Updated May 2020
Kia Orana, Rarotonga is a popular island holiday destination for Kiwis and has an impressive tourism infrastructure for an island of its size. At 32km in circumference it's relatively small, and you can drive the flat, coastal road in around 45 minutes. A reef encircles the island and in parts the water is clear, the sand golden and the fish life colourful. The climate is tropical and the average temperature is around 24°C. (Cyclone season runs November - April but cyclones aren't frequent visitors and arrive with prior warning).
The island has accommodation to suit a backpacker budget and beyond, self contained rental accommodation is plentiful and there are good quality resorts and luxury villas. Scooters (new helmet laws and licence requirements apply) are popular transport for locals and visitors and there are plenty of reasonably priced scooter and car hire options. There are also public buses that circle the island in both directions. Food and drink can be expensive as a lot of it is imported, however we dine out for most of our meals and prices are similar to New Zealand.
Good To Know
Language: Cook Islands Maori (15 dialects spoken over the 15 islands that make up the Cook Islands), English is widely spoken. Cook Islands Maori Dictionary.
Capital: Avarua on Rarotonga.
Population: Approximately 13,044 on Rarotonga, total population 17,459 (2016 Census information).
Currency: New Zealand dollar along with Cook Islands coins - $1, $2, and $5 dollars, and 5, 10, 20 and 50 cent coins.
Official Tourism website: www.cookislands.travel. The Visitor Information Centre is in Avarua next to ANZ Bank.
Transport: Public buses, scooters, cars and bicycles - pedal and electric. There are taxis but they don't drive around looking for fares, you need to call them. Raro Tours provide airport transfers, a lot of accommodation providers will also offer airport transfers (around $15pp one way).
Licence to drive: Cars - Visitors from Australia, NZ, US, Canada, UK and the EU can drive cars using their own licence, there is no need to get a Cook Islands licence. Scooters - If you want to hire a scooter and don't have a full motorcycle licence you need to get a visitors motorcycle licence - see Important - Please Read via Adventure Cooks Islands scooter hire.
Rarotonga International Airport: The airport is 3 kms from Avarua. Air Rarotonga is the domestic airline. Air New Zealand, Virgin Australia and Jet Star fly from NZ. There is an Air New Zealand International Lounge at the airport, depending on how busy it is the lounge may only be open to members, not their guests.
Religion: Over half the population belongs to the Cook Islands Christian Church. Others may be Mormons, followers of the Baha'i Faith, Seventh Day Adventists or Jehovah Witnesses.
Banks: ANZ, Bank of South Pacific and Bank of the Cook Islands. There are a number of ATMs on the island.
Sunday: Sunday is dedicated to church, family and rest. Bars and eating establishments may be closed.
Water: If in doubt, boil the tap water. Bottled water is sold in village shops, and supermarkets. The local water is Vaima and it can be delivered to your accommodation.
Festivals and Events: Cook Islands Events Calendar.
Whale watching: July - October, A where, what and how to guide.
What to wear? Casual dress is the way to go, although if you intend to go to church pack something smart. Cover up when you're at the market, in town or in villages.
24 hour, 7 day a week fuel & food: Oasis Energy in Nikao (west of Avarua, near the airport).
Mosquitoes / Travel Warnings: I'm a mosquito beacon but they haven't been an issue for me in the coastal areas. It's best to go prepared though, and if you explore the island's mountainous interior you'll definitely need repellent. Visit Safe Travel to see if there are any travel or health related warnings for the Cook Islands.
Early on Saturday morning Punanga Nui Market opens to sell local food and produce, and local art / craft work. You can buy souvenirs like colourful bags, Cook Islands Pate (drums), t-shirts and pareu (sarongs). It's likely you'll also see Te Korero Maori Cultural Dance Group perform. A number of tourist operators will be at the market so it's also a chance to find out more about what's offered on the island. The market is definitely worth visiting, there are some stalls open during the week, but Saturday is THE day to visit, it's best to get there before 12 noon.
