Stepping out of the airplane and onto the warm tarmac, arrival in Rarotonga is a relaxed affair. There’s a tiny terminal ahead, containing a man strumming a ukulele in welcome, with the sweet floral smell of hibiscus and tropical humidity in the air.
In an atmosphere like this, it’s easy to succumb to immediate relaxation and languid bliss. After all, most travellers come here for the slow Pacific Islands life and a week or so on the beach. But in the Cook Islands there’s also room for measured exertion and a few activities to ensure you get the most out of your time.
You’ve just arrived in paradise. Welcome. Here are five things to keep you busy, but remember to slow down. You’re on island time now, as liquid and changeable as the seas themselves. Take the time to smell the frangipani.
1. Take a self-guided scooter tour around the island. Join the locals on the preferred island mode of transportation: the scooter. You’ll see everyone cruising the island on two wheels, from children to old ladies in Sunday dresses. Zipping down the road, you’ll make excellent time and see the whole island in less than an hour if you drive continuously, but why not stretch it out over a day and take the time to explore? Scooters are widely available for hire from just about everywhere, and chances are good your hostel will have a few. If not, any number of local shops can probably help.
But first things first: you’ll need a license. If you’ve never driven a motorcycle or scooter before, fear not. A valid drivers license from another country will get you a 24-hour Cook Islands drivers license. With a quick primer on the basic scooter operations, you’ll be sent off on your own.
If you plan to hire a scooter for more than a day on Raro, or want a cheap and personalized souvenir, you’ll need to get a proper drivers license from the Police office in Avarua. You’ll take the world’s easiest driving test (little more than a figure eight around some cones) before receiving an official card. Mine came with a voucher for a free congratulatory drink. Got to love that island hospitality.
There’s only one main road that rings the island, so you can either go clockwise or counterclockwise. Pick a direction and off you go. Take frequent stops to visit roadside stands, cool off with a swim, or nip into a café. Trader Jack’s, a venerable pub in Avarua, is a fine place to conclude the day’s adventures.
2. Walk with Pa to The Needle. Now that you’ve explored the outer fringe of Rarotonga, it’s time to plunge into the rainforest-covered interior. Raro is actually an extinct volcano, and the high peaks across the center are all that remains of the crater. The tallest promontory, known as “The Needle,” juts out above the landscape and makes for a worthy objective on a day hike with island’s most colorful resident, Pa.
A local man with a thousand stories, Pa has been hiking across the middle of Rarotonga for more than 20 years, entertaining thousands of visitors with stories of the islands’ history, flora and lore. Departing several days per week and with transport included, his half-day hikes are probably the best way to enjoy the beauty of Raro’s wild interior. Pa walks barefoot “to help heal mother earth,” but don’t be fooled. Combined with the tropical heat and humidity, this is a serious outing that requires proper footwear and perseverance.
Stick with it and you’ll be rewarded with fabulous views that take in the island from coast to coast at a lookout atop the rocky crag. The rocks here once bore the faces of ancient idols, and were the site of sacred rituals before the arrival of missionaries. Today, you can still make out the profile of the deity Tangaroa carved into the rock face.
3. Snorkel the sheltered waters of Muri Lagoon. You’ve seen it all on land, so now it’s time to plunge into some undersea exploration. The southeast corner of Rarotonga holds the sheltered waters of Muri Lagoon. Encircling a few small islands and covered with soft white sand, this section of the island hosts a few resorts and a backpacker hostel in prime beachfront position. Not only is this the best section of the island for swimming, but it’s chock full of interesting undersea life in clear warm water. Hire a snorkel, mask and flippers from your accommodation or bring your own.
4. Take in the local culture at an island night performance. The people of Rarotonga are perhaps its greatest attraction. Faultlessly friendly and welcoming, greeting anyone with a hearty “Kia orana!” will inevitably bring a smile and warm exchange with the local Cook Islanders. Their ancestors settled these islands from elsewhere, bringing with them a rich Polynesian culture with distinctive dance, drumming, and dress. At island nights, this heritage is on full display as locals share their food and musicality with guests. Many local bars, restaurants and hotels put on these island night performances, where visitors can try traditional Cook Islands foods and watch superb drumming and dancing troupes – maybe you’ll even be invited to take part.
5. Shop the Punanga Nui Markets. Each Saturday the whole of the island turns out to shop, gossip and take it easy at the Pananaga Nui markets in Avarua. Get there early to mingle with the Rarotongans; it can get touristy in the late morning hours. This is the place to fill your bags with delectable fresh tropical fruits and locally grown vegatables. In particular, go for the starfruit, pawpaw or passionfruit. There’s also handicrafts like woven pandanus mats, woodcarvings and fans. The biggest splurge purchase might be one of the black pearls farmed on the northern Cook Islands; you can get a cheap one for a mere NZD$10, while the top-quality specimens fetch $1,000 or more.