Tropical Rarotonga is 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. New Zealanders treasure it as a holiday paradise with non-stop flights. If you don’t know it yet, you may be about to discover a new South Pacific utopia and all of the unique things to do in Rarotonga.
One of the Cook Islands, there is no question that Rarotonga’s top industry is tourism. Many visitors choose it for relaxing at the beach, snorkelling in pristine lagoons, and slowing down to island time. Others hike through the lush jungle.
However you spend your time here, you will quickly find more things to do in Rarotonga than you imagined.
Things to do in Rarotonga
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Explore Rarotonga with us
The largest of the Cook Islands, Rarotonga isn’t that big. In fact, the Ring Road that circumnavigates the island is only 32 km (20 miles) long. This pristine island is located in the Southern Ocean about halfway between New Zealand and Hawaii.
Things to do in Rarotonga: adventure
We like to learn about daily life, have a few adventures, relax, and discover new culinary delights when we travel. Rarotonga is no exception.
Take a bicycle tour onto the back roads
A cycling tour is one of the most enjoyable ways to enjoy the island. Above all, our three-hour tour with Storytellers Eco-Cycle took us off of the beaten path and on a fascinating adventure. It included frequent stops to learn, discover, sample, or try. More specifically, we visited a vanilla plantation, fed pigs, meet locals picking taro in a swamp, sampled crops from local farms, and observed a marae.
First, even before we set out, the group was asked what we would like to see. A member of our group knew to ask for a marae, and it was a highlight that I would recommend you ask for too.
Prior to the tour, we hadn’t been on bicycles in years. As a result, we opted for the Discover Tour, the shortest and easiest of the Eco-Cycle adventures offered by Storytellers.
Our Avanti bicycles were good quality, helmets were provided, and there was even a place for our water bottles. Finally, we ended with a local lunch. Check options and reserve your Storytellers Eco Cycle Tour here
Cross-island hike to Te Rua Manga (The Needle)
Popular amongst energetic visitors, 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.
It’s been described as fabulous by those in great shape and as challenging by others. On portions of the climb, tree roots are climbed like ladders. Stunning views greet those who climb to the top before they head down the other side to Wigmore’s waterfall. Guides are recommended, although we met a small group of people who did it together without incident.
Things to do in Rarotonga: nature discovery
Enjoy a nature walk with Pa
(Not currently available as Pa retired)
Pa is a healer known worldwide. He is knowledgeable, genuine, and engaging. He leads a daily nature walk; although, to be honest, our tour was more of natural medicine talk than a walk. Pa shares from the heart and customizes each nature walk to its participants.
A vanilla bean plantation was our first stop, but most of the experience took place on Pa’s property, where he grows everything he needs. Before our tour ended, we were treated to a lovely homemade lunch followed by coffee. Rather than milk, Pa gathered, husked, and squeezed fresh coconut cream directly into my coffee. Overall, the tour was a low-energy activity that we both found captivating.
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 into an honesty box. There is also a cafe inside the gardens that serves light meals and coffee.
See Papuavai Rere Waterfall
We opted to drive here rather than hike.
What to do in Rarotonga: beaches and watersports
Rarotonga is surrounded by a reef. As a result, there are protected beaches, calm and warm water, and an abundance of marine life.
Snorkel at Titikaveka Beach
Titikaveka is often referred to as the best beach in Rarotonga for snorkelling. That is to say, it’s like snorkelling in a crystal clear aquarium, surrounded by vivid, colourful tropical fish. 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. (See more of our underwater images here.)
Muri Beach Lagoon
A safe and 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.
From July to October, whales and calves can be seen breaching in the sea off of the north and west coasts of the island. Twice, we arrived within 20 minutes of other people spotting whales, but luck wasn’t with us this trip.
If you prefer things a bit more organized, check out one of these options.
|Muri Lagoon BBQ Lunch Cruise including Snorkelling||Glass bottom boat cruise with time to snorkel|
Starts in Avarua and goes to Muri
Hotel pick up and drop off
|Turtle Sea Scooter Safari||Guided snorkelling to swim with sea turtles|
Use sea scooter underwater propulsion
Optional wetsuit hire
Check out the sunken ship
Just offshore from Avarua, the 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 or canoes depending on ocean conditions.
Things to do in Rarotonga: cultural discovery and daily life
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. Plus, there is local entertainment, so it’s well worth grabbing a seat.
For me, the highlight of the market was meeting Fiona, who hand-paints meaningful Pareu (sarongs). Her design below is based around the sun (life) and the flowers (happiness of the Rarotongan people). Radiating outwards, the images represent the journey as people travel around the world, followed by a pattern reminding locals that they always bring a part of themselves when they travel. Yes, I did purchase it.
