The Cook Islands is a nation made up of 15 islands in South Pacific, located somewhere between Hawaii and New Zealand.
To the rest of the world, the Cook Islands are the Pacific's "best-kept secret", however, to us kiwis, it has been a popular holiday destination for quite some time.
The Cook Islands is a great starting point for kiwis wanting to dip their toes into the big wide world without feeling too far away from home. English is widely spoken throughout the island nation, they use the New Zealand Dollar, they stock many kiwi products in the stores and there is a shared heritage between the Cook Island and New Zealand Maori people.
Rarotonga is the main island with an International Airport only two kilometres from Avarua, the Cook Island Capital and Rarotongan town centre.
It is less than a four-hour flight from Auckland and direct flights also run between Rarotonga and Los Angeles, Sydney and Tahiti.
While I have heard that the outer islands are simply breathtaking, my Cook Island holiday was focused solely on enjoying and exploring Raro.
There is so much to do, see and take in on this island of volcanic peaks rimmed with warm tropical reef and palm tree dotted beaches.
The tropical air hit us hard as we stepped off the plane. Daniel, Cooper and I walked through immigration that island kind of guitar strumming that omits tropicalness and radiates relaxation.
When we exited the airport gate, we were greeted by our friend Kit, who has a family home in Rarotonga and had been on the island over the Christmas period.
Kit was holding a single 'ei', which is the Cook Island Maori term for a lei. He was only expecting Cooper to arrive that night as Daniel and I had told him that we were arriving on Saturday night, not Friday night.
The time in Raro was a day before we had even boarded the plane, but on our three and a half hour flight we crossed the international date line, talk about confusing!
Luckily, Kit had bought his mum Kim, cousin Josh and sister Georgia along to the airport as well as three motorbikes. So, in true Raro style, we managed to ride from the airport to the house with six bags and seven people on three bikes.
There was no better way to be welcomed to the Cook Islands than a hit of adrenaline and the wind in my hair; swinging around corners under the moonlight as it shone upon the water and silhouetted the palm trees.
The sky lit up with the clearest constellations as and colourful fairy lights were strung overhead as we entered Avarua town ready to begin our exploration.
Here are some suggestions of things to do in Raro and some of the highlights of seventeen days in this Polynesian Paradise:
When we landed in Raro it was Friday night... time to party! And by party, I mean eating at Palace Takeaway. Palace gets the first mention because it was the place we visited most often. Travelling with four boys, this was our daily bread. On the night we arrived it was the first place we visited, and we made a habit of going at least once every day after that (Seriously, I'm not even exaggerating!). Our Palace addiction was fueled by the 'wet sauce', a secret-recipe, mayonnaisey kind of stuff that for an extra dollar, they drench your burger in. Our favourite order was the 'Wet Cheese' however we did branch out and try some of the other burgers on the menu including the 'Palace Burger' which is piled high with basically every burger filling on the menu! The place can get quite busy and the burgers can sometimes take a while to come, but that's island time - don't complain about it, enjoy it! There are tables to just sit and relax and a wharf behind the takeaway shack that is fun to jump off and have a quick dip while you wait for your burger, or after you have eaten a burger and have wet sauce dripping down your arms!
DRIVE AROUND THE ISLAND
There is a 32km road that goes around the circumference of the island. You could easily drive around the island in 45 minutes, but the drive is so beautiful that you definitely won't feel the need to rush! If you don't have access to a bike or a vehicle, there are busses that go clockwise and anti-clockwise around the island.
PUNANGA NUI MARKETS
Bustling with locals and tourists alike, the Punanga Nui markets are a showcase Cook Island creations and culture. The markets run until 2 pm every Saturday in Avarua. There is a great variety of street food stalls, fresh produce, locally made clothing, crafts and souvenirs. You can buy a black pearl, pick up a pareu (sarong) or savour a smoothie. There is also a stage that features live music and cultural performances taking the experience of Saturday morning shopping to a whole new level.
Situated in the South-East of the Island, Muri Beach is known for its white sands and crystal clear lagoon waters. We took a treddle cat boat out and explored some of the islands in the lagoon. There are also glass-bottom boat tours, such a Captain Tama's that go out on the Muri Lagoon.
