Things to see and do: Rarotonga

Despite my longish history of blogging I have never really done much in the way of travel writing unless you count that time I told everyone in mind-numbing detail about how I lost my passport in between countries, or the slightly less dramatic tale of my Singapore sunburn.

But having just had a blissful week of relaxation in Rarotonga I find that I am in possession of some possibly useful advice for those looking to travel to this outpost of the Cook Islands – so why not share?

(By the way, if you are from another dazzingly beautiful tropical island and would like to shout me a trip there so that I might write about it in a similar manner, don’t be shy. Do get in touch.)

Things to pack (or not)

  • Yes to earplugs. Roosters, man. They don’t just crow first thing in the morning (though they’ll do it then for sure). Chickens and roosters are everywhere in Rarotonga and boy, don’t they let you know it. If you think you’ll want a sleep in at any point I highly recommend some earplugs. I use mouldable silicon ones because I find them the most comfortable but whatever brand or style works for you.
  • Maybe to snorkels. I snorkelled every day that I was in Rarotonga. I thought I might be freaked out by having so many fish in close proximity to me but it became apparent that I am far less fascinating than I imagined and they pretty much went about their business as if I weren’t there. Nice work playing it cool, fish-friends. I borrowed 2 sets of snorkels, masks and fins from a friend of a friend before leaving and… that was pretty much my carry on space taken up. And then I got to the house we’d rented and found they had a whole stash of snorkel equipment in the shed. This wasn’t mentioned anywhere in the accommodation listing so if you’re not sure you might want to check. There are lots of places you can rent snorkel gear too but I found it pretty handy having a set I could use whenever the mood struck.
  • No to stuff with lots of packaging. There are not a lot of places to put rubbish on a smallish island so consider being minimal with your waste both when packing and when buying while there.
  • Yes to reef-safe sunscreen. I didn’t know this before but most sunscreens contain chemicals that aren’t good for the health of coral reefs, fortunately I had inside knowledge from a local who suggested Aloe Up. I got the 30 SPF 118ml tube and used quite a bit of it over the course of the week, reapplying after every swim (of which there were many). Result? No sunburn (even after snorkelling on a hot sunny day) and I still have about 1/3 of a tube left. It smells nice and isn’t too greasy either.
  • Yes to a light source. It’s really dark at night, there are uneven surfaces, big-as crab holes and not much street lighting. So bring a torch or your phone.
  • Maybe to reef shoes. If you’ve already got some, bring them because if you stand on a Stonefish you will effing know about it. But don’t feel the need to buy some especially to take (it’s not so easy to find them in the shops in winter anyway) as you can buy the best reef shoes ever when you get there. I had my eye out for some to buy and noticed that the guys who work on the lagoon cruises, who are basically working on and around reefs every day had what looked like jelly shoes on. The next day I spotted them at Raromart and bought a pair. A steal at $8.50, they don’t get waterlogged, AND when they’re not being reef shoes they are totally cute summer sandals.
Rarotonga reef sandals aka jelly shoes
Eleven year old me is thrilled that I finally got jelly shoes!

Things to see (or not)

  • Before leaving watch Moana. No, really. That whole Pacific migration/sea explorer vibe really made my trip feel a lot more grounded in whakapapa than I had imagined it would and that is largely due to a dumb Disney movie and no, I don’t care what that says about me. Here, I’ll let Auli’i Cravalho explain it.
  • Speaking of which, just north of Muri Beach at the top of the lagoon there is a gap in the reef and this is the place where the seven waka of the great migration to Aotearoa departed from Rarotonga. I whakapapa to Te Arawa and it was actually a very moving experience looking out to sea in much the same way that Moana does and imagining the great ocean journey that my tupuna undertook that lead to the peopling of Aotearoa. There are various signs and plaques commemorating this. I feel like this should be a pilgrimage of sorts for New Zealanders. This is where we started!
Sign of the Seven Waka, Muri Lagoon, Rarotonga
Sign to look for just north of Muri Beach
Muri Lagoon, Rarotonga
Where Muri Lagoon meets the ocean. *I’ve been staring at the edge of the water…*
  • Nope to Wigmore’s Waterfall. There’s a charge of $5 per vehicle to drive up to where the waterfall is and it is distinctly underwhelming. How underwhelming? Exhibit A:
Wigmore's Waterfall, Rarotonga
Maybe? If there’s been heavy rain? But probably not.
  • Maybe to the Maire Nui Botanical Gardens. I’m not a gardener and I’m not hugely interested in plants so it was a nice enough walk but I soon became bored. I took a few nice photos of flowers though. Depends on what you’re into, really.

Things to do

  • A lagoon cruise. There are two companies, Captain Tama’s and Koka Lagoon cruises. They both have similar packages and I don’t know that there’s much difference between them. They both offer glass bottomed boat cruises on Muri Lagoon with supervised snorkelling followed by lunch and entertainment on the same small island. The main difference I could determine was that Captain Tama’s entertainment was “educational” i.e. learning about coconuts, how they’re used etc. and advanced pareu (sarong) folding for all your resort-wear needs whereas Koka’s seemed to be more song and dance focused. I cannot attest to the cheesiness of the Koka’s cruise tour guide patter but ours was HIGH CHEESE. Cringingly so, in some cases. Do tourists (ie the target market) have universally terrible taste? Quite possibly.
Muri Lagoon cruise
I’m willing to suffer a few cheesy jokes for views like this and barbecued banana.
  • If you’re on a budget (like me) and not staying at a resort that’s no reason you can’t avail yourself of their facilities. As long as you’re buying food and/or drink it is perfectly acceptable to hit the nearest resort for the cocktail of the day and a swim in their pool. And a lie down on their loungers. And maybe a slight gatecrash of a poolside wedding’s dancefloor. Nobody cares (except for that one snarky bridesmaid).
  • Talk to local people. The people who owned our rental house were lovely and we had some great chats with them about the best nightspots, local politics and which of the breadfruit on the tree out the front were ripe. The bus drivers are also generally pretty chatty and happy to answer questions. Tip for travellers: Get a return ticket for the bus, $8 rather than 2 single trips at $5 each. Took me ages to figure this one out. I could have bought several ice-creams with that money…
  • Don’t just be a annoying tourist – do something useful while you’re there. Our group did a beach clean up for about half an hour at the historic lagoon sight mentioned above, then we chucked the bags in the back of the rental car and took them to the local refuse station. Added bonus I saw some cool little crabs and some skinks!
  • Markets. The Punanga Market in Avarua on a Saturday is great for a chilled drinking coconut plus touristy buys and food. There’s also a dance performance on the stage so if you don’t want to stump up for an expensive “Island Night” experience, this is a reasonable, free alternative. The Muri Beach night market is every other night and has some really yummy, pretty affordable food. I had the chicken in rukau (taro leaves) and it was great.

So that’s my accumulated wisdom on the subject of holidaying in Rarotonga. It’s a truly stunning place to visit and as I glance at the Metservice info for Christchurch (rain, 4° overnight low) I desperately wish to go back. Maybe one day…

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