Pacific playtime: Why Rarotonga is paradise for families

You’ll never have to worry about the kids enjoying themselves in the Cook Islands’ most-populated isle – it’s about as child-friendly as any place gets.

A women standing on the beach shore
  • Words Craig Tansley
  • April 2018

When I was growing up in the Cook Islands, my mother never had to look far for babysitters. Three decades later, nothing’s changed. Locals still adore kids, so much so that across the islands children are considered sacred.

There’s no safer place for families to holiday in the South Pacific. Unlike other islands in the region – such as Samoa, Tahiti or Fiji’s main island Viti Levu – you never have to travel far to get where you’re going, and traffic jams are unheard of. You can drive the circumference of Rarotonga in 35 minutes, even with a leisurely speed limit of 50km/h, though most people get about on scooters at half that.

Traffic hazards on the Cook Islands’ most-populated isle come in the form of roving pigs and dogs, not cars.

Kids snorkeling in the lagoon near Aitutaki, Cook Islands
Kids snorkeling in the lagoon near Aitutaki, Cook Islands

Rarotonga is as child-friendly as it gets. A barrier reef runs around the island, creating safe swimming spots in every direction. Families tend to prefer the lagoon at Muri, where they can swim between four uninhabited islets, or motus, in water that’s rarely deeper than chest-height.

Muri also plays host to some of the island’s most family-friendly activities. Think glass-bottom boat day cruises across the lagoon, with barbecue lunches served on empty beaches; sailing between the brightly coloured coral heads of the lagoon; paddleboarding around islands; or kayaking with the whole family.

Back on dry land, the Muri night markets run Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays, just a few metres from the lagoon. Families always flock here: it’s a great place to meet locals and save money, with island specialty dishes that cost less than $15.

My preferred swimming spot can be found a little further round the island at Titikaveka, where the lagoon is almost as wide as Muri’s. When the sun’s out, no lagoon in the South Pacific looks bluer. Schools of fish congregate just offshore and snorkelling is at its safest here for children.

From July to October, I also often see families gathered on the other side of Rarotonga, near the main township of Avarua and at Tupapa. Here the reef is closest to the shore and humpback whales and their calves swim just 100 metres away, often accompanied by pods of spinner dolphins.

On such a small island not yet saturated with tourists, it’s easy for families to learn about Polynesian life. Cook Islanders are the extroverts of the Pacific – they’re always eager to chat, particularly if you’re holidaying with children. Friendly locals sell coconuts by the roadside and you only need travel 100 metres from the busier coast road to discover an interior where local farmers still live off taro and pawpaw plantations.

Local musicians playing on a beach in Rarotonga, Cook Islands
Local musicians playing on a beach in Rarotonga, Cook Islands

Almost every restaurant on Rarotonga caters for families, and usually right on the beach, meaning children can roam between courses. On the western side of the island at Arorangi, locals and visitors gather for sunsets over the lagoon. Island nights are held every night of the week at eateries across Rarotonga, offering families an introduction to Polynesian culture filled with frenetic drumming and dancing, and food prepared in underground ovens known as umu.

Families can learn more at the Highland Paradise Cultural Centre and Te Vara Nui Cultural Village. Every Saturday morning there are also Polynesian dancing shows and local delicacies on display in Avarua at the colourful Punanga Nui market.

Most resorts on Rarotonga cater for families, with many offering extensive children’s programs. The Rarotongan Beach Resort & Spa offers family specials, including free accommodation for children under 11, a crèche for children under two and a free kids’ club that is regarded as one of the best in the South Pacific. The Pacific Resort and Edgewater Resort & Spa likewise offer kids’ clubs where children are taught local customs and games.

Many inclusive adventures are on offer too: from 4WD tours into the island’s mountainous hinterland, to cross-island hikes and bicycle tours through parts rarely seen by visitors.