Cook Islands : Travel Guide to Rarotonga

If you didn’t know already, I have a severe case of island obsession and it is my goal to travel the world one island at a time :). The Cook Islands had been on my bucket list since forever. And when the opportunity arose to visit it, I had to pinch myself to believe it! Anush and I were honored to partner up with Cook Islands Tourism to experience the islands for ourselves for a week. And safe to say – we are SO in love with it, we cannot wait to go back. Having travelled so much, I can easily say this was one of the most beautiful places we have ever seen in our lives. Untouched, raw and utterly gorgeous – I am so beyond grateful I had the chance to visit this South Pacific gem!

Why the Cook Islands ?

Don’t we all #lovealittleparadise? If you are looking for an untouched tropical paradise that is totally not commercialized, has very less tourists and still has its authentic traditional charm – the Cook Islands are for you! Most people who I told I was going to the Cook Islands had no idea where it was! Do you :)? The Cook Islands is an archipelago nation of 15 islands in the South Pacific region, between Tahiti and Fiji. Having been to Fiji and Hawaii, I can assure you that the Cook Islands are what you would imagine Hawaii/Fiji was 20-30 years ago – not commercialized, way less crowded and most importantly – so much more affordable! We visited two islands on this trip – Rarotonga and Aitutaki. Each island is beautiful and diverse in its own way so I have split my travel guides into two posts to keep it separate and give you as much as info as possible.

How to get to the Cook Islands ?

The Cook Islands are surprisingly more accessible than you think. If you are live in Australia or New Zealand, chances are you already know of the Cook Islands. There are tons of easy direct flights from Aussie and NZ to the Cooks.

Air New Zealand Premium Economy – so much space!

But if you live in the US Did you know that Air New Zealand operates a direct nonstop flight from LA to Rarotonga once a week?! The 9.5 hour overnight flight is a super easy connection as it leaves in the night from LA and arrives early morning in Rarotonga. So literally you can get a good night’s sleep and wake up fresh in paradise. The other good thing is the Cook Islands are just 3 hours behind the US (PST), same time zone as Hawaii but in the Southern Hemisphere – so chances of jet lag are none to minimal. This way you can make the most of your vacay time from start to finish. They also have a great deal going on now for $698 only RT from LAX to Rarotonga!! (if you book it before June 17th for the specific travel dates mentioned)

We had a chance to fly in the Premium Economy cabin in Air New Zealand. We never get to fly premium for long haul flights so this was such a treat. We were so happy with the excellent service, all the legroom, gourmet food options and of course the entertainment.

Muri Lagoon

Best Time to Visit the Cook Islands ?

The best time to visit is June – Aug which is the dry and cooler season. Dec – April is the hotter and wetter months, so there are chances of more rain. But since its a tropical place there really is no bad time weather-wise to visit the Cook Islands, although the shoulder months of April, May, September, and October usually provide the best combination of both sunshine, warmth and lower prices :). My best travel tip for timing – we always try and visit a destination just at the “end of the shoulder season and beginning of the peak season” . So for the Cook Islands we chose end May to early June and we were blessed with fantastic weather for the most part of our trip!

Intro to Rarotonga :

Rarotonga is like one big resort. It is the main island of the Cook Islands and the one with the International Airport. It is the beating heart of the Cooks with so much to see and do. And despite being the main hub it remains unspoilt with no traffic lights, no McDonald’s and no building taller than a coconut tree!

Cook Islands Museum of Cultural Enterprise

How to get around in Rarotonga + Staying Connected : 

This island has a ton to do the easiest way to get around in Rarotonga is to rent a car! The island has one main road that loops around it (takes just 45 min!) so its super easy to navigate. But keep in mind – you drive on the left side of the road. We rented a car from Polynesian Car rentals, they have several options all around the island including one at the airport. They also have scooters for rent which are a great option. The only reason we didn’t do that is we usually drove out all day and didn’t want to get caught in the rare case it rained.

Another option is the local bus – there are ones running clockwise and anticlockwise too.

Also a quick tip on how to stay connected while on the islands. The best way to stay connected is to buy a Bluesky prepaid wifi card. There are BlueSky Teleshops in Avarua and Muri Beach in Rarotonga and on Aitutaki island as well that all offer internet access and sell prepaid wi-fi access which can be used at hotspots around the islands. Many convenience stores and hotel front desks also sell these cards.

