Whether you’re looking to relax or dip a toe into Polynesian culture, you’ll be surprised by the diversity of experiences on the Cook Islands' largest isle.
The jewel of the Cook Islands, Rarotonga is an unspoilt tropical idyll where stretches of deserted white-sand beach meet lush rainforest, all framed by postcard-perfect volcanic peaks.
Deliciously remote, with a rich and welcoming local culture, incredible natural beauty and a thriving reef, the island is paradise personified. Exclusive resorts, activities for everyone from sun worshippers to thrill-seekers, and plenty of waterside dining options only add to the fun.
So lay back and let the turquoise water lapping at your toes and wafts of frangipani transport you away – you’ll be in heaven the moment your feet hit the sand.
When you crave seclusion, Aitutaki is a short flight away, where you can take a boat trip out to the lagoon, snorkel to see one of the world's largest coral lagoons or explore uninhabited tropical islets.
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Eat & Drink
Locally owned and operated, Love Café is the spot for your morning pick-me-up. This friendly cafe serves some of the best coffee on the island, as well as freshly baked sweet treats, from a breezy red seaside shack in Tupapa. The team do their bit to keep this patch of paradise pristine, offering 50 cents off your coffee order when you bring a reusable cup.
On the hunt for lunch? Making its home in Muri, The Mooring Fish Café is a favourite for fresh, local produce and quality seafood. Think tuna tacos, F.O.B (fresh off the boat) fish sandwiches and, of course, fish and chips. Top your lunch off with a fresh drinking coconut.
If you really want to immerse yourself in the culture of the Cook Islands and find your own piece of Rarotonga magic to take home, a visit to the bustling Punanga Nui Market is a must. Showcasing the produce of local fishermen, farmers and artists, the stalls are bursting with local handicrafts, herbs, fresh flowers, organic fruits and vegetables, sarongs, local pearls and gifts. It’s a must-visit spot on a Saturday morning, when locals and tourists alike descend for a breakfast of local delicacies.
The best way to experience the colours and beauty of the Rarotonga sunset is with a cocktail in hand, and the finest spot for on the island for both is the award-winning Little Polynesian Resort, a member of the prestigious Small Luxury Hotels of the World collection. Toast to your perfect island escape with a piña colada or daiquiri overlooking the resort’s stunning infinity pool, which opens straight onto the white sand beach, and stay for dinner with views of the shimmering Titikaveka lagoon. The menu features local and international favourites like Polynesian spiced lamb and slow-roasted chicken fillet filled with local spinach (rukau).
For a romantic meal with sweeping views over the Pacific Ocean, the restaurant at Antipodes at Black Rock is a sure bet. Perched on a cliff edge surrounded by lush rainforest, this private retreat is home to an alfresco Mediterranean restaurant with 180-degree views of the water – which makes for a truly breathtaking dining experience come sunset. The light Mediterranean menu (paired with an impressive wine list) is a perfect match for the local climate. Antipodes is currently open for dinner from Tuesday to Saturday: be sure to book ahead to secure your spot.
There’s dinner with a view, and then there’s dinner from the comfort of your beach towel. Island Platters can bring the best of Rarotonga’s local produce to you wherever you’re perched, in the form of a freshly made food platter. Enjoy everything from seafood, sashimi and grilled local game fish to spring rolls, wraps, salads, and Cook Islands' favourite, maniota chips. Heading out early? You can even order a breakfast platter, laden with tropical fruits, coconut loaf and granola. Whether you’re after a romantic beachside feast for two or a meal for a large group, this is a great way to experience the island without the hassle of dressing for dinner.
If you can drag yourself from your chosen patch of sand, Rarotonga’s tropical fish, sea turtles, a shipwreck and 73 types of coral make for a snorkellers’ playground – and the best way to see it all is on a sea scooter. This lightweight water propulsion device is a fun and easy way to cover more reef on your snorkel. Before you head off, you’ll have a short training session to get you comfortable using the device, and, once you get going, three speeds let you choose the tempo. It’s the best way to cruise Rarotonga lagoons, explore 100-year-old shipwreck and get up close with a local bluefin or black trevally. Sea Scooter experiences are available through Ariki Adventures or KiteSUP at Muri Beach, and you're likely to spy turtles and eagle rays.
Or, if you prefer a more relaxed pace, why not explore the island by stand-up paddle board (SUP)? Paddle boarding is one of the most popular ways to experience the beauty of Rarotonga’s azure waters, with guided tours, night boarding, and even floating yoga on offer – or simply lay back on your board and sunbathe. As you cruise the calm waters of the lagoon, spot vibrant blue parrot fish.
Head inland to explore the island with your own personal buggy on a mud-soaked tour with Raro Buggy Tours. You’ll experience the island’s natural beauty on a tour led by professional guides, tailored to your group’s experience level. Or lace up your shoes and explore the island by foot with a hinterland hike. The Raemaru trek is only 60 minutes, but the views are breathtaking. As you make the 350-metre mountain ascent, views of the ocean peep out of the jungle canopy until you reach the summit – where all that’s left to do is sit back and enjoy the view.
As the sun dips beneath the sea, feel the ancient culture of Polynesia come to life around you with a sunset feast and show at a local mountain village, thanks to Highland Paradise Cook Islands Cultural Centre. The night begins with an authentic warrior welcome and guided village tour, followed by cocktails and a traditional umu (underground oven) feast, then a stage show with traditional dance and music. These are the Rarotonga moments that will stick with you long after your tan has faded.
Want to keep the Cook Islands magic going a little longer? Explore Rarotonga’s sister island, Aitutaki. Read 5 Reasons Why You Should Choose Aitutaki on Your Next Cook Islands Trip.