Now more than ever, the Cook Islands are an accessible destination to soothe your cold, stressed-out city-oriented lives thanks to a new direct flight service to Australia. Of the Cook’s 15 islands, Rarotonga is its capital and largest island where we spent a week-long voyage. Enclosed by a continuous sky-blue lagoon full of fish and coral with 200m of sheltered swimming before waves crash in the distance and a towering, green jagged mountain range in the middle of the island; Rarotonga is that ultimate postcard/Instagram dream shot.
Due to its close proximity, trade and international influence with New Zealand, English is naturally the primary language spoken. There is one direct flight from Sydney to Rarotonga each week through Air New Zealand (and around seven from Auckland), so whilst it is accessible, it is still a largely untouched and authentic cultural holiday. There are only a handful of buildings over one storey, no sense of being preyed upon or being taken advantage of by locals bombarding you with things to sell and only one main road around the whole island – the busses run on “Clockwise” and “Anti-clockwise” routes. A Saturday night will see one of the two radio stations on Raro play Stevie Wonder into a dance hit from the 1990’s as you zip around the island and the moon blinks between palm trees. Don’t get the wrong idea though, Rarotonga isn’t an undeveloped or struggling spot at all; it’s completely the opposite and perhaps the last genuine and faithful South Pacific experience.
When you are on Rarotonga, you won’t want to spend much time inside. There is so much to explore and the outdoors are the hero of the Cook Islands. Here are our picks for the best outdoor activities under the South Pacific sun.
Ariki Turtle Safari and Sea Scooter
You don’t need to be in Africa to go on safari for there is an underwater seascape in clear waters that Ariki will take you to explore. They are the only operator on the island to use Sea Scooters – a handheld, aerodynamic propeller that will help you glide and dive with ease with its 3 speed motors to see the likes of Turtles, Reef Sharks and Eagle Rays. Each Scooter has a GoPro mount on it to make sure we perfectly captured our journey.
From the Ariki booking and check-in shack, we drove 15 minute to the launch point. This area is unique to the island because of its access to a 30m deep reef shelf immediately from the sandy shore that extends out to the crashing waves 200m away. It was a different experience to not being in the usual sky-blue, crystal clear waters of the lagoon that surrounds the rest of the island.
Ariki excelled in their helpful, friendly and accommodating customer service. Five staff/divers/turtle spotters went out with our small crew of eight to effectively find turtles as well as make sure each and every person is comfortable. We let the channels’ current carry us out without the use of the Scooters and before long enough there they were…
These turtles can grow up to 5 feet and 300 hundred kilograms in size and even for this 6 foot 2 writer, I felt stunned and obsolete next to the size and effortless grace as they glide through the water. Over our 1 hour swim time we saw 4 turtles either swimming past us or chilling on the reef 3 to 5 metres below.
Pa’s Cross Island Hike
No matter where you are on Rarotonga one thing will be constant: to one side of you there will be sights and/or sounds of the ocean and to the other there will be towering, sharp mountains and valleys between them. The price includes transfers to the starting point as well as pickup and drop-off to your hotel as well as lunch after you finish.
Pa’s Cross Island Hike is tiring but so, so worthwhile. It is a 3 mile walk across the entire range from one side of the island to the other that took our group of eight 3.5 hours to complete. It begins with an easy walk through fields of fruit trees where our guide pointed out native plants and trees that are used in Cook Islands cuisine. From here, it is a 400 metre climb to the Needle – an eroded, thin rock formation on top of one of the peaks that we had seen driving around the island all week.
At many points you will need to use the roots of trees as rungs of a ladder to climb up and down along your walk but is still suitable for all ages if you have average fitness.
From the top, the view is well earned and breathtaking. You look across the volcanic heart of Rarotonga to the mountain Te Kou and out to the ocean.
The descent down is much easier, it is a 2 mile walk down where you will cross a stream five times before you end up at a waterfall.
Koka Lagoon Cruise
Music, swimming, laughter, food and nature; Koka Lagoon Cruises is perhaps the quintessential Cook Islands experience. The five hour day begins with a short cruise out into Muri Lagoon on a glass bottom boat as Pumba and the rest of the boat crew entertain on drums and ukuleles in a chorus of traditional Cook Islands songs. Reva Moana and Tai Marino are two boats that fit around 30 people each and are wheelchair compatible and child/elderly friendly with study ladders and rails across the boats.
The first stop is snorkelling with marine life for around 25 minutes. Naturally, all snorkelling equipment is supplied. Schools of fish swim around clusters of coral and aren’t easily frightened by your presence.
The crew will show you cages around clams to stop them being stolen that helps with conservation for the area as well as coral nurseries that encourage future coral growth. There are 12 ra’ui (conservation) areas around Rarotonga and a portionof ticket sales goes back into the Rarotonga Lagoon Conservation Trust.
From here, you travel to a small island in the lagoon for activities and lunch. Whilst the some staff cook up a barbeque of fish and fruit, others put on a coconut tree climbing exhibition that will call for a few volunteers from the crowd to excel or embarrass themselves.
By this stage in the day we had earnt up a raging appetite and the feast of tuna, rice, salad, coconut, fried banana, papaya and sausages was refreshing, light and healthy.
For the entire day, staff are constantly active, smiling and making jokes whilst attending to your needs and putting on coconut husking exhibitions and leaf-weaving shows.
Raro Buggy Tour
We have two suggestions for this activity. Firstly, wear clothes that can get dirty and secondly, close your mouth. By the end of this activity, whatever you’re wearing will be soaked in mud and water along with every exposed piece of skin you have.
We drove the roads less travelled around the island, taking in smaller routes behind plantations and properties before ultimately ending up at the abandoned Sheraton resort. Following 2 days of rain, holes of mud were 3 feet deep with water and shockwaves of mud were thrown around as the cabins flooded with water. It was a refreshing dose of adventure and hilarity hence why we can now describe what mud tastes like. We do wish we had been able to spend more time at this location since only 10 minutes of the two hour activity is spent here.
A stop at the golf range on your way home will allow you to potentially win a refund if you can sink a hole in one down range.
“Fire on Water” Night Paddle Tour
Aside from offering windsurfing and snorkeling tours and rentals every day of the week, KiteSUP run a night time paddle boarding tour. The tours begin just before sunset so you are on the water as the sky transitions to glow pink and orange before the stars begin to flicker. Paddle boarding is easy to pick up and even if you do fall, Muri Lagoon is shallow enough to allow you to stand and climb back up.
A brief island visit to have a crab race whilst our guide Josh tells the story of the Cook Islands and star formations eventuates into another short paddle further down the island to a fire dancing show by Josh’s girlfriend and former Ms. Cook Islands. Here, you will also get a chance to spin fire yourself. By now the sun is completely gone and it’s a very cool sight to see each paddle board become illuminated by lights beneath them.
Coral structures, starfish, sea cucumbers and fish light up as you pass over them and by this time of the day, we were the only ones out on the water or near the shore. With gentle waves washing ashore, a clear night sky and peaceful blue lights beneath, it was pure calm and tranquility.
All activities were supplied by Cook Islands Tourism. For more information on all activities mentioned or to see more of what is on offer across all the islands you can head to Cook Island Tourism HERE. For more information on Air New Zealand’s direct service to Rarotonga from Sydney you can head HERE.