Rarotonga will always be your first stop in the Cook Islands, as this is the largest and most visited island in the Cooks. This is down to it being home to the Cook Islands capital Avarua, and the international airport which has direct flights from Auckland, Sydney and Los Angeles.
When we went to Rarotonga we flew direct from Auckland with Virgin Australia, and decided to spend 3 nights there before flying over to Aitutaki, and then on the return spent 1 more night on Rarotonga.
We fell in love with Rarotonga as there is lots to do, and its also a great place to relax. The locals are some of the warmest and friendliest people we have ever met. As the island is so small everyone knows everyone, and locals will wave hello to you as they pass, and even stop and offer you lifts if they see you walking along the roadside. There is also nightlife on the island if you want it, with party buses, organised bar crawls and island Nights.
Rarotonga really does have it all from paradise beaches, snorkelling and water sports, jungle treks, island nights, bars, shops and lots more on offer. Even though Rarotonga has lots going on on the island, it is by no means touristy and busy like other places around the world. It still has a very laid back Island feel to it.
As soon as you step off the plane and into the airport you get a warm welcome from a man playing the ukulele at the baggage belt, and being met with a flower lei as you walk through arrivals this is just the start of the warmth you will receive from the locals.
Kia Orana is the saying around the Cook Islands, and you will be greeted with this everywhere you go, Kia Orana means may we lead long and fulfilling lives. While in the Cook Islands try and greet the locals back with it as soon as you arrive, by the end of your trip you definitely will be as you won’t be able to help but say it after a day or 2.
Rarotonga really is an amazing place to stay and visit. In this destination guide I will be recommending places that I myself have visited and tried out, so I hope you find the below helpful.
Sights & Activities
Ariki Adventures Night Paddle Tour
Ariki Adventures is a tour operator that offer a wide range of water sports and tours. We booked onto the night time paddle board tour, which was a highlight in our trip. My husband and myself had been wanting to try paddle boarding for a while, and decided to book onto the night tour. The tour is a great for all levels of paddle boarders, they give you a quick lesson on the beach before heading out on the lagoon at sunset, the views over the lagoon are stunning at sunset. The tour also bring along their mascot dog Tama who loves to be on the paddle board and joins the tour most nights.
The paddle boards all have neon lights attached to the bottom which light up the water beneath, and with a selection of neon colours to choose from of course I decided to choose the flashing disco lights. When the sun had set we all turned off our lights on the boards and huddled near each other and laid on our boards to look at the stars, a real amazing experience I can’t recommend this enough.
Ariki Adventures offer rentals for bikes, kayaks, paddle boards etc. They also offer sea scooter tours which look amazing! We were booked onto a tour but unfortunately the weather took a turn for the worse so it wasn’t safe to go out on that day so we didn’t get chance to experience it, which was a shame as it looks amazing so if you can, try and book on the tours straight away on a clear sunny day.
Avarua is a town and district on the north of Rarotonga, and it is the Cook Islands capital. It not like any capital I have ever been to in the world, it is more or less a street with some shops, bars, restaurants and some banks.
There isn’t a great amount to do here, however there are several sights and historic buildings such as the Cook Islands Christian church which is a white washed church that was build in 1853. They hold a service at 10am every Sunday which all are welcome to attend, Cook Island church services are well known for their lively singing. Unfortunately we had a tour booked on a Sunday while in the cooks so didn’t get chance to experience a cook church service, but everyone says how energetic and welcoming they are are, if you get a chance definitely try and make a church service anywhere in the Cook Islands.
There is also the Para O Tane Palace which is where the treaty accepting the Cook Islands status as a British protectorate in 1888 was signed. Just behind the palace is the Cook Islands Museum and library which has a variety of Pacific literature and some small exhibits.
Black Rock is situated on the northwest of the island, and is a great natural sight to visit. It also hosts one of the best snorkelling spots on the island. Traditionally it is believed that spirits of the dead travel from Black Rock to the afterworld.
Koka Lagoon Cruise
There are several lagoon cruises available, after researching we decided to go with Koka Lagoon Cruises they were the same price as other operators but a percentage of all bookings made is put towards marine conservation.
The tour leaves Muri Beach on a glass bottom boat and consists of snorkelling, and a small cruise around the lagoon with lots of singing and music from the guys running it. You definitely feel like your in the South Pacific on this tour with their traditional island sounds and music, after snorkelling they provide a traditional Cook Islands lunch and BBQ on the small motu island of Koromiri which you can also swim/walk over to from Muri Beach.
After lunch they play lots of games and love to have lots of audience participation it’s abit tacky and tourist but it was so much fun, and everyone had a real laugh. My husband was even dragged up to attempt to climb up a coconut tree. The tour lasts approximately 4 hours and finished off with hermit crab racing. Koka lagoon cruises is great to do on your first day in the Cooks to get you into the island spirit.
Muri Beach is one of the most stunning places on Rarotonga with its white sand beach, and views over the aqua blue lagoon and the 4 motu Islands that surround it. The water around Muri Beach is really clear and great for snorkelling with lots of bright colourful fish. There are also tons of water sports available on Muri.