Learn a bit about the culture
We believe that the best way to learn about a culture is from a local. We really appreciated the storyteller that was with us on the bicycle tour, as well as Pa’s nature walk.
If you enjoy cultural shows, 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 features a three-course meal with each course in a different local home. It is one of the more popular Rarotonga activities, made even more fun with local hospitality and live music.
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 explore the graveyard to find the tomb of the Cook Island’s first Prime Minister. If you can, partake in a Sunday morning service, here or at a different church on the island.
Things to do in Rarotonga: museums and other indoor activities
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. 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 9am – 1pm (Monday-Saturday) and 4-7pm Tuesday evenings. However, behind the museum 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.
Explore Para O Tane Palace
Also called the Palace of Makea, this building seemed almost out of place. One room was open, so we wandered in.
More of what to do in Rarotonga
Take the public 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 bus routes, one going in each direction, and they circumnavigate the island all day, leaving Avarua clockwise on the hour and anticlockwise on the half-hour.
Stare in wonder at the dilapidated Sheraton resort
A fascinating story and bizarre ruins that would make a fabulous setting for a horror film if they weren’t cursed. This one deserves its own story.
Enjoy sunrise or sunset
Intense colours make the sunrise and sunset over the ocean some of the best in the world. As we stayed on the southeast corner of the island, we saw the sunrise from our resort. However, our favourite sunset was seen from the Rarotongan Resort.
Nearby things to do in Rarotonga
Take a day trip (or spend a week) on Aitutaki
While we didn’t go to Aitutaki due to Cook Island’s weather the week we were there, we would be remiss in not including it here among our recommendations. Considered one of the world’s most beautiful islands, it’s only a 45-minute flight from Rarotonga.
Once on the island, head to the lagoon that has made it so famous. Crystal clear, sparkling turquoise water, white sand, and huge palm trees are featured in every lagoon photo I have seen.
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. A few tips:
- Drink only filtered water, which is what you find at restaurants and hotels.
- Be prepared to pay for filtered tap water in restaurants. We saw prices ranging from $1 for a glass to $4.50 for a bottle of tap water.
- Make bookings for dinner. Many of the restaurants fill up.
- It is not customary to tip at Rarotonga hotels or restaurants.
Muri night market
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 stalls presenting every fashion of island foods, including chicken and rice, curries, or ribs.
Pro Tip: Go early as it starts at about 5 pm. By 6.30, many of the stalls are running out of food, and by 7 pm, they are closing up.
Our favourite cafés on Rarotonga
- 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.
Our favourite restaurants on Rarotonga
- 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 (temporarily closed): 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 and delicious, although a bit pricey. One of the best meals I had on the island.
Check out this Rarotogona Travel Guide for our recommendations on where to stay on the island.
General information about Rarotonga
- Rarotonga’s climate is tropical; as a result, it’s an island paradise.
- The Cook Islands is a self-governing country in free association with New Zealand. Consequently, Cook Islanders have New Zealand citizenship.
- The indigenous people are Cook Island Māori.
- The population is estimated to be between 9,000 and 20,000. Our hotel’s driver estimated that there are about 100,000 visitors annually.
- Tourism is the largest industry on the islands.
- Rarotonga is a stopover option from Air New Zealand when flying between Los Angeles (USA) and Auckland (New Zealand). We took advantage of this opportunity and stayed a week on the island for no additional airfare.
- Wear reef shoes if there is coral on the beach.
- Bring a torch (flashlight) if you plan to walk at night, as the streets are dark.
- Island exports include only noni, vanilla, black pearls, yellowfin tuna, and people (according to our Storytellers Eco-Cycle tour).
Save on your trip with these resources
We use these aggregator companies to save time and money. They do the work for us by providing a list of options, prices, and reviews for anywhere we are travelling worldwide. Plus, we have personally had positive customer service experiences with all of them:
- Flights: we use Expedia for the best and cheapest flight options.
- Hotels: we use Booking.com as they consistently return the best rates and their reviews are from actual guests. However, for self-contained lodging, use VRBO
- Cars: we use RentalCars to find the best deals and dealer ratings.
- Private guides: we often hire private guides from Tours by Locals
- Travel Insurance: we start at InsureMyTrip as they are the best option to compare plans and find the right coverage for you.
Before you book the rest of your trip: Check out our travel resources page for more companies that we use when you travel.
We believe this list to be the best in each category. You can’t go wrong using them on your trip too.
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What will top your list of things to do in Rarotonga?
Disclaimer: We worked with the Cook Islands Tourism Corporation. They provided complimentary entrances, tours, and sample items to assist in the writing of this review. The opinions expressed here are strictly our own.