Bounty Bookshop, Takuvaine Road (next to the Post Office)
Bounty Bookshop stocks guide books, magazines, fiction and non fiction including recipe books if you'd like to recreate local dishes at home. Local papers are also sold - Cook Islands News (published daily, $2), and The Cook Islands Herald (published weekly).
Souvenirs can be purchased at Punanga Nui Market and from souvenir shops around the island. Ukuleles are a popular choice, some are made by prisoners and sold in the Prison Craft Shop in Arorangi (look for the sign to the Prison opposite Edgewater Resort). Island Craft in Avarua is a good option if you're looking for carvings. Island Craft label their locally made work, beware of imported copies you may find elsewhere.
In The Water
Captain Tama's Lagoon Cruizes, Muri
On a Captain Tama's cruize you can snorkel out near the reef in Muri Lagoon, eat a BBQ lunch on the beach, and learn how to tie a pareu (sarong). You'll be entertained by No Strings Attached - a string band made up of Captain Tama's crew. The crew will swap the ukuleles for a coconut or two and give a coconut husking and tree climbing demo, and finish with a hilarious coconut show.
The trip takes 4 hours (11am - 3pm) and includes a cruise in a glass bottom boat, 45 minutes of snorkelling (gear supplied if required), BBQ lunch, awesome entertainment and transfers from accommodation if needed - $79 adults. We recommend the trip for a seriously good laugh, and good snorkelling.
Koka Lagoon Cruises
The other day cruise option at Muri is Koka Lagoon Cruises, departs Sunday - Friday at 10am.
Ariki Adventures, Muri
Ariki Adventures offer water based activities and tours including Stand Up Paddleboard Tours and Turtle Sea Scooter Safaris. I had a chat to a guy from Palmerston North who did a 90 minute sea scooter safari in Muri Lagoon, he enjoyed the sea scooters and the tour so much he said he would do it again, and ..... he saw turtles. Be aware that concerns have been raised about the dangers of snorkelling tours in Avaavaroa Passage, the same issue was raised and responded to in The Cook Islands News in 2018, as mentioned the wellbeing of turtle colonies is a consideration as well.
There are plenty of snorkelling spots in Rarotonga and most accommodation will likely have snorkelling options nearby. In 2019 and 2018 we stayed at Palm Grove Resort in Vaimaanga and saw lots of colourful fish out snorkelling, some really close to shore. We also saw lots of either sea cucumbers (known as 'vacuum cleaners of the sea'), or sea slugs? Whatever they were, was their presence a good or bad sign? I don't know.
Popular snorkelling spots include Fruits of Rarotonga at Tikioki beach which is located between Muri and Titikaveka. Look for the little lime green Fruits of Rarotonga cafe/shop, opposite is parking, a bus stop, and beach access for snorkelling. If you don't have gear you can hire it from Chantal's Concierge across the road.
A few sources have noted lagoon pollution as a problem, most recently Mongabay, and in the past, The Cook Islands News - WATSAN project moving ahead, Can Muri Lagoon be saved?, Lagoon National Disaster. Run off from farms (fertilisers and manure) as well as inadequate waste water and sewerage systems are cited as part of the pollution problem. The popularity of the lagoon is also no doubt contributing to the decline of healthy coral and fish life. It's a challenge for us all as tourists, tourism operators and local populations to preserve our environment but also benefit from the economic advantages that tourism brings, especially to countries like the Cook Islands where tourism is a major income earner.
Koka Lagoon Cruises donate a percentage of their sales to the Rarotonga Lagoon Conservation Trust. As visitors we can dispose of rubbish responsibly, avoid standing on coral, and take short showers to help conserve water and reduce waste water. Most sunscreen is likely toxic to sea life so we've both bought rashies to help with sun protection, the added benefit is less sunscreen going into the water.
Papua Waterfall (also known as Wigmore's Waterfall), Vaima'anga
Look for the SPCA sign and have some money ready - $5 per car, $2 per scooter. It's around a 2km drive to the waterfall which is in a bush setting. Reviewers note the possibility of mosquitoes (not on our visit), and the chance of a water trickle rather than a waterfall (depending on rain fall).
