A world away, tropical yet modern, the Cook Islands’ Rarotonga is the ultimate destination for a romantic getaway, island adventure, and family vacation. Plan your trip with this ultimate guide and list of 11 things to do in Rarotonga, Cook Islands.
Traveling to the Cook Islands today is frankly like finding Hawaii before Prada, Coach and Ralph Lauren did. Lack of commercialization and stunning beauty are what bring me back every year to Rarotonga.
And while I can’t say I’m a local, after visiting several weeks a year, I certainly feel like one … and Cook Islanders are quick to make you one of their own. In this guide I’ll cover my favorite things to do, activities, and places to visit in Rarotonga.
Ready to dive in? Here’s a preview of what I’ll cover in this guide:
- 11 Incredible Things to Do
- How to Get Around Rarotonga
- Money tips for the Cook Islands
- Renting a Car in Rarotonga
IMPORTANT NOTICE TO READERS: Travel Lemming encourages you to avoid international travel until such time as local public health authorities in both your country and your destination advise that travel is safe for you and the communities you will visit.
11 Incredible Things to Do in Rarotonga
#1 – Go to a Cook Islands Church Service at one of Rarotonga’s Many Churches
Unforgettable, colorful, loud, festive and undecipherable. Church service is a rowdy thing to do in Rarotonga (oh, and it’s in Maori to boot!). Even if you aren’t religious, consider stopping in any church Sunday morning to catch the white dresses and colorful hats, joyful locals and singing you can hear a mile away. Just make sure to be respectful of course!
#2 – Eat Local Food, Much of it from the Sea
It’s an Island and it makes sense that seafood will be on the plate in all of its many versions. Food is fresh here and ranges from the fish and chips take-outs where a meal runs less than NZ$5 and ranges to fine dining at the major hotels and classic restaurants.
Hamburgers are also popular but I personally prefer to stick to fish, especially the grilled fish and chips or fish salad at Charlie’s Grill. It sits right on the beach and offers an array of low-priced options, beer and snorkel or paddle board rentals.
#3 – Go to the Muri Night Market A LOT
Locals and tourists alike swarm (as much as a small island populations can swarm!) a parking lot set up with picnic tables in the middle of the village of Muri Beach. Around the perimeter is the equivalent of an urban center’s food trucks, a couple dozen locals bringing their finest cooking to the masses at affordable prices.
Highlights include The Fish Man and his curry tiger shrimp and garlic shrimp for NZ$13 (about US$9) made to order and the Cheesecakes/Snickers Pie temptress right next door. You get to indulge in gorgeous desserts and sumptuous slices for NZ$7.
There are plenty of other stalls selling curries, baby donuts, wood-fired pizza and crepes. They’re open four nights a week.
#4 – Walk the white sand beaches of Rarotonga
The beaches of Rarotonga are endless and endlessly white. They are spectacular and there is very little coastline that is not a walkable beach.
For example, take in a fish sandwich at Charlie’s then head to the beach and walk miles in either direction. The water is stunningly blue and the scenery breathtaking at every turn. You may see others but beaches here are rarely with many other people, and never crowded.
#5 – Get in the Water Every Day in Rarotonga
The waters around Rarotonga are, for the most part, beautifully clear and calm. Swimming in them, or at least taking a dip, is undeniably one of the best things to do in Rarotonga.
You’ll find gently, lapping waves and shallow, sandy bottoms. Walking out the depth of your kneecap brings visions of colorful fish poking in and out of blue, orange and yellow corals.
#6 – Take a Snorkel trip at Muri Beach, Rarotonga
One of the best things to do in Rarotonga is an all-day snorkel trip. Snorkelling is a safe and easy activity to spend your time on. You get to see colorful schools of fishes swimming in their natural habitat. We recommend snorkelling in the morning and at sunset for that magical feel.
Most resorts have snokelling masks and fins that you can borrow. Additionally, warm tropical waters mean you don’t need to go for a wetsuit. Just a simple swimsuit will do.
Alternatively, Captain Tama’s is the place to go for a quick 2-hour cruise or a half day cruise complete with BBQ and local favorites.
This is a party on a boat and not only will you see an array of colorful fish and corals but you’ll meet fascinating people from around the world and, if you’re lucky, the ferocious-looking but harmless Giant Trevally.
#7 – Hotels in Rarotonga are the Place for Great Happy Hours
There are so many incredible Rarotonga resorts and hotels – but you don’t necessarily have to stay in them to enjoy the experience!
Can’t afford the 5-star Pacific Hotel on Muri Beach? Their Barefoot Bar offers nibbles and tropical drinks at cut rate prices every afternoon. Rub elbows with the other half at the water’s edge.
On the other side of the island of Rarotonga, find the classic Castaway Resort with its theme of Tom Hanks’ film of the same name, complete with a volleyball on a stick named Wilson. Drinks are cheap and food specials change daily. Most importantly, watch the sunset over the Rarotongan seas with your toes in the sand.
#8 – Dune Buggy Riding is One Weird Cool Thing to do in Rarotonga
When I first tried it I had not idea what to expect and was not totally looking forward to dune buggying through the ruins of an old hotel. If I had known how muddy I would get, I probably would have never signed up.
The only way to describe screeching through mud in an open air ramshackle dune buggy–is an absolute blast! Screaming through muddy turns and twists then remembering to shut your mouth or end up swallowing said mud is the most unique thing to do in Rarotonga.
