Rarotonga, hidden pearl of the South Pacific

If you’re after an authentic Polynesian experience for your family holiday then look no further than Rarotonga in the Cook Islands.  This little gem of an island is stunning in its natural beauty and utterly charming for young and old alike.  In case you need convincing, here are 5 spectacular reasons why Rarotonga should be top of your family’s travel list. 

Almost smack bang in the middle of the South Pacific lies a string of fifteen tiny islands named after one of history’s most revered seafaring explorers, Captain James Cook.  Cook arrived in the islands that would eventually bear his name in 1773, paving the way for a steady stream of missionaries and Europeans over the century that followed.

The Cook Islands were formally annexed to New Zealand in 1901 and, despite moving to self-government half a century ago, the Cooks remain politically and culturally close to their southern island neighbour.  Indeed, the cultural links go back hundreds of years, pre-dating European arrival.  The oral traditions of the Maori peoples of both the Cook Islands and New Zealand hold that voyagers from Rarotonga settled New Zealand more than a thousand years ago, having travelled over 3000 kilometres across open ocean in double-hulled canoes, or vakas, guided by nothing more than the currents below and the stars above.

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Scattered across two million square kilometres of ocean, the Cook Islands barely register as pin pricks on the world map.  Their remoteness has been a blessing in many ways; keeping development to a minimum and ensuring the Cooks remain one of the best destinations in the Pacific to experience Polynesian culture and ‘real life’ in the islands.  They are like pearls of the Pacific, hidden in plain sight.

Boasting stunning turquoise waters, slender palm trees and lush, green volcanic mountains rising from sea to sky, Rarotonga is the largest of the Cook Islands and home to some 14,000 souls.  We headed to Raro earlier this year to celebrate our daughter’s first birthday (and my imminent return to paid employment) – and almost didn’t leave.  No kidding!  Our time on Rarotonga exceeded all of our expectations.  It is far more than just another beautiful, tropical island – there is something about this place that draws you in and makes it oh-so hard to leave…

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Five reasons to fall in love with Rarotonga

1  Authenticity

Often overlooked in favour of the well-known holiday hotspots of Fiji and Hawaii, Rarotonga and its sister islands have so far escaped the glare of mass tourism.  Accommodation options range from self-contained cottages to beach-front resorts, but even if you choose the latter you can’t help but witness local life here.  Kids walking to school; ladies on scooters to the market; families on the bus; pigs tied to coconut trees snuffling in the long grass; teenagers rowing their vakas in the main harbour.  The locals draped in traditional pareus with either a single frangipani or tiare behind their ears or an extravagant floral crown perched atop their heads.  On Rarotonga, you won’t feel isolated within a plush resort (unless that’s what you want!), but feel like you’re part of the island community.

A couple of ‘must-do’ activities that will leave you feeling like a true local include:

  • backing one of the local rugby teams as they battle it out against a backdrop of ancient volcanic mountains on Saturday afternoons.
  • attending church on a Sunday – an uplifting experience, listening to the choir and congregation harmonising in Cook Islander Maori, everyone wearing their Sunday best.

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2  Pristine beauty

Being a hidden gem sure has its advantages.  Historically the Cooks haven’t seen as many tourists as some of their neighbours.  Coupled with local laws preventing buildings from being higher than the tallest coconut tree, this means the Cook Islands have retained their pristine, pure beauty and are untainted by the mega resorts and skyrise hotels of other islands in the region.

Rarotonga’s relative remoteness has been a blessing in many other ways too – no traffic jams, no littering, no buildings obscuring the view.  The ancient volcanic mountains swathed in vibrant green, turquoise waters and bleached coral sand are absolutely stunning.  It’s as perfect as any postcard you’ve ever seen.

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Accessibility and ease

Traditionally Rarotonga hasn’t been as easily accessible as some of the neighbouring islands, though in recent years things have been getting easier.  Most flights go via Auckland, though Air New Zealand flies direct to and from Sydney and Los Angeles weekly.Within minutes of stepping onto the humid tarmac, you are greeted by an elderly gent strumming a guitar and singing as your bags pop off the baggage carousel.  According to local legend, he hasn’t missed a flight in or out of Rarotonga in decades.  It’s a lovely way to start and finish your holiday – it’s almost a shame that the whole process of clearing customs/immigration, collecting baggage and locating the minibus to the resort doesn’t take more than 15 minutes, as it’d be nice to kick back and keep listening.In terms of getting around the island, there are essentially only two roads – one circumnavigates the exterior of the island while the inland road takes you past small farms and the island’s hospital and tiny jail.

The bus system is simple yet effective – a ‘Clockwise’ bus and an ‘Anti-clockwise’ bus operate throughout the day/night ($5 one-way or $8 return).  You can also pick up a hire car for about $40/day, with car seats about $5/day.  Even with the island-wide speed limit of 50km/hr, you’re easily able to drive around the island in less than an hour allowing you to explore the whole island and revisit your favourite cafes and beaches whenever you like.

There are ATMs in Avarua and a few of the smaller supermarkets and Eftpos/credit card facilities are available at most places too (usually for a fee).  NZ dollars are accepted everywhere here – though you’ll probably want to get your hands on a few Cook Island coins if you can!

4  Incredibly friendly people

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The locals are insanely friendly, generous and laid back.  You’ll find yourself saying kia orana (“key-orana”) and stopping for a chat with practically every passerby, especially if you have little kids.  Family is sacred in the Cooks (and the rest of the Pacific), as are elders within the community.  You’ll often overhear people greeting someone as “Mama” or “Papa”, followed by their name (eg Mama Penny), as a sign of respect and deference.  

Similarly, children are cherished and it’s not unusual to find your kids being a little bit spoilt by resort staff and shop owners.  Our daughter was showered with attention, gifts of fresh coconuts and flowers, lucky kid!  She celebrated her first birthday there and was clearly thrilled when the resort sent a breakfast of chocolate cake to our suite!

5  Activities

There’s no shortage of things to do on Rarotonga, with or without kids.  A number of the resorts have kids’ clubs or offer babysitting, allowing the adults to escape for a bit of ‘alone time’ as well as enjoy all of the family-friendly activities.
You can:

  • go snorkelling straight off the beach or organise a dive trip
  • rent kayaks or SUPs to explore the lagoon
  • hit up the Saturday morning markets in Avarua
  • watch the local footy teams battle it out on Saturday afternoons
  • attend one of the many white-painted churches for a Sunday morning service
  • attend a cultural event showcasing traditional Cook Islander dancing, music and drumming
  • trek one of the walking routes through the interior of the island
  • daytrip to nearby Aitutaki, famous for its picture-perfect lagoon and overwater bungalows
  • engage in some taste-testing by sampling every ‘Raro burger’ on the island (and there are lots!  Every cafe, bar and restaurant has their own version)
  • hit up the mid-week evening markets at Muri lagoon for a delicious meal washed down with a fresh nu (drinking coconut)
  • enjoy a few drinks at the sunset bars or restaurants on the western side of the island, or perch up at the waterfront bar at Trader Jacks
  • take a glass-bottom boat tour with Koka Lagoon Cruises (unmissable!)

   Or you can simply do nothing.  It’s as simple as that.

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There is so much more to this island than the five topics I’ve covered here so stay tuned for future posts on the Cook Islands!  But for now you can see more of our holiday pics on Instagram.

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