Rarotonga Cook Islands: Where to stay and what to do when visiting

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Hidden in plain sight awaits a tropical paradise only a stone’s throw away from Australia – and yet few know it exists.

Rarotonga – the largest of the Cook Islands – has breathtaking beaches, jungle-like terrain, spectacular turquoise lagoons and coral reefs filled with marine life.

At large, the Cook Islands of 15,000 people remain untouched – no traffic lights or huge intersections, no McDonald’s, and no sky-high infrastructures. In fact, not a single building is taller than the highest coconut tree.

While thousands of Aussies flock to island getaways like Bali and Fiji, they’re truly missing out on something special.

The little-known luxury oasis is only five and a half hours away from Sydney with Jetstar flights direct – a route that hasn’t been flown by an Australian airline in three decades. 

FEMAIL visited Rarotonga and Aitutaki to find out what all the hype was about.

I visited one of the world's best kept secrets - Rarotonga part of the Cook Islands. Travellers are welcomed to picture-perfect turquoise lagoons, sandy white beaches and tall palm trees

I visited one of the world’s best kept secrets – Rarotonga part of the Cook Islands. Travellers are welcomed to picture-perfect turquoise lagoons, sandy white beaches and tall palm trees 

While thousands of Aussies flock to island getaways like Bali and Fiji, they're truly missing out on something special (Rarotonga pictured from above)

While thousands of Aussies flock to island getaways like Bali and Fiji, they’re truly missing out on something special (Rarotonga pictured from above) 

The tiny collection of 15 islands isn't visible on a map and most Aussies don't know it exists

The tiny collection of 15 islands isn’t visible on a map and most Aussies don’t know it exists 

Rarotonga is bursting with vibrant scenery in every direction, making it the perfect winter escape for Aussies who don’t want to spend a fortune on a quick holiday.

Everywhere you turn there’s a cascading palette of evergreen blues as far as the eye can see. The lagoon waves ripple onto shore where dogs play on the sand and hermit crabs scurry away.

The greenery continues to the top of the highest mountain where an oceanic volcano sits silently.

Unlike other popular island destinations, there’s no hecklers trying to sell you something for a few dollars. Instead locals greet tourists with a welcoming ‘Kia Orana’.

All 15 islands make up just 240 square kilometre which have been self-governing in free association since 1965 (pictured in Aitutatki)

All 15 islands make up just 240 square kilometre which have been self-governing in free association since 1965 (pictured in Aitutatki) 

Aitutaki - the second most popular island (pictured) - is another picture-perfect destination that shouldn't be missed and is only a 50-minute flight from Rarotonga

Aitutaki – the second most popular island (pictured) – is another picture-perfect destination that shouldn’t be missed and is only a 50-minute flight from Rarotonga 

In the middle of June, the temperature teeters between a top of 25 to 28 degrees Celsius, with the sun glistening onto the shimmering clear waters

In the middle of June, the temperature teeters between a top of 25 to 28 degrees Celsius, with the sun glistening onto the shimmering clear waters

Time is spent swimming in the inviting blue lagoons, sunbaking, relaxing and exploring all the island has to offer. The luxurious paradise is ideal for couples, families and newlyweds alike – with activities including outdoor experiences such as snorkelling, whale watching and hiking.

In the middle of June, the temperature teeters between a top of 25 to 28 degrees Celsius, with the sun glistening onto the shimmering clear waters.

A single 32km road runs around the outer edge of the island, making it easy to get around but a rental car is a must. Similarly, a SIM card is also essential as Wi-Fi is limited and ATM machines are scarce, so bring cash.

All 15 islands make up just 240 square kilometre which have been self-governing in free association since 1965.

Muri Beach Club Hotel on Rarotonga is a fantastic spot to have lunch by the crystal clear water (pictured)

Muri Beach Club Hotel on Rarotonga is a fantastic spot to have lunch by the crystal clear water (pictured) 

COOK ISLANDS MUST-DO ACTIVITIES AND SIGHTS 

Naturally tourists will be eager to swim in the inviting lagoons – and why not look a little further by diving with sea turtles.

Ariki Adventures offer a unique sea turtle snorkelling experience where guests are handed a ‘sea scooter’ to use while swimming – a fast underwater device making it quick and easy to move around in the water. 

During the two-hour tour visitors will have the opportunity to get up close to countless turtles, tropical fish, starfish, and even manta rays.

Humpback whales also tend to swim in the area and can be spotted on the odd occasion if lucky.

However, due to the nature of the tour and sea scooters, this activity ideal for adults and teenagers only, particularly those with an adventurous side.

Those with young children may wish to consider a Koka Lagoon Cruise across the stunning Muri Lagoon. Guests will have the perfect view of Rarotonga from the water and are offered a 40-minute snorkelling session, delicious BBQ lunch, and entertainment on board.

Once on shore there’s also a coconut climbing show to demonstrate how coconuts are collected from the tall swaying trees, along with a fun coconut husking show the whole family will enjoy.

Majority of food needs to be imported from New Zealand to the Cook Islands. However, fresh fish, pork and vegetables are sold locally

Majority of food needs to be imported from New Zealand to the Cook Islands. However, fresh fish, pork and vegetables are sold locally  

Alternatively paddle boarding and jet ski tours are other options.

Every Saturday morning on Rarotonga the Punanga Nui Market is open to host more than 130 food and craft stalls, giving visitors the opportunity to take home a souvenir, try fresh produce and interact with locals.

The market is truly a sensory overload of colour, vibrant music, and excitement in the air.

Aitutaki – the second most popular island – is another picture-perfect destination that shouldn’t be missed. Just a 40-minute flight from Rarotonga, Aitutaki is best seen from the water on a full-day cruise to snorkel and visit postcard-perfect beaches.

This island is abundantly smaller compared to Rarotonga but has some of the clearest waters in the world and is known to be a world-class honeymoon destination.

Now the little-known luxury oasis is only five and a half hours away from Sydney as Jetstar is offering direct flights to Rarotonga aboard the new A321-NEO aircraft - a route that hasn't been flown in three decades (pictured: Aussies arriving on Rartonga for the inaugural flight)

Now the little-known luxury oasis is only five and a half hours away from Sydney as Jetstar is offering direct flights to Rarotonga aboard the new A321-NEO aircraft – a route that hasn’t been flown in three decades (pictured: Aussies arriving on Rartonga for the inaugural flight) 

During my visit I stayed in Manuia Beach Resort, which is rated 4.5 stars on Trip Advisor (pictured: relaxation area at the resort)

Nearly every night I ate fresh fish for dinner when dining out

The fresh fish and seafood is one of the best things about the Cook Islands, along with the incredible scenery 

WHAT MAKES RAROTONGA DIFFERENT?

There’s no McDonald’s, and the closest equivalent is a fast-food hotspot called ‘Super Brown’ offering similar menu items of burgers, hot chips and drinks.

It’s common to see white graves in front yards of homes. Locals who pass away are buried quickly in the gardens of their family’s property as there’s no morgue on the island. This has to do with both the law and tradition.

Rarotonga was ‘what Hawaii used to be 100 years ago’. Metua Mitchell, 27, a local born on the island, told FEMAIL Rarotonga doesn’t compare to other commodified islands of today, because it’s barely been touched.

Foreigners usually have to jump through hoops to buy property on the Cook Islands. The land can only be purchased by those who live on the island, and they can choose to lease the property out if desired.

Nearly everything is shut on Sundays. The dominant religion on the Cook Islands is Christianity and majority of the population attend church on Sundays then spend time with family rather than working.

Though similarly to Bali and Vietnam, don’t drink the tap water – bottled water only

WHAT DO THE LOCALS THINK? 

Locals were thrilled over the news that a direct flight is now flying from Australia, as the island heavily relies on tourism.

However, others expressed the importance of maintaining the ‘balance’ between generating tourism dollars and maintaining the beauty of the island.

One told FEMAIL: ‘How will this affect our land? Our oceans? Our people? Will this change things?’

Another said: ‘It’s really exciting to see more tourists around on the island. It was eerie during Covid and some families had to give up their pets to save money. But now the island is bustling with people already.’

Metua Mitchell, 27, told FEMAIL Rarotonga doesn’t compare to other commodified islands of the world, because it lacks giant infrastructures and well-known brands. 

‘A lot of people say Rarotonga was what Hawaii used to be 100 years ago, and it’s true,’ Mr Mitchell said.  

Locals were thrilled over the news that a direct flight is now flying from Australia, as the island heavily relies on tourism (pictured: locals welcoming travellers aboard the first Jetstar flight at Rarotonga airport)

Locals were thrilled over the news that a direct flight is now flying from Australia, as the island heavily relies on tourism (pictured: locals welcoming travellers aboard the first Jetstar flight at Rarotonga airport)

RAROTONGA AND COOK ISLANDS ITINERARY: 

ESSENTIALS:  

  • Travel SIM card
  • Cash
  • Hire a rental car 
  • Bikini/bathers  

  • Insect repellent
  • Sunscreen
  • Thongs 
  • Laundry bag for wet clothes

TOP ACTIVITIES 

  • Ariki Adventures Turtle Sea Scooter Safari – get up close with sea turtles 
  • Aitutaki visit & cruise – best suited to couples, newlyweds and groups of friends
  • Koka Lagoon Cruises – perfect for families and a great way to see the islands from the water 
  • Punanga Nui Markets – every Saturday morning

WHERE TO STAY IN RAROTONGA: 

During my visit I stayed in Manuia Beach Resort, which is rated 4.5 stars on Trip Advisor. Other prime locations include Edgewater, Pacific Resort and Muri Beach Club Hotel. 

I began each day by having breakfast at the resort and gazing upon the beachfront. 

Most of my time spent on the island was filled by jumping into the stunning lagoon, going snorkelling and soaking up the sun 

Be sure to also make some time (at least a one night stay) at Aitutaki – it was the highlight of the trip and I can’t believe it’s a real place. The scenery continuously took my breath away. 

Cook Islands Prime Minister, Mark Brown, said the Cook Islands is the ultimate tropical island destination

Cook Islands Prime Minister, Mark Brown, said the Cook Islands is the ultimate tropical island destination

Jetstar’s Chief Customer Officer, Alan McIntyre was at Sydney Airport to farewell the first flight.

‘This service will make the Cook Islands the next hot holiday spot for Australians seeking a tropical island escape to relax and unwind, especially during cooler months,’ he said.

Cook Islands Prime Minister, Mark Brown, said the Cook Islands is the ultimate tropical island destination.

‘The island is renowned for some of the world’s most incredible crystal-clear waters, and Aitutaki lagoon is recognised as one of the most beautiful in the world,’ Mr Brown said.

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