Tropical Rarotonga. If you’re from New Zealand you probably already have a vision of this island paradise with its white sandy beaches, and water so crystal clear you have to wonder if it is there until a gentle wave brushes up against your toes. If you’re from North America, you may be about to discover a new utopia. It’s not just a tropical beach, as we discovered. There are plenty of other things to do in Rarotonga.
One of the Cook Islands, there is no question Rarotonga’s top industry is tourism. I think most visitors come here to relax at the beach, snorkel in pristine lagoons, and slow down to island time. However, there is more to this tiny island than just the beach. In fact, we found plenty of things to do in Rarotonga.
Table of contents
- 1 Where is Rarotonga?
- 2 Things to do in Rarotonga
- 2.1 Take a Bicycle Tour into the Back Roads
- 2.2 Enjoy a Nature Walk with Pa
- 2.3 Punanga Nui Outdoor Market
- 2.4 Maire Nui Gardens
- 2.5 Snorkel at Titikaveka Beach
- 2.6 Other Watersports
- 2.7 Take the Bus Around the Island
- 2.8 Enjoy Sunrise or Sunset
- 2.9 Watch for Whales
- 2.10 Check out the Sunken Ship
- 2.11 Visit a Museum
- 2.12 Visit Para O Tane Palace
- 2.13 Learn a bit about the culture
- 2.14 Cultural Things to do in Rarotonga
- 2.15 Visit the Cook Island Christian Church
- 2.16 Muri Beach Lagoon
- 2.17 Muri Night Markets
- 2.18 Cross-Island Hike to Te Rua Manga (The Needle)
- 2.19 See Papuavai Rere Waterfall
- 2.20 Stare in Wonder at the Dilapidated Sheraton
- 2.21 Take a Day Trip (or spend a week) on Aitutaki (probably the most beautiful island in the world)
- 3 Getting Around Rarotonga
- 4 Where to Eat (always one of my favourite things to do on Rarotonga)
- 5 Rarotonga Accommodation Options
- 6 Getting to Rarotonga
- 7 More Practical Information about Rarotonga
- 8 What will top your list of things to do in Rarotonga?
Where is Rarotonga?
Rarotonga is the largest of the Cook Islands which are located in the southern Pacific Ocean about halfway between Hawaii and New Zealand. Best of all, Rarotonga is offered as a stopover on Air New Zealand when flying between Los Angeles (USA) and Auckland (New Zealand), which means — for no additional airfare — you can tack on a bit of tropical paradise.
We recently spent a week on Rarotonga, and once again discovered that resort life is not really our thing. We are not good at sitting around a pool, reading a book on the beach, or basking in the sun. However, that didn’t stop us from having fun. We loved the island, especially the highlights below.
Things to do in Rarotonga
Take a Bicycle Tour into the Back Roads
As much as possible, we like to get off the beaten path and learn about daily life when we travel. We did this in Rarotonga with a Storytellers Eco-Cycle tour. Our three-hour tour took us to a vanilla plantation; to feed pigs; into fields to meet locals picking taro in a swamp; onto local farms to learn about and even sample a few crops; and even to a marae. At the beginning of our tour — after we were all fitted for the right bicycle and helmet and had a safety briefing — we were asked what we would like to see. Someone in our group knew to ask for a marae, and it was a fascinating highlight that I would recommend asking for on a tour.
Honestly, I will be the first to admit that I was a bit intimidated by the idea of a bicycle as I hadn’t been on one for almost 20 years. It turned out to be easy and natural. Now I know exactly what they mean when they say, ‘it’s like riding a bike’; it came right back to me. We opted for the Discover Tour, the shortest and easiest of the Eco-Cycle adventures offered by Storytellers. As promised, Storytellers took us off the beaten path, riding a bit and then pausing for fascinating stories, legends or to observe cultural traditions.
Our Avanti bicycles were good quality, helmets were provided, and there was even a place for our water bottles. And we ended with a local lunch.
