Rarotonga: The jewel of the Cook Islands

Viamaaga, Rarotonga, Cook Islands.  Photo: Robert Linsdell

The Cook Islands are made up of 15 islands, and is home to some of the most beautiful lagoons. With the population just under 20,000, the Cook Islands make for a great getaway.  However, most travelers make their first stop in the region on the most populated island—Rarotonga.  Rarotonga has a population just under 14,000 and it offers some of the regions best resorts, palm-studded beaches, restaurants, nightlife and adventure activities.  This island has received lots of media attention over the years including the CBS show Survivor which set one of it’s reality-based seasons there.  The musical group, The Finn Brothers, featured the island in their hit song “Kiss the Road of Rarotonga” on their 1995 album.  

Where to stay

No matter how much you're looking to spend for accommodations, location is the key to your wallet.  There are a number of pricing options for all budgets on Rarotonga but the challenge is finding a stretch of beach that isn't too crowded.  One of the more pricier resorts on the island is Te Vakaroa Villas. The small gated property is perched right on Muri Lagoon and has tastefully furnished one-bedroom villas for $530/night. Two-bedroom villas are also available but this is definitely not a family destination (kids under 12 aren't invited to the party).  The largest resort on the island, The Edwater Resort & Spa, welcomes families with a number of villa and hotel rates and special events.  At Edgewater a one-bed studio starts at $160/night while the VIP deluxe suite will run $320/night.  With 280 rooms The Edgewater is not the most intimate accommodation on the island, but it is conveniently close to some great diving sites for scuba enthusiasts.  If all you need in life is a place to rest your head then make a beeline for Town House Backpackers. It may not be flash but it's a lot more comfortable than sleeping under the stars in a tropical climate. Beds in shared accommodation rooms start from $25/night and family cottages can house four people for $105/night.  

What to do

Diving Black Rock in Rarotongo. Photo:  Ron Caswell

Swimming, snorkelling and kayaking are almost mandatory for the tropical island scene. Of course, the ocean provides unlimited activities from sports fishing to scuba diving.  There are also plenty of zip-lining and adventure tour operators to keep you busy.   Feeling extra adventurous?  Many laid-back locals get a thrill from gathering at the sea wall that skirts the end of the airport’s runway to experience being "jetblasted" by incoming planes.  Talk about a unique local activity. If jetblasting is not up your alley, don't worry because Raratonga is not lacking for things to do.

Cultural tours

There are a number of cultural centers throughout the Cook Islands but the Te Vara Nui Village on Rarotongo is most prominent.  The local Maori people greet guests and share their stories, knowledge and heritage during a Cultural Village Tour.  Following a delicious Umu buffet, Rarotonga’s finest dancers and musicians perform by flaming torchlight on a floating stage of the waterfall garden.  The stunning show reflects the experience of the village and delivers an authentic cultural performance. 

Another cultural experience can be found at the "Drums of our Forefathers" show at Highland Paradise Cultural Center.  Sometimes known as "the lost village", Highland Paradise is a mountain village refuge that lay forgotten for 150 years.  Today, Highland Paradise boasts 25 developed acres of magnificent gardens and views where the echo of drumming , singing, dancing , story telling and umu feasts are experienced as they were more than 600 years ago.  Performances on Wednesday and Friday nights include transport, dinner and a show that is priced around $60 per adult and $38 for kids under 12.

Alternately, a taste of modern Cooks' culture can be enjoyed in a Sunday Mass at the Cook Islands Christian Church. The service is an acappella version of the gospel church ceremonies popular in parts of the United States, with fabulous harmonising and devout droning. A sight to behold and experience in a respectful manner.

Shopping

Punangani Market.  Photo:  Christina Spicuzza

 Shopping can be roughly divided into two categories: souvenirs and black pearls. If holiday souvenirs are on the shopping list then the Punanganui Markets on Saturday mornings in Avarua are a must visit place. A strong tourist population is mixed with locals who are out taking care of their weekly grocery shop.  The mix offers a great vibe but tourists should expect to enjoy great bargains but also be on the look out for dishonest vendors.  ATMs and credit facilities are scarce so it is important to have plenty of cash before going on a shopping spree.  Also, haggling is frowned upon and the "shopping sport" is considered rude behavior.

The coveted black pearl comes mainly from Manihiki in the northern group of the Cook Islands.  The black pearls is the second largest contributor to the Cook Islands economy behind tourism so there are a number of reputable vendors.  Nonetheless, it pays to be careful so the following tips can help ensure an enjoyable purchase of the gem:

  • Pearls are graded based on shape, size, imperfections and lustre
  • Fakes are very common; always ask for certification
  • Don't buy pearls after 5pm or on cloudy days (you need the sunlight to see the lustre properly)
  • If a deal seems too good to be true, it probably is. $5 pearls should have your alarm bells ringing

The outer islands

Traveling between islands can be expensive (one-way inter-island flights on Air Rarotonga are anywhere from $76 to $187 depending on the day of departure), but the outer islands hold some of the Cooks' greatest treasures and are definitely worth a visit.

About the Author

Tonya Fitzpatrick is a “recovering attorney” who shares a life full of adventure, dark chocolate and champagne with her husband and business partner, Ian.   She has a deep love for animals and would be happy owning a zoo if she weren’t traveling.