Trading winter weather for a warm, relaxing stay on Rarotonga, part of the Cook Islands

By Marlene Lomas
This article appears on page 16 of the July 2020 issue.
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One of the many roaming dogs we saw, catching some rays on Muri Beach.

My partner, Mike, and I wanted to get away for Thanksgiving 2019, preferably going somewhere warm and new to us. An Outside magazine article got me thinking about the Cook Islands. With no high-rises or big resorts, the islands have a wonderful, laid-back charm, perhaps reminiscent of the Hawaiian islands back in the ’50s. 

I called my cousin, who had been there twice, for a bit of advice. My cousin had loved it there, and by the end of the week, so did we!

Getting there

Location of Cook Islands

We used my airline retiree privileges to fly from Redmond, Oregon, to Los Angeles the day before our overseas flight, spending the night with a friend before boarding our nonstop Air New Zealand flight to Rarotonga International Airport late on the night of Nov. 23. 

Our flight cost $1,885 round trip for the two of us in coach, plus an additional $100 each for reserved seats. For Mike’s early Christmas present, I bid online on an upgrade to Premium Economy, and we were confirmed a few days before our flight, adding another $290 each (one way only). It was worth the cost. 

For our five nights on Rarotonga, we booked a room at the Muri Beachcomber through Booking.com. Our stay included free pickup and drop-off at the airport, a small Continental-style breakfast (left in the refrigerator by the maids every day) and free use of kayaks, stand-up paddleboards, snorkeling gear and bicycles for a total cost of $1,176. 

We had a sea-view bungalow with a kitchenette and an outdoor table with two chairs. It was literally steps from the beach. This setup was perfect for us, as we like to have breakfast and sometimes lunch on our own, going out for dinner. 

The complex showed some wear and tear, but it was clean and bright. There was also an on-site coin-operated laundry and a front office.

Don’t plan on having good internet service during your visit; it’s better to pack a good book or two.

After flying all night, we were lucky to be able to check right into our room after our 5:30 a.m. arrival. (The normal check-in time is noon.) 

A Sunday outing

Outrigger canoe races out of Avarua, the main town on Rarotonga.

Our goal for that Sunday was to go to a church service, which we had heard about from several sources. We walked 20 minutes down the road in the rain and were