Rarotonga Travel Guide: The Perfect Cook Islands Escape
What is your idea of paradise? To me it’s always been Polynesia. Tropical lush green vegetation surrounded by crystal clear turquoise lagoons, fresh seafood on the plate, relaxing sounds of ukulele, mesmerising dance moves, flowers everywhere… Not only did my Cook Islands vacation tick every box imaginable, but was also fairly inexpensive compared to the other South Pacific islands and not yet overtaken by tourism. Triple win! Do you want to experience this slice of heaven yourself? Check out my complete Rarotonga holiday guide below.
HOW TO GET TO THE COOK ISLANDS
Located in the middle of the Pacific, halfway between New Zealand and Hawaii, the Cook Islands are not within easy reach for most of us. However, the reward is well worth the journey. There are direct international flights to Rarotonga, the main island of the Cook Islands, from four different locations – Auckland, Sydney, Los Angeles and Tahiti.
Air Tahiti takes you to and from Papeete; Virgin Australia connects Rarotonga with Auckland and Sydney; Jetstar also has flights from Auckland; while Air New Zealand flies from Auckland, Sydney, as well as Los Angeles.
I spent three weeks exploring New Zealand before flying out to Rarotonga, so my starting (and end) point was Auckland. Unfortunately, I had the worst airline/flight experience of my life with Jetstar on my way back (and heard many unpleasant stories from others afterwards too), so between the two, I would definitely suggest you to book your flights with Air New Zealand. It’s miles better, from comfort to customer service.
THE BEST TIME OF THE YEAR TO GO TO THE COOK ISLANDS
The Cook Islands have a tropical climate year-round, so you’ll be able to enjoy everything Rarotonga has to offer whenever you visit. The warmer season, with temperatures from 26°C to 30°C, runs from November to April, while you can expect just slightly milder temperatures ranging from 22°C to 27 °C between May and October.
The warmer season (November-April) comes with more humidity, daily rainfall and a possible cyclone (not a regular occurrence), but don’t fret about it. I was there in mid-January and while we had some strong winds during the night and a quick, warm downpour every afternoon, there was still plenty of sunshine to enjoy.
If you’re “on a budget”, keep in mind that July and August are normally the busiest months. Many Australians and New Zealanders come over to the islands for their winter break, so it get busier and accommodation prices increase. The flight prices increase also over Christmas, as many Cook Islanders who live in New Zealand come home over the holidays.
VISA FOR THE COOK ISLANDS
You don’t need to obtain a visa to visit the Cook Islands if you’re just a tourist. The only thing you need is a passport valid for a minimum of 6 months and a return ticket – this allows you to stay up to 31 days (or 90 days if you’re a citizen of New Zealand).
THINGS TO DO IN RAROTONGA
1) MURI LAGOON ACTIVITIES
Muri Lagoon is the most beautiful and popular spot on the island, with plenty of hotels, resorts and restaurants nearby. I was lucky enough to stay right on Muri Beach, so the gorgeous turquoise lagoon with all its activities was practically on my doorstep. The lagoon is very calm and therefore perfect for swimming, paddleboarding or kayaking – I’ve done it all!
There’s a few places along the coast you can hire a SUP, a kayak or snorkel gear from, but most resorts provide it to you for free. You can easily make your way to one of the little islands in the middle of the lagoon (you can even reach one of them on foot when the tide is low), and guess what? You might even get a passenger. The local dogs who roam around love to hop on a paddle board or a kayak and come along for a free ride – it’s absolutely hilarious!
Just when I thought my vacation couldn’t get any better, these funny fluffy companions made an appearance. I just LOVE dogs! Even though most of them don’t have a single owner (the collars indicate they’ve been fixed and vaccinated), they are well taken care of by the community and an absolute joy to be around. I loved watching them attempting to catch fish – hours of entertainment provided, I’m telling you.
P.S. I do recommend you to put some reef shoes on before going into water, as there’s corals around you can cut your foot with due to the proximity of the reef.
2) MURI LAGOON CRUISE AND SNORKELLING
Another activity you can do in the lagoon is snorkelling! Book a glass-bottomed cruise that takes you around the islands, with ukulele playing in the background, all the way to the coral reef, where you can put on some flippers and a snorkel and dive right in. There’s tons of colourful tropical fish down there, some way bigger than I expected!
We stayed at the reef for over an hour, then headed back. The cruise I booked was with Pacific Resort Rarotonga (20 NZD), the resort I was staying at, but there’s plenty of other almost identical options. Some operators also stop at one of the islands (the one you can walk to) for a barbecue.
3) MURI NIGHT MARKET
Muri Night Market is an outdoor street food market that you definitely shouldn’t miss! Locals and tourists alike stop over for dinner, as you have a range of tasty dishes to choose from. You can find everything from their special chicken curry and local seafood specialties to pizza and fluffy pancakes. I went for a Raro-style hot dog! Not an official name, but the best way I can describe it. It was basically chicken slices with coconut cream in a bun – so delicious!
While this is a street food market, there are a couple of stalls selling souvenirs and the like as well. I spotted a vendor selling black pearls harvested in the Cook Islands, so I got an unpolished one that I’ll be taking to my jeweller to get a pendant made.
