A Complete Guide to Rarotonga
January 1, 1970
RAROTONGA, COOK ISLANDS
Almost 5,000km east of Sydney lies a group of fifteen beautiful islands nestled in the heart of the South Pacific. Rarotonga, the largest of the Cook Islands, is a paradise like no other, with stunning lagoons, white sandy beaches, and the friendliest locals you’ll ever meet.
Only a 6-hour direct flight from Sydney, Rarotonga is the perfect island escape for couples, families, and groups of friends alike. There’s truly something for everyone – from those seeking adventure and thrills, to those seeking a relaxing, laid-back holiday.
HOW TO GET THERE
You can fly direct to Rarotonga with Air New Zealand, or you can option for other carriers and fly via a stopover in Auckland, New Zealand. I’ve tried both options, and I would definitely recommend the direct flight, as this simply makes the journey shorter and simpler.
WHERE TO STAY
There are plenty of incredible accommodation options to choose from in Rarotonga. From resorts, to hostels, to private accommodation, there are great options no matter what your budget is!
On our first trip to the island in 2013, my boyfriend and I opted to stay at the Edgewater Resort & Spa. Set on the western side of the island, the resort offers beachfront access to the gorgeous lagoon, making it the perfect place to enjoy watching the sunset, cocktail in hand. The rooms were simple, but clean and comfortable, and we didn’t spend much time inside with so much to see and do. The Edgewater Resort & Spa also offers an on-site restaurant and bar, making lazy beachside meals easily accessible, meaning you rarely have to leave your banana lounge! Many of the resorts on the island are situated within a stone’s throw from the lagoon, so you’ll never be far from it, no matter where you stay. I would also recommend going to the Edgewater Resort’s Island Night, on every Tuesday and Saturday, and involves a delicious island buffet feast followed by a traditional Polynesian Dance Show. You don’t need to be a guest of the resort to attend, but you will need to book in advance.
On our second trip to the island in 2016, we stayed at Manuae’s Accommodation – a collection of small, self-contained units nestled in the heart of Arorangi, also on the western side of the island. We wanted to ‘live like the locals’, and this was the perfect place to do it!
Manuae herself met us at the airport at 6.30am with fresh frangipangi lei’s, and was very friendly and helpful for the entirety of our stay. Along with her granddaughter, Shalom, nothing was a problem and they were always available if we needed anything. They always gave us fresh fruit and the best tips for places to eat, drink and spend time at on the island. The accommodation was clean and had everything we needed. It is only a short stroll across the road to the beach and we hardly shared it with any other people during the whole trip. Their dog Chewy, however, was the highlight of our trip. He treated us like family, and we honestly felt like he was our dog too. He accompanied us on walks, swims at the beach, and he was always checking to see what we were doing first thing in the morning. We truly felt like we were living the island life like locals!
Since Rarotonga is only 32km around, it doesn’t take long to cover the entire island by car or scooter. Depending on who you’re travelling with, hiring a scooter is a great option. We hired a scooter for 3 weeks, and it only cost us $40 to keep it running. They’re also very affordable, and cost around $12-$15 per day, depending on who you hire through. All you need to do is obtain a motorbike license by visiting the local police station and taking an on-site driving test. Polynesian Car Hire is located right next to the police station, making it an easy choice after you’ve gotten your license (and it’s cheap, too!).
WHERE TO EAT
Now, we’ve already established that Rarotonga is a beautiful island paradise, but it is also a foodie’s dream! There are cafes and restaurant galore, all offering a wide variety of culinary delights. Here are a few of my favourites:
Do you love cheap burgers? Then you’ll love Palace Takeaways! Located near the harbour in Avatui, Palace Takeaways offers really cheap, really tasty burgers all day. I lost count of how many I ate during my time in Rarotonga! Quick, tasty and affordable, what more could you want?
CHARLIE’S CAFÉ & BEACH HIRE
Charlie’s Cafe and Beach Hire is on the edge of the Akapuao Marine Reserve, and is well-known in Rarotonga for having the largest burgers and sandwiches on the island. No kidding, they are absolutely huge! You’re guaranteed to get a tasty meal for a good price, plus you can hire beach toys like stand up paddleboards and kayaks for after lunch adventuring!
HIGH TIDE BAR & GRILL
In Avarua, you’ll find the High Tide Bar & Grill. With ocean views, cold beers at happy hour and a $20 pizza buffet, you’ll find yourself coming here more than once on your Rarotongan holiday!
ROADHOUSE BAR & RESTAURANT
Another place offering cheap burgers and beers, the Roadhouse Bar & Restaurant is across the road from the Edgewater Resort & Spa, which meant that we made it our local during our first trip to Rarotonga. If you love music as much as I do, you’ll also appreciate their weekly karaoke night and live entertainment!
