Rarotonga Travel Guide

June 20, 2016

Things To Do & Places To See In Rarotonga

Check out this 7 days in Rarotonga sample itinerary to see how to divide your time on the island

Circle The Island

With 32 km’s of road circling the compact tropical island, hit the road on a slow tour of Rarotonga. Whether by car, scooter or bicycle – stop wherever you feel like, take it easy and enjoy the South Pacific sun!

Rarotonga Mountain view with palm tree cook islands

Polynesian Rentals - road trip rarotonga cook islands mini cooper

Avarua

Avarua is the biggest town in the Cook Islands. It’s nestled at the foothills of Rarotonga’s mountain ridge and fronted by a pretty little beach that’s too rough for swimming.

Despite a four-lane main street, the town is super laid back yet offers both locals and visitors everything they need. Come here to do some food and souvenir shopping, run a few errands, walk along the beachfront or grab a bite to eat.

Avarua in Rarotonga Cook Islands

Here are a few interesting sights in and around Avarua:

Para O Tane

Unfortunately, you can only check out this former chief’s palace from the outside. This is the site of the treaty signing, accepting British protectorate over the Cook Islands in 1888.

Avarua Catholic Church

The Cook Islands Christian Church in Avarua (CICC) is the island’s major house of worship. Built in 1853, its graveyard is the final resting stop for many of the island’s notable former residents. Do not miss the opportunity to attend Sunday church service, whether you’re a believer or not!

As with its older sister in Aitutaki, service starts at 10 am, as locals wearing their finest Sunday whites start packing the church to the reminding sounds of the bell. Grab a seat in the upper deck or ground floor, and enjoy a delightful service filled with island hymns perfectly sung a capella style by devout men and women.

Avarua Catholic Church CICC Rarotonga - exteriorAvarua Catholic Church CICC Rarotonga - front exteriorChurch in Rarotonga Cook Islands Avarua Catholic Church greetingChurch in Rarotonga Cook Islands inside Avarua Catholic ChurchAvarua Catholic Church CICC Rarotonga - women sunday hatsChurch in Rarotonga Cook Islands Avarua Catholic Church closeup of woman

Here are some of the sights and sounds from Sunday church service in Rarotonga

Takoma Theological College

A pretty little colonial-style building that’s worth having a peek at if you like your architecture (and history). Completed in 1853 for a mere $150, it was the first theological college established in the South Pacific by the London Missionary Society (LMS) – the folks pretty much responsible for everyone around here converting to Christianity. It was here that future missionaries would train to spread the word of Jesus across the remote islands of the South Pacific.

Takoma Theological College Rarotonga Cook Islands

National Museum

This ain’t exactly the Louvre in Paris but the small museum is interesting for those who want to learn about Cook Islands history. There’s a good display of vaka models (outrigger canoes) that brought the first settlers to the islands and afterward to New Zealand, along with explanations about the Cooks’ modern history (admission by donation, Mon-Fri 8am-4pm).

national museum rarotonga cook islands

Beachcomber Gallery

This historic waterfront building was once the LMS missionary school. In fact, it’s the second building to be constructed from stone on the island. These days, it’s a trendy contemporary art gallery, but there’s also a high-end black pearl shop and a lovely chic cafe.   

Beachcomber Gallery rarotonga cook islands

Punanga Nui Market

Saturday mornings in Rarotonga can only mean one thing – wake up bright and early and make your way to the Punanga Nui Market in the outskirts of Avarua. Along with the Papeete Market in Tahiti, it’s one of the best markets in the South Pacific, though geared more towards tourists than locals. Don’t worry about breakfast or brunch, there are plenty of options around here. Wander around from stall to stall, grab a fresh tropical juice on the way and shop for anything from black pearls to locally made ukuleles.

Punanga Nui Market Rarotonga Cook Islands - stalls

Punanga Nui Market Rarotonga Cook Islands smoothie

Punanga Nui Market Rarotonga Cook Islands fruits and vegetables

At some point (always 5-10 Cook Island minutes from now), the entertainment will begin. First it’s the young children showcasing their traditional dancing skills, and then it’s the senior bunch taking center stage. It’s really amazing to see how traditional song and dance is instilled in children from a young age. Pretty much every Cook Islander can showcase their exotic culture through song and dance, hardly the case further east in French Polynesia.

Punanga Nui Market Rarotonga Cook Islands - traditional dance

The market offers a good chance to do a bit of grocery shopping for anything from locally grown food to artisan bread. The action wraps up around noon and don’t forget to bring enough cash. Local tour operators are also present and you might be able to find deals on island night shows, activities and excursions.

Punanga Nui Market Rarotonga Cook Islands - things to buy

Panoramic Lookout

Heading west out of Avarua, follow the signs to the Rarotonga hospital. The hospital is nestled on a hill overlooking the island’s northwest coast and you can stop along the way for sweeping views.

