A few years ago, while living in New Zealand, someone said ‘have you been to the Cook Islands yet? That place is paradise on earth’. We didn’t know much about these islands – actually, we had never heard of them before – but at that second we realised that living in New Zealand meant that the most stunning of Pacific Islands were on our doorstep. Without thinking twice we booked our flights. After months of cold, grey and rainy days we were just ready to escape somewhere tropical.
Goodbye winter, hello summer!
At the airport, we were greeted by a smiling man playing a ukulele who was serenading every flight that lands in Rarotonga. So yes, it took us only about 10 minutes to fall in love with the Cook Islands after stepping off the plane!
Technically Cook Islanders are citizens of New Zealand, although the Islands are an independent nation in “free association” with New Zealand, from which they gained independence in 1965. These polynesian islands were named after British Capt. James Cook, who sailed there in 1773 and in 1777.
But where are the Cook Islands?
Spin your globe to the South Pacific and find New Zealand. Then look about 1,800 miles northeast. There you have a string of 15 lush tropical mountainous islands, some of them not so easy to reach. The capital island, Rarotonga, is right between Fiji and Tahiti. We will start from here with a short guide to Rarotonga, where we spent 3 nights and in the next article we will tell you all about our 5 nights stay in the stunning Aitutaki.
A guide to Rarotonga in the Cook Islands
Chilled, low rise, low key and incredibly beautiful, Rarotonga is the perfect Pacific paradise. The largest of the Cook Islands, but with a population of around 13,000, it is surrounded by a beautiful lagoon and takes roughly an hour to drive around. For such a small island, there are actually quite a few activities in Rarotonga. It is quite impossible to get tired of its white sandy beaches and its crystal clear waters, but we do recommend to get off your hammock to go explore the island, you’ll be rewarded with rich culture and natural beauty.
Before you book: forget about falling asleep to the sound of waves and palm trees moved but the summer breeze! All you’re gonna listen to day and night are the cock-a-doodle-dos from flocks of wild roosters that roam free. That’s right, Rarotonga is the spiritual home of chickens, they are everywhere, even at the airport. What you are probably not realising is that these cockerels don’t wait until dawn to start crowing. I mean it, don’t forget earplugs!!
Things to do in Rarotonga, Cook Islands
Punanga Nui Market
One of our favourite experiences during our short stay in Rarotonga was the Punanga Nui Market (Sunday till 2pm) with its stalls full of fresh fruit, vegetables, barbecued snacks, bread, fish and seafood and the smiley girls with flowers in their hair selling black pearls, jewels, arts and crafts. But what we loved the most about the Punanga Nui Market is the real community vibe, with locals gathering around the market enjoying tasty treats and catching up with friends. Wandering through the stalls with a fresh coconut in hand you will feel part of the community too.
Muri, on the southeast coast, is arguably the most beautiful beach on the island. Blindingly white sand, a crazy shade of turquoise blue, colourful fish, and the small islets of Koromiri and Taakoka just waiting to be explored. The southernmost Taakoka motu is the best, while Koromiri motu is the most popular thanks to its sandy beaches. To visit them you can grab a kayak and get paddling out to the islands – be sure to take your snorkel out if you’re heading to Taakoka! Muri is also home to many cafes and restaurants, from top cuisine restaurants to local takeaways. The lagoon is the perfect place to base yourself while on Rarotonga (as we did)!
Rarotonga Cross Island Walk
The three hours hike to Te Rua Manga, the Needle, (413m) crosses the island from north to south. A friendly bus driver recommended us the experience and – of course – we followed the hint! It was hard but absolutely incredible with stunning views at the top point. Btw on the way up we were totally humiliated by one of the wild roosters overtaking us while climbing the mountain with no effort at all. The island seen from above seems like something out of Jurassic Park! Be prepared for a bit of hard work and a lot of mud! The rope climb to the highest point of the Needle itself is challenging, but is well worth it for the views! The hike down the other side (towards the waterfall) it quite long, and you must pay close attention to the marked track!
Where to stay in Rarotonga, Cook Islands
Our guide to Rarotonga in the Cook Islands continues with the perfect budget accomodation: the Aremango Guesthouse, located in the heart of Muri Lagoon on the south-east side of the island. Big rooms, palm trees and a peaceful atmosphere which helped us slipping into ‘Island time’. And did we mention the hammocks? All ours! This place was just perfect for our short stay in Rarotonga. Going to/from the airport and moving around the island was easy: the local bus, passing by the airport every 30 minutes, stopped right in front of the guesthouse’ gate. Double room: NZ$75 per night.
Getting There & Around
The pristine nature of the Cook Islands is due to their remoteness, so getting there and away isn’t a quick experience for most. Although, if you are already travelling to the South Pacific (ie: Fiji, New Zealand, Australia etc.) or if you already live there, you have no excuse! New Zealand is the best place to be if you want to visit the Cook Islands: flights run 7 days a week and take around 4 hours. There are also flights departing from Sydnay Australia (6 – 7.5 hours journey) and from Los Angeles, but for the rest of us in the world, there are long flights needed to reach this paradise.
We flew from Auckland to Rarotonga with Virgin Australia (NZ$ 520 return). From Rarotonga a 50 minutes flight with Air Rarotonga (NZ$ 360 return) took us to Aitutaki, this is also the only way to get to this secluded paradise.
◷ Although the flights from Australia and New Zealand aren’t particularly long, they do cross the International Dateline so you’ll gain a day on your way to Cook Islands. How cool!
Once we arrived at Rarotonga Airport we had some difficulties in finding the bus station perhaps because there is no bus station? The Cooks Buses drive around the island in two directions, anticlockwise and clockwise, passing by the airport every 30 minutes. The Anticlockwise bus stop is by the small tree near Air New Zealand office. The Clockwise bus does not stop at the airport itself but it does stop at the RSA Club across the road from the airport car park, a short 70 meter walk from arrivals. The last run is around 11:00 pm, Monday – Saturday, tickets NZ$5 one way, NZ$8 return, NZ$16 for a day pass. Schedules and further information are available on the official Bus About Raro website.
Renting a car/scooter
Visitors from Australia, NZ, US, Canada, UK and the EU can drive cars using their own licence, but if you want to drive a scooter, which is the better way to see the islands, you need to pass a skill test before you can set out on your own (unless you have a motorcycle license). In some islands other than Rarotonga they may be more loose with these requirements.. In Aitutaki we were not asked to take the test.
The Cook Islands Has the Best Coins Ever! Where else in the world will you find a country that has triangle- and wiggly-shaped coins? You’ll pay for most things in New Zealand dollars in the islands, but when it comes to smaller purchases, you can use the super cool Cook Islands coins.