Rarotonga’s main road near Muri beach, with the lagoon just visible to the left and the main peak lurking out of shot on the right.
Holidays in Rarotonga
Rarotonga is a quieter, better value, English-speaking version of a French Polynesian island. It’s in the Cook Islands 900 kms west of Tahiti and ringed by a partially broken coral reef.
The Cook Islands, fifteen of them in two groups (north and south, with Rarotonga and its exquisite sibling Aitutaki in the southern group), were mapped in 1773 by Captain Cook and are about halfway between Tahiti and Fiji, sharing a lot of ancestry, customs and habits with French Polynesia, though they are less developed and the people are – as a consequence? – more relaxed and friendly than their eastern cousins.
The islands, an ex-colony of Great Britain, became a colony of New Zealand in 1901 and then self-governing in 1965, though they still maintain strong associations with New Zealand, including use of the Kiwi dollar as their national currency. Most of their imported goods originate from New Zealand so vegemite and strong cheddar appear on supermarket shelves.
The Cook Island’s tiny capital of Avarua on Rarotonga; what you see is just about what you get.
Rarotonga, like many other Pacific islands, is dominated by riotously green peaks with a simple, 20 mile (32km) two-way ring road between the rocky outcrop known as ‘The Needle’ and the beaches. Accommodation is mainly just off that road, on the beach side, but the road is little used and doesn’t create much in the way of noise pollution.
Rarotonga’s best beaches
Aroa beach, one of Rarotonga’s finest.
Rarotonga is not loaded with great beaches and that should not be your main reason to come to this distant island. A couple of stretches of sand are superb but quite a few are terrible, particularly along the north east coast, where there are stretches of smashed coral that are uncomfortable, unattractive and fundamentally useless as beaches. e. g. Sunrise Beach. Rarotonga offers a good range of accommodation, but when booking your place to stay make sure you enquire about the sand quality of the adjacent beach and preferably inspect pictures of beaches online.
Aroa on the south coast is our choice of best beach, with soft tan sand, an attractive palm fringe, some not very lively coral but some colourful fish and plenty of elbow room.
Muri beach on the south-east coast came second best though the lagoon there is shallow, the beach narrow and some pricey hotels hog the sand. If you’re staying at one of those hotels Muri would do you fine.
Guide books recommend Muri and Black Rock beaches but Black Rock beach did not impress us at all, large but well scattered with uncomfortable coral chips, while Sunrise beach is virtually unusable due to both large and small coral fragments.
Sunrise Beach. Beach? Pah! It’s a derelict bombsite of broken coral chunks as far as the eye can see, while swimming there – even with sea boots – is miserable.
Dance shows are enjoyed by the dancers and local people as much as by tourists; this was in in the capital Avarua.
Culturally there’s at least something going on in Rarotonga, as opposed to Bora Bora or even Moorea, where very little happens off the beach. Taking in a Polynesian dance show – however touristy it may seem – is a must, and reputedly more sensual and suggestive than those in French Polynesia. Locals attend the shows too and show great appreciation. April sees the Dancer of the Year competition.
Lovely churches and spectacular harmonies from the congregation, all dressed in white.
Church services are often stunning – even for atheists, with wonderful female-led, male backed hymn singing harmonies, though the priest’s sermonising may be dreadfully tedious. Try to wear something smart as locals will be dressed to their all-white nines.
Otherwise it’s a trip to the Cook Islands Cultural Village for a meal and lively presentation of the local way of life or a guided walking tour of the island’s nature or culture.
Off some beaches old coral clusters can make swimming awkward. This is part of Muri beach, with the main ring reef visible on the horizon.
Obviously snorkelling, though the lagoon is quite shallow and not as colourful as, for example, Moorea or Aitutaki. Scuba diving outside the reef is low price and high quality while fishing is excellent and golf or hiking possible though not spectacular.
If you wish to hire a scooter/car on the island you will need to present your driving licence to the police in order to get a Cook Island driving licence. It’s not expensive or very time-consuming.
The view inland from Rarotonga’s almost only road, showing the central ‘Needle’ peaks and a typical bungalow.
Cook Islands downsides
• food is a lot simpler than in French Polynesia, fine if you just need basic refuelling, not so good if you’re looking for style with your substance.
• tropical islands see a lot of cloud and some rain due to the heat and humidity, so don’t expect constant sunshine even in the dry season, May-October.
• mosquitoes will always be out looking for blood so prepare yourself. For outdoor patio life, i. e. having a drink outside your bungalow after dark, the old favourite mosquito coils can’t be beaten by electronics, while inside mesh nets on windows, mosquito nets over beds or electric mats are preferable.
Visas: A 31 days visa is available on arrival to just about anyone owning a passport and a return flight ticket.
Yes, locals do genuinely wear flowers in their hair on a daily basis, a charming custom, though the obligatory lei-giving on arrival at the airport can seem a little forced.
Best months: May, June, September, October. The South Pacific lies in the tropics so all islands are warm and humid year round. The dry season is climatically best, May to October, with less humidity, cloud cover, rain, wind, rough seas and seaweed on beaches. However, July and August get very crowded with visitors, especially Australians and Kiwis escaping winter back home.