A Pacific Paradise

Rarotonga, the most populous of the Cook Islands, captivates about 140,000 hearts a year. Whether you’ve been here once or have been returning annually for decades, you know Rarotonga as paradise, an escape from the drudgery of traffic and consumerism, a window into a simpler past.

Once you’ve visited an outer island, your perspective changes; you notice the modern conveniences available on Rarotonga, the trucks and supermarkets and nightclubs, but still you appreciate the pace of life. Still you notice that there aren’t any stoplights and the same musician greets every flight. You notice that people wave at oncoming traffic. You notice there are only two bus routes: clockwise and anti-clockwise. You notice that on Rarotonga, time slows down.

When there’s nothing on either television channel, when you don’t have easy access to WiFi, you learn to be outside, smell the flowers, taste the fruit, appreciate the sun and stars, and commit to memory the natural beauty that’s been seducing travellers for centuries. 

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The first visitors to Rarotonga were the Māori people who came, depending on who you believe, from either Avaiki – the mythological centre of Polynesia – or East Asia or South America. Some continued on to settle New Zealand – you can read about their canoes on plaques at Avana, the site of their departure – but others were hooked. They had travelled over thousands of kilometres, searching for islands, navigating not with GPS but by reading the stars, swells, and skies. They were migratory people, comfortable at sea, but on Rarotonga they built homes of coconut trunks and fronds, planted crops, and created a society in which everyone had enough to eat. Rarotonga’s inhabitants split into three villages – Takitumu, Te Au O Tonga, and Puaikura, each with its own governing chief.

Centuries later the Europeans arrived, and were also entranced by the island’s breathtaking beauty. A book written in 1842 documenting early missionary work describes Rarotonga this way: “its hills and valleys are rich in the fruits of the earth: mighty trees overshadow the land, and grow down to the very borders of the sea; not in a dense unwholesome forest, shutting out the light of the sun; but scattered here and there among the green hills, and affording a delicious shade; some are covered with beautiful flowers [and] some with light foliage, waving like plumes in the wind.”

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Nearly 200 years later, Rarotonga’s splendour continues to make this kind of impact. Despite the luxury resorts and 24-hour petrol stations that have since sprung from its soil, the island is still the kind of beautiful that makes your heart swell. You can’t watch an Arorangi sunset or climb one of Rarotonga’s mountains without feeling awestruck by the beautiful world we live in. You can’t drive a motorbike around the island, with the wind in your hair and the salt on your skin, past coconut palms, banana and papaya trees, and remain undecided about whether you love this place. 

Rarotonga might be just 32 kilometres around, but she is versatile, with creeks and swimming holes and waterfalls some locals don’t even know about. Take a walk or ride a scooter along the back road or into the mountains; hear the air get quieter and the birds get louder. Watch the bush get thicker. You won’t get lost if you remember to use the sound of the waves as your compass.

From the air

The best way to see all of Rarotonga is from the air. If you miss the view when the plane lands, and if you’re willing to shell out the money, Air Rarotonga does private aerial tours in small Cessnas. A cheaper option is to hike one of the island’s many peaks. Most require a tour guide, but a hike to The Needle, and across the middle of the island, is manageable and clearly marked. You’ll need good fitness and good shoes. Locals are friendly; ask anyone how to get to the start of the “cross-island walk” in Avatiu and they’ll point you in the right direction or better still go with a professional guide from Pa’s Treks.

The ascent is steep, but the view from the top makes the trudge worthwhile. From The Needle, one of Rarotonga’s tallest mountains, you can see every shore, ringed by a translucent lagoon, the white foam of waves crashing on the reef, and the yawning blue Pacific. It’s the kind of view that makes you feel tiny and insignificant, but also like you rule the world. 

Descending down the other side of The Needle will lead you to Wigmore’s Waterfall, one of the locals’ favourite swimming spots. 

For a more informative cross-island experience, book a tour with Pa, a traditional healer who grew up climbing mountains and studying the medicinal properties of plants. Pa takes tourists across the island six days a week. 

From the water

To behold Rarotonga from the sea is to channel the joy its settlers must have felt. They would have been at once weary from the long voyage and awestruck by the dramatic mountains and white-sand beaches of their new home. 

There are dozens of ways to experience this view. 

You can spend the day on a fishing charter, casting for deep-sea fish under the tropical sun, or you can take a ride on a glass-bottom boat. Both Captain Tamas Lagoon Cruizes and Koka Lagoon Cruises make daily trips to Koromiri, a motu (islet) off Muri Beach. Each tour features a local string band and a barbecued lunch of freshly caught fish. At low tide, the Muri lagoon is shallow enough to walk to the motu with a picnic lunch and a towel.

Dive shops hire out snorkelling gear, and the best place to see marine life is in an area protected by a ra’ui – a traditional ban on fishing and collecting seafood, imposed and lifted by chiefs. Signs mark the ra’ui; most snorkelers prefer the ra’ui at Fruits of Rarotonga in Tikioki and at The Rarotongan Resort & Spa in Arorangi. If you’re a certified SCUBA diver – or if you want to get certified – visit one of the three dive shops on the island. 

You can rent kayaks, take yoga classes on stand-up paddleboards, sign up for a kitesurfing lesson, hire jetskis. You can swim to The Boiler – what’s left of the SS Maitai, shipwrecked in 1916 – and then jump off it into the sea.

If you prefer to stay on the shore, engage with the sea by watching an outrigger canoe race, held weekly during the sport’s season. In November teams arrive from all over the world to compete in Vaka Eiva, an international paddling competition and Rarotonga’s largest sporting event. Between the months of July and October, be on the lookout for whales. You can learn more about them at the Discover Centre in Arorangi.