Where to stay in Rarotonga ?

There are many regions in Rarotonga that have beautiful resorts, hotels and villas to stay. My favorite part of Raro was the Muri district – it was right by the most beautiful beach of the island (Muri Lagoon), close to cafes/restaurants close by and also convenient to drive to other parts of the island. We chose to stay at the beautiful Muri Beach Club Hotel located right on the shores of the Muri Lagoon, read all about our stay in this blog post here.

Other options around Rarotonga – check out this page here.

Things to do in Rarotonga :

1 ) Koka Lagoon Cruise :

A must do while on Rarotonga is a Muri Lagoon Cruise and I highly recommend the Koka Lagoon Cruise for this. The tour is informative, educational and most important so fun for all age groups. It consists of snorkeling in the lagoon or enjoying it through the glass bottom, non-stop entertainment with the crew playing the ukulele, singing, pareo tying, dancing, coconut husking and more. The tour also includes a delicious local bbq lunch on the nearby motu(island) in Muri and some beach time as well. Here are some pics from our lagoon cruise :

Along the cruise – views of blues for days!

Docked at a nearby Motu for lunch and beachtime

2 ) Beach hopping

Raro has tons of beautiful beaches to visit! They are all conveniently located along the main road that circles around the island, so you can literally hop from one to another with ease. The best part is it is so easy to find your own little slice of paradise. We never found any beach to be crowded at all, despite it being the onset of high season. Infact every beach kinda felt like our own little private beach. Some of my fave ones that we visited are :

  • Muri Lagoon : My personal fave, our hotel was right on it. The Muri beach is 2km long and the lagoon has perfectly calm swimmable waters and during low tide you can even walk across , swim or kayak to 4 motus/islets of the lagoon!

 

We were literally the only ones on the beach!

suit : Acacia c/o Society Bikini

 

  • Aroa beach : My second personal fave! Both of us loved Aroa beach. Beautiful crystal clear waters with the most azure shades of blue I have seen in Rarotonga.

 

  • Black rock beach: Located on the west side of the island, this is undoubtedly the best place to catch the sunset on the island. There isn’t a clear beach access, so we walked down to the beach by carefully climbing down all the rocks. But whether you choose to do that or stay atop the cliff, you are guaranteed a spectacular sunset show !

 

I must note that the one thing that pleasantly surprised me about Raro (something I had NO idea about before) was all the island dogs! You go to any beach or actually anywhere on the island and you will see them. The island has tons of free roaming island dogs that are a huge part of the daily island scene and its like the community owns them. They are all extremely friendly and surprisingly all very well behaved. It was such a delight to hang with these fellow four legged sandy bums on the beach; watching them frolic in the sand and even wander into the shallow lagoon to fish. If you saw my stories you saw that I made plenty of doggo friends all through the island; it’s certainly a memory I would cherish for life.

Look at his face! OMG – heartmelt :).

 

3 ) Raro Mountain Safari Cruise :

Most people go to Rarotonga and just stick to the outer road and don’t explore the inner parts of the island. Half the beauty is in the interior of this island! We took the road less travelled with Raro Mountain Safari Cruise that offer the best organized tour to show you the beauty of the inlands of Rarotonga. They take you to the mountains and valleys of Rarotonga where the normal tourist traffic can’t get to! My fave part was the view point of the Te Rua Manga or the Needle of Rarotonga.

Quaint backroads of the island – so lush and peaceful!

View of Te Rua Manga (the needle) in the pic below

 

4 ) Wigmores waterfall :

An easy short hike from the mainroad to see the only waterfall in all of Raro!

5 ) Check out the backroads :

While the main road that circles around the island does have incredible ocean views all around we also loved stepping away and exploring the old back roads. It was like stepping into a whole other world – every turn was a surprise and we enjoyed the rich history and quaint village vibe all around. It truly revealed the heart and soul of this tiny South Pacific island.

Exploring the backroads and loving how peaceful it was! The most authentic South Pacific island vibes.

 

6 ) Maire Nui Botanical Gardens :

We went in the late afternoon and were the only ones in there among all the exotic tropical flowers and plants, one word to describe how we felt here – blissful!

 

The next 3 things to do is something we didnt have time for but were highly recommended by people around as well as the tourism board so I am listing it out here :

7 ) Cross Island Trek :

Hike Rarotonga and learn about the flora and fauna on Pa’s Cross-Island Trek that takes you to the Needle! You are guaranteed a challenging hike with epic views.