The turn off to Papua Waterfall is near the shell of a hotel that would have been part of the Sheraton group had it been completed. There's a fascinating story behind the hotel (see Google) - a curse, dodgy dealings, and failed attempts by new developers to get the project back on track. In December 2017 The Guardian ran a story about the hotel, and noted a potential New Zealand developer with Chinese backing had plans to finish the project ...... or not it seems in 2020.
Tours / Island Nights / Cultural Villages
KiteSUP Watersports - kayak and snorkel tours.
Adventure Cook Islands (Reef to See) - Padi dive courses and dive trips.
Marlin Queen Fishing Charters.
Akura Charters Rarotonga.
Captain Moko's Fishing Charters.
Ariki Adventures - paddle board and snorkel tours, sea scooter tours.
Raro Reef Sub, 4 trips daily.
Backyard Tours - meet the makers of local products.
Raro Quad Tours - quad bike tours.
Pa's Treks - Cross island trek, and nature walk.
Raro Buggy Tours.
Raro Tours - various group and private tours offered.
Raro Mountain Safari Tours - 4WD tours.
On the town
Raro Pub Crawl
Raro Tours - Going Troppo Night Life Tours (every Friday and Wednesday, or groups by arrangement)
Crown Resort & Spa, Island Feast & Cultural Show
Edgewater Resort & Spa, Island Night
Islander Hotel, Night Show & Buffet on Tuesday nights
Te Vara Nui Village, Ara Tapu
Highland Paradise Culture Centre, Arorangi
There are two roads that circle Rarotonga, the coastal road Ara Tapu (Sacred Road, 32km) and the inland road Ara Metua (Ancient Road, 29km). We haven't driven on Ara Metua for a long distance but if you want to see farmland and get a bit closer to the mountainous interior of the island you might like to make the detour. The only way to cross the island is on foot, Pa's Treks can guide you.
The maximum speed is 50kph outside of built up areas, 40kph in towns and villages, and 20kph around schools during school time. In Muri and Avarua the speed limit is 30kph.
They might not have the Harley badge but motorised two wheels are the preferred ride for plenty of locals and visitors. The coastal road is in good condition, although there are potholes, also watch out for wandering birds and dogs. Note: New helmet and licensing laws - if you don't have a motorcycle licence you'll need to get one to hire a scooter - see Please Read information via Adventure Cook Islands.
A few scooter hire options: Polynesian Rental Cars (8 locations), Tipani Rentals (opposite Edgewater Resort), and Island Car & Bike Hire (3 locations). Harley Davidson tours were once offered, but no longer, might be an opportunity there for a Harley rider who could get used to island life. Note: Check your insurance to make sure you're covered to ride a scooter.
We've hired cars from Go Cook Islands Rentals in Vaimaanga and Avis in Avarua. In 2018 we visited in low season (March) and got a good deal of $35 a day for a minimum three day hire with Avis. If you're keen on a convertible, Polynesian Rental Cars hire Mini Cooper convertibles. Note: Visitors from Australia, NZ, US, Canada, UK and the EU can drive cars using their own licence, there is no need to get a Cook Islands licence.
Bus - Main Bus Stop at Cooks Corner, Tutakimoa Road in Avarua
A clockwise bus departs Cooks Corner on the hour heading toward Tupapa. An anti-clockwise bus departs Cooks Corner at 30 minutes past the hour heading towards Nikao (towards the airport). It takes around 50 minutes for the buses to do a lap of the island, tell the driver where you want to get off when you board. See Busaboutraro for the schedule. Note: On Sunday the clockwise bus departs Cooks Corner from 8am - 12noon and then 2pm - 4pm. There is no Sunday night bus, or Sunday anti-clockwise bus service.
Cost - $5 one way, $8 return or $16 for a day pass (buy tickets from the driver).
There are a few bus stops around the island, if you're in an area without a bus stop you can signal the driver, don't be shy, otherwise they'll whistle on by. There are some popular spots where people get on and off - Fruits of Rarotonga and Black Rock (for snorkelling), Charlie's Bar in Titikaveka, and Muri Village. Note: On one of my bus trips some passengers were using the bus to get to the airport and the driver charged them $2 for each piece of luggage. Fair enough, as he said the bus is for people, not bags, so it's best to organise an airport transfer.