I’d never heard of Rarotonga but really looks dreamy
Aitutaki looks great! And the sunsets there are wonderful!
Goodness Rarotonga looks fantastic! I have to admit, if we visited, I would not be able to resist hiking to the Te Rua Manga (The Needle) that hikes looks epic!!
I have not heard specifically of Rarotonga before, but it sounds like a lush paradise filled with culture! And amazing snorkeling is a great bonus. Seems like a really fun place, and I love that it can be a stopover!
Wow! I have a new bucket list destination.
There looks like there is so much to see. What a great place to visit.
I am about to visit the Cook Islands for the 4th time.
I have travelled the world extensively over the last 40yrs but my heart always longs to go back to the Cook Islands.
It looks like there are so many things to do here! The landscapes and nature look amazing from your photos! And how cool is that to be able to meet a healer?! Thanks for all the tips!
A good blog of the islands that we lovce so much so that we are coming over for our 5th visit shortly. We have also visited Aitutaki and went on the Vaka which we will be doing for our 4th time, this time with our daughter,her husband and toddler in tow. It is our wedding present to them (all expenses paid) to show them why we love Raro and the people, not to mention the delicious food to be had. Hope that it will rub off on them and they return again. There are a multitude of things that we have done in our years there and it is trully heaven on earth.
28 happy hours- lol
Tanja/The Red Phone Box travels
such pristine nature
As always, you have a great comprehensive guide and beautiful photos to go along with it! The sunset looks absolutely gorgeous. Would love to see it in person!
Rarotonga looks spectacular. I love your tip about the layover there. What a great way to enjoy a tropical island without paying an arm and a leg. It seems like I will need more than just a few hours there though, I wonder if I can get a three or four day layover?
Rarotonga looks so beautiful and seems like there is just so much to do and experience. A few things really stood out for me and I would love to explore them such as Cross-Island Hike to Te Rua Manga, the Sunken Ship and watch the beautiful sunset or sunrise. The local entertainment seems fun and its great to interact the with the local community where ever one gets a chance! Appreciate the detailed guide here and thank you for adding a place on our bucket list.
Resort life is not for me either- so I’d love to enjoy some of the activities you listed! A Nature Walk with Pa, followed by a lunch prepared by his wife would be one of them. Visiting the market as well- that’s where I can feel the beat of the place. I would also take a day to hike the Te Rua Manga. Thanks for the inspo, I’m going to research Rarotonga a bit more. 🙂
Hi Rhonda – that looks amazing … loved seeing the options – and the photos of what you saw … I’d definitely stop over … sounds too good to be true – lovely – cheers Hilary
Tons of interesting stuff to do in Rarotonga. I particularly like the landscape and natural settings. The dose of culture also works well for me..what a lovely insight into local life.
Thanks for the info. we’re going in dec 2019. teen kids joining us a week later.sounds like a great adventure for all of us.
So interesting that for arguably the most famous of the Cook Islands, Captain James Cook never came within eyeshot of Rarotonga. Sounds like such an amazing adventure to visit and tour around the island and enjoy its beaches, water and culture. From the way you described it, taking a tour with Pa is a must!!!
What a lovely island this is. What more can you ask for? beautiful beach, clear blue water, and a place to relax in a hammock.
We don’t like places which are known just for the beaches. But this place look awesome with its various offerings along with the beach. Added to our wishlist.
Wow! There is so much to do there. I love the markets, they sound really fun. I’m also on board for any kind of garden. The museums look neat too. Thanks for sharing all of these great activities.
We went to Auckland last year. Didn’t have the time to see other NZ destinations. And Rarotonga is one of the most talked about!
Jenn and Ed Coleman
I love the bike tour. It seems like such an intimate way to see the island. I also love outrigger canoeing. When we lived in San Diego, we used to race competitively. Taking a sunset run like this would be simply incredible. I am not sure what this particular team is doing with seat 4 out of time and everybody paddling against the ama (outrigger) but they are probably practicing. You have to be perfectly in sync if everybody is paddling on the same side and not lean if you’re paddling on the right side of the canoe. We always wanted to visit the Cook Islands but it seemed like an expensive detour. Interesting that you can use it as an layover. That is going into the trip planning vault.
Love the idea of the free stopover! Great idea! Looks like there is a lot to do and although we do like a few days by a pool with a book we also have to be up and about a lot too! Cook Islands now on my radar thank you!
Yes, the stopover made it a great deal for us.
A new utopia indeed! I like the sound of a layover here for no additional cost! Is there a limit to how long you can stay for a “layover”? I’m not much of a resort person either! I like to get out and explore and damn near died when I went on my only trip with my father to Puerta Vallarta for a week and never left the hotel!