8 ) Punangi Nui Market :

A must do if you are on the island on a Saturday! Fresh fruit, veggies and fish, island food, live and recorded island music, clothing, handicrafts, jewelry, art works, pastries, just about everything is available at this Cultural Market. Timings are 8am – 2pm.

9 ) Te Vara Nui Cultural Show :

The spectacular cultural over-water show with fire dancers and a bountiful buffet dinner. We did an island cultural night in Aitutaki so passed on doing one on Raro.

For other things to do – check out this page here for more fun options.

 

Where to eat in Rarotonga :

Omg, I can’t even begin to tell you how amazing the food was on our entire trip to the Cook Islands. Right from local shacks to small places to sit down restaurants – everything was superb! There are several gourmet restaurants, great cheap places to eat at the markets and did I mention the fresh tropical fruit is SOO good! While on the islands, you must try different types of Coconut, other local dishes such as – Ika mata (marinated raw fish), poke, goat curry and more! A great way to try several of these local dishes in one place is at an island night buffet.

1 ) Muri Night Market :

A must do on Raro, so I am listing this out as no 1! Happens Tue, wed, thurs and sat from 5-8pm. Think of this like a “Smorgasburg” of the islands! Muri Night Market is an island food market with local vendors, offering uniquely Rarotongan style food and culture. The experience is fantastic – right from walking around the different vendors, deciding what to get (lol good luck with that cos fair warning – you will want everything!), dining with fellow tourists (and doggos :)) in the family style benches and free local entertainment – it is an island night you do not want to miss.  My fave thing I tried here was the chicken curry and the passionfruit coconut cheesecake – holy yum!

Delicious chicken curry and rice + a mango passionfruit smoothie!

Spoilt for choice if you have a sweet tooth like me!

2 ) Kai Pizza :

Literally drooling as I type this and recall the delicious pizza we had here! Get the tropical chicken – it has chicken curry, mango, cream cheese, onions – need I say more?!

3 ) Vaianas on the beach :

Toes in the sand kinda casual dining – loved the Ika Mata here.

4 ) Cafe Beluga

A chance stumble upon and Im so glad we went here! Its very close to Aroa Beach in the Arorangi district. The food here is excellent and the atmosphere is so chill. Loved the vibe of this place all around.

4 ) Best seafood :

Couldn’t visit either of these but it was on my list for best seafood- Mooring fish cafe and Charlies(known for their epic fish sandwiches)

5 ) Hula Bar :

Fun little bar super close to the airport, perfect place to catch a meal/drink before a flight.

6 ) Pacific Resort Rarotonga :

Hopped on over next door to this resort for dinner on one of the nights, great for a special occasion.

7 ) Coffee shops/cafes on the island that are good :

Le Bon Vivant and coco latte

8 ) Burger joints to try :

Try amazing Vilis Burger or Palace Takeaways.

9 ) Dessert options :

For delicious desert waffles try The Waffle Shack .

Craving Ice cream? Many places serve Tip Top ice cream from New Zealand! We found this one in Kavera Central in the Arorangi district. We got caught in the rain so ice cream was the perfect pitstop!

Try the passionfruit! so yummy :)!

Other food options in this page here.

 

Get Inspired to Visit Rarotonga :

Most secluded untouched beaches !

Raro is SO green wow ! If you go inland , you will fall in love with how lush this island is.

Always stopping for a fun photo opp! I mean this island mural though :); its right at the turn to Wigmores Falls FYI.

Best way to stay hydrated! Fresh coconuts everywhere 🙂

Picnic tables near Titikaveka Beach

Do not miss out on wearing a beautiful “Ei Katu” Floral crown!

The local women wear them and I was so in love with how they embraced their culture.

You can always ask your hotel to order you one or pick up one at Punanga Nui Market.

Picture perfect photo opps along the main road around the island.

 I miss my doggo friends from Raro as much as I miss the beaches! Always made friends with them everywhere we went :).

Hope this guide helped you! Click here for my Aitutaki travel guide.

Leaving you with a short recap video :

Thanks for stopping by! xoxo

Jyo

 

** This trip was in partnership with the Cook Islands Tourism North America, Air Rarotonga and Air New Zealand but all thoughts and opinions are my own. 

 

 

 

 

 

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