You will probably find taxis outside the airport when you arrive, if not someone will be able to organise one for you. Taxis aren't cheap in Rarotonga though and an airport transfer will likely be better value. In Tonga and Samoa taxis drive around looking for business, this isn't the case in Rarotonga, they're the phone and book variety.
For those self catering: CITC Supermarket is located half way between the airport and Avarua, Foodland is in downtown Avarua on the main road, Prime Foods is on St Joseph Road in Avarua, KAPS is in Matavera, and Wigmore's Supermarket (open on Sunday) is in Vaimaanga.
Visit the Punanga Nui Market on Saturday, and road side stalls for good value produce. You can also take food from home, as long as it's not fresh (fruit and vegetables prohibited), declare it at Customs on arrival.
Spaghetti House Pizzeria & Grill, Arorangi
We recommend booking a table at Spaghetti House as it's part of the large Edgewater Resort. We returned for dinner in 2018 and recommend it as a family friendly, good value dining option. Pasta dishes are priced from $15.50, pizza from $18, and dessert from $8.50. There are other main meal choices like pork cutlets, fish, and chicken as well as gluten free options including pizza. (Spaghetti House is located outside Edgewater Resort on the main road, open 7 nights from 5pm).
Vili's Burger Joint, Mai'i Central, near Te Manava Villas in Muri
Vili's Burger Joint on Facebook
Vili's has moved from a roadside stall to a new commercial development in Muri and sits alongside Mai'i Restaurant and Bar. Vili's pumps out top shelf burgers priced from $7.50, add a drink from Mai'i Bar next door and you have the start of a good night out (if you're young), or if you're older like us, Vili's is a good night out. There is seating under a covered verandah and live music may be playing in the evenings. If a good burger is your thing, visit early on in your stay as you'll likely want to return. Open 7 days from 11.30am - 9pm.
The Cafe, inside the Beachcomber Building (BCA Gallery) at the intersection of Ara Tapu and Makeatinirau Roads, Avarua
I spent a hot morning walking to both of the museums in Avarua and The Cafe is well placed to take a break for a cold drink and a snack. The Cafe is in the open air courtyard of the Beachcomber Building and has a retro / record theme with a record player (choose a tune) in one corner as well as books and magazines to read. I sat cooling off with a glass of apple juice and a paw paw muffin while listening to waves crashing in the distance. Another visit for morning tea found The Cafe busy with locals taking five for coffee. Open Monday - Friday 9am - 3pm, Saturday 9am - 1pm.
Matutu Brewery, Tikioki (look for the sign on the side of the road with tour times)
Matutu Brewing Company brew Mai (lager) and Kiva (pale ale). Every week day at 12noon and 1pm you can take a brewery tour ($15pp). It's not a tour as such as the rustic brewery is small, but the guys behind it are passionate about what they do. We enjoyed learning about the beers, the brewery (the kit came from Tuatara Brewery in Wellington), and the origins of the beer names and labels. We also got to sample the Mai and Kiva along with their coconut stout, and liked their craft beer bottle collection. If you develop a taste for Matutu beer you'll find it at a lot of bars and restaurants in Rarotonga.
Hula Bar at The Islander Hotel (in Nikao and opposite the airport) probably has the best happy hour on the island - $3.50 beer, $4 spirits and $5 wines all day from 11am. When we've called in to the seaside bar for a beer it hasn't been busy, but I imagine it fills up in the evenings. Also in Nikao is Vaiana's Bar & Bistro on the beach with happy hour 4pm-7pm (check Facebook for updates).
As you're travelling around Rarotonga keep an eye out for happy hour signs, we always have at least one cocktail on the sand at Oceans Bar at Crown Beach Resort in Arorangi - $8 happy hour cocktails are shaken up from 4pm - 6pm.
