After spending a few weeks in New Zealand, traveling by bus, staying in hostels, I found myself taking my first real break in Auckland. I had originally intended on staying with some friends for a couple days to recharge my batteries and then resume my backpacker bus trip. As I was enjoying some downtime, I got an idea to take a ‘vacation from my vacation’ and check out some of the South Pacific islands. A few reasons were driving my thinking:
- I had never been closer to the beautiful islands of the South Pacific, I couldn’t help but feel that I needed to take the opportunity and visit somewhere exotic
- The time was right being that February was most islands “off season” due to rain (less crowded, cheaper rates)
- I realized that although a lot of the islands are exotic, there were budget accommodations that wouldn’t end up sending me home early
So with a bit of research, I decided to head east to the Cook Islands! The Cook Islands are made up of 15 different islands, and broken into the Northern and Southern islands. The Northern Islands are sparsely inhabited and much more difficult to travel to. For my ten day trip, I decided to split my time between Rarotonga and Aitutaki within the Southern Island group.
No matter which islands you plan on visiting, you will fly into the international airport for the Cook Islands in Rarotonga, commonly referred to as Raro. It is the largest and most densely populated of the 15 islands with about 13,000 people (only about 18,000 in the whole country). I spent a total of 4 days in Raro doing exactly what I would do on a normal vacation…laying on the beach, enjoying the beautiful clear waters, and exploring the area.
Since I am trying to spend money wisely I opted to stay at a budget accommodation, Rarotonga Backpackers, which was $25/night for a 5 bed dorm hostel with a fan and shared bathroom. There was a shared kitchen, small pool, and laundry available. It was about 10km from town in Avarua, but set right on the water, so no complaints there. If I had to do it over again, I probably would have splurged and stayed somewhere a bit nicer…with air conditioning.
There are several guesthouses and more upscale resorts that are scattered throughout Raro. Muri Beach is a nice area with several shops, cafes, and activities. If I were to come back, I would look at booking a room in this area.
The island has a two lane road running the 32km (20 miles) circumference, which makes exploration nice and easy. You have several options for transportation:
- Scooter/Motorbike: The most common mode of transportation on the island is by scooter. There are shops renting scooters at daily or weekly rates about every 500m. You will need to have a Cooks Islands scooter permit in order to rent one which you can obtain at the police station for $25. You get a plastic license with your photo on it – a nice souvenir, maybe? Please be sure to wear your helmet – I’ve seen too many bandaged people along the way thanks to scooter accidents.
- Bicycle: A cheaper alternative for transport would be to rent a bicycle. I opted for this as I honestly do not trust myself on a scooter. For about $12-$15/day, you can rent a bicycle with a lock and helmet. *TIP* Before renting, ask what you should do if you get a flat, need help, etc. I was given a business card with the owner’s name and phone number to call and told that he would come pick me up. Trust me when I say….you will be lucky you have it.
- Bus: There are local buses that run clockwise and counterclockwise around the island. You simply flag down the bus and pay $5. Just be sure you let the bus driver know where you want to get off as there are not any designated stops (at least from what I could tell)
Just like any island, there is not a lack of things to do or activities to choose from while vacationing. To be honest, I did not do a whole lot while I was there because I was more interested in relaxing on the beach rather than exploring, which typically not my style. Here are some recommended activities although that I think are worth checking out:
- Punanga Nui Markets: Every Saturday, you can visit the markets in Avarua where local vendors set up to sell produce, fruits, and prepared foods in addition to crafts and souvenirs. There are usually dance teams that will perform traditional dances. Great way to sample some of the local food without breaking the bank.
- Cost: FREE
- Hiking: There are several hikes on the island that would be worth tackling if you feel as though you have been lazy enough on the beach. The one good thing about hiking here is there are no snakes, poisonous insects, or wild animals! Just mosquitos…which might be worse. Check out the Cross Island Track, if you are feeling ambitious. More manageable ones might be: Papua Waterfall track, Avana Valley track, Turangi track, and Raemaru Lookout.
- Cost: FREE. You can hire a guide as some tracks are not well marked. Don’t get lost.
- Island Nights: Various resort hotels offer island nights just about every night of the week. It is an evening of local culture, dance, song, costumes, and cuisine.
- Cost: Varies, between $35-$60
- Scuba Diving: There are a few operators on the island that offer day trips to dive around the island. Although I did not end up diving while there, I spoke with a few and I would recommend Dive Rarotonga. They were professional, knowledgeable, used new equipment (boats included), and most importantly put safety at the forefront.
- Cost: $140 for 2 dives with equipment included
There are loads of other things to do around the island like snorkeling, paddle boarding, kayaking, booze cruises, or just enjoy the beautiful water and sand on the beach – my personal favorite!
There is no beating around the bush here, food is expensive. Food that is not native to the islands must be imported….from New Zealand….over 1,800 miles away. The only time I ventured out to a restaurant was one at a resort for pizza night. I immediately turned around when I saw a small (5”) pizza was $25! Back to the hostel to make noodles instead! Since my hostel had a kitchen, I took advantage of that and cooked almost every meal. There are small seafood shops where you can buy fresh catch at very reasonable prices. The markets are a good alternative to expensive restaurants, as well. Just be prepared for the sticker shock prior to coming.
The people were so welcoming and could not have been more kind. Remember when I mentioned that you should get a name and number from your bicycle rental shop? Well the second time I rented my bike, I didn’t take my own advice since I had no issue the first time. What happens? Flat tire, 18km from my hostel! No phone, no pumps at service stations. I started walking my bike. Within 10 minutes, a car pulls over asking if I need help. This stranger put the bike in his trunk and drove me the entire way back to my hostel. In chatting with him, I find out he and his wife traveled for 6 years around the world (originally intended on just 1 year)! He wouldn’t allow me to pay him as much as I wanted to. If you happen to stumble upon this, thanks again Joseph!
One of the things that was probably the most depressing about Raro was the amount of stray dogs roaming the island. They were actually never a bother and I never felt unsafe with them as they were all so well behaved! They mainly stayed out of your way and lounged in any shady spot they could find. There is only one veterinary clinic for all of the Cook Islands on Raro, The Esther Honey Foundation, and they are doing some amazing things to help all animals on the island. There are opportunities to volunteer and donate to help support the fabulous work they are doing.
*TIP* I am going to give you the best most coveted piece of advice for traveling to the Cook Islands. Are you ready? Bring earplugs. No seriously. There are roosters….everywhere! They will happily be your wakeup call, free of charge. No need to hit snooze, they will ensure you get up. As much as the larger resorts try to keep them out, they will be there too. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!
Overall, I enjoyed my trip on Rarotonga even though it was a bit crowded (relative term). I would recommend splurging on an accommodation that offers air conditioning, unless you prefer sauna-like sleeping conditions. With crystal clear water, beautiful sea life, and abundant activities, Rarotonga is a beautiful getaway!
In Part 2 of the South Pacific Escape, I am going to highlight how I spent the other 6 days in the Cooks Islands….on Aitutaki!
Have you ever been to Rarotonga? What were your thoughts?