You will get filthy and look like hell. But on the bright side, you’ll reach a magical waterfall pond at the end where you’ll get the chance to jump in and clean up. After freshing up, hit some golf balls and finish with a sandwich at the local market/gas station named Wigmore’s. What a day!
#9 – The Weekend thing to do in Rarotonga is the Punanga Nui Market
In the main town of Avarua, Saturdays mean open air market. This is where you can not only buy your produce but souvenirs, art, jewelry, clothing and lunch as well. The lively air, courtesy of the local entertainment at the main gazebo, together with the talented local craftsmen (and women) makes this Rarotongan activity not to be missed.
Note that the problem is that staying only a week means arriving Sunday morning and leaving Friday night. Stay two weeks to ensure the Rarotonga market is in your plans.
#10 – Eat at Beluga and Antipodes for Unique Cuisine
A gift shop as well, the creative food coming out of the kitchen at Beluga is unique among Rarotonga restaurants. Sushi, Sashimi and other raw and cooked treatments of fish change on a day-to-day basis but the turmeric coffee is a certified daily fix!
Casual and only open for breakfast and lunch, Beluga is a worthy stop at least twice a week. The gift shop, full of local handicrafts, also has humorous items like the hand-blown glass anal plugs that apparently see well. With tongue in cheek, some buy them for the nasty people in their lives!
Antipodes, on the other hand, probably has the best view in Rarotonga.
A converted hillside villa, reservations are a must for the spectacular cuisine, all from local purveyors and prepared in a dynamic and always flavorful fashion with Mediterranean flair. Villas are also for rent here.
#11 – Snorkel with Turtles
Of all the things to do on Rarotonga, this experience stands out. Safe, fascinating and truly a peek at underwater sea life about a hundred yards offshore.
First, you buy your ticket for the turtle experience at a stand at the Muri Night Market from a guy that also sells vegetable curries. Weird, but go with it.
Show up at the designated parking lot and suit up with a snorkelling mask and fins and grab a stand up paddle board. Confusing yes, but again just go with it. Soon, a quick overview explains that you’ll be going out to an area of reef break and that this is safe only a few hours a day. OK, a little nervous but deep breaths…
Relax on the board as local divers drag you out to an area where snorkelers simply slide off and into a fairly deep crevasse in the ocean where turtles feel safe to feed. The local guides signal where turtles are snacking and can be quietly observed (and heard) in their native environment. This is $NZ40 well spent.
How to Get Around Rarotonga
Getting around Rarotonga can be a challenge. But fret not. I’m here to help.
This question may be answered differently by tourism reps or taxi drivers but there is really only one major road that encircles the island and a smaller inner circle that parallels it. And the main mode of transportation for islanders is probably scooters but visitors need a license to rent one. And a helmet. Rules are more lenient on other islands though.
Guidebooks will tell you that a bus runs clockwise and counter-clockwise through the day and evening on a regular, scheduled basis. We relied on this the first visit to the Cooks but never again. Walking for seven miles carrying three bottles of wine is typically not my idea of an ideal vacation. We recommend renting a car instead.
Suggested Rarotonga Itinerary
Arrive in Rarotonga on Air New Zealand to kickstart your magical adventure. Pick a hotel in Rarotonga for the first 4-5 days and pay the extra NZ$50 to check in early. And from the minute you arrive to check in, enjoy the sounds of a local band welcoming you as a sneak peak of what’s more to come during your stay in this beautiful island.
Recover from the flight on the beach then plan on a leisurely lunch in the spectacular Beluga restaurant.
Palm Grove is a perfect choice for a beachfront hotel. Casual with a breakfast buffet at their Yellow Hibiscus Restaurant of fresh fruit and a generous Friday Happy Hour only for guests.
Spend a few days exploring Rarotonga then head to Auckland or Sydney to further explore down under. Once there move around easily on cheap flights but pay attention to weight requirements – it’s a whole different ball game.
Head back to The Cook Islands for a few more days and stay in another hotel in Rarotonga, maybe Sunset Resort with its beachfront hammocks and Mahi-Mahi eggs benedict.
Money and Exchange Rate in the Cook Islands
The exchange rate is better than ever and the American dollar is strong. This means staying and dining and playing in Rarotonga is affordable for many foreign visitors.
Although the Cook Islands has its own currency, it is based on the New Zealand dollar. Make sure you get some island currency, especially the triangular $2 coin but spend it before leaving.
New Zealand money is accepted in Rarotonga and the other islands but Cook Islands currency is only good there and becomes souvenirs upon departing.
Renting a Car on Rarotonga
It may be a tropical paradise but this is not a place for Mustang convertibles and fancy rides. You’ll most likely end up renting a 5-6 year old Toyota sedan.
Driving on Rarotonga is similar to how you would drive in New Zealand, or the wrong side of the road. It takes a minute to get used to it, but with so little traffic, it is less scarier than you may think.
Cars are available through Avis and local rental companies like Polynesian and are reasonable to rent. Believe me, you will be glad to have wheels to explore the island and all of the things to do in Rarotonga.
That’s it for this ultimate guide to the things to do in the Cook Islands. For more helpful tips and articles to help you plan your visit to Rarotonga, check out our Cook Islands Travel Guide.
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