Enjoy a Nature Walk with Pa
Pa is a healer known worldwide. He is knowledgeable, genuine, and engaging. The tour is more of natural medicine talk than a walk. Pa shares from the heart and customizes each Nature Walk to its participants. Ours began with a visit to a vanilla bean plantation, but most of the experience takes place on his own property where he grows everything except marijuana (he applied but was turned down as it’s not legal on the island).
For me, he healed an itchy spot on my back (with a very hot chilli) that has been annoying me for over a year. He also gathered, husked, and squeezed cream from the flesh of a coconut directly into my coffee. The walk is followed by a delicious lunch prepared by his wife. It’s a low energy activity that we both found captivating.
Punanga Nui Outdoor Market
The Punanga Nui Market is the place to go on a Saturday morning. Buzzing with energy, tropical fruits, crafts, and other delicacies, it’s a market best visited with an early start. Locals come for the fresh produce, while tourists enjoy tropical fruit smoothies (mine was mango based), crafts, and other Polynesian delicacies like fresh bread, coffee, pork rolls, or sugar-free coconut candy.
There is local entertainment, so it’s well worth grabbing a seat (in the shade if you can find one) and enjoying.
For me, the highlight of the market was meeting Fiona. Using her own design, she created a template and hand paints meaningful Pareu (sarongs).
Maire Nui Gardens
The seven-acre, organic Mairie Nui Gardens offered fragrant, tropical surprises around every corner. From wild ginger to lily-topped ponds, the vivid flowers and interesting tropical plant life held our interest.
Entry is by donation in an honesty box. There is also a cafe inside the gardens serving light meals and coffee.
Snorkel at Titikaveka Beach
Like snorkelling in a crystal clear aquarium, the vivid, colourful tropical fish are everywhere. It is often referred to as the best beach in Rarotonga for snorkelling. If you are taking the bus, driving, or walking along the road, Fruits of Rarotonga is the landmark to look for to find one of the best snorkelling spots. (more underwater images coming soon)
(Photo shot on an Olympus Tough TG-5)
If you prefer things a bit more organized, check out one of these options.
Take the Bus Around the Island
If you want a quick, inexpensive visual tour of the island, hop on a bus and you will discover many things to do in Rarotonga. There are two busses, one going in each direction, and they circumnavigate the island all day, leaving Avarua clockwise on the hour and anticlockwise on the half hour. You can purchase a single ride, return ride, all day pass, or 10-ride ticket.
Enjoy Sunrise or Sunset
I love watching the sun rise and set over the ocean. As we stayed on the southeast corner of the island, we saw the sunrise from our resort suite. Our favourite sunset was seen from the Rarotongan Resort.
Watch for Whales
From July to October, whales and calves can be seen breaching and in the sea of the north and west sides of the island. Twice we arrived within 20 minutes of others spotting whales, but luck wasn’t with us this trip. Perhaps next time.
Check out the Sunken Ship
Just offshore from Avarua, the tiny capital city of the Cook Islands sits the rusted wreck of the Matai, which has been there since it sank in 1916. It’s a popular spot for snorkelling depending on ocean conditions.
Visit a Museum
There are three museums on the island. The newest, Te Ara – The Cook Islands Museum of Cultural Enterprise, is in Muri Beach and tells the history of the island including migration here. It’s a small museum that took us less than an hour to go through.
The original Cook Islands Museum and Library Society is open 9 am – 1 pm (Monday-Saturday) and 4pm-7pm on Tuesdays. However, behind it is an interesting, always available vaka (Polynesian canoe) display.
We saved a visit to the National Museum for our final day, and, to our surprise, it was closed for a staff meeting.
Visit Para O Tane Palace
Called Para O Tane Palace or Palace of Makea, this building seemed almost out of place. One room was open, so we wandered in.