Starting near the township of Avarua, climbing to the heights of 'The Needle' and ending up at Papua 'Wigmore's' Waterfall, this track crosses through the mountainous centre of Rarotonga. It boasts panoramic views of the island as you walk across streams and through the beautiful tropical bush. It is a bit of a climb and wouldn't be recommended to people who don't enjoy strenuous walks but if you love hiking and getting out in nature, it is a must do!
The gorgeous reef that surrounds Raro is just as beautiful from below the surface as it is from above, so grab a snorkel and explore the jungle of coral and tropical sea life. Apparently, the best place to snorkel on the island is across the road from the 'Fruits of Rarotonga' shop. If you are game, give scuba diving a try! I didn't go for a dive while I was in Raro but I have done some diving in Fiji and Vanuatu and there is just something special about being deep below the surface in the clear blue waters of the tropical South Pacific!
Located just south of the airport, this was my favourite place to swim in Raro. The water here was the cleaner and clearer than the water on the other side of the island near Muri and the contrast between the white sands, black rocks and blue water was simply magical.
HIRE A SCOOTER
Scooters may not be the safest way to get around Raro, but they are definitely the most fun. There are lots of places on the Island such as Polynesian Rentals, Rarotonga Rentals and Island Car and Bike Hire. Just a handy tip... NEVER put your leg on the muffler, or you will end up with a 'Cook Island Tattoo' burn on your leg like me. This was the one souvenir that I didn't really plan on come home with!
EAT AT CHARLIE'S BEACH CAFE AND GRILL
Nestled in the palm trees in the south of the island, this family-run cafe offers great service, high-quality fresh food, huge portions and reasonable prices. Charlie's idyllic setting amongst the palm trees makes it the perfect place to share a giant fish sandwich or a delicious smoothie and gaze out over the ocean. If simply staring at the ocean is not really your thing, Charlie's also hire out equipment such as paddle boards and snorkels so you can get out on it!
The small, waterfront town centre of Rarotonga has lots of great places to eat, shop and relax. My favourite cafe in Avarua was conveniently just called 'The Cafe' and my favourite places to shop were Tuki's, The Tshirt Factory and TAV. Shops are generally open from 9am-4pm most days, until 1 pm on Saturdays and closed on Sundays.
MAKE AN EI
During our stay, I had the privilege of being able to sit down and make an ei katu (Cook Island flower crown) with my friend Daniel's Aunty Jane. They sell both fresh and fake head and neck eis at various places around the island such as the Punanga Nui Market.
The Cook Islands are renowned for their black pearls which are farmed on the outer islands such as Manihiki. There are many stores in the market and town that offer black pearls in different shapes, sizes, lustres and colours. There is a wide price range for black pearls, some I saw for as cheap as $5, so you can find a unique pearl that suits your unique preference and budget.
VISIT THE ABANDONED SHERATON
There are many stories about why this derelict, graffiti-ridden hotel and apparently cursed hotel on the south side of the island abandoned. Walking around the grounds, you can imagine that this place could have been beautiful if it was completed. The property dates back to the 1980's and is said to have had links with the Italian mafia, leading to its abandonment. We visited the Sheraton at night, just to amplify the creepy factor, wandering through its eerie rooms and climbing on to the roof which I hilariously slid off with grazes down my arms to show for it. Was my fall a result of the curse? Nah, I'd say it was probably the result of sheer stupidity; trying to climb a wet roof in the dark wearing jandals... Oh well!
Island Nights take place on various nights all across Raro. They usually offer a buffet of cultural foods with music and live performances. We caught the end of the Island Night at the Islander Hotel. If you are interested in participating in an Island night, they are held at Te Vara Nui Village, Crown Resort and Spa, Edgewater Resort and Highland Paradise.
GO HUNTING FOR FRESH FRUIT
Raro has an abundance of fresh fruit, from vibrant dragonfruit to sweet mangoes, to juicy starfruit to bunches of bananas. Whether you find it at markets, on the side of the road, or in the depths of the island's greenery, fruit is pretty much a diet staple on Raro! I dare you to try something new and exotic!
Hula bar is the best type of bar, the type that you can wear jandals to! It is set in the sand on the waters edge at the Islander Hotel, directly opposite the airport. It is a great place to fill in time waiting for your flights. There is live island music and all drinks are $3.50 every day. So why not let your hair down and have a hula... or at least try and look like an uncoordinated headless chicken like I did!
