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First Timer’s Guide To The Pacific Paradise Of Rarotonga, Cook Islands


There are few places on the planet as beautiful as the Cook Islands and the good news is in the not too distant future travel there will once again become a reality. Here, Jo Harvey-Graham gives us the low down for a first timer.

After so many escapes to Rarotonga, Cook Islands, I now like to think of myself as a local. But even the first-timer is made to feel like they’ve arrived at a home-away-from home.

From the ukulele welcome at the airport, to the many roadside fruit stallholders and everyone in-between, the Cook Islanders wrap you up in one big warm friendly embrace.

You can flop and drop all you like – the tropical water and beaches are some of the best in the world – but if you want a bit more action there’s plenty of it to be had there too. 

Photo by Fabian Wiktor on

Here are my top 7 tips for getting the most out of your first visit.

  1. Hire a house

If you want to really experience living like a local, hire a house. There are many to choose from and my top pick is one right on the beach in the Rarotonga village of Titikaveka. This is where you will find the best beach on the island (every beach on the island is great but this one is spectacular). All tidal swimming, great snorkelling and lots of coral free sandy stretches if that is more your thing. The house I hire ($230 per night) is about 10 steps to the water, has two bedrooms, large deck, kayaks, outdoor shower and every amenity you’ll need for a comfortable stay. There is also a fruit stall on the opposite side of the road – perfect for pawpaw’s, coconuts (the lovely lady will open these for you if needed), sweet bananas and sometimes you get banana bread – delicious!

  1. Volunteer at the local vet clinic

The Esther Honey Foundation was set up to help provide locals with vet care on the island. Everyone that works here is pretty much a volunteer. They do wonderful and often free work for locals whose pets need help. We always email them and ask what they need. We often take in food, worming tablets and dog collars. You can also walk the dogs – they love company and would appreciate stretching their legs. Nothing beats helping those that can’t help themselves. Especially while on holiday. Give a little, it makes a massive difference.
  1. Cycle around the island

Hire a push bike and do the around the island bike ride. If you are like me and eat, drink and usually add a few pounds to your holiday then there is nothing better than shaking if off with a good two-hour ride. The best thing is you can order your bike on the phone and it will get dropped off to your address and picked up again when you are done (you can hire for as little or as long as you like). I asked for a basket so I could pack my phone (for photos) and a heap of water and my togs and towel. You can stop off the myriad beaches, swim and I always think you see more on a bike than in a car.

  1. Do the over island walk

If you are up to it, and want to see some of the most picture postcard views and stunning scenery there is nothing or no better place to see it than from the top of the highest point in the middle of the island. This trek is not for the faint hearted but is well worth the effort. It starts from one side of the island and ends up at the other end. There is also a cooling waterfall at one end, which is perfect for cooling off after the hike. There is a local guide if needed. The walk is signposted, but care is needed.   Take lots of water and sensible shoes and I think it’s best to go with someone. Always let someone know when you are going and what time you are leaving. Early morning is often best as it’s the cooler part of day.
  1. Go to the markets

Each Saturday morning a market is held in town. Here is the place to check out locally made produce, goods and so much more. The food here is incredible! From local produce, drinks to baked goods so fresh it’s a foodie’s paradise! If you are lucky enough to be in your home house, here is where you want to do some food shopping. Fresh fruit and fish is a must. Not to mention some of the best brownies I have ever tasted. The fruit juice is like no other and worth taking a few bottles back to the house to enjoy over the next few days. If you need to pick yourself up some souvenirs this is the place to do it too. We suggest getting up early so you don’t miss out.

  1. Take a day trip to Aitutaki

If budget allows you must do a day trip to Aitutaki. The cost and 40-minute flight are well worth the expense. If you thought flying into Rarotonga was special, Aitutaki takes it up a notch again. I’ve been lucky enough to go a few times and every time I am left breathless. Think of the most beautiful coloured water, whitest sand and tropical paradise, because this is it. You’ll get flights, transfers, boat trip to Aitutaki, a BBQ lunch, entertainment and the best snorkelling in the Cooks. I cannot recommend this highly enough.
  1. Hire a scooter

There is no better way to get around than on a scooter. Head into town to get your local licence and you are good to go. You know how I mentioned living like a local, well nothing says local more than your very own licence. It’s fun, doesn’t take long and is a great souvenir. Check out the inner roads where you’ll find stunning island homes, food stalls, wonderful views, pawpaw farms and the most breathtaking scenery you’ll see. It also gives you the opportunity to see schools, the sports stadium, hospital and the jail. Why not!

beach birds calm clouds
Photo by Pixabay on


To help travellers with Polynesian planning, the Cook Islands has created an all new virtual reality feature online, showcasing six of their 15 islands.  

Virtual planners can navigate their way around popular islands such as Rarotonga and Aitutaki from a computer, tablet or mobile device, whilst also utilising the 360 navigation tool for an expanded outlook on accommodation, lagoons, scenic views and sites, plus dining facilities and activity locations.  

Take in aerial views of Aitutaki lagoon, place yourself on One Foot Island or snorkel on Muri Lagoon in Rarotonga and plan a picnic spot near Black Rock to sip sunset drinks.  Explore accommodation options ranging from self-contained properties to lagoon facing resorts.

See to view 360 Virtual Tours and safety practices including a CookSafe contact tracing programme, ahead of welcoming visitors soon.

Written by Jo Harvey-Graham

A one-time colleague of The Carousel's publisher Robyn Foyster while they worked together at New Idea, Jo has been in publishing for most of her working life. She ran a successful boutique media publishing house in New Zealand for several years and boasts an impeccable sales, marketing and management background. When she’s not road-testing the latest cosmetic procedures, or investigating the hottest lifestyle, fashion and beauty trends, Jo is invariably sunning herself in tropical climes, back home in NZ catching up with family and friends, or working on her golf swing!

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