Some people return to “Raro” every year. It’s one of the most addicting places that I have ever visited. Most of the people that I have talked to who have visited Raro have been there several times. One friend even started a black pearl business in Raro just so he would have an excuse to return on a regular basis.
You’ll hear the phrase “Kia Orana” often throughout the Cook Islands. That’s their official greeting. It means “May you live long”. The pace of life is slow and easy on Rarotonga, much like Hawaii once was.
The total population of the Cook Islands is about 15,000. Throughout the islands you will be treated warmly and welcomed by the people.
The Cook Islands consist of 15 islands scattered over some 2 million square kilometers of Pacific Ocean. The islands lie at the center of the Polynesian Triangle, flanked to the west by the Kingdom of Tonga and Samoa and to the east by Tahiti and the islands of French Polynesia.
Cook Islanders are traditional, religious people. You will notice their white CICC churches throughout the islands. Most Cook Islanders are Christian, and attend church regularly. One of the highlights of a visit to Rarotonga is the Sunday morning service. To hear the choir sing their hymns in their native Maori language is a memorable experience.
Rarotonga…the vibrant center of the Cook Islands
Rarotonga is only 24 miles in circumference, so nothing is too far away. The “Cook Island Bus” is a convenient and economical way of getting around, making runs around the island every hour in both directions.
Many people opt to rent a motor scooter. There are a number of places around the island that offer scooter rentals. It’s a fun convenient way to see the island, but it helps to have some experience at riding motor bikes, and you have to remember to drive on the LEFT side of the road. I had a hard time with that last year… old habits really do die hard.
In order to rent a scooter you have to take a simple round-the-block scooter driving test in Avarua in order to get a Cook Islands drivers license. We had great fun zipping around the island on our scooter in the warm tropical weather.You also have the option of renting bicycles or cars. All transportation rentals are a personal expense, not part of the tour package.
The currency in the Cook Islands is the New Zealand dollar. When you arrive at the air terminal in Rarotonga you will be able to exchange your money for New Zealand dollars. There are other places around the island where you can exchange your money. We found the best exchange rate at the bank in Avarua. There is also a Western Union in Avarua where you can exchange your money. You get more for your money when you exchange American dollars for New Zealand dollars, but of course the rate varies from day to day.
You may want to stay over for a few days just to enjoy the island as a “tourist”. I heartily recommend it.
A great way to see Raro is from above. You can take a scenic flight around the island by light aircraft, or by helicopter. Inquire at the air terminal.
If you’re a hiker, you’ll want to take the cross island hike, for an up close and personal look at the mountainous jungle terrain. It’s a four-hour hike, and it takes you past the island’s mountain landmark, Te Rua Manga, the “Needle”, a unique rock spire. There are a number of shorter mountain hikes as well. Inquire about hiking at the visitors center in Avarua.
For the less ambitious hiker, the Takitumu Conservation Area offers gentle nature walks throught the lush forests, and along mountain streams where you will find a number of rare species of plants and birds.
You won’t find this activity in the tourist brochures, but we enjoyed just putt-putting around the island on our scooter. Such a contrast from our life in the Pacific Northwest, even at night on the scooter the air was pleasantly warm. We never got chilly.
The main road on the island, the Ara Tapu, is the one that skirts the fringe of the island. If you opt to rent a scooter, be sure and take an afternoon to explore the Ara Metua, the inner island road, then have dinner at one of the restaurants on the south side of the island. The Ara Metua runs roughly parallel to the Ara Tapu most of the way around the island. This is where you will see the true, authentic Polynesian countryside. We enjoyed exploring the little side roads off the Ara Metua that lead up into the mountains. On the Ara Metua, you’ll see all of the island crops, like taro, kumara, and all the tropical fruits. Many of the flowers that you see in the botanical gardens you’ll also see in the country gardens, and growing wild along the Ara Metua.
One of the best ways to get acquainted with the island is by taking the safari tour, an exciting and educational tour of the island in four-wheel drive vehicles. Along with a dose of island history from your tour guide, and some great views from high up on the mountain, you’ll enjoy a freshly caught fish barbecue lunch… the perfect way to end the tour. You’ll find Safari Tour brochures at your resort.
Another way to get acquainted with Cook Island culture is to visit the Cultural Village. This three-hour cultural experience includes weaving, coconut husking, fire-making, carving, local storytelling, traditional dancing, concluding with an island lunch and show.
For the golf enthusiast, there’s the Rarotongan Golf Club, a 9-hole course at Black Rock. Several hotels, including the Edgewater, have tennis courts. There’s also a lawn bowling green in Avarua.
An amazing underwater world awaits those who want to venture beyond the lagoon to the outer side of the reef. There you may see whales, hammer head sharks, grey and white-tip reef sharks, and sea turtles, as well as a wide array of colorful tropical fish. One of the great joys of diving in the Cook Islands is the visibility…100-foot plus year round!
The Outer Islands
Of the 15 islands in the Cook Group, Rarotonga and Aitutaki are the most popular. But if you are seeking solitude in an island paradise, the other lesser known islands are a world away from everywhere. Outer islands to consider in the southern group are Atiu, Mauke, Mitiaro, and Mangaia. In the northern group are Penrhyn, Manihiki, Rakahanga, Pukapuka, Nassau, Palmerston, and the most isolated and least visited of the Cook Islands, Suwarrow, known as the island where Tom Neale lived a solitary modern-day Robinson Crusoe life for five years. You can read the book, An Island to Oneself online.