Learn a bit about the culture
The best way to learn about the culture is from a local. We really appreciated the storyteller that was with us on the bicycle tour, as well as Pa (Nature Walk). If you enjoy cultural shows and traditional dancing, there are different options depending on which night of the week you want to go. Also, there is a progressive dinner option on Sunday or Thursday nights that takes participants into three homes for a meal – entree, main, and dessert.
Cultural Things to do in Rarotonga
Visit the Cook Island Christian Church
A charming church dating from 1853 and made from coral, it is open to the public. If you walk around the exterior, you can find areas where the plaster has chipped away, revealing the coral underneath. Be sure to walk around the graveyard to find the tomb of the Cook Island’s first Prime Minister.
Muri Beach Lagoon
A safe, protected (by four offshore islets) swimming area and another great spot for snorkelling, Muri Beach (including Muri Lagoon) is one of the more popular resort destinations. Loaded with hotels, resorts and restaurants, everything you need is in walking distance. Unfortunately, the wind was strong and coming from the wrong direction, so we never had a chance to snorkel here.
Muri Night Markets
Be sure to allocate at least one Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday night to experience dinner at the Muri Night Markets. Here, you will find stall after stall of island foods like chicken and rice, curries, or even rib, — and the portions we were served were huge. You will not go away hungry.
Pro Tip: Go early. By 6.30, many of the stalls are running out of food, and by 7 pm, they are closing up.
Cross-Island Hike to Te Rua Manga (The Needle)
We opted to skip this hike as I just didn’t have the energy for a strenuous, four-hour hike up and over the lush green centre of the island. The trail starts on the north coast and climbs to Te Rua Manga (The Needle), a steep, bald rock that projects straight up into the air. On portions of the climb, tree roots are climbed like ladders. Stunning views greet you at the top before you head down the other side to Wigmore’s waterfall. Many of the people we met did the hike. Those in great shape reacted to it differently than those in average shape who called it challenging. Guides are recommended, although we met several people who did it in small groups on their own without incident.
See Papuavai Rere Waterfall
We opted to drive here:
Stare in Wonder at the Dilapidated Sheraton
A fascinating story and bizarre ruins that would make a fabulous set for a horror film, if they weren’t cursed. This one deserves its own story.
Take a Day Trip (or spend a week) on Aitutaki (probably the most beautiful island in the world)
While we didn’t go to Aitutaki due to the Cook Island’s weather the week we were there, we would be remiss in not including it here amongst our recommendations.
Getting Around Rarotonga
The coastal road around Rarotonga is only 32 km. The main options for getting around the island are:
- Hire a scooter. While you will need a Cook Island driver’s licence to operate a scooter, they are easy to obtain from the police station. You can even pick up the scooter first. There are occasional roadblocks checking for the licence.
- Rent a car. By day three, this is what we opted to do, and it really made our life easier. We could use our New Zealand driver’s licence.
- Take the public bus. There are two buses, one runs clockwise, the other anti-clockwise. They run hourly during the day, but only the clockwise bus runs at night. Easy to do, we took the bus around the island on our first day, as we headed to the Punanga Nui Outdoor Market.
- Bicycle. Until you head well inland, the roads are relatively flat and easy to ride.
Where to Eat (always one of my favourite things to do on Rarotonga)
Wherever you eat, you won’t go hungry. Big portions seem to be standard. Here are a few of our favourites:
- Beluga: A charming cafe in Arorangi where I enjoyed wonderful coffee and a fabulous salad. It’s the only place we ate at that didn’t charge us for filtered tap water.
- Salsa Café: Another great cup of coffee alongside a huge, fresh salad. It’s known for its all-day breakfast (although it’s only open until 3 pm during the week and 2 pm on Sat). Located in the capital, Avarau, it’s a perfect place for a quick (or slow) bite.
- Trader Jacks Bar and Grill: The iconic place to go for fish, or just to have a drink and enjoy the sunset.
