12 Things to do on Rarotonga in Cook Islands

Tuesday, February 13, 2018
Rarotonga is the largest island and vibrant heart of the Cook Islands nation and home to more than half of the country's population (9.000 out of the total population of 14.000). Historians believe the first wave of Cook Islanders migrated from the Society Islands to the Cooks around 500 AD. Later the land was divided among six tribes. Today, every member of Cook Islands society belongs to one of the six tribes. The tribes survived European missionary influence and became self-governing in August 1965. Although strong bonds remain between New Zealand and Cook Islands.

Getting There
There are flights going to Cook Islands regularly from New Zealand. When you fly there you'll cross the date line, which basically mean you'll be travelling "back in time". You can leave on the 7th and arrive on the 6th. Quite confusing, but you'll get used to it, once you cross back and forth a few times.

1. Ride the Bus
Clockwise Bus Line at Cooks Corner on Rarotonga, Cook Islands
The are only two bus lines on Rarotonga. Clockwise and Anti-Clockwise. Yep, the main road around the island actually runs around the island. Both bus lines starts and ends at Cooks Corner in Avarua. There are bus stops, but if you stick your hand out the driver will certainly pick you up anywhere along the 32 km long coastline way. One ride is $5, two rides $8, 10 rides $30 and a day pass $16.

2. Shop at Punanga Nui Market
Local Dance Perfomance at Punanga Nui Market on Rarotonga, Cook Islands
Avarua is the island's commercial centre and home to most of the shops on the island. On Saturdays Punanga Nui Market however, is the place to be. A wide range of local crafts, clothing and cuisine are sold here. A local dance performance will be on with local girls showing traditional tribe dancing. The market is only open from 8 am to 12 pm, so be there early and catch a bargain!

3. Hike to "The Needle"
Gazing towards Te Rua Manga (The Needle) on Rarotonga, Cook Islands
Tackle the 4-hour Cross Island Trek to the dramatic scene of Te Rua Manga (The Needle). The trek begins in Avarua as you follow Uruau Drive until you reach the path leading upwards. The trek is quite steep and is not just a walk in the jungle, so to speak. Once you reach the base of The Needle you can rock climb another 20 - 30 m up the pointy mountain peak. This however is not a novice climb and takes some strength... and courage.
During rainy season the river along the trek rises, which means you'll be crossing knee-deep water several times as you decent towards Wigmore's Waterfall, where you can cool off in the natural pool.

4. Eat the Palace Burger
The Palace Burger on Rarotonga, Cook Islands
Palace Burger makes the most popular burgers on Rarotonga (Wedensday is happy hour day) and especially the Cheeseburger is a best seller. However, if you're feeling adventurous (and EXTREMELY hungry) you can order The Palace Burger. 3 beef patties, 2 fried eggs, bacon, cheese, lettuce, carrot, tomato sauce and dressing... and did I mention that the top bun has cheese filling as well? Good luck, you're gonna need it to down this monster of a burger.

5. Snorkel at Aroa Beach
Picasso Triggerfish at Aroa Beach on Rarotonga, Cook Islands
The best snorkeling around Rarotonga is at Aroa Beach. The inner reef is very much alive and very safe to snorkel. There's a dive shop as well if you're feeling like breathing from a tank for awhile. Either way, it's a spot not to miss during a visit to Rarotonga.

6. Explore by bicycle
Bicycling unbeaten paths on Rarotonga, Cook Islands
Bicycle rental is available on the island. It's a great way to make your own stops along the way and explore unbeaten paths, where the bus won't take you. Halfway around the island on the Southern part you'll even pass a sign with the text: "Halfway", along with a photo of smiling Cook Islanders.

7. Relax at Muri Beach
Muri Beach on Rarotonga, Cook Islands
Muri Beach is one of the most beautiful beaches on Rarotonga. Three small islands are inside the lagoon and guided boat tours visit them to see local performance shows. The islands are reachable by foot/swim during low tide. Muri Beach is perfect for relaxing, sunbathing or swimming.

8. Visit Mr. Lawrence
CICC Church on Rarotonga, Cook Islands 
Many years ago (in 1983 to be exact) David Bowie came to the Cook Islands with Japanese instructor, Nagisa Oshima. Together they filmed most of the movie "Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence" on site. There are several spots on Rarotonga, the most easily recognizable being CICC Church in Avarua. If you're feeling adventurous you can head to Ngati Au Tapere and follow the gravel road, Ngati Au Road. After crossing the stream the filming location of the movie will be on your left. I talked to a local who went up there in 2002, when some of the huts built for the movie was still standing. I can confirm that none are left in 2018 and the place looks very different almost 40 years later. I was also the only tourist on the island searching for this location - you'll have to ask around to be pointed in the right direction.

9. Buy a Black Pearl
Black Pearl Shop on Rarotonga, Cook Islands
Jack Sparrow, sorry, CAPTAIN Jack Sparrow would loose his mind if he ever knew just how many black pearls he could get in Cook Islands. The long heritage in pearling started in the 1890s when the lagoons of Manihiki and Penrhyn atolls in the Northern Cook Islands were harvested. Pearl cultivation began in the 1970s and commercial pearl farming was established in the mid 1980s. Today, the remote Manihiki atoll (1200 km north of Rarotonga) is the heart of the pearl industry.
There are unfortunately "fake" pearls on sale including Chinese freshwater pearls. Make sure you visit a government approved shop, which clearly labels imported pearls.

10. Visit the National Museum
National Museum on Rarotonga, Cook Islands
Cook Islands is a small nation, which their National Museum perfectly reflects. There's not much to see in there, but the price of $5 isn't too bad. There's a flag collection of the different flags the nation had over the years as well as locally carved canoes, weapons and other tools used by the old tribes.

11. Go to Sunday Church

On Sundays almost everything is closed. The buses don't run as often (and only in one direction; clockwise). But the churches are open for everyone. Enjoy the very entertaining worship, the loud-singing locals and not to forget the buffet served at the community house afterwards.

12. Watch the Sunset
Sunset at Rarotonga Backpackers on Rarotonga, Cook Islands
The sunsets on Rarotonga are amazing. We stayed a one of the three available budget backpacker accommodations (Rarotonga Backpackers), which provided us with a private beach and the best sunsets imaginable.

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