We’ve been to Rarotonga twice now – the first time was in November 2015 for my 30th birthday (*sob*) and the second time was in March 2017 for our wedding (cue “Awwww”).
It was our first time visiting the Pacific Islands and I had been planning a trip to Rarotonga for my 30th birthday for years!! It was the only thing I was looking forward to about turning 30 (I’m a fervent age-denier!); I wanted to lie on the beach in the sun, whilst crying into my Pina Colada with my best friends, as well all reflected on turning 30.
It didn’t quite happen like that though! I went with Shane and not my besties and I didn’t cry, but I did drink Pina Colada’s so that’s something at least!
How long should you go??
We went for 6 nights, which is a good amount of time to spend in Rarotonga – there’s not a lot to do there!
I found a great flights + hotel package deal through expedia.co.nz, which included flying over in Business Class. We didn’t realise this until we arrived at the airport and we were informed we could use the lounge for free!! First and only time I’ve flown Business and I must say, I would not say no to doing it again!
Arriving in Rarotonga, it was quite late in the evening and we were immediately hit with a wall of heat as we disembarked the plane. Totally was not prepared for it so I was sweating from the get go, not a sexy look!
Where to stay??
We stayed at Sunrise Beach Bungalows, which is located just north of Muri Beach. It is really close to the water but it’s not ideal for swimming as the reef is so close. If you want somewhere you can swim from you need to stay further south, around the bottom of the island.
The reef opens up into a lagoon from Muri south so those are the best areas to stay. And there are LOADS of places to stay along the beach. Seriously, like every second building is a hotel!
Sunrise Beach Bungalows are basic but they were clean and the owner was friendly which is all we really needed. The bungalows were self-contained, so we ate most meals there and because food in Rarotonga is pretty expensive, we took a lot with us from New Zealand. Basically, if it’s packaged you can bring it in, including meat, dairy, fruit and vegetables.
Check out Booking.com for good deals on hotels, as there are loads! Here are some to start you off:
- The Reef Motel
- Ariki Bungalows
- Aroko Bungalows
- Pacific Resot
- The Rarotongan Beach Resort & Spa
What to do (besides lying on the beach, drinking pina colada’s)??
Just like in Tonga, nothing happens on Sunday in a Rarotonga. Everything closes and basically the only thing open is church, which you are welcome to attend. We didn’t do this, but if you choose to, make sure you wear appropriate clothing so as not to offend.
Jump on a lagoon cruise: We went with Koka Lagoon Cruises, but there is another one called Captain Tama’s and they both do the same thing. Both are located in Muri beach, on the south-west part of Rarotonga.
We went out into the lagoon in a glass bottom boat to a spot where they feed the Trevally. We were able to watch them swim around under the boat, before getting into the water to snorkel around the coral and the different fish.
After snorkelling we went to one of the small Motu’s (islands) off of Muri beach where we had a BBQ lunch, coconut tree climbing and basket weaving fun.
I think they said we would have about 30 mins to explore the island on our own before heading back but time means nothing in the islands! I think we were there for over an hour before heading back to Muri. It was a good cruise and loads of fun but it’s not something either of us wanted to do again on our second trip.
Check out the markets: Saturday is market day in Avarua (the main town in Rarotonga), and it’s a cool place to hang out and purchase some nice fresh food and plenty of souvenirs.
I went for the local, handmade souvenirs which you’re more likely to find at the market than in a store – like hand-dyed sarongs, which are really nice and are worn by tourists and locals alike.
Attend a cultural show: There are a number of different “Island Nights” in Rarotonga, most are at different resorts but there is one in Muri that was created specifically for hosting Island Night – Te Vara Nui in Muri Beach.
It used to be a taro plantation that was owned by a well known family on the island before it was turned into what you see today.
We went for the Over Water Night Show and Dinner which I think is on 2 nights of the week. The food was amazing, the show was cool and the location was beautiful! It’s not the cheapest night but it is definitely worth it.
The show doesn’t start until after it gets dark and everyone has had dinner; then a raft comes over the water with an Island Princess on board, she is being taken to a Chief from another tribe or island. I believe it is the story from a local legend and the dancing from both men and women is amazing!
Put your mask and fins on: Snorkelling is definitely one of the main attractions in Rarotonga, and there a number of great spots where you can go straight off the beach and see some really awesome fish.
We were really lucky to see an Emperor Angel Fish both an adult and a juvenile which aren’t very common at all (we only saw 1 of each on this trip), loads of moray eels including snowflake and giant morays, different types of Butterfly fish, pufferfish and box fish and tonnes of others that I can’t recall right now.
The main spots to go from the beach are A’roa which is further south from Muri Beach and located right by The Rarotongan hotel, if you’re driving clockwise around the island.
Black Rock is another spot we tried which is near the airport but we didn’t have much success there and the main snorkelling spot – Fruits of Raro which is just south of Muri beach. A’roa and Fruits of Raro are the best spots and both are marine reserves so no fishing or taking anything from the reef.
My favourite reef fish is a Picasso Triggerfish and they are EVERYWHERE! They look super cool and they have a little trigger thing on their backs which pops out every now and again. They seem to be the most common type of triggerfish on the reef.
We were completely in awe when we first got in the water with all these beautiful, colourful fish; not knowing where to look next and gesturing excitedly to each other!