New Zealand citizens can stay as long as they want. I would have to get out of the hotel (and resort) after only a couple of days as I’d get ‘cabin fever’.
Goodness New Zealand is a place I’m dying to visit (along with Australia)!! Rarotonga is beautiful although it’s difficult for white beaches most anywhere else (save the Caribbean) to impress me since I’m from Alabama where we have very large sugar white sand beaches without rocks. However, that said, I have been really impressed with what I’ve seen from the Cook Islands and your Rarotonga photos are beautiful. Good to know that it is a stopover option too. I love Fiona’s handprinted sarongs, they are gorgeous! Also, snorkeling at Titkaveka Beach would most definitely happen along with watching the sunset and visiting the Cook Island Christian Church. Based on your photos, I think I would choose to stay in the Rarotongan Beach Resort, holy cow!!
I think I would stay at the Rarotongan next time as well. Those beaches in Alabama sure sound nice.
Wow Rhonda, your suite at Moana Sands Lagoon Resort in Rarotonga, Cook Islands is quite a room. I was very impressed with the entire location. It was quite amazing. See ya.
The hotel had only been open for several months so the rooms and grounds were fresh and clean.
Taking a bus tour around the island would be so fun to get to see so many different aspects. It looks like such a dreamy spot to travel to.
The public bus allowed me to get a good look at a lot of the island.
What a beautiful area! So much to do. The snorkeling looks amazing! I would also love to do some hiking and visit that market.
The snorkelling was great. The fish did not seem to mind my presence. The fish approached closer than I expected.
This would be the equivalent of stopping in Iceland travelling between the States and Europe? I have not been further than Hong Kong but at some stage would love to travel to Australia and New Zealand. Thanks for the heads up for the tropical island we can throw in for free. Great post, well written and photographed!
I can see that. The free stopover in an interesting place is a real bonus.
Wow, there’s so much to do. I like the idea of climbing the tree root ladders! Although, as it’s absolutely pouring with rain here in England today I would love to just head straight to the beach!
The cross-island trek is a challenge according to other people I have talked to.
Dana Howard Freeman
Absolutely love the idea of a bike tour!
It was a highlight of our time in Rarotonga.
I am going to keep in mind the fact that this is a free stopover. Perfect place to relax after a busy trip 🙂
I didn’t know it was a free stopover as I wanted to break up my long-haul to the US. The lower price of the stopover fare was an added bonus.
Oh, I think I’d like all of the activities you’re describing. I am putting Rarotonga on my list, it looks mesmerizing!
I had a lot of fun. Next time, I may take a side trip to Aitutaki.
Clarice Lao / Camping for Women
I can totally relate. I am also not so fond of the resort life. I refer a lot of greens or a trip to the mountains or woods. Basking in the sun is not really my thing. Perhaps it is because I am from a tropical country.
Anyway, I am glad you found other things to do in Rarotonga and enjoyed your trip.
I am not a “sit at the beach” sort of person because I like to go out to explore and learn about the places I visit.
I’ve never heard of Rarotonga before. This is such a fun list of things to do!
There are plenty of interesting things to do in Rarotonga.
Wow, what a beautiful place. Great shots. I’ve not even heard of this place until this post.
Have a fabulous day and weekend. ❤
It’s a bit unknown in the USA but not too far to get to with Air New Zealand direct flights from LAX.
L. Diane Wolfe
I would love to take the tour with Pa.
He is a very interesting person.
Pa sounds awesome. Healers usually are found in places like these; well away from the world and its obsession with healing stuff outside-in through Western medicine. The bike tour is about the most fun thing to do in these rural, remote areas. Gives you an idea of how locals live. Eye-popping islands Rhonda. I fell in love with the South Pacific after a Savusavu trip 4 years ago.
Rarotonga is small but lovely. The people are genuine and I found that they are not jaded by the growth of tourism.
Alex J. Cavanaugh
Ready for the story about the cursed hotel!
Definitely do some hiking and that bike tour sounds fascinating. Plus the museum.
The hotel was quite creepy. The bike tour was one of my highlights while in Rarotonga.
Magical Mystical Mimi
First of all, the photos.. AH-mazing! I LOVE the sunset pic. Second, don’t laugh at me but I have never even heard of this place. It’s such a beautiful getaway. Honestly, thank you for sharing this, Rhonda. I love learning and this post was so informative. You should work the PR for Rarotonga!
The sunsets are amazing in Rarotonga. It is an idyllic setting.
Rarotonga is so beautiful view and really beautiful photography. I haven’t heard of Rarotonga before, I just added that to a list of places I need to go see.
It is a beautiful island. I made good use of my camera there.