy mode of getting around, there are a couple of more interesting ways to cruising the perimeter.
Grab a bike (motorised, electric or peddle power; they have it all) and go at your own pace. You are able to stop wherever and whenever you please, making it easier to access spur of the moment stops which, on the surface, sounds obvious but when it doesn’t take long to do a lap in the first place you may as well cruise. Rarotonga is, after all, one of those uniquely laid back places, so if the locals aren’t in a rush, neither should you. Keep in mind that there is also an inner road that is worth riding along, somewhere that the buses do not run, and gives you a snap shot of the real Rarotonga.
There is a mountain of things to do other than the small list above- ATV tours, fishing charters, dive trips, mini golf courses, museums, traditional dance shows, cafes galore, pub tours, paddle boarding the lagoon- the list is endless. If nothing else, sit on a beach, sip a drink from a coconut and enjoy the sunset. It’s an island life after all. Just don’t limit your options, it’s an easy place to fall in love with.
Wayward Housekeeping: The cost of living is high on Rarotonga so try to be a bit responsible- turn those lights off and give the air conditioner a break from time to time etc. Don’t drink the tap water- there are purified water stations located around the island. Use them. And make a plan- there are only two television stations so if your idea of a good time on holiday is sitting in a hotel room watching movies, maybe just stay home instead.
Wayward Tip: Most accommodation should provide you with a voucher booklet for attractions and restaurants around the island. Use it. There are plenty of deals on offer that will save you a packet.