Take a snorkeling tour: We went on a snorkelling tour while we were there with Patrick from Adventure Cook Islands which was fantabulous! Definitely go out with Patrick if you get the chance. He took us out to one of the channels in the reef where we saw giant moray eels, star puffers, turtles and even a white tipped reef shark! It was one of the best snorkelling experiences I’ve ever had.
Walk/hike/climb the cross-island walk: Shane convinced me to do the cross-island walk. It goes inland from Avarua and comes out by a waterfall behind the old Sheraton ruins and takes approx 4-5hrs to complete.
My fitness wasn’t great (still isn’t) but I thought if we take it easy I should be fine – I was wrong! This was a MOUNTAIN CLIMB!! It was crazy! It was steep and awkward and at times there were ropes to assist people climbing up or down – depending which side you start from.
We were following a tour group which was cool because we got to listen in to the things the guide was saying about the islands and it’s history and people, but they eventually overtook us, practically running down the side of this mountain!!
EVENTUALLY we made it to the top or the “Needle” as it is known and the views were mind-blowing! Total 360° views of the island and the surrounding ocean. We sat up there for quite awhile (mostly because I couldn’t bring myself to carry on!) just taking in the views and listening to the crowing of a lone rooster who had somehow made it all the way up here.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t stay there forever so I forced myself to carry on down the other side. The walk through the bush after getting off the mountain was pleasant, though it did involve a lot of crossing over the same stream; and it seemed to take HOURS before we finally reached the waterfall on the other end.
By this point I was absolutely knackered and just wanted to sit down so I sat in the pool at the base of the waterfall for ages before we then had to walk out to the road and flag down one of the two buses that travel around the island (clockwise and anti-clockwise – genius! I know right?!).
Catch the sunset: Make sure you catch a sunset at least once while you’re there. They really are beautiful and there are a couple of nice beach bars where you can have a drink and relax while looking out over the water.
We chose the Shipwreck Beach Bar which is not too far south from Avarua in an anti-clockwise direction, but there are a few to choose from down that side of the island.
The staff at Shipwreck are super friendly though and they’ll start up a tab (a tad dangerous, but hey! What’s life without a little danger ;P) so you can just relax and keep the food and drinks coming!
Deep sea fishing: I haven’t done this personally but I saw it advertised a lot while I was there. So, if you’re in to fishing, get yourself onto one of the charters and have a great day!
Diving: Again, I haven’t done this as sadly I can’t dive (I can’t equalize in one ear *sigh*). But there are a number of good dive spots around the island. Check out the wreck of the RMS Maitai which sank on the reef on Christmas Day in 1916. It sank slowly so they were able to get all passengers and cargo unloaded; and later they even salvaged some of the fixings on the boat such as the brass fittings and propellers.
Raro Reef Sub: If you’re not the snorkeling kind but you still want to get a glimpse of what lives under the sea, then get yourself onto the reef sub. They have a glass floor so you can see all the reef fish, plus some of the bigger ocean going fish as they go a bit further out beyond the reef. They also take you over the wreck of the RMS Maitai, where you might be able to spot a turtle or two hanging out around the boilers.
When to go to Rarotonga??
If you’re going to Rarotonga, try to get there between July and October as that’s when the humpback whales will be there. I’m told you can see them from the beach on the Western (I think?) side of the island. We weren’t there at the right time of year unfortunately, but we have had the chance to see (and swim with) humpback whales before at least.
How did you get around??
OK, so getting around Rarotonga is super easy.
Hire a scooter: Hiring a scooter (moped) is a a popular option. You have to get a Cook Islands drivers license, which includes taking a test at the police station in Avarua. It used to cost about $10 but I think this has increased in the last few years. There are also some new rules and regulations around hiring scooters as there have been a number of road accidents in the last couple of years.
Hire a car: This is the option we chose and it’s easy to do as there are a few different car hire companies to choose from with plenty of car options to suit all needs.
Take a bus: There are two buses – clockwise and anti-clockwise. Basically, you just stand on the side of the road and flag them down as they approach. I think they take about an hour to make their way around the island so they probably come past every 30mins or so.
I can hear you asking if you can walk?? Short answer: No! It takes 45mins to drive non-stop around Rarotonga, so walking will take your FOREVER! And it’s hot and sticky and honestly, who wants that?!
What else do you need to know??
The currency is New Zealand dollars but they also have their own local currency in the form of coins up to $5. I’d never seen a $5 coin until I was in Rarotonga – it was definitely a novelty!
The locals are super friendly and approachable and greet everyone with “Kia Orana” which mean hello or welcome. It’s polite to answer in the same way.
Cook Islanders speak both Cook Islands Maori (which is very similar to New Zealand Maori) and English. Both are spoken fluently by the locals.
The speed limits around the island are between 30km – 50km and local police patrol the roads and will pull you over if you’re caught going over the limit.
Helmets are not required when riding scooters so it’s common to see locals on them with their kids hanging on the back.
Don’t wear togs/swimming costumes (whatever you call them!) into town or into any of the eateries, it’s impolite.
And final thing, time goes out the window in Rarotonga (well all of the Cook Islands really). You’ll often hear the phrase “island time” as everything happens on island time! BBQ buffet at a beach bar advertised to start at 6pm? Probably won’t start for at least 10 mins, often more.
So sit back, relax and keep the cocktails coming!
Have you been to Rarotonga?? What was your experience??
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