Where We Stayed
Sunset Resort, Arorangi (2019)
It took us a while to follow our own travel tip and stay at Sunset Resort in Arorangi but we've found our new favourite place to stay in Rarotonga. Sunset is an all round excellent 3.5 star accommodation option - it has beautiful, well kept gardens and grounds; two swimming pools; a long sandy beach with hammocks strung between trees; well equipped and modern rooms; Anchorage Restaurant serving really good food (see Food & Dining above), and stylish little Drumbeat Bar for drinks in the afternoon.
There were tea and coffee making facilities, flat screen TV, bar fridge, an air conditioning unit (a bit noisy but didn't bother us too much), and an in room safe (you might think it doesn't work, it probably does, persevere with the instructions). The bathroom was a decent size, nicely tiled and in good condition. The room was clean and serviced daily, the decor and some fittings could be upgraded but we had no complaints. Tropical buffet breakfast was included and was more than adequate - fresh fruit, gluten free options, muffins, cereals, tea, coffee, toast, and juice.
Activities at Edgewater Resort & Spa
There's a swimming pool, tennis courts and games room, plus a schedule of daily activities, most are free. Activities can include fish feeding, water volleyball, ukulele and drumming lessons, and sarong making and tying. On Sunday there's a bus service to church. The onsite shop Treasure Chest sells competitively priced souvenirs.
We went to a drumming session and tapped out a few tunes, but it's You Tube who can show you how it's really done. We also attended an informal history and cultural session led by Tiki Daniel, and highly recommend it. One of the more curious things he mentioned was remote Palmerston Island, the only Cook Island where English is the native language. Englishman William Marsters arrived on the uninhabited island in 1862 with at least one Polynesian wife. He went on to father 17 or 23 children (depending on the source) and died in 1899 at age 78 with 54 grand children. The Masters (changed from Marsters probably due to pronunciation) family were granted ownership of the island in 1954.
The following is a random list of accommodation options, if you're booking your trip independently and looking for holiday homes see Rentraro.com and Island Hopper Vacations.
Self contained/self catering
Aroko Bungalows, Muri
Coral Sands, Arorangi
Lagoon Breeze Villas, Aroa
Manea Beach Villas, Muri
Muri Beach Resort
Muri Hillside Guest Houses
The Cooks Oasis Holiday Villas, Arorangi
Crown Beach Resort & Spa, Arorangi
Edgewater Resort & Spa, Arorangi
Little Polynesian, Titikaveka
Nautilus Resort, Muri
Pacific Resort, Muri
Rumours Luxury Villas & Spa, Muri
Sea Change Villas, Titikaveka
Sunset Resort, Arorangi
Te Manava Luxury Villas & Spa, Muri
The Rarotongan Beach Resort & Spa, Aroa
Resorts with Kids ClubsEdgewater Resort & Spa
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we have just come back from Rarotonga and had the best holiday in ages. Can recommend self catering as it's great with kids as food can be expensive. Stayed in a beaut place coral Sands which had very good trip advisor comments
For anyone's possible interest, we will be in Rarotonga during October 2013 at the Sunset Resort for 12 nights. It will be our third visit, the first being in 1997 at the newly reopened Rarotongan Beach Resort. We are so looking forward to our return to paradise, with a repeat day tour over to Aitutaki.
I have learned that arriving passengers can enter with 2 liters of wine each, and that CITC Duty Free in the Arrival Terminal sells Church Road (Hawkes Bay) for NZ$ 20 for 750 ml. Sounds like a plan.
Wine is my drink of choice and I would be interested in your recommendation as to where wines may be purchased for a good price. My first guess would be at CIC Supermarket or at Foodland, if wines are sold there. Other places?
is there somewhere in raro where you can hire an outrigger canoe ride??
You're welcome Clare, thanks for letting us know you found the info helpful. Cheers to raising a glass of something cold as the sun sets. Happy holidays in Raro, if you have any recommendations on your return feel free to share them here.
In a few days, we are returning to Raro for the first time since 1988! I have just read through your site and it has been very helpful, thanks! We've opted for a beach studio on Aorangi. Our main requirements were sunsets and a fridge.
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