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Rarotonga is the capital and largest of the 15 Cook Islands. It’s a lush tropical paradise carpeted with bright colors, majestic green peaks, and swaying palm trees.
As soon as you step off the plane, your senses go into overload. Fresh wind in your face, the warmth of the sun on your body, a sparkling blue lagoon, and fresh fruits and vegetables as far as the eye can see. Rarotonga will capture your heart.
I have had the thrill of visiting Rarotonga a couple of times. The suggestions below are my absolute favorite ways to take in the beautiful island.
10. Absorb the spectacular sunrise and sunset
Tropical islands always have the best sunsets! Rarotonga is no exception. I was told by the locals to make sure and catch the sunrise. I’m by no means a morning person, but I took their advice and woke up early every morning to witness the morning glow. It’s worth it, I promise.
My favorite place to see the sunrise is on the beach in front of Te Manava Luxury Villas and Spa. It is visually appealing with large basaltic rocks close to the shoreline.
For a spectacular sunset, head to Aroa beach on the western side of the island. Sip on local beer and relax in the sand while watching the lagoon and sunset in the distance. As a side note, Aroa beach is also fantastic for snorkeling.
I bought an oversized shawl to keep me warm on the plane and also used it to sit on at the beach so I didn’t get sand everywhere. It’s perfect for sunset watching or sunbathing. The shawl also is very useful to keep you warm on the cool evenings.
9. Wigmore’s Waterfall
Wigmore’s waterfall is on the southern end of the island in an area called Vaimaanga. This area is also where you can access my Number 2 pick on the list.
I have Wigmores on the list because my husband and I had a ton of fun there, but from what I’ve heard, we may have just gotten lucky. So, take this with a grain of salt!
We went in mid-August and had the whole place to ourselves. We drove to the top and parked the car right next to the falls. The pool at the bottom of the waterfall was full, and I loved watching my husband do backflips off the rocks. We spent about an hour swimming in the fresh spring water and truly had a great time.
That being said, depending on how much rain recently fell, there may not be any waterfall at all! Additionally, people have said that the water can be so low that it is impossible to swim in. You do have to pay a small fee to access the waterfall so if you do decide to go, ask if there is any water first. If you do end up going, bring plenty of bug repellant. The mosquitos are aggressive!
8. Swim and snorkel in the sparkling lagoon
Rarotonga is surrounded by a shimmering blue lagoon which offers calm, clear water and an abundance of fish and coral. In the distance, you can see the waves crashing on the coral reef. Have a visit to Google Earth to see a great view of the beautiful lagoon from above.
One of the best places I found to snorkel is in Tikioki opposite the Fruits of Rarotonga Cafe. The locals protect the area from fishing and the gathering of seafood, so it is teaming with fish and other marine life. Aroa beach, located on the west side of the island is another excellent snorkeling spot with colorful fish.
You should wear reef shoes anytime you walk along the beach or swim. I found some glass while walking on the beach and there is very sharp coral in the water. Additionally, The Cook Islands have the occasional stone fish that will immediately ruin your holiday if you step on one barefoot.
Tip: Bring a good antibiotic cream in case you get cut by the coral. It is very easy to get an infection.
If there is one thing to bring to the Cook Islands, besides a swimsuit, of course, it should be a GoPro. It fits in the palm of your hand, is durable, waterproof and takes incredible photos and videos. Whether you want to take videos hiking through the jungle or scuba diving with sea turtles, this versatile camera will do it all.
I bought an accessory kit which includes a tripod, selfie stick, and wearable mounts to capture anything and everything. I would attach the GoPro to a selfie stick and take carefree videos of my husband and me scooting around the island.
Included in the kit is an attachment for underwater filming. We even went all out and bought masks with a GoPro mount built right in so we could scuba dive hands-free while still able to capture amazing coral reefs and fish.
For those awesome half underwater, half land shots you see everywhere, get an underwater dome.
7. Rent a scooter
Renting a scooter is a great way to explore the island. Rarotonga has no traffic lights, and most people travel by scooter. As you drive around the island, you have the beautiful lagoon on one side and the lush flora and fauna inland.
The road that circles the island is 32 km long. It took us about 50 minutes to complete the loop. Use caution while driving because dogs frequently run out into the road. I also don’t recommend driving at night because drunk driving can be a problem.
If you’re feeling a little adventurous, I highly suggest driving inland on all the small dirt roads away from the crowds. You will get a feel for the local culture and way of life. We met some lovely people, and they even shared some of their homegrown tropical fruit with us.
6. Spend the day on the beach
If you visit Rarotonga, you have to spend at least one day being a beach bum! Muri Beach is a popular place to spend the day. The lagoon, located on the east side of the island is warm, clear and calm.
If sunbathing all day isn’t your thing, there are plenty of activities to keep you happy. The Muri lagoon is terrific for swimming, snorkeling, stand-up paddle-boarding, kayaking, and even kitesurfing. Restaurants and shopping are all within walking distance.
Muri beach is also a great place to catch the sunrise, and you likely will have the place to yourself.
If you want a little more privacy, head to my favorite beach in Rarotonga, Titikaveka Beach located on the southeast side of the island. I also love Black Rock beach, located on the northwest side of the island. There is an abundance of black rock said to be over 1.9 millions of years old that you can climb and jump into the water at high tide.
Black Rock is also a significant location to the Maori people as it is believed to be the place where spirits depart.
The sun is intense in the Cooks. Even on cloudy days, you can get sunburnt very quickly. Make sure to bring sunscreen with a high SPF. Sun Bum is my favorite brand because it is light, non-greasy and smells great.
5. Te Vara Nui Show and Dinner
For an unforgettable evening, a trip to Rarotonga isn’t complete without attending the Te Vara Nui Show and Dinner. You are guaranteed to have a great time watching talented dancers and drummers performing on floating stages while enjoying a delicious island buffet.
