Photo: Cook Islands Tourism
Personally, I hate organised trips and "tourist traps". But what I've selected on this page are some of the things that are a world away from that. Yes, the Islands Nights and the Cultural Village are very much aimed at visitors, but the Islanders who are part of them are also passionate about their country and its traditions. And I think your enjoyment of the Islands will be enhanced if you decide to go to them. None of the mentions on this page has been requested or paid for...they're just my suggestions on things that I hope will make your Rarotonga visit even more special
A trip to the cultural village is a must if you want to learn more about the Cook Islands and its people. It's won lots of awards among them the travel industry's equivalent of an Oscar in 2013 as the best cultural attraction in the world. And UNESCO is on the verge of designating all or part of it as the country's first 'World Heritage Site'. The 600 year old village of Maungaroa was inhabited by Tinomana Ariki and his tribe long before the arrival of Christianity and was unihabited for many years before it was transformed into a not-for-profit visitor attraction.
The village is on a back road in a wonderful garden setting in Arorangi and well worth the NZ$100 adult entrance fee, which includes transport from your accommodation. There are also family packages. The islanders are passionate about sharing with you information on everything from traditional ways of fishing to the medicinal uses of fruits and plants. Your visit ends with music, dancing and lunch served on "plates" woven from bamboo leaves. The village is a privately owned and operated family business and reservations are essential
"Island Nights" are another way of experiencing the cultural life of the Cooks. Dancing could be described as the national sport and although the shows are aimed at visitors, the dancers and musicians love sharing their passion. Resorts and cultural centres on Rarotonga, Aitutaki and Atiu have island nights, with adult prices ranging from NZ$55 to NZ$130 a person with a meal included. And whichever one you choose, expect an invitation to join in the energetic performance. The tourist board have details of all the shows Click here
If you want an insight into the interior of Rarotonga, 'Pa's cross island trek' is a must. Pa Teuruaa's white haired dreadlocks may seem a bit incongruous, but this Polynesian has an encylopaedic knowledge of the island, its plants and their medicinal uses. There's also a more leisurely nature trail for the less energetic. The Tourist Office can book the trips for you, including pick ups from your accommodation. (Friendly advice: Unguided trips into the interior can be dangerous because of the terrain)
DID YOU KNOW?
At 413 metres Te Rua Manga, also known as The Needle, is the highest point in all the islands and was blessed in 2000 by the Dalai Lama as one of the eight energy centres of the world. Pa, who leads guided climbs, also helped some Buddhists find a place on it to bury an urn containing the 900 year old ashes of a monk. Rarotonga itself is often called "The Rock".
The cyclones in February and March, 2005 sadly devastated the fringing reef off Muri beach whose lagoon is also facing natural pollution problems albeit things have improved a lot and the reef is recovering slowly. But snorkellers can still have a great time here or just a few minutes up the coast across from Fruits of Rarotonga. That's where I took these photos. For the best experience, go down on to the beach, turn right and walk about 300 metres, then swim towards the edge of the reef (but NEVER over it). It's perfectly safe inside the reef and the fish are very friendly!
There are more than 30 dive sites around Rarotonga varying from good coral coverage to shallow lagoons and steep drop offs. Most are boat dives on the reef fringing the island Nga Tipa is a maze of channels winding through a type of stony coral that looks like burgeoning mushrooms with plenty of marine life including flame angelfish and whitetip reef sharks. Passages like Tupappa and Avana are frequented by turtles, sharks, lots of butterly fish and eagle rays. There are plenty of dive shops and it's not the purpose of this page to recommend any in particular. The shops also offer PADI certified courses which are best reserved in advance
Charlotte Piho is a a multi-international award winning photographer and her tours have been awarded Trip Advisor's highest award, ranking her turtle tours in the top 1% of experiences in the world. This is just one of her many photos (copyright, Charlotte Piho)
The hour and half long "ultlmate tour" is described as a chance to "explore the hidden underwater gems of the Cook Islands with the locals." All snorkel gear is provided and no previous experience is necesssary. There's also a more pricey private tour but in both cases you'll go home with some world class professional photos. When I asked Cook Islands Tourism CEO, Karla Eggleton what one thing she'd recommend every visitor to the Cook Islands to do she said, with no hesitation, turtle tours. But please please use only authorised tour operators such as Charlotte as this is a business which is getting out of control and harming these beautiful creatures.
You can find out more about the tours Charlotte organises by clicking here. And take time to look at some of the many stunning photos she's taken
Wigmore's Waterfall isn't the easiest of places to find as it isn't signposted...head out past Muri Beach, then turn right just after the Vaima restaurant and keep driving (and I warn you, it's not much of a road). The falls are at their best after really heavy rain, but beware of the mosquitos!
If you're in the Islands between July and October, you could enjoy possibly the best free show of your life. That's when whales swim past en route to warmer waters to mate, give birth and rest. And you don't even need to get into a boat to see them. In the Cook Islands, the whales come to you. There are plenty of vantage points around Rarotonga, including the shoreline in front of the main road through Avarua Photo: Cook Islands News
The Marine and Wildlife Eco Centre on the Main Road in Arorangi helps you to learn about all the Cook Islands creatures on land and sea. Atrractions include stunning (and huge) coconut crabs, a bird rescue centre, some giant creepy crawlies, aquariums and a sobering insight into the stories of whaling when these beautiful creatures were hunted and killed.
You can also meet Ponu, a turtle with a bone disorder who's part of the centre's rescue and rehabilitation programme. Adult tickets are $NZ12, a child ticket is $NZ10 or you can buy a family ticket for $NZ35. Your entry fee helps with the centre's important programmes of work.
Photos are from the centre's own website
The cultural market (Punanga Nui) every Saturday from 6 am till about 1 pm keeps getting bigger and better. Local artists are now a regular feature. And you'll often see local music and dance groups like the one pictured from Mitiaro. The market's near the port. Hop on Cooks Island Bus and it'll drop you off outside. Go early for the best experience. There are also occasional night markets and some stalls open during the week as well. There are outdoor and night markets at Muri too
If you're looking for a different way to spend a Sunday afternoon, pay a visit to the 'Paws and Claws Cat Sanctuary' in Matavera. Its cuddles and hugs with kittens day is popular with visitors and tourists alike. This charity also promotes the importance of neutering and has helped to rehome more than 200 kittens so far. Dare I say this is a "purrfect" way to enjoy yourself
This is just a small part of the 562 metre long seawall at Nikao, it's Rarotonga's newest attraction, one of the first things those arriving by air will see and it's a world beater. A huge mural - the longest of its kind in the world - has been created to cover the wall and this is just a small part of it. The inspiration is the Islands 'Marae Moana' ("sacred ocean") which is the largest multi-use marine park in the world. At almost 2.1 million sq. kms (800,000 square miles), the park spans an area the size of Mexico.
This stunning work of art is much longer than the current longest outdoor mural (168m) on a grain silo in South Korea (as recorded by Guinness World Records) although that one is taller. Every single one of the 15 Cook Islands is represented in the painting. Lead mural artist, Gonzalo Aldana from Mexico has had help from local artists along the way. Two prominent leaders, the first Premier, Albert Henry and former Prime Minister Sir Tom Davis feature at the half way mark. And work is in progress to create a QR code which can be scanned on smartphones and tablets to provide information about each of the elements.
First photo: Cook Islands News Others: Radio Cook Islands and Marea Moana Facebook page