It’s undeniable; Rarotonga is breathtaking. The pristine beaches are so white it’s hard to believe they’re not man-made. The shockingly clear turquoise water in the lagoon looks like it must be filtered. The intimate bungalow-style hotels and resorts seem to have emerged from the ground itself. It’s so perfect, in fact, that it’s hard to believe this place isn’t part of a Hollywood sound stage. Rarotonga is simply that beautiful.
While the postcard scenery is reason enough to visit, Rarotonga is more than just a pretty face. The largest and most developed island of the Cook Islands, Rarotonga offers an array of activities and rich cultural experiences, some of which are happily entwined with its natural beauty.
For instance, when the missionaries arrived in Rarotonga in 1823, it took only five years for them to convert the island to Christianity. Rarotongans abandoned their villages in the mountains to start a new way of life on the coast. The oral tradition that had preserved Rarotongan culture for centuries was replaced with Christian ritual, and the ever-encroaching forest quickly enveloped their old homes and sacred spaces.
The forest that engulfed these abandoned villages, however, also preserved some of Rarotongan culture. Because while the missionaries drastically changed how people lived, they didn’t drastically change what grew on the mountainside. The indigenous flora continued to grow much as it had done for centuries, and the mere existence of familiar trees, plants, and roots reminded Rarotongans of, well, their roots.
Take, for example, Pa’s Trek, a vigorous climb across Rarotonga’s uninhabited centre. Fifty-nine-year-old Pa, a world-renowned guide, medicine man, and endurance athlete, leads guests through the unmolested, dense forest up to the highest point on the island, a large cropping called “the needle.”
Pa is intimately familiar with Rarotonga and its forests. At the age of four, he began collecting herbs for his grandmother’s natural medicines, and soon graduated to pounding barks and leaves into potions. After retiring from endurance racing, he decided to share his knowledge and the beauty of the forest with visitors to Rarotonga. He has been leading his trek three times a week for more than twenty years.
At the start of the trek, Pa, barefoot and dressed in an aloha shirt printed with flowers and pinup girls, hands out his homemade mosquito repellant. The repellent is fermented nono fruit, a brown paste with a pungent odor. The smell is more than a bit unpleasant but the repellent is highly effective.
The walk begins on a gently sloped road that meanders through fields of nono trees and taro root. Along the way, Pa grabs handfuls of leaves, or digs up a root, and explains the medicinal purposes of each one: Mile-a-minute for Diabetes, Bella Donna for Denge Fever, Viatra for broken bones, wild mint for sore throats. Pa also instructs hikers about the traditional uses of each plant, such as the Polynesian chestnut, which was one of the only sources of protein on Rarotonga before the missionaries arrived.
The path becomes steeper as it approaches the needle, turning into more of a natural ladder made of tree roots. Although the trek is challenging, people of all ages and levels of fitness are welcome to participate—the oldest person to complete the walk was ninety-two. Pa encourages people to climb at their own pace and is always present to lend a helping hand.
The trip to the top is worth the effort. The views of the rolling mountains and lagoon below are outstanding. Pa encourages people to soak in the scenery as he explains the significance of the needle. Long considered the focal point of male energy, the ancient Rarotongans carved profiles of four gods sometime around 910 BCE. Nearly 3,000 years later, the Dalai Lama re-consecrated the needle when he named it one of the eight energy points in the world. Pa led the Dalai Lama and twenty-two of his followers to the base of the needle and helped them bury an urn containing the 900-year-old remains of an ancient master. Today, as hikers admire the view and catch their breath, Pa casually points out the fern tree under which the old lama is buried.
Although the walk is difficult, it doesn’t take an endurance athlete or spiritual leader to reach the top. Along the way, it becomes clear—as clear as the water in the lagoon—that the beauty of Rarotonga is more than skin deep. In fact, the deeper one delves into the picture-perfect natural setting that draws so many visitors to island of Rarotonga, the deeper one comes to know the real Rarotongan culture and history.
(Tours operate Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from 8:00 am – 12:00 pm; Phone/Fax: (682) 21079; e-mail: email@example.com. Be sure to wear sturdy hiking boots or runners and bring a camera, sunscreen, mosquito repellant, and plenty of water.)
Local Colour for Rarotonga:
The Ethnic Mix
The Cook Islands Cultural Village Tour takes visitors on a trip back in time. The friendly hosts, dressed in traditional costumes, lead visitors from hut to hut to experience a piece of the Cook Island’s past. Guests can see demonstrations of weaving, costume making, dancing, and carving. This three and a half hour tour ends with a delicious feast of local delicacies and a show featuring traditional dance and music. (Rates from: NZ $56.00; Tour operates: Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays; Phone: (682) 21314 or 55714; Fax: (682) 25557; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; Website: http://www.cookislandsculturalvillage.com.)