Panoramic view Rarotonga cook islands hospital lookout

Island Night

There are many things you must do in Rarotonga, but if there’s an absolute one that you shouldn’t miss – it’s got to be taking part in an ‘island night’. It’s a well-known fact that all Cook Islanders can sing, dance and play with fire. They combine all three with a huge buffet dinner in a memorable evening that showcases the exotic Polynesian culture of the Cook Islands. The best place in Rarotonga for island night is at Te Vara Nui Village, smack in the middle of the Muri Lagoon area.

If you didn’t opt-in for the village tour, you’ll enter the impressive reconstructed Polynesian village just in time for the buffet dinner. Order a refreshing cocktail and enjoy a massive selection of local dishes and your favorites from back home. There’s really something for everybody and there’s plenty of it.

Island night Te Vara Nui Village rarotonga cook islands - buffet

As dinner winds down, the show is about to begin. This is the prime reason you come to an island night. At Te Vara Nui, they really took it up a few notches. The show takes place over the water – on floating and fixed stages.

Professional dancers wearing exotic costumes, act out the legend of Tongaiti. An ancient fearsome warrior, Tongaiti landed in Rarotonga and was challenged by the mighty local chief. After flexing their Polynesia muscles, the two rivals agreed to end their quarrel in the only possible way – marriage. Tongaiti’s beautiful daughter marries the chief, and everybody lives happily ever after.

Island night te vara nui Rarotonga Cook Islands

Island Night te vara nui Rarotonga Cook Islands polynesian dance

If this sounds like a Hollywood script – it really is that elaborately directed. In fact, island night in Te Vara Nui is more like a Las Vegas show – even better! To go along with the timeless legend, you have exotic costumes, beautiful local dancers, thrilling fire dancing and dramatic live music. Can you really ask for more?

Don’t miss the mother of all island nights! Here’s a full review of Te Vara Nui Village, including all packages and key information you need to know.

Maire Nui Botanical Gardens

The only botanical gardens in Rarotonga, the Maire Nui gardens are refreshingly tranquil. Wander around the well kept tropical garden and treat yourself to something fresh in the cute cafe ($5 entrance in an honesty box).  

Maire Nui Botanical Gardens rarotonga cook islands

Rumours Waterfall Spa

To really get into holiday mode, book a spa treatment at Rumours Waterfall Spa in the Muri side of Rarotonga. This multi-award-winning spa is the top choice in the Cook Islands. Renowned for the ‘vichy shower ‘ natural water massage, you can also opt-in for the more conventional jet lag recovery treatment or Polynesian body masks. The spa also offers the chance to stay in two luxury villas on the premises or five bungalows nearby, so you’re never too far from a pampering massage.

Rumors Waterfall Spa rarotonga cook island vichy shower

Here’s a full review of Rumours Waterfall Spa

Wigmore’s Waterfall

Cutting inland next to the abandoned Sheraton Resort, the road ends at Wigmore’s Waterfall – the only waterfall in Rarotonga that I’m aware of. It’s nothing spectacular and in fact may not even exist in the dry season, but it’s still pretty cool to see if you’ve got your own vehicle. The waterfall also marks the end of the strenuous Cross Island Track, rewarding those who hike from north to south with a refreshing dip in the waterfall’s cold pool (see ‘hiking’ section).

Wigmores waterfall cross island track Rarotonga Cook Islands

Storytellers Bicycle Tours

Up for some island discovery? Join one of the tours offered by Storytellers Eco Cycle Tours. Choose one that suits your riding level and how much time you feel like spending on the bike. Whichever tour you opt for, you’ll learn about Rarotonga’s natural landscape, culture and history – while getting a bit of exercise done.

Highland Cultural Paradise

Commanding wonderful panoramic view of Rarotonga’s quiet West coast, a visit to the Highland Cultural Paradise is a great way for both adults and children to learn about the ancient Cook Islands culture. Located up in the mountains, the cultural village sits on the grounds of the former residence of the Tinomana tribe. The tribe’s ancient village spreads across a vast expanse of the surrounding mountains, with just a fraction excavated to date.

View of Rarotonga from Highland Cultural Paradise Cook Islands

You can wander around the village on your own, but I highly recommended joining a guided a tour. On the tour, your authentically looking guide will take you through the village, which brings back to life the tribe’s ancient ways. The Tinomana controlled this part of the island but not without having to protect their land from neighboring tribes. There were plenty of battles, lots of bloodshed and honor was paramount. You’ll visit an actual ancient marae (Polynesian temple), where you’ll witness a key religious ceremony followed by a lesson on how justice was carried out in the old days (hint: it wasn’t pretty).

Highland Paradise Rarotonga Cook Islands marae visit

Here’s a full review of Highland Cultural Paradise, including the village tour and island night show.  

Avana Passage

At the northern tip of the Muri Lagoon, this is a site of great significance for both Cook Islanders and Kiwis. It is from here that centuries ago, several vakas (massive outrigger canoes), departed on a voyage into the unknown west. Several of them eventually made it to Aotearoa – better known as New Zealand. These days, you’ll find here a small harbor and the delicious Mooring Cafe (see ‘places to eat’ section).

The Best Beaches In Rarotonga

Black Rocks

A little west of the airport, it’s hard to miss this beach, with its large volcanic boulders (black of course) sticking out the blindingly turquoise waters. Park your car/scooter/bicycle and hop down from one black rock to another until you make landfall on the soft sand.