Even though Muri is one of the most popular places to visit it is still relatively peaceful and not to busy, and you can enjoy lots of peace and quiet. When staying on Rarotonga try and base yourself in or around Muri, as there are some great places to stay as well as some restaurants and Muri night Market which offers a selection of tasty food.
Food & Beverage
Ariki’s shack is also owned by the same owner who runs Ariki Adventures and Ariki Bungalows. Ariki’s shack is a great little place set along Muris main road and serves up a selection of coffee and drinks. When we went they had just started to serve bagels and jams which were perfect for breakfast, we walked down there most mornings to grab a bagel and a drink. Ariki’s shack also serves as a booking office for Ariki Adventures, and you can hire a selection of equipment here such as bikes and boards etc.
La Casita is set along the main drag in Muri, and although this place is tex-mex they offer a bit of island flare by serving up local fresh fish in their dishes and island brewed beers. They also offer some Italian dishes such as pasta and pizza. La Casita is a great place to go for comfort food if you have had a busy day out on the lagoon.
Mooring is a converted blue shipping container which serves up a selection of sandwich’s and smoothies. They use fresh local fish in their sandwiches although other fillings are available such as chicken, salad etc. We decided to go for the tuna options they were delicious and fresh!
Mooring is situated on the main road just before you come into Muri and is easy to walk up to from Muri. The alfresco dining option is a great place to sit for lunch with gorgeous views over the lagoon. Mooring isn’t open for dinner so make sure you try and make it there for a lunch.
Muri Night Market
Muri Night Market is a must when staying on Rarotonga. The market is only on Tuesday – Thursday nights and Sunday night. There’s lots of choice with lots of local dishes. The portions are huge to so make sure you go hungry, there’s some great stalls to choose from with fresh fish curries, Asian Pacific dishes, meat skewers, papaya salads, and some great slabs of deserts and cakes.
Occasionally there is also live music to playing. We loved the market so much we went a few times as the food is great, and it’s really reasonably priced too, and we tasted the best ever brownie we had there as well. Muri Night Market is a must to your Rarotonga itinerary.
We stayed at Ariki Bungalows as it was a great location just set back from Muri Beach. The accommodation was clean, comfortable and the hosts Jules and Kave were warm and welcoming. Ariki only has 3 rooms available, and a great social area/bar where guests can use the BBQ facilities, and socialise with drinks. Ariki Bungalows is also owned by the same owners Jules and Kave who run the Ariki’s Shack and Ariki Adventures.
When staying at the Bungalows you received 10% discount off tours with Ariki Adventures. The Bungalows are decorated in traditional island decor, and all have ensuites with small kitchenette and fridge. We really enjoyed staying here and was a few minutes walk down to the beach and the main road which runs through Muri is just down the driveway. Ariki Bungalows is also reasonably priced and was affordable. If your on a budget definitely check Ariki Bungalows out as you get a lot for you money here.
Transport & Getting Around
Most accommodation providers will organise or provide airport transfers for NZ$20 per person each way. If you do not organise transfers there’s several desks as you come through arrivals which offer transfer services. There is also a bus stop next to the airport however you may have to wait for the bus as the buses run clockwise and anti-clockwise around the island.
Rarotonga buses are a great way to get around the island as you can just wave them down at the side of the road. The buses run clock wise and anti clockwise. However you could wait a little while for them. We decided to go around the island while we were there and bought an all day unlimited pass and hardly used it, as we started walking between the stops instead of waiting, and as locals saw us walking would stop and offer us a lift.
Scooters & Bikes
Scooters and bikes are readily available to hire all around the island, however with scooters you need a valid motorcycle licence, alternatively you can obtain a licence for a fee and a practical exam from the police station.
Taxis are available around the island for around about NZ$3 per kilometre. Look out for the bright green cars and vans also known as the Cook Island taxi association. While we were on Rarotonga we didn’t use any taxis as found we could walk to most places whiles in Muri and only went out of Muri during one day which is when we used the bus and lifts from locals.
My top tips for the Cook Islands would be take lots of bug repellent my husband and I got eaten alive while we were. If you have snorkels and masks take them with you as lots of great snorkelling spots. My husband and I have invested in some full face snorkel masks which are great and don’t steam up, and best of all not having to breathe through a snorkel.
In the Cook Islands and around the Pacific tattoos are extremely popular and part of their history and culture. While we were in the Cook Islands I decided to get a more permanent keepsake, I wanted to get a tattoo to commemorate our trip.
On the island there is a tattooist Croc Tatau, I really wanted to go to him for a tattoo but he only offers traditional Polynesian tattoos, and I wanted a Flower or palm tree. Just down the road from Ariki Bungalows is a tattoo shop called Images of the Soul so I booked in there and got a small palm tree on the inside of my ankle. If you are also looking to get any ink while in the cooks I can highly recommend Images of the Soul tattoo shop.
In the Cook Islands internet WiFi is not readily available everywhere. The Cook Islands is so remote that they offer data packages, but it has to be bought at either the airport or one of the Bluesky sales offices. Bluesky is the main internet provider to the Cook Islands and has hotspots around the island where you can access the internet. Either go without WiFi for the duration of your trip, or purchase some data before you leave the airport.