The market is open every Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday, from 5 pm until 9 pm, but you should get there as early as possible – many stalls run out of food quickly and close up early.
4) PUNANGA NUI MARKET
Punanga Nui is another market worth checking out. It’s held every Saturday morning in Avarua, the capital of Rarotonga, and gets very busy. It seems like everyone on the island swings by! You won’t only find street food there, but also fresh produce and every souvenir imaginable – clothing, art, handmade ukuleles…
I enjoyed a delicious tropical fruit smoothie, grabbed some souvenirs for friends, and treated myself to a flower crown that I watched being made right there and then. I felt like Moana and wore it all day, until the fresh flowers started looking worse for wear from the heat. I really wish I could wear flowers in my hair every day…
At about 10 am there’s also cultural performances (live music and dance) happening on the market’s the main stage, so it’s worth planning your visit around that time.
5) TE VARA NUI VILLAGE AND DANCE SHOW
For a truly immersive cultural experience, I can’t recommend Te Vara Nui Village enough. It’s proper touristy, so I had my doubts, but in the few hours I spent there, I learned the whole history of Polynesia, got an A to Z insight into the Cook Island Maori culture, and got to experience the most spectacular dance show – I still get goosebumps just thinking about it!
You can choose between their cultural village tour (49 NZD), the over water night show with buffet dinner (115 NZD), or opt for both (135 NZD), which is what I did and clearly don’t regret a tiny bit!
Without revealing too much, the 2-hour long village tour started at 5 pm and was informative and entertaining at the same time. The guides taught us about their traditional medicines (and even gave us some beauty tips), fishing, navigational techniques, legends, costumes, beliefs, the past and the present way of life, and even how to open a coconut.
After the village tour, we were sat down for the incredible over water night dance show. The atmosphere was electric! Through music and dance, the performers showcased The Legend of Tongaiti on floating stages, all of which was followed by buffet dinner of their traditional dishes, laid out on a never-ending table. Everything I put in my mouth tasted amazing, especially banana poke, the Cook Islands’ traditional dessert. It doesn’t look particularly appetising at first glance, but the flavour is addicting! I’m dying to recreate it back home. I just need to find some arrowroot/tapioca starch.
6) CROSS-ISLAND HIKE TO THE RUA MANGA (THE NEEDLE)
If you’re ultra adventurous and in great shape, you might want to do a four-hour cross-island hike through the rainforest up the Te Rua Manga (The Needle), offering great views across the island. I haven’t done it myself, so I can’t give you any first-hand tips, but I’ve heard it’s rather challenging in certain parts, as you have to use chains and ropes to get to the top, and not well marked, so having a guide (as well as proper hiking shoes) is recommended. Most people start from Avarua and finish at Wigmore’s Waterfall.
7) A DAY TRIP TO AITUTAKI
Aitutaki is another island, only a 45-minute flight away from Rarotonga. It’s considered to have the most beautiful lagoon in the world (its name literally means ‘a little paradise’) and well worth a visit if you have the time and the money. You can stay over for several days or just do a quick day trip from Rarotonga, which will cost you about 450 NZD for the flights and the lagoon cruise. I unfortunately couldn’t hop over this time, but if I’m ever lucky enough to make it back to the Cook Islands, Aitutaki will be on my priority list.
GETTING AROUND THE ISLAND
You can rent a car or a scooter to get around Rarotonga, but since the island is small and there isn’t many places you would need a car to get to, you can just use the local bus. One route goes clockwise and the other anti-clockwise, so you really can’t get it wrong. I took the bus to the Punanga Nui Market and it was an experience in itself! Not a negative one, just to be clear. There is a timetable you can refer to, but don’t take it very literally. Let’s just say they run on ‘island time’. Whenever the bus shows up, it shows up. A single ticket costs 3.40 NZD, and the bus needs about an hour to get around the entire island.
WHERE TO STAY IN RAROTONGA
Rarotonga offers accommodation options for all budgets. You can choose between hotels, Airbnbs, family villas, resorts and even hostels from only 14 NZD a night! Yes, backpacking Rarotonga is totally doable.
I stayed in a beachfront suit with a million dollar view at a 4-star Pacific Resort Rarotonga. It’s on Muri Beach, surrounded by tropical gardens, and is a good all-rounder. Excellent location, beyond friendly staff, top-notch food and suitable for families and couples alike.
I’m still dreaming of all the dinners I was served there. The pacific sizzler (local fish with sauteed vegetables sizzled with coconut lime sauce), ika mata (Cook Islands raw fish salad), seafood chowder, and prawn and pesto linguine were my favourite! I would honestly go back just for the food, it was THAT good. What made the experience even more special was that they served dinner right on the beach when the weather allowed it. Absolutely dreamy… Just FIY – the portions are to die for. The starters are as big as the mains, so make sure to wear some stretchy pants, haha.
WI-FI AND MOBILE DATA IN RAROTONGA
In short, free wi-fi is pretty much impossible to find. I eventually ended up getting a visitor SIM card from Bluesky with 3 GB of data for 49 NZD, but to be honest, it wasn’t worth it. The speed was so slow I couldn’t even use social media. Offline is clearly the way to go in the Cook Islands! With all the beauty around, it’s probably for the best.