Rarotonga may be a tiny dot in the South Pacific but it certainly packs a punch. Sublime snorkelling, rainforest hiking and Polynesian culture are all within reach in this Cook Islands paradise
Consisting of 15 tiny tropical islands straddling the tropics across some 2.2 million square kilometres of the South Pacific ocean, the Cook Islands are usually renowned as an idyllic tropical getaway popular with honeymooners. But, with international flight connections from the main island of Rarotonga to Auckland and Los Angeles, the Cooks are becoming an increasingly popular stop on round-the-world itineraries. I spent a week enjoying Rarotonga's stunning vistas and intoxicating blend of culture, adventure and sheer relaxation.
Arriving on Rarotonga the day before leaving Auckland, (that was certainly one to impress the mates back home - a quirk of crossing the international dateline), we looked on jealously as hotel drivers greeted guests with garlands before whisking them off in air-conditioned comfort to Rarotonga's five-star resorts. My airport transfer proved a little less luxurious: a rusting yellow minibus with its door apparently taped in place. "Vara's?" barked the driver. I was on my way!
Jostling for position alongside the swanky resorts surrounding Muri Lagoon on Rarotonga‘s south coast, Vara’s is a haven for backpackers. The hillside lodge where I stayed certainly comes highly recommended for comfort and value, consisting of a cluster of self-contained units surrounding a swimming pool. Rates start at around £10 per night and the location, too, is hard to beat, with Muri Lagoon, one of Rarotonga's best snorkelling spots, on your doorstep.
Muri beach is a languid sweep of white sand with spectacular views of the coral-filled lagoon and its four palm-fringed motus (small islands). This is a great spot for some serious downtime, and after a couple of hours lazing on the soft white sands, gazing out towards the reef, the worries of everyday life suddenly seem a long way away!
It is beneath the waves that the action really happens though. Having never before set eyes on a coral reef, I was truly blown away by the colour, diversity and number of fish and corals. Even non-swimmers will be at home here, with the water rarely more than waist-deep until you approach the outer reef. Hire a snorkel and mask from Vara's (around £2) to explore this beautiful underwater world. Away from Muri Lagoon, Aro'a and Tikioki beaches on the island's south coast are also great for snorkelling or just some blissful relaxation under the palm trees.
Rarotonga is home to some surprisingly lively nightlife, and the island night at the Staircase Restaurant in Avarua is certainly worth checking out. A bargain at around £10, the spectacular show consists of traditional Polynesian dancing, singing and drumming followed by a lavish buffet of typical islands food. Audience participation is inevitable though, so it is certainly worth downing a few beers while watching the show!
Avarua is also your best bet for eating out. Try Nu Bar, close to the airport, for cheap steaks or, if you're feeling a bit flush, the infamous Trader Jack’s, where an impressive seafood platter will set you back around £25. There are some excellent bars along Avarua’s coastal strip that are perfect for a pre-dinner beer while watching the sun sink into the South Pacific.
Having flown halfway around the world to get here, I was keen to get beyond Avarua and the beaches. So what does Rarotonga have to offer for the adventurers amongst us?
The vast majority of Rarotonga’s 8,000 souls live in villages scattered along the Ara Tapu or coast road, which follows the island's 32km circumference. That leaves the imposing and mountainous, rainforest-clad interior largely free of people, and a must on Rarotonga is hiring bicycles to explore the Ara Metua inland road that runs parallel to the coast. I soon found myself slipping into the lazy rhythm of Cook Islands life as I glided past scampering pigs and chickens and smiling locals going unhurriedly about their business.
On the inland road near Avarua is the atmospheric Arai-Te-Tonga Marae, a historic site that once functioned as a ceremonial gathering place for pre-Christian Polynesians. Only a few stones remain today but, with a spectacular mountainous backdrop, it is easy to imagine the importance the site once held for Rarotonga‘s pre-Christian inhabitants.
Eager to explore more of Rarotonga’s mysterious interior, I decided to tackle one of the numerous hiking trails bisecting the rainforest. The most popular is the cross-island track that traverses the island from north to south, and the opportunity to cross an island in a few hours seemed hard to miss. OK, this isn’t Brazil - don’t expect monkeys and jaguars - but it was difficult not to be left in awe by the scale of the rainforest blanketing jagged volcanic peaks as I struggled to the base of Te Rua Manga, a spectacular needle-shaped rock outcrop. Fast lizards skitter about in the undergrowth, colourful birds dart overhead and your foot-slogging efforts are rewarded with superb views of the interior and coral-fringed lagoon.
After cooling off in a glorious waterfall near the end of the trail, I emerged on the island’s south coast, having taken three hours to cover the trail. Flagging down the island's clockwise bus - two buses run constant 30-minute circuits along the coast road, one clockwise, one anti-clockwise - I was worried I might not be allowed on. After all, I looked a state with my sweat-soaked T-shirt caked in mud and skin ravaged by hungry mosquitoes. But then this is the Cook Islands. “Ha ha, look at the state of you, man!” was the bus driver's welcome before waving me on. I shouldn’t have worried.
And not worrying seems an integral part of Cook Islands life. When travelling in the Cooks you are constantly reminded that you're on ‘islands time’ now, and soon learn to kick back, relax and enjoy the gloriously laidback pace of life. Oh, and plan the next adventure. “One more beer?” asked the waiter. “Why not? I walked across an island today!” OK, so it might not have been the biggest island, but I don't think many people can say that!