If you decide to go, make sure to book as early as possible. It sells out fast.
4. Koka Lagoon Cruise
I highly recommend spending the day on the Koka lagoon cruise. As soon as you step foot on the boat, you will hear people playing the ukulele, singing and having a great time.
The bottom of the boat is glass, so you can view all the colorful fish as you are cruising. They will take you to the best snorkeling spots in Muri lagoon and provide all the masks, snorkels and fins.
Afterward, they will take you to an uninhabited island where you will have a fresh BBQ lunch and live entertainment which includes coconut husking, traditional dance and a coconut tree climbing show.
The home cooked food was fresh, local and traditional. My favorite dish is called Ika Mata. This raw fish and coconut cream salad is “cooked” in lemon juice and tossed with diced vegetables. Make sure and reserve this cruise ahead of time as it is very popular.
Waterproof Swimming Pouch
A swimming pouch is super handy if you don’t feel comfortable leaving your valuables on the beach or on a boat cruise while you swim. I was able to fit my cash, cards, and even my phone in the pouch. It’s light and easy to clip around your waist.
You should really wear water shoes while walking on the beach or swimming in the lagoon. Locals will warn you about stone fish that are extremely poisonous. By wearing water shoes, and shuffling your feet as you enter the water, you will significantly decrease your chance of getting stung.
3. Punanga Nui Market
Another “must-do” while visiting Rarotonga. The market is the place to be on Saturday morning until about noon.
Located on the northern end of the island in Avarua you will find this to be an exciting place to meet the locals and get a feel for their culture. There is homemade food, drinks, art, jewelry, black pearls, clothing, and live entertainment. It is wonderfully enjoyable. Just remember to arrive early and leave a little extra room in your luggage.
2. Cross Island Trek to The Needle
The highlight of our trip was the Cross Island Trek. This half-day hike takes you from one side of the island to the other transitioning you through the valley and up to Te Rua Manga (the needle).
You have the option of doing this trek with a tour guide, but we opted to do it ourselves. We followed the locals advise and hiked from north to south (ending at Wigmore’s waterfall.) Doing it in reverse is tricky because it is not marked the other way around.
The hike starts off pretty mellow passing through a few open fields with banana trees. The trail gradually takes you into the thick jungle, and the hike becomes very steep. It rained the day before, so the trail was very muddy and wet. Oh, and did I mention steep? I was scrambling on my hands and knees the majority of the time.
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The top of the ridge rewards you with magnificent views of the island and lagoon. If you are brave, you can follow the trail up to the needle. The needle is a massive vertical rock at the top. Climbing the needle is not for the fain of heart. There are chains bolted into the rock and ropes to help you climb the ridge.
On the decent, ropes are provided for the last leg of the hike back down to sea level. I was on my bum most of the way down. We took a quick dip in a freshwater pool to cool off and wipe away the mud.
I highly recommend this unforgettable hike. If you do decide to go, listen to the locals. They know the current conditions of the trail and are very helpful with planning your trek.
Bug spray is a must unless you want to be eaten alive. There are mosquitos everywhere, especially inland. My favorite brand is Sawyer Insect Repellent. It doesn’t contain toxic deet but is still very effective against the Yellow Fever Mosquito, which can transmit the Zika Virus as well as biting flies.
A closed-toe waterproof sandal is a must for this hike. I recommend a sandal because they are going to get wet and you want them to breathe. I purchased a pair of KEENS and they were so amazing, I ended up wearing them the majority of my vacation. The sandals have a robust and sturdy sole, a rubber toe bumper, and is entirely waterproof. I even swam with them a couple of times.
1. Aitutaki Day Tour
My number 1 pick on the list isn’t on Rarotonga at all, but it is something that I think everyone must experience. Aitutaki is an island in the Cooks and is about a 50-minute flight from Rarotonga. If you are only visiting Rarotonga, then you must do the Aitutaki day tour. Aitutaki is said to have the most beautiful lagoon in the whole world. It is paradise.
You will enjoy every second of the tour. The views from the small plane are incredible. As you start to get close to Aitutaki, you will see a magnificent sparkling turquoise lagoon with pure, white sand. Within the lagoon are little islands or Motus scattered throughout. Make sure to have your camera ready.
After departing the plane, you will hop on The Vaka Cruise. This cruise is similar to the Koka cruise on Rarotonga. You will spend the day island hopping, eating a delicious buffet lunch on the boat, swimming, snorkeling and taking in the perfect scenery. After a fantastic day, you will fly back to Rarotonga. Aitutaki is a dream.
There are so many great things to do in Rarotonga. Sticking to a Top 10 list is hard! Here are a couple of “bonuses.”
The Mooring Restaurant
For the best fish sandwich on the island, head to The Mooring located off the main road just north of Muri.
If you are in Rarotonga on a Sunday, have a visit to the Cook Islands Christian Church. Even if you are not a regular church-goer, attending a service is an accurate reflection of life in the islands. Hymns beautifully sung in the Maori language fill the church. Visitors are always warmly welcomed.
Watch the Jet Blast
For an exhilarating experience, go to the seawall end of the airport runway and watch the big flights land. Sometimes crowds of people line the road to watch the plane fly directly over your head. The plane is so close that you can feel a rush of wind across your body. It is popular with the locals as well as the visitors.
The sunrise and sunsets are amazing. The beaches are breathtaking, the water sparkles and the lagoon is full of life. People are friendly, and the coconuts are plentiful. The Cook Islands is a magical destination. Rarotonga is just one slice of it.
Have you been to Rarotonga? Are you planning a trip? I want to hear all about your experience! Let me know all the details in the comments below.