The best things to do in Rarotonga
Land or water, there are plenty of things to do in the Cook Islands. Try these out for size.
- May 2018
- Updated February 2024
Renting a car or scooter is the easiest way to explore, allowing you to pull over on a whim at a secluded beach or foreshore bar. The maximum speed limit is 50 km/h, there’s no parking meters or peak hour and if you overshoot your destination it’s just a quick U-turn to get back on track.
Along with more modest vehicles, Polynesian Rental Cars has a fleet of Mini Cooper convertibles. On an island where there are more goats than convertibles, you will get a few stares, but cruising around with the roof down blasting 70s hits on Kia Orana Radio is a guilty pleasure.
Venturing into the lush hinterland is worth the effort. For a challenge, trek to Rarotonga’s highest point, Te Rua Manga or “The Needle”. The overland track winds through jungle to the summit, where panoramic views and a heart-in-your-mouth scramble up the rockface awaits. Hiring a guide is the safest way to experience the track and the best way to pick up local knowledge.
Storyteller’s Cycle Tours lets you pick up local lore while working off lunch. The “storytellers” are local guides who lead mountain bike tours through the inland roads and fields. Each trip is tailored to suit the day, group and the storyteller’s whims, and you’ll be pleased to know that 10 per cent of profits go to community development projects.
Cook Islanders have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the medicinal and practical uses of native plants, and at any given time the tour might stop for a nibble of tart mini mini berries or an impromptu bush medicine lesson. There are tours for every ability levels; all you need is sensible shoes and a thirst for knowledge and tropical fruit.
The drive-yourself guided Raro Buggy Tour offered by Muri Beach Club lets you explore the interior at full throttle. Once you’ve got the hang of the loud sputtering buggies, the bone-jolting ride is great fun. Just don’t wear white clothing; things get muddy. A highlight is a shortcut through the ruins of an ill-fated five-star resort. The huge compound is now almost exclusively used for buggy tours, paintballing and the grazing of goats.
On the sea
Snorkelling in warm, crystal-clear waters surrounded by hyper-coloured tropical fish is a quintessential Cook Islands experience. The best sites are Aro’a beach and opposite the Fruits of Rarotonga. A lagoon cruise is an enjoyable way to make a day of it.
Captain Tama’s Lagoon Cruizes offer an idyllic morning bobbing about on a glass-bottom boat, followed by a barbecue of fresh fish on an offshore island. Tama’s crew is big on personality and can be a little cheeky – bring the kids, but be ready to cover their ears.
The deep drop-off around Rarotonga makes it a prime game fishing location. Haul in yellow fin tuna, marlin or mahi mahi on one of the many tours run by local fishing charters.
If you’re lucky, your hotel or an obliging beachfront restaurant might cook up your day’s catch for dinner.
The close encircling reef makes Rarotonga a world-class spot to view whales migrating through the warm Pacific waters. From July to October, up to 15 species of whales can be sighted. At many points around the island it is even possible to watch the whales breach offshore while you’re kicking back at a beachside bar.
Stand-up paddleboarding (SUP) on the placid waters of the lagoon is a popular pastime on Rarotonga. Many resorts have paddleboards for guest use.
The protected Muri Beach lagoon is particularly popular, where the conditions are so calm that you can even catch an on-water yoga lesson. KiteSUP offers classes in SUPYoga, as well as lessons in other water sports, and gear hire.