THE WAFFLE SHACK
If you’re looking for good coffee and yummy sweets, look no further than the Waffle Shack. Located in the Punanga Nui Market, the Waffle Shack offers amazing food and incredibly friendly service.
SHIPWRECK HUT BAR & GRILL
We stumbled upon the Shipwreck Hut during one of our sunset walks along the lagoon. With funky vibes, tasty food and cheap cocktails, we ended up visiting almost every day! Located within the A’roa Beachside Inn, the staff and owners are incredibly friendly, funny, and make the effort to talk to everyone who stops by. Plus, they have a golden retriever named Dexter who is absolutely gorgeous!
You can’t visit Rarotonga without eating at Trader Jack’s. The exceptional yet affordable menu is full of great food & drink, and you always get service with a smile. You better like cats though, since the resident kitty loves to wander around diners looking for cuddles!
WHAT TO DO
Again, the options are endless when it comes to things to do in Rarotonga. I’ve spent enough time on the island to enjoy plenty of incredible experiences and activities:
If you like being outdoors, you’ll love all the hiking that Rarotonga has to offer. From easy to advanced, there are plenty of hikes to choose from, such as:
- Te Rua Manga (The Needle): This hike isn’t for the faint-hearted, but the rewards are endless if you make it to the top! The track begins easy enough, but then turns into more of a climb as you reach the summit. You definitely need a reasonable level of fitness, but I don’t believe you need a guide to take you unless you’re really worried about getting lost, but there are plenty of markers to help guide your way!
- Mt. Raemaru: With a flattened top, this mountain is easy to recognise! This hike is a little bit easier than the Needle, and offers some pretty spectacular views of the entire island. Details on how to find the trail for Mt. Raemaru can be found here.
- Maungatea Bluff: Now, this hike (if you can even call it that) was one of the most epic, hardest things I ever did! It felt more like a scramble through the undergrowth of the mountain, and it was tough. We actually didn’t even find the top, as we lost track of the markers. I would definitely recommend getting a guide to take you up here, unless you have a personal GPS.
PUNANGA NUI MARKET
A trip to Rarotonga isn’t complete without visiting the Punanga Nui Market, held every Saturday near the harbour. Make sure you go early, and with an empty stomach! There’s plenty of delicious food and smoothie bars to enjoy, clothes and homemade knickknacks to browse through, and an abundance of fresh vegetables and tropical fruit to purchase! It’s the perfect introduction to the island life on Rarotonga, and to all the incredibly friendly local people.
MAIRE NUI BOTANICAL GARDENS
For a $5 donation, you can access the beautiful Maire Nui Botanical Gardens, located on the south side of the island. Inside, you’ll find the gardens filled with stunning tropical plants and local flowers. It’s easy to get lost wandering through the green palms and bright blossoms, but you’ll always find a path that leads back to the lovely little café at the centre of the gardens.
MATUTU BREWERY COMPANY
You can’t miss the Matutu Brewery, one of Rarotonga’s most inspirational stories about two blokes who just wanted to start brewing and selling beer. There are two daily brewery tours, at 12pm then 1pm. As the only local beer in the Cook Islands, Matutu offers a lager (Mai) and a pale ale (Kiva), both of which taste absolutely amazing! The beer is available for purchase at the brewery itself, as well as at plenty of bars, cafes and restaurants across Rarotonga and some of the outer islands. Find out more about Matutu Brewery by visiting their website, and don’t forget to visit them when you go to Rarotonga!
BEACHES, SNORKELLING AND SWIMMING
A trip to an island paradise wouldn’t be complete without plenty of sunbaking, snorkelling, swimming and water activities! Luckily, you’re literally surrounded by the lagoon and its beautiful beaches. Some of my favourite places to enjoy the sunshine are:
- Muri Lagoon: Here, you can find plenty of water activities, such as paddle boarding, kayaking, canoeing, swimming and snorkelling. We visited Captain Tama’s, and hired paddle boards and kayaks to explore the lagoon. Here, we saw plenty of colourful fish, sea turtles (much to my excitement), and gorgeous coral under the clear water.
- Black Rock Beach: This has to be one of the most stunning places on the island. The water is the bluest turquoise, the sand is the whitest white, and the rocks are the blackest black – a combination of absolute beauty!
- Papua Passage: If you love snorkelling, and seeing all kinds of creatures of the deep, you can’t go past snorkelling at Papua Passage. Here, we saw sea turtles, reef sharks, and countless fish. You need to exercise caution though, and avoid swimming too far over the passage. Also, be aware of the currents. You can find Papua Passage across from the abandoned Sheraton resort.
As far as a holiday destination goes, Rarotonga, Cook Islands, definitely ticks all the boxes! You absolutely will not regret travelling to this island paradise. In fact, I think it’s time to book my next trip.