Rarotonga – so relaxing that 5km/h is speeding
Kia Orana! Of all the islands in the pacific, Rarotonga is my favourite place to visit. I love the non-commercialisation of the place, the beautiful white sand and the relaxed vibes.
From touch down at the airport I love the welcome - the strumming of the guitar while you are waiting for your luggage; to the friendly smiles under the floral ei’s and the excited children in the arrivals hall.
No matter where you are staying, it is not far from anything as the island is only 32km in circumference. The two main roads of the island offer different scenic experiences. You can circle the island following the sea on the sealed road, through the villages and past the beaches; or take the older inland road (unsealed) which winds through fields of taro, pawpaw, bananas and local farmland.
Although the motor scooter is still the most popular form of transport, the rules are not as relaxed as they were two years ago. It is important to note that it is compulsory for anyone aged between 16 and 25 to wear an approved safety helmet and the old law still remains in place requiring any rider to wear a helmet if they are travelling at more than 40km/h. Those who break the new law face a fine of up to NZ$100. It is also now essential to have a current Cook Islands driving licence if you do not have a motorbike licence, which can be obtained from the Police Station in Avarua. License costs have increased to NZ$90 and you have to pass a theory, practical and handling and skills test. Visitor driver’s licenses are valid for 30 days. Visitors are still prone to "break the rules" but now they are getting caught and fined – so why don’t you just get the licence, and wear the helmet…or rent one of the quirky convertibles or a bike.
If you are keen to explore on a more sedate push bike, Eco Story Tellers arrange guide bike tours that take you off the beaten track giving you an authentic experience of the Cook Islands. The other way to get around the island is on the local bus, one goes clockwise and the other anti-clockwise (oh if only life could be so simple at home)! Taxis are becoming more common on the island, but don’t expect Uber.
Rarotonga has plenty of activities to keep you and the kids entertained, some of my picks are:
Do a Lagoon Cruise – the great thing about heading out on a boat is that you’re a jumping off into the crystal blue water in less than 20 minutes from the shore. As the island is located in a lagoon, with a marine reserve; the water is stunningly clear and tranquil, allowing everyone of all ages to explore. I can’t stand snorkelling – I don’t like have the snorkel on, but I love heading into the lagoon as I feel safe and can easily grab a mask and flippers to find nemo and his friends. The one thing I do need to warn you about is that the water is never hot – there is a freshness to it. I love hanging out with the boys on Koha Lagoon Cruises. After checking out the fish, we are then off to a Motu for a tasty BBQ lunch and a sing along around the picnic benches.
The highlight is always checking out Captain Awesome and the speed he climbs a coconut tree - so many times I try to film him and I can’t keep up. Once of the great things about the lagoon cruise is that it doesn’t take a full day like other islands, and with the boats holding around 30 – 40 people it is a great way to get to know other people without feeling just like a number.
If you haven’t tried Stand Up Paddle Boarding (SUP) you must. I first tried it in Hawaii, and although I didn’t look like Jennifer Aniston, I feel in love with it. In Rarotonga you can do SUP with a difference – that is at night. Under your SUP there are neon lights that light up the wonders of the lagoon beneath you.
Back on land and I can’t believe I haven’t spoken about food….Raro has a fantastic array of restaurants from fish burgers out of a container to fine dining in a stunning homestead setting. I have visited Rarotonga about 8 times in the past 10 years and I can say that the food has been vastly improved, and is much better value for money. Another great thing is that you can bring into the country some food – vacuum packed foods like meat for the barbie, cheese, crackers and dips for those pre dinner nibbles. You will even see locals picking their KFC or Maccas off the conveyor belt at the airport – fresh from Auckland, a gift for the family. It you don’t want the hassle of bringing food over the supermarket in the town and bottle shop are well stocked. One tip I do have is buy your Heineken at duty free on arrival in Rarotonga – it’s much cheaper.
Some of my picks for eating out in Raro are:
Housed in a shipping container, The Mooring Fish Café is a bit of an icon. There is always a queue (but it moves quickly so the wait is not long). The menu is full of fresh, simple food – my pick is the FOB – Fish on Bread, ie a huge sandwich full of mahi, lettuce, tomato and mayo.
Like many restaurants in Raro, Vaima’s is located on the beach – so don’t bother with the heels. Although I spend most of my time driving clients to and from this restaurant (yes I could become the island’s first Uber driver), I do get to dine here once in a while. My pick is always the Ika Mata (coconut marinated fish) and then the Slow Roasted Pork Belly – sorry mum, their crackling is the best!
Men – if you are wanting to get all romantic, then booking a table at Tamarind House is a good way to get credit. Personally I prefer brunch or lunch over dinner – as the view of the coconut trees in the wind and the lagoon is stunning. A couple of other favourites for a nice dinner out are The Waterline and On The Beach (OTB) Restaurant and Bar.
Island time means cocktail time, and sometimes… yes they take a while – but who cares when you have a view out of the lagoon (and if you are visiting when it is whale migration – it is even more amazing). If you don’t feel like driving then get driven with the Tik-e tours happy hour cocktail tour. We did it as a group of 10 and found out who made the best of the classic cocktails while watching the sunset over the reef. The plus is that we didn’t have to worry about "blowing in the bag". Some of the places we love to visit are Wilsons Beach Bar, Shipwreak Hut and good ol’ Trader Jacks.
One of the coolest activities I discovered last year was Raro Buggy Tours. Not only do you have lunch at The Mooring, but you get to explore the "cursed resort of Rarotonga" the Sheraton. If you haven’t heard the story then ask a Rarotongan (or google) – it is a good one! Driving yourself in a two seater buggy you get off the main road into the hinterland and you do get dirty! I have two recommendations for this – buy a cheap t-shirt that you want to throw away afterwards because you do get dirty; and don’t go with a professional stunt driver – yes I had one of our client’s Moo drive me – who thought this was a "stroll in the park"!
Although it seems that every second person who lives in the Cook Islands is from New Zealand, there is still plenty of places to experience the island’s culture.
One place is the weekly Saturday market in Avarua. The Punanga Nui Market is a "must do", it opens from 6am it is all over by 11am…so get there early. Even Hillary Clinton hangs out there! It is truly a great way to meet the locals, grab some fresh produce, handicrafts and novelty gifts for those left back home. I recommend getting to the market no later than 9am by catching the local bus at only NZ$7 per person (return). You can purchase a floral ei (headpiece) – ideal to get if you want to dress up a little to go to Te Vara Nui for dinner that night. After the markets, why not check out some of the shops in Avarua’s town centre, have some lunch and then catch the local bus back the other way round – so you can say you have been around the entire island. Just remember that many places are closed on Saturday afternoon’s for family time.
Now I have seen a few island / cultural shows over my years travelling around the islands for work, and this is still one of the best I have seen. Te Vara Nui is the full package. You can do the village tour where you understand more about the beginnings of the islands and Cook Island culture before dinner – which I can say it is always one of the best buffet dinners I have had. After the main course the show takes place in the middle of the lake on a pontoon – enabling everyone to have a great view of the narrated show. After dessert (and your own attempts and dancing) you can hope back on the coaches for transport back to your hotel (yes transfers are available, do you can have a few bevvies).
Each Sunday Rarotonga’s beautiful white coral and limestone churches fill with the soaring songs of worship from their large congregations. Even if you are not a regular church goer – it is a lovely place to visit with every dressed in their Sunday white’s for a family celebration. Visitors are most welcome to attend, just don’t try to sing like them – they do it too well.
Finally, here are some random tips that will help you when in Rarotonga:
- Buy a SIM card over there. Wifi is expensive and they do not have any cheap phone plans with other network providers.
- On Sunday many places are not open and they don’t often served beer, wine etc unless you are in your own resort, so take this as a chill day.
- Looking for presents then visit Rito Cook Islands, producers of coconut oil products, where you can see the process of making the traditional coconut oil before purchasing your own treats.
- Although the dress code is informal, brief attire is not to be worn when visiting town, churches or villages. Nude or topless sunbathing will cause offence.
- You will see plenty of dogs on the island, and the island’s SPCA is always full to capacity. If you want to help you can go and walk the dogs up at the SPCA< located near Wigmores Waterfall.
- When you are departing this island delight – remember not to pack your cigarette lighters in your checked in luggage as they are x-rayed and you will be called back to check in to collect them.
Meitaki – Thank you