- La Casita Mexican Café: Exactly as the name describes, in Muri beach. It’s a less expensive alternative to eating at the resorts.
- Spaghetti House Pizzeria & Grill: A huge, delicious portion of pasta (or lasagne in my case). Spaghetti House is located at Edgewater Resort.
- Lagoon Restaurant at Moana Sands Lagoon Resort: Dinners are a culinary masterpiece beautifully presented, delicious, although a bit pricey. One of the best meals I have had on the island.
Rarotonga Accommodation Options
Moana Sands Lagoon Resort (this is where we stayed for 7 nights)
Ideal for: Couples seeking quiet relaxation with beautiful ocean views in a new accommodation with large units and very comfortable beds.
Not so great if: you don’t have a vehicle or if you want easy beach access. The resort’s beach is filled with coral and it is recommended that surf shoes are worn. Also, at over $400 per night, I was surprised that our shampoo and other near emptied toiletries items were not replaced.
The Rarotongan Beach Resort (one of the oldest of the Rarotonga resorts)
Ideal for: Families, or anyone who likes larger resorts, tons of activities, and easy access to white sandy beaches. Also, there is an adults-only Sanctuary option.
Not so great for: The rooms are a bit dated but fine. However, it is where I hope to stay on my next visit to Rarotonga.
Anywhere on Muri Beach
Ideal for: Anyone who wants to be near crystal clear waters, wants lots of restaurant options but doesn’t want to have to go far for them.
Anywhere Else on the Island
Honestly, this is an island aimed at tourism. The Rarotonga accommodations are as varied as in a major city anywhere in the world. They range from secluded to popular, from hostel to luxury, and from family-friendly to adults only. There is something for everyone.
Getting to Rarotonga
Air New Zealand offers non-stop flights to Rarotonga daily from Auckland and nonstop weekly from Los Angeles. The flight from Los Angeles to Rarotonga is on Sunday night, while the return (Raro to LAX) is on Friday night. And, in case you missed it above, Air New Zealand offers Rarotonga as a stopover when flying from Los Angeles to Auckland, which means for no additional airfare you can tack on a bit of tropical paradise. You can check for flights on the Skyscanner app or we use CheapFlights to find the best deals.
More Practical Information about Rarotonga
- Rarotonga climate is tropical; it’s an island paradise in the South Pacific that can be circumnavigated in just 32 km (20 miles).
- The population is estimated to be between 9,000 and 12,000. Our hotel’s driver estimated that there are about 100,000 visitors annually. Tourism is the largest industry on the islands.
- There are no traffic lights and only two roundabouts on the island. According to our driver, they are referred to as ‘the roundabout’, and ‘the other roundabout.’
- Get a car or a scooter.
- Drink only filtered water, which is what you find at restaurants and hotels.
- Be prepared to pay for filtered tap water in restaurants (a personal pet peeve). We saw prices ranging from $1 for a glass to $4.50 for a bottle of tap water.
- If walking where there is coral on the beach, be sure to wear reef shoes (ours were provided by the hotel).
- Bring a torch (flashlight) if you plan to walk at night, as the streets are dark.
- If it’s too windy, go to the other side of the island.
- If you don’t want a vehicle, there are two busses, one runs clockwise, the other anti-clockwise around the island. You can purchase a single ride ($5), return ticket ($8), all day pass ($16), or ten-ride ticket ($30) that can be shared.
- Make bookings for dinner. Many of the restaurants fill up.
- It is not customary to tip at Rarotonga hotels or restaurants.
- Island exports include only noni, vanilla, black pearls, yellowfin tuna and people (according to our Storytellers Eco-Cycle tour).
- The indigenous people are Cook Island Māori.
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What will top your list of things to do in Rarotonga?
Disclaimer: We worked with the Cook Islands Tourism Corporation. We were provided with complimentary entrances, tours and sample items to assist in the writing of this review. The opinions expressed here are strictly our own.