Black Rocks Tropical beach in Rarotonga Cook IslandsBlack Rocks beach Rarotonga Cook Islands 1Black Rocks beach Rarotonga Cook Islands 2Black Rocks tropical beach Rarotonga Cook Islands 1

It’s a lovely spot for a swim and the snorkeling is OK, depending on the currents. What I especially loved about this beach is the fact you can stroll in every direction and find yourself all alone after just a few minutes. There are no facilities so bring everything you need.

Snorkeling in Muri Lagoon Rarotonga Cook Islands star fish

Muri Beach

This is the most popular beach in Rarotonga, extending across the southern section of the island’s east coast. There’s a huge concentration of hotels, resorts, restaurants and tour operators along the beach, but you can still find your own quiet spot especially towards the southern end.

Muri Beach Rarotonga Cook Islands

Muri Beach Cottages Rarotonga Cook Islands view of Muri Lagoon

The beach fronts the Muri Lagoon with its four small motu (islets) that can be reached on an organized lagoon tour or by renting a paddleboard from the friendly folks at KiteSUP.

Paddleboard Muri Lagoon Rarotonga Cook Islands

The snorkeling can be a hit or miss and definitely enjoyed at high tide. There’s even a slight chance of spotting stingrays if you’re lucky. When I visited, the lagoon was going through a bad period of algae taking over certain parts. However, this is not always the case and on most days – the Muri Lagoon is a glorious spot.

Snorkeling in Muri Lagoon Rarotonga Cook Islands

Titikaveka Beach

This was my favorite beach for relaxing, exactly how you imagined a Cook Islands beach to look like. The prettiest section of the beach is just in front of the Little Polynesian resort, which is also a great place to grab lunch (see ‘places to eat’ section).

Titikaveka tropical beach Rarotonga Cook IslandsTitikaveka tropical beach Rarotonga cook islandsTitikaveka tropical beach rarotonga cook islands

Titikaveka tropical beach Rarotonga cook islands panoramic view

Aroa Beach

Over on the west coast of the island, come here if you want to really get off the grid in Rarotonga. There aren’t too many resorts around here, and the beach is great both for swimming and snorkeling.

Aroa tropical beach Rarotonga Cook Islands palm tree

Aroa tropical beach Rarotonga Cook Islands

The real draw of Aroa Beach is the sunset. Do not miss the opportunity to witness this glorious act, with nothing but soothing sounds orchestrated by swaying branches of palm trees. I kept coming here over and over again. Can you really blame me?

Sunset in Rarotonga Cook IslandsSunset in Rarotonga Cook Islands sun with ray of lightSunset in Rarotonga Cook Islands large sun droppingSunset in Rarotonga Cook Islands children playingSunset in Rarotonga Cook Island amazing view

email

10 comments

  1. Just been to Rarotonga for 15 days we loved it and fell in love with the place. Stayed at Palm Grove. The place was nice, beach crystal waters I think was the best for snorkelling and swimming what seen around. Friends met there said same as she snorkelled around different resorts. The people so nice, food beautiful. Hired a car as had 2 days free car hire part of package then extended for the next 11 days as bus is costly went on once.. Went to some of the places you mentioned markets, cafe salsa, mooring cafe, LBV, delicious cafe across from LBV best custard slice , spaghetti house, koka lagoon cruise, Te Vara Nui village, highland paradise, fished on the Skies charter then hubby went on the Queen Marlin. Flew out to Aiutaki for the day trip on catamaran to oh my what can I say just Paradise . The water there lagoon unbelievable the colours. Picked up my black pearl from beachcomber as a gift part of our package staying 2 weeks. Hope to go again but for 3 weeks. Didn’t get to some places but left some for next time

    1. Wow Georgina! Sounds like an awesome trip. Thanks for sharing. You did end up staying in a very nice (and quiet) part of Raro. I’m sure there will be a second time!

    1. Hi Ben

      The price of car/scooter is quite cheap so if it’s within budget, I would advise having wheels for your entire stay (there are discounts for long rental periods). However, if that’s not an option, try renting for 3 days for concentrated sightseeing, and use the bus for the rest of the time.

  2. Hi we will be in Rarontonga for 8 days starting March 31 2018 and would like to rent a car for some of the time but having a difficult time finding reasonable prices. Any suggestions We are staying at the Edgewater and their shuttle service is expensive

    1. Hi Susan

      I’ve included in the guide two car rental outfits that offer readers from XDAYSINY.COM discounts on their rental. Did you have a look? I believe the outfits are Polynesian Rentals and Go Cook Islands

  3. we’ll be in rarotonga this December/January for three weeks. Any advice for the cross inland hike?
    What activites would be available in December?

    1. Hi Alison. Hiking during this time should just be taken with extra caution since it’s the rainy season and the trail might be slippery. It’s best to not hike after it has rained but exercising extra caution works as well. All activities are available during December though perhaps some suppliers take time off (most likely not).

Post a new comment

CommentLuv badge

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Google+