Raro Mountain Safari Tours is the perfect way to see the rugged interior of Rarotonga without breaking a sweat. Guests are ferried in a 4 x 4 vehicle along Are Metua, an ancient road built with volcanic slabs of rock. The trip includes a stunning view of the lagoon and visits to historical sites such as the sacred alter and ancient meeting place Te Arai-Te-Tonga Marae. (Tours operate: Seven days a week at 9:00 am and 1:30 pm. Saturdays and Sundays are available for private charters; Phone: (682) 23629; E-mail: email@example.com; Website: http://www.rarosafaritours.co.ck)
Highland Paradise offers tours of the restored site of the Timomana tribe’s village. Set high on a mountainside, Highland Paradise offers a two-hour tour of 10 acres of manicured gardens filled with native plants. The tour also includes a trip further up the mountain to ancient tribal sites such as the Timomana Marae, Turtle rock, the Chief’s Throne, and Face stone. (Phone: (682) 28924; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; Website: http://www.highlandparadise.co.ck)
Punanga Nui Marketplace is a great place to shop for black pearls and arts and crafts. Held every Saturday morning in downtown Avarua, the market is packed with brightly coloured vending booths hawking their wares. Be sure to sample the boiled taro root or, for the really adventurous, the rather unpleasant, yet reputedly healthy, nono juice.
With 244 rooms, the Edgewater Resort is the largest resort on Rarotonga. Although it has been open for 20 years, the facilities are modern and recently renovated—the resort just built 36 new rooms. The Edgewater Resort was hit hard by the cyclones in February, but it recovered quickly; there is almost no trace of damage. There are five categories of accommodation, including VIP Deluxe Suites, Beachfront Deluxe Suites, Beachfront Rooms, Garden Superior Rooms, and Garden View Rooms. The Beachfront Deluxe Suites are the best value. These spacious rooms offer stunning lagoon views and feature a giant Jacuzzi tub. Tuesday and Saturday nights, the Brasserie Restaurant hosts one of the biggest and best “Island Nights,” a show featuring traditional Rarotongan dancing and music. The Edgewater has no shortage of facilities or friendly staff; however, the resort does lack the charm and intimate ambience found at the smaller hotels and resorts.
(Rates from: NZ $240.00; Phone: (682) 25435; Fax: (682) 25475; E-mail: email@example.com; website: http://www.edgewater.co.ck; Facilities include: Mal’s Bar; the Brasserie Restaurant which is open for breakfast, lunch, and themed a la carte dinners and buffets; complimentary breakfast; Edgewater Health Spa; the Spaghetti House Restaurant; Budget Rent-A-Car; fitness centre; souvenir gift shops; black pearl boutique; tennis courts; daily culture, leisure, and sporting activities. Commission: 10%)
Located on one of the nicest beaches on Rarotonga, Muri Beachcomber has 22 beachfront and garden units set amongst well-tended grounds. The best rooms are units one, ten, and fourteen—they are closest to the beach and offer the best lagoon views. All rooms are quaintly decorated and filled with fresh hibiscus flowers. Muri Beachcomber wants guests to feel like they are at a tropical home away from home. Although comfortable, the units do not offer a great deal of privacy. Many of the verandas are shared with the room next door. According to Debbie Moore, the friendly and helpful manager of the property, there are renovation plans for the near future, including refinishing the courtesy lounge and updating the bathrooms. There is no restaurant on the property, but Sails restaurant is located next door.
(Rates from: NZ $255.00; Phone: (682) 21022; Fax: (682) 21323; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; Website: http://www.beachcomber.co.ck; Facilities include: complimentary breakfast, snorkeling equipment; kayaks; courtesy lounge; scooter hire. Commission: 10%)
The Rarotongan Beach Resort and Spa has something for everyone. One of the largest hotels on the island, this resort offers a variety of different levels of accommodation. The best value is the Jr. Suite Beach Front, a spacious and thoughtfully decorated room. It’s the details—such as the window that looks onto the beach in place of a bathroom mirror—that make this resort such a luxurious stay. The Rarotongan is also a great destination for families. The Moko’s Kid’s Club offers a playroom and activities program guaranteed to ensure young ones are happy and entertained.
(Rates from: NZ $380.00; Phone: (682) 25800; (682) 25799; E-mail: email@example.com; website: http://www.therarotongan.com; Facilities include: Te Vaka Restaurant; Captain Andy’s Beach Bar and Grill; Gourmet Ice Cream Parlour; SpaPolynesia spa therapy; Salon Vivo; black pearl boutique; Moko Kid’s Club; Budget Rent-A-Car; 24-hour Internet booths; Island Night with island’s only authentic uma (earthoven) feast; a variety of complimentary activities including snorkeling, fish feeding, kayaks, dance lessons, tennis, ukulele and log drum lessons, flower garland making, and novice scuba lessons.)
To hire a care in Rarotonga, it is necessary to purchase a Cook Islands drivers’ license from the Rarotonga Police Station, located in Avarua. To obtain a license you will need to show your current American driver license and pay a fee of NZ $10.00. For scooter licenses, you will either have to show proof of a motorcycle license or take a quick (and easy) road test. Remember that in the Cook Islands, traffic drives on the left side of the road.
Cars can be rented at AVIS Rent-A-Car (Rates from: NZ $55.00; Phone: 22833; Fax: 21702; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org).
Scooters are available at Ace Motorcycles. (Rates from: $20.00; Phone: (682) 22833; Fax: (682) 21702).
For the young at heart, two passenger electric vehicles can be rented from Fun Rentals. (Rates from: NZ $65.00; Phone: (682) 22426; Fax: (682) 22436, E-mail: email@example.com)
Bicycles are another popular mode of transportation and are available at most major hotels and resorts. The prices start around NZ $12.00 a day.