Rarotonga, the main island in the Cook Islands, is one of the most popular beach getaway destinations for New Zealanders. It’s compact, easy to get around and has beautiful beaches – the perfect spot for a relaxing few days at the beach. In this Rarotonga travel guide I’ll give you all the information you need to plan your trip to Rarotonga.
Getting to Rarotonga
Flights to Rarotonga often land just after midnight, a weird time to arrive at a tropical island destination. Our departing flight was at a much more civilized hour, and we got some great views of the island as we left — this is a flight you should get a window seat for!
Visas / Getting to Your Hotel
You don’t need a visa to travel to the Cook Islands — anyone can visit for up to 31 days assuming you have a return flight and a valid visa for the next country. Once at the airport you’ll get a taxi or shuttle to your accommodation. You can usually book this through your hotel or organise it when you arrive.
We arrived just after midnight and opted to stay at an Airbnb a short distance from the airport. No point wasting money on a resort when you’re arriving so late! It was a good plan, but we decided to walk the 1 km or so from the airport, which wasn’t a good plan. The main road was dark and busy and the back roads were quiet and pitch black — luckily someone stopped and gave us a ride. I wouldn’t recommend walking at that hour — I’m sure the taxis are cheap enough for short distances. It did give us an early taste of the awesome Rarotongan hospitality though.
If arriving during the day you can order a private transfer / shuttle, catch a bus (you may get charged extra for big bags) or easily walk if you’re staying in Avurua.
The Time Zone
The Cook Islands is 22 hours behind New Zealand, which managed to confuse us. We saw our arrival was a day earlier on our booking but since it was just past midnight we figured it was some kind of mistake (our travel skills are definitely getting rusty). We ended up needing to book an extra night a few weeks later after realising. It’s weird to me that the Cook Islands has this time zone when most of its Pacific neighbours don’t.
Getting Around the Island
Buses circle the main road around Rarotonga in both directions – you’re never too far from where you want to go. It’s a cheap and easy way to get around the island (buy the 10 trip pass for more savings). Buses aren’t always on time though so may have to wait a little while, which is the only downside.
The Cook Islands uses the New Zealand Dollar (with local Cook Islands notes and coins). You can use your NZD there as you would in New Zealand. There are also ATMs and you can use your credit cards in most places.
Where to Stay
Your choice of hotel, resort, Airbnb or beach shack has a huge influence on your trip. It’s a good idea to do some research and really look into what you want out of a tropical beach holiday and not just book the first place you see on special. Lots of people go for resort package deals which often don’t work out that cheap (and the resorts often aren’t the best).
We stayed at a range of places on our 10-day trip to Rarotonga and recommend all of them for various reasons. Muri Beach Club, with prime position at the best beach on the island, is perfect for couples and people who want to spend time relaxing at the resort.
It’s not cheap, but not as high end as others and the location can’t be beaten. We only stayed there for one night and made sure we didn’t have anything on our schedule — we always try to make the most of resorts like this.
READ MORE: Muri Beach and Lagoon Guide
If you’re exploring the island a bit more during the days you might want to save money on accommodation — no point paying $400 a night if you aren’t around to enjoy it! We stayed at the Edgewater (West Coast) and Aroko Bungalows (Muri) and both were at the lower end of the scale (Edgewater around $200 at the time, Aroko $160). They were quite different, with the Edgewater an aging, family friendly resort and Aroko Bungalows a quieter, more rustic option with views of Muri Lagoon.
If you’re looking for a quiet resort with an excellent beach, consider staying at Aroa Beachside Inn. We spent the final two nights of our trip there and loved the laid-back atmosphere, sunsets and the picturesque beach bar.
READ MORE: Aroa Beach and the West Coast of Rarotonga
And finally, you’ve got Airbnbs and other holiday rentals. We stayed in Atupa Orchid Units in Avarua for our first night and it was great value. It, or something similar, could be a good option for families looking to keep the costs down. Avarua is less than 30 minutes by bus from the best beaches, so you can spend most of the day enjoying the beaches and then come back and cook your own meals and have space for the whole family.
Check out holiday rentals at Airbnb or Rarotonga hotels and resorts on Booking.com.
Where to Eat
There are small restaurants scattered around the 32 km long road around Rarotonga. You’re never too far from one, so it’s rare to be staying at a resort and have no walkable meal options. Muri Beach is the place to go if multiple food options is important to you. There are a few places along the main street, beachside resort restaurants and the Muri Night Market (make sure to go at least once on your trip).
There’s also a market in Avarua as well as bars and restaurants. We also stumbled on a small night market near the Edgewater Resort (Flying Turtle Cafe). Our favourite meal was the “Island BBQ” at Aroa Beach (Shipwreck Hut) — such a filling meal of meat and seafood!
Rarotonga is home to several stunning beach areas, with Muri in the southeast of the island being the best in terms of views, beach quality and things to do.
Aroa Beach is another good one to seek out, and (most of) the stretch between Aroa Beach and Muri Beach features sand and water as inviting as any tropical island you could hope to visit.
I wrote a post about the best beaches in Rarotonga — give it a read and it might make choosing where to stay a bit easier.
The Cross Island Track is the most popular walk in Rarotonga. It takes you from Avarua all the way across the island to the west coast and is the best way to get a feel for the lush interior of Rarotonga. There are other walks too including the short track up to Hospital Hill Lookout, but most people will be content with the Cross Island Track (and plenty of beach walking).
Other Things to Do
You can do boat tours (which mostly hang around Muri Lagoon), snorkeling, kayaking, paddle boarding, fishing charters, spa treatments, cultural shows and lots more, but I reckon most of your time will be spent at the beach.
READ MORE: 12 of the Best Things to Do in Rarotonga
Anywhere between four and 10 days is a typical length of a Rarotonga trip, and how you break that up depends on what kind of trip you want. Some people will be happy staying at one resort the whole time while others will want to move around a bit. If you have a week or more you’ve got plenty of time to stay at two different places. This could be Muri and Aroa Beach, giving you a good look at two very different parts of the island.
So, a simple Itinerary would see you stay in Muri Beach for three or four nights and then two or three nights in Aroa Beach (or maybe Palm Grove). How you spend those days varies a lot — some people will be keen to get out and explore while others will barely leave their resort! I realise this itinerary is vague but tropical islands like this don’t tend to need itineraries. Read my post about the best things to do in Rarotonga and add whatever looks interesting into your already packed schedule of reading, drinking cocktails and relaxing on the beach.
Are you planning a trip to Rarotonga? Let me know in the comments below!
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