Rarotonga: an insider’s top ten

By Sophie Chan Andreassend,

We wanted to get the inside scoop on Rarotonga, so we asked travel junkie and blogger of Sophocles, Sophie Chan Andreassend, to divulge her secrets. Here’s her top ten things to do in Rarotonga.

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Rarotonga is one of those places that fits the bill for any type of traveller- whether you’re looking to fill your holiday with adventure, relaxation, romance, family activities or whether it’s a solo escape, Rarotonga delivers everything with a laid back and friendly vibe.

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This small island paradise is a quick four-hour flight from Auckland, but once you land you’ll be immediately transported to island time. The largest island in the Cooks, Rarotonga is encircled by a rich coral reef and turquoise blue lagoon.

Its crystal clear waters and sparkling white beaches are contrasted by a backdrop of a mountainous inland which dominates the landscape and adds to the physical drama that the volcanic island of Rarotonga has to offer.

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 The local currency used is New Zealand dollars, making this an easy getaway for Kiwis on any sort of budget. The Cook Islands is every little bit what you’d imagine it to be: sunshine, crystal clear waters, champagne coloured sand, kind hearted locals, palm trees at every turn of the road, and the tropical song of waves dashing against the sandy shore.

The ‘hard to miss’ friendliness of the locals and their love for the land is an essential part of Rarotonga’s beauty. Always happy to have a chat and share their stories, secrets and advice, Rarotonga’s population of 15,000 are proud of their home and the history that lies within the land. It’s a place where rich tradition and culture are an integral part of daily life and where water is a way of . Here are ten things not to miss when visiting Rarotonga.

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 1. Saturday morning markets (Te Punaga Nui)

You’ll be rewarded for rising early and getting yourself down to the town centre to visit the Saturday morning markets. This is a weekly occasion where there’s an abundance of fresh produce to be bought and stories to be told. Be sure to skip your hotel breakfast and grab a bite to eat amongst the bustle and vibrance of the market stalls where smoothies, pastries, traditional dishes, coconuts and fresh coffee are waiting.

It typically starts early, and finishes up by around 11am. Located beside the beach, and near the main township, it’s an opportunity to buy art and souvenirs crafted by local artists and drift around the stalls with a background of tropical sounds.

The Saturday market is not to be missed and will give you the opportunity to mingle and appreciate what a weekly grocery shop in Rarotonga is like. If you forgot to pack a sarong or you’re looking for authentic souvenirs to take home, this is the place to grab them.


2. Explore the land by scooter

Spanning 32 kilometres in circumference, the island of Rarotonga will take you about 45 minutes to drive around and you’ll be sure to find plenty of secluded beach spots to stop at along the way. Hiring a scooter is one of the best ways to see the island so you can make your own stops and explore hidden waterfalls off the beaten path.

There are two ring roads that run around Rarotonga: the outer road, Ara Tapu which traces the coast, and the ancient inner road that spans three quarters of the island and was built in the 11th century.


3. Hike (or 4WD) inland to the Needle

If you’re more of a land lover, the landscapes witnessed on the Cross Island track will leave you with views like nowhere else on the island. Carved through the middle of the island, the trek covers a distance of 3.5km from north to south, taking an average hiker around four hours to complete.

Visible from many points across the island, Te Rua Manga, or more commonly known as ‘The Needle’, is a tall rock formation that protrudes from the top of one of the largest hills. From the heights of the Needle you’ll gain a panoramic view of the surrounding islands. If you’re working your way South, Wigmore’s Waterfall provides a wet deprive towards the end of the trail.

If you’re still looking to gain great heights but hard trekking isn’t your idea of a holiday, consider a 4X4 off-road adventure. This is a half day adventure trip which blends culture, tradition and discovery, finishing off with a BBQ seafood lunch.


4. Feast of fresh catches

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The local dish of Ika Mata uses fresh, locally caught fish, and is a traditional Cook Islands dish made with marinated tuna and coconut cream

There’s nothing like a fresh catch of the day and Rarotonga’s waters are abundant with game fish such as Mahi Mahi, Marlin, Wahoo and Tuna. This means restaurants across the island offer seafood BBQs, fish and chips, fresh sushi, and the local dish of Ika Mata – raw fish marinated in coconut, chilli and lemon juice.

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The fresh fish in Rarotonga is a real treat and you’ll find it at all the restaurants and cafes across the island. This fresh tuna sushi was some of the best I’ve had and is best enjoyed down by the lagoon.

Bite Time Cafe quickly became a favourite and is located in a colourful shack by the markets. Serving up fresh sashimi and Ika Mata for NZ$10 a plate, ityou returning for more. If you fancy catching your own dinner, fishing charters are available for those willing to work for their supper.


5. Island Time

An island holiday isn’t really complete without a visit to the spa. The Spa Polynesia has a pretty impressive and extensive menu with options for him, her, the kids and couples. Think thalasso algae body wraps to sea salt scrubs, aromatherapy massages, reflexology, nail treatments, tropical hydrotherapy bath soaks and coconut sugar body scrubs.

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The spa is housed in a beautiful colonial villa surrounded by lush plants, and features a swimming pool, and outdoor massage areas. The staff here had such exceptional skill and great stories to tell that they left a lasting impression on me.


6. Watch the whale migration

From July to October, the Humpback whales migrate to the South Pacific from summer feeding grounds in the Southern Hemisphere. The whales have been known to swim up close to shore, where the lagoon and Pacific Ocean meet, giving you an unforgettable experience that can be witnessed from the comfort of a lagoon-front cafe.

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Their 6400-kilometre journey to warmer waters is a sure reason alone to visit Rarotonga. These remarkable creatures can be spotted along the north coast where the coral reef edge is closest to shore. Black Rock Beach on the north west coast is an excellent vantage viewing spot.


7. Black Rock Beach

The Cook Islands boast some of the most iridescent white sand beaches I’ve ever laid eyes on. Located on the northwest coast, you’ll find Black Rock (Turou), traditionally believed to be a place where spirits of the dead commenced their voyage to ‘Avaiki (the afterworld)0116 beach palm shot 2


8. Snorkel at Aro’a Beach

Aroa Lagoon Marine Reserve was declared a protected area more than 15 years ago to preserve its beauty and unspoiled waters for future generations. The fish here are not under threat by fisherman, meaning they have no fear in coming close to us and their curiosity makes for a truly unique experience.

The tranquil lagoons give you the opportunity to get close to turtles, butterfly fish, angelfish, coral formations, giant clams and stonefish enclosures. Nearby resorts offer night snorkelling for a more unique underwater experience.


9. Explore the motus islands from Muri Beach

You’ll want to spend most of your time here making the most of the Rarotonga’s famed waters. Exquisite reefs and the bluest waters are the most ideal spots for paddle boarding, kitesurfing, fishing, windsurfing, sailing, kayaking and snorkelling – just to keep your options open.

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A main area in Rarotonga, Muri Beach, looks out onto four motu (islets) that sit just off the land and are easy to get to by water.

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You’ll be spoilt with waters that are crowded with tropical fish, strikingly around the motu (Taakoka, Koromiri, Oneroa and Motutapu) and further out towards the reef. Of the four inlets, Taakoka is volcanic, while the other three are sand cays.


10. Explore the outer islands

The Cook Islands is made up of 15 islands, all scattered across a vast area. Its sun-dappled waters span over two million square kilometres of the Pacific, and if you’ve got time, exploring these islands are a remote yet accessible adventure.

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A 45-minute flight North of Rarotonga, you’ll find Aitutaki. This is one of the Pacific’s most scenic treasures thanks to its aqua water, sandy beaches and secluded lagoon that is brimming with marine life and palm covered islets. Choose to visit Aitutaki on a day trip from Rarotonga or opt to spend a couple of nights here to slow down to true island time.