Half of the population belong to the Cook Islands Christian Church (CICC).The services are conducted in Cook Island Maori and include singing and a message. We enjoyed the singing, traditional dress and the atmosphere of the Sunday Service. After the service, they put on a morning tea for the congregation in a hall across the road from the church. There is no certain way that you must dress to be allowed into the church, however, modesty is advised. I'd also recommend bringing a hand fan as it gets very hot inside.
CLIMB RAEMARU MOUNTAIN
This mountain in the Arorangi District is a great climb and has some great views out over the ocean. We hiked Raemaru one evening to catch the sunset. We probably lingered around the top of the mountain just a little bit too long which meant that we were abseiling down rocks in the dark, struggling to keep to the track with only our iPhone flashlights to guide us, slid over too many times to count and even lost a member of our group!
PAPUA (WIGMORE'S) WATERFALL
This waterfall is at the end of the Cross Island track, but it is also a great place to just come for a dip and hide from the heat in the shade and cool fresh water.
FLYING BOAT FISH 'N CHIPS
This fish and chips joint in Tupapa at the Cook Islands Game Fishing Club. It is open from 11 am and closed on Sundays. You place your order from a beached blue and white fishing toes and eat at picnic tables with your toes in the sand and a view of the water... what more could you ask for?!
EAT IKA MATA
This traditional Cook Island raw fish dish can be found at lots of market stalls and restaurants in Rarotonga.
We drove past this place a million times but I only took full advantage of it on the last day. As I basked in the sun and sipped away at a smoothie, as the water came in an out to almost right beneath my feet. I watched as a family swam in the reef in front of me and multitudes of children tried to cram themselves on a tiny pontoon. Trader Jack's has a bar menu and a food menu that features lots of freshly-caught seafood dishes amongst other things.
Nestled in the backstreets of the Avarua District, Cafe Ariki is the place where locals when they want to eat somewhere nice. I always look for where the locals are eating because I think that it is the best indicator of good food. I was slightly worried about ordering 'Ariki Tropicana' salad, I was seriously in need of the veggies but I knew there was a risk that it would be some pathetic, dry, leafy green thing, but I was pleasantly surprised by what came out. The salad was MASSIVE, topped with tropical fruits, a delicious dressing and fish cooked to absolute perfection. It was heavenly! Cafe Ariki does lots of other delicious looking food in generous portions such as Barbecue Chicken, Sashimi and the Rarotongan favourite of Steak and Mushroom Sauce. The atmosphere is vibrant and buzzing, we sat in the outdoor courtyard seating area and enjoyed the balmy tropical evening.
Underneath fairy lights on the beach in Avarua, lies Viana's, the vibrant bar and bistro that is a great family friendly place to eat a good meal and have a dance to live music.
GO RESORT HOPPING
Not staying at one of Raro's fabulous resorts? No worries. Make a day of visiting the resorts and making a day out of visiting them. We enjoyed visiting the Rarotongan, Edgewater and Pacific resorts, each had beautiful pools and beaches for swimming and cafes and shaded seating for when we needed to escape from the sun.
THE MOORING CAFE
This cafe at the Avana Fishing Club near Muri, this converted shipping container cafe is famous for their super fresh fish sandwiches. I was advised to order the famous 'FOB' (Fresh of the Boat) sandwich with crumbed mahi-mahi and lime mayo and I'm so glad that I did!
MURI NIGHT MARKETS
These markets Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday evenings from 5pm-9pm. They offer a selection of street food stalls, picnic table seating and live music.
KARAOKE AT THE ROADHOUSE BAR & GRILL
We went down to the Roadhouse in Arorangi one Thursday night for some karaoke. It was absolutely hilarious. I must say that the people in our group absolutely smashed it, but if you can't sing... do not worry! Neither could a lot of people there. It is all just a bit of fun. I definitely did not sing, but I had a bit of a dance and it was such a great night!
CATCH THE SUNSET
Sunsets are kind of hard to miss when you are constantly out enjoying the outdoors, but they never grow old. No two sunsets are ever the same, so take a moment to sit, relax and enjoy the sky as it is painted in paw paw hues of orange or bright guava pink.
CLIMB A COCONUT TREE
Cos why not?