“Kia Orana!” is what you hear as soon as you land in the breathtaking Cook Islands; “May you live a long and fulfilling life”. It’s a common phrase, exchanged with a smile, many times a day. More than that, it is the sentiment at the heart of the way the locals live here. It is impossible not to feel welcome in Cook Islands. While the islands themselves are the storybook island idyll – aquamarine waters, swaying palms and pristine, peaceful beaches, they are also home to the most gracious and happy people. With such a warm welcome and so many wonderful things to do in Rarotonga Cook Islands, this was the beginning of a life-long love affair with this magical part of the globe.
How to Get to the Cook Islands
Air New Zealand connects Los Angeles and other major international hubs with Rarotonga International Airport, the main gateway to the Cook Islands. If you are travelling from Auckland which is about three and a half hours away you can travel to Rarotonga daily, otherwise weekly flights arrive from Sydney, Fiji and Los Angeles (Compare prices on flights with Skyscanner).
Where to Go in the Cook Islands
Rarotonga is the commercial hub and busiest of the Cook Islands with access to lagoons, white-sand beaches, restaurants, shops and plenty to keep you entertained, while maintaining a resort/village like feel that is unassuming, unspoilt and welcoming.
Aitutaki is the Instragram-worthy paradise island that should be on your bucket list. Just 45 minutes flight from Rarotonga, it is a very special, peaceful place that offers an idyllic escape in stunning, unspoilt tropical surrounds.
Rarotonga and Aitutaki are the two easiest of the 15 islands to visit, and the islands with the most infrastructure for an easy and enjoyable visit.
Among the rest of the Southern Group of islands are Palmerston, Rarotonga, Manuae (uninhabited), Takutea, Mitiaro, Atiu, Mauke and Mangaia. Palmerston and Manuae are the only two islands in the group that you cannot fly to easily. Mangaia is the second largest island in the Cooks, but it has a very small population of just 500 people. Atiu is known for its limestone caves and amazing diving locations and both this island and Mangaia are very much undiscovered.
I visited Rarotonga and Aitutaki and loved each for their unique features and experiences.
Cook Islands Visa Requirements and Currency
You will need a valid passport and return ticket and you are allowed to stay up to 31 days, beyond this you will need to apply for a visa.
The Cook Islands have their own currency, and also use the New Zealand dollar; it is important to note that Cook Islands currency cannot be exchanged anywhere in the world. This make the coins and paper you have left over extra special.
The Best Time to Visit the Cook Islands
I visited in June when the weather was absolutely perfect every single day. June through August is dry season. While there is no bad time of year to visit Cook Islands, the shoulder months of April, May, September and October are the best time to visit the Cook Islands.
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Things to do in Rarotonga
Take a Scenic Drive with a Local Guide
A 32km round-the-island road provides a scenic tour of Rarotonga that you can do on your own or with a local guide. My local guide Lydia Nga, an island celebrity, took me on a guided tour of the island the first day that I arrived and shared her stories and insights of a lifetime on this island. I strongly suggest spending time with a local guide to learn more about the people, customs and island life; there are many tours both on land and on water that you can contract during your stay. It takes just 45 minutes to drive the entire island of Rarotonga if you are planning to self-drive.
Get Active in or On the Water
Apropos to island life, there are ample adventures, opportunities and invitations to be on the water during your stay on Rarotonga. Every water sport ever invented can be planned including boating, SUP, kite surfing, surfing, diving, snorkelling and plenty of opportunities for anglers too. A quintessential Rarotonga day is spent boating on the water, catching fresh fish and then enjoying a BBQ with locals and friends for dinner with dancing and live culture entertainment.
The coastal lagoons and reefs surrounding the island make scuba and snorkelling adventures epic, the water is crystal clear and perfect temperature.
Hike The Needle
There is a great hike to “The Needle” which traverses a cross-island rugged trail 650m to the peak of Te Rua Manga for hikers in your group. You can combine this hike with a visit to Wigmore’s Waterfall, the perfect swimming hole on a hot day and a spectacular shot for your Instagram. In addition to hiking, land activities such as mountain biking, safari and buggy tours and other 4WD adventures along with island tours and local shopping in the Muri night markets make Rarotonga a great vacation spot with a variety of things to do.
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Where to Stay in Rarotonga
An early morning landing rewarded us with a low tide on Rarotonga that I will never forget, and a sunrise beach welcome at Sea Change Villas Rarotonga, my very first stop and impression of the Cook Islands. The 12 boutique villas of this complex are private and luxurious and begin to tell the story of the Cook Islands’ “little piece of paradise.”
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Each villa is perfectly situated to take in the best of the paradise backdrop it surrounds, jungle lagoon and beach views are your choice and you cannot go wrong with any of them. Each also provides ample space and amenities to make you feel like you are right at home. My villa on the beach was so beautiful I stood looking out over the South Pacific with my mouth dropped open for several minutes unable to process the beauty before me.
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King-sized beds, full kitchens for eating in, seating areas and fire places, spacious bathrooms and indoor-outdoor space that transition seamlessly with wrap-around decking and panoramic views, and each villa has its own private pool and outdoor shower as well. I felt as though I had stepped into a Conde Nast spread of the ideal paradise, something secret and very luxurious, and I had.
The rocky façade on the beach side provides the perfect transition with natural steps leading directly to the beach and ocean where you can literally walk for miles on the soft, tawny sand during low tide, almost as if you could reach the horizon if you kept walking. I’ve never experienced a more beautiful scene in my whole life than the water, tides, sunrises and sunsets on the Cook Islands. The first low tide welcome was so spectacular that I ran out onto the beach and “walked and danced on water” forever because I was so moved by its beauty.
Where to Eat in Rarotonga
You will find plenty of options for local eats on Rarotonga, everything ranging from island fare of tropical fruits, fresh vegetables and freshly caught fish to burgers, and other comfort foods and global dishes. Here are a few places I recommend from my visit:
Le Bon Vivant Bakery and Café otherwise known as “LBV” is a local favourite serving beautiful and delicious breakfast, lunch and dinner. Located close to Muri Beach, you can dine and then take a short walk across the street and dip your feet in the sand, or you can take a dip and have a water adventure and then walk to LBV for something afterwards. The pastries are made in-house daily, the coffee is brewed fresh and there is plenty of variety to choose from off of this European-feeling café with a vegetarian friendly menu. Definitely try the donuts and you cannot go wrong with any of the dinner dishes.
Charlie’s Café and Beach Hire is a great authentic spot for freshly caught fish, we actually arrived as local anglers were coming in from a day of fishing. This local hang is right on the beach with a charming dock and small beach. Perfect for happy hour, lunch and dinner.
I had my favourite meal on Rarotonga at Beluga, located in the heart of Arorangi Village. The pastries are unbelievably delicious, and each dish on the menu is thoughtfully created with the best local, fresh and organic ingredients. The café also hosts the artwork of local artists and there is a shop for browsing and buying thoughtful gifts for friends and family. I loved visiting Beluga for lunch, the café is open daily until 3pm.
From Rarotonga we travelled on to breathtaking Aitutaki. Experiencing these off-the-beaten-path islands in the South Pacific was such a gift; I fell in-love instantly and can’t wait to explore more.
The Fit Traveller was a guest of Cook Islands Tourism for this trip. As always, our opinions, words and images are authentically our own.
Pat Russo is a Mystic, Muse, and Spiritual Teacher guiding women into their hearts with a journey of softening. She is a published poet, a lover of hearts, and a forever student.
Feeling the impossibility of choosing between her two favorite cities, she considers San Francisco and Paris home.