And if you’re a surfer, you know the drill: respect the locals. It’s their wave. 

On land

There’s always something to do on Rarotonga. There’s sport to watch – on Saturdays, village clubhouses host rugby, rugby league, netball, cricket, lawn bowling, and soccer matches, depending on the season. They also throw socials afterward, with cheap drinks and low entry fees. 

There’s a nine-hole golf course in Nikao, with a bar and eatery inside its clubhouse, and two miniature golf courses in Arorangi. There’s also a driving range in Vaimaanga. 

You can play paintball and laser tag; take cycling, quad, or buggy tours that go around the island; or hire bicycles (either manual or electric) to explore the side and back roads.

You can take photos of the abandoned Sheraton – a hotel that was never finished because its developer, who had links to the Italian mafia, disappeared. If you believe the local legend, a curse on the land stalled the project. In Titikaveka, you can visit Maire Nui gardens, a sprawling, carefully manicured jungle with a quaint café. There are several art galleries around the island, and you can buy handcrafted ukuleles from inmates at the Arorangi Prison. 

The Punanga Nui marketplace on a Saturday morning is an essential itinerary item. For locals, it’s a social outing; everyone goes. From 6 a.m., you can visit the open-air market to get your fresh nu (coconut water) and local fruits and vegetables. You can also buy cooked food, both international – the crepes and waffles are popular – and local delicacies. There’s something for every eater, from smoothies to stir-fry to sausage rolls. The Punanga Nui market is also a one-stop souvenir shop. You can buy everything from island music to large handmade quilts to coconut oil to hand-painted pareu (sarongs). Mamas sell hats and bags woven out of coconut fibre. Pearl farmers sell their black pearls, cultivated and harvested on the island of Manihiki, 1100 kilometres north of Rarotonga. 

If you miss the Punanga Nui market, there are souvenir shops around the island, most of them in Avarua, where you can pick up something for friends and family members who had the great misfortune of not joining you in paradise. 

A special way to immerse in the island culture is to attend a Sunday service at the Cook Islands Christian Church. The Cook Islands, like much of Polynesia, readily embraced Christianity; though the missionaries ruled in authoritarian ways, imposing outrageous fines and penalties on the disobedient, their gospel stuck. Church is a pillar of any Cook Islands community, both at home and overseas. Congregations are welcoming if you dress modestly, behave respectfully, and take some gold coins for the offering plate. The power of the imene tuki – a blend of traditional chanting and Christian hymns – will stir your soul. 

Two museums in Avarua – the government-run National Museum and the private Cook Islands Library & Museum Society – are excellent resources for those seeking more information about Rarotonga and its history. The latter hires out books, or you can buy beach reads at Bounty Bookshop in Avarua. 

For beautiful food to suit any palette, try one of Rarotonga’s many restaurants; more information is available within the pages of this magazine. Whether you’re in the mood for freshly caught fish, a burger, pizza from a wood-fired oven, French fare, or Asian fusion, Rarotonga’s got a restaurant for you.

From your seat

Celebrations of culture occur almost nightly. Attending an “island night” a must during a holiday to Rarotonga. You get a chance to watch local dancing, energetic and sensuous, and hear local drumming, reportedly the best in the Pacific. If you dread the limelight, beware the ura piani, when dancers recruit tourists of the opposite sex for a number. 

At an island night, you’ll also get to try local food. Dishes like ika mata (fresh raw fish in coconut cream), rukau (taro leaves in coconut cream), taro, and poke (arrowroot and coconut cream with a pudding-like texture) are available at some shops and restaurants, but at an island night you can have them all, buffet-style. Hotels and cultural centres offer island nights for a range of budgets; talk to your accommodator about your options.

If you’re on Rarotonga in August, you’ll get to experience the ultimate celebration of Cook Islands culture. A bit of background: Rarotonga’s chiefs consented to becoming a British protectorate in 1888; all of the Cook Islands were later handed over to colonisers from New Zealand. In 1965, the country became self-governing, and every August, Rarotonga holds a festival to celebrate. Called Te Maeva Nui, the weeklong event features a parade of floats decorated with local foliage and a spectacular nightly show at the National Auditorium, in which villages and islands compete in singing, dancing, and drumming. 

After dark

Rarotonga does not lack for nightlife. 

Live bands play every night at bars and restaurants around the island; check out Cook Islands News for a weekly calendar. 

“Party buses” operate twice a week, or on request; they pick you up wherever you’re staying, and stop at all the hot spots – Hula Bar, Hidie’s Bar, On The Rocks, and finally Rehab, which on Fridays stays open past midnight. Check out Rehab’s Facebook page for upcoming concerts; often the club hosts well-known performers from New Zealand. Past acts include Stan Walker, Tomorrow People, Smashproof, and Shapeshifter. 

For non-alcoholic entertainment, there’s the Empire, a two-cinema complex in town that shows all the latest films. Sometimes Rarotonga airs movies before the U.S., owing to a special relationship its late owner forged with motion-picture companies. There are also DVD shops in Nikao and Vaimaanga, from which you can check out the latest movies and even hire a player.

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Cook Islanders are notoriously generous people, some of the most hospitable in the world. They will make you feel welcome, as long as you treat them with respect, the way you would anyone who invites you into her home. Be mindful of the fragile island environment also; as the travel adage goes, take nothing but photos and leave nothing but footprints. 

But above all, enjoy yourself and a place that makes you feel a little bit more alive. When you leave, you will join the ranks of hundreds of thousands of people around the world who think often of, and talk often about, Rarotonga, who dream of the day they’ll return.