The hub of the Cook Islands, Rarotonga, has a lot to see and do. And it is just 32 km to go around the whole island. So getting anywhere takes no time! Although the island is booming in tourism, it still remains quite unspoilt: No heavy traffic, no traffic lights, no McDonald’s and no building is taller than a coconut tree. It is a natural playground with epic jungle-clad mountains, crystal blue waters, white sandy beaches, warm weather all year round and a sparkling lagoon. On top you get to enjoy the laidback lifestyle of the friendly locals and maybe even a spectacular beach all to yourself. So go ahead and tip your toes in the tropics!
How to get there?
There are flights from Auckland, Sydney, Papeete and Los Angeles which directly will take you to Rarotonga. Inter-island flights are also available.
Besides the fabolous beach time we spent on Rarotonga, we really enjoyed the Cross-Island-Trek. This popular trek takes you through some impressive natural scenery and will probably keep you busy for three to four hours. It is recommended to take the trek from north to south, because if you start in the north it is easier to not take a wrong turn. But in the end it is up to you. Along the way you will not only cross the Papua Stream, which provides the whole island with fresh water, but also the 413 m Te Rua Manga aka The Needle. If it is still there, say ‘Hello” to the curious chicken at the base of the Needle. He probably is super interested in your lunch. Make sure to wear adequate shoes, take plenty of drinking water, and you might want to use plenty of mosquito repellent. Especially after rain parts of the walk can get extremely slippery and the upper section of the trek is quite rugged and overgrown. If you do not want to do the hike all by yourself, you can also join a guided tour (Pa’s mountain treks). The trek finishes at Wigmore’s Waterfall.
How long to stay?
As you most likely will time travel on your journey to Rarotonga (you might cross the date border), you have to make sure to book your accommodation right. We booked a total of 8 nights in a hostel. Including one night for when we arrived in the middle of the night. Make sure to plan enough time in this island paradise and maybe even spare some days to visit at least one of the other islands. Once your body and mind adjusted to the famous island time, it will be hard to say goodbye and go back to your busy normal life.
Where to stay?
We stayed at the Backpackers International. It is by far the cheapest hostel on the island. A double room with a fan and shared bathroom was 27 EUR per night. Given the prices on the rest of the island that price was perfect for our budget, but bear in mind that you get what you pay for. So do not expect this place to be super fancy. It is not. But there are plenty of other options to choose from and some of the places even give you a discount when you stay for a longer time. If you want to save on accommodation try to look in the Arorangi District in the southwest, where the beaches are nice, but there is not a whole lot else. In comparison, Avarua (which is the capital city in the north), has tons to do, but prices are higher. And Muri Beach, in the southeast, has the best beaches on the whole island, but also is the most expensive area.
Getting around No matter where you stay, you probably want to explore the whole island. There are a couple of ways to do so:
Hire a scooter In our opinion this is the best and cheapest way to get around the island. At least if you are traveling with two persons. You will find plenty of rental companies across the whole island, most of which also rent out scooters and helmets (approx. 12 EUR per day incl. two helmets). Some companies offer a discount if you rent for 7 days or more. Apparently tourists have to wear a helmet, and so did we. But in the end nobody seems to care at all. Another thing is that tourists have to either have a valid motorbike license or apply for a Cook Islands drivers license. The costs for a Cook Islands liscense are about 60 EUR, including a proper theoretical and practical test. Make sure to make an appointment at the police station to take the test. The license is valid for 30 days and sure makes a kickass souvenir. Note: Some rental companies will not give you a scooter without a valid license (there are some which do not take it too serious). This is also the problem we encountered. After trying to figure out what to do, we ended up at the police station, showing them our German driver license, where you also have a small moped symbol. We convinced them that this means we are allowed to drive a motorbike and after 5 minutes Flo was the proud owner of an original Cook Island motorbike license. For not more than 13 EUR.
Hire a bicycle If you do not feel like driving a scooter and maybe are traveling alone, a bicycle might be the best option for you. Sure it will take some more time to get from A to B, but in the end it is a pretty nice and cheap option to get around the island.
Hire a car If you are traveling with three or more people, renting a car is quite a good option and probably the best deal. Why not go for a convertible?
Go by bus Rarotonga has a pretty good public bus and bus stops are located at almost every point of interest (although buses can be hailed from pretty much anywhere and will stop wherever you want them to). In fact there are only two connections available: clockwise and anti-clockwise. So you really cannot get it wrong. Buses usually run every hour. A single ticket is 3,20 EUR, two rides are 5 EUR, day passes are 10 EUR and 10 tickets are 19 EUR, regardless of the distance traveled. The rides are transferrable so it is worth getting 10 of them and sharing them around if you will not be around for long enough to use them all. The bus also is a good option to skip the rather expensive airport transfers which most accommodations offer. But be aware: If you want to bring your luggage on the bus, you might end up paying a small extra fee. You can check the bus schedule online.
Hithicking As already said, the locals are super welcoming and friendly. So the cheapest way to get around the island probably is to hitchhike. It will not take long for someone to stop and they most probably will also stop to appologize for not being able to give you a ride.
Note: No matter if you go by bus, foot, bike or whatever – we were told that we should be very careful when on the road at night. There hardly are any lights and some locals like to drunk drive. So just make sure to be safe.
Markets In general, there are two markets you should visit in Rarotonga: The Muri Night Market (5-8pm Tue-Thu & Sun, music and streetfood) and the Saturday morning market in Avarua (Sat 8 am – 2 pm, also known as Punanga Nui Market, selling almost everything from fresh fruit, veggies and fish, island food, live and recorded island music, clothing, handicrafts, black pearls, jewellery, massage, to art works, second-hand books and pastrie). During each day of the week you will find small stands selling fresh vegetables, fruit and maybe warm meals next to the street everywhere on the island. Go to church on Sunday Going to church definitely is a thing in the Cook Islands. The islanders are very religious and they also love to welcome tourists to their churches on Sunday. Although we never go to church in Germany, we decided to go to the Arorangi Christian Church for its Sunday service. Unlike church in Germany, you will get to hear lots of happy singing and might even pick up some language skills, as the service mostly will be held in the Cook Island language. Be sure to have a small donation ready at the end. And do not eat too much for breakfast as well – the church will invite you for a big snack afterwards. Watch the planes If you ever felt the urge to stand under an airplane while it lands – Rarotonga is the perfect place. Check arrival times online and then feel the rush of a 767 swoop overhead at the reef end of the airport runway. The planes mostly make their final approach over the coastal road and there is a flat area where you can park the bike or car. Favorite restaurants Most of the time we tried to cook at the hostel to save some money. But you know – from time to time you have to treat yourself to something nice. Make sure to try The Pacific (best fish and chips on the island – the ‘small package’ actually is good for two people, so much food! You find the small wooden shop at Akaoa, Arorangi – 5pm to 10pm from Monday to Wednesday, 4pm to 10pm on Thursday and Friday and 12.30pm to 6.30pm on Sunday), Vili’s Burger (probably the best deal for burgers on the whole island) and if you need ice cream, make sure to stop at the Wigmore’s Super Center. Otherwise, always remember: Look for small shacks selling stuff by the side of the road for the best bargains, and if there is a queue of locals outside, it is a sign it will be delicious. Snorkeling Sea temperatures are pleasant all year round and the lagoons teem with fish. So there are a couple of very nice spots to go snorkeling, our favorites are: Muri Beach (southeast corner of the island), Fruits of Rarotonga (southwest, close to the Raina Beach Apartments) and at the Dive Center (close to southern branch of Polynesian Rental at the Rarotongan Beach Resort and Spa). Fresh fish Rarotonga is the perfect place to enjoy some fresh fish. Our favorite place was the Ocean Fresh Fish Shop. The quality is amazing and the prices too. You will find the small shop if you go clockwise, right after airport on your right hand side. Wifi Most Wifi on the island is shitty and pretty expensive. There are a couple of expensive Zenbu hotspots available, but also some Blue Sky (the local telecommunications company) hotspots. We decided to go for a Blue Sky tourist simcard. It was not more expensive than buying credit for the hotspot + we were able to go online wherever we wanted + we got free minutes to call local and international numbers. Traditional Dance Shows This probably is the most touristy thing you can do on the island. The dances are based on traditional island stories passed down through the generations. There are many places where you can combine a dinner and dance show. Some resorts will let you watch the show when you buy a drink at the bar. Scuba Diving The dive sites on the Cook Islands are considered perfect for beginner divers because the sites are close to the shore and the currents are not too strong. Hiking There are several excellent hikes around the main island of Rarotonga. The most popular trails include Papua Waterfall, Avana Valley and Raemaru Lookout. Each take around 2 hours to complete. Lagoon Cruise One of the best ways to explore the Cook Islands is by water, and a lagoon cruise in Muri is the way to go. Captain Tamas runs tours of the lagoon and might be a good choice. We did not take a tour in Rarotonga, because we knew we would take one in Aitutaki, but that company seems to have pretty good deals and good ratings on TripAdvisor. Supermarkets Before you go, note that supermarket food in Rarotonga probably is not as cheap as you are used to it. Much of it is imported and it also does not matter if you buy your groceries in one of the big supermarkets, the small shops or at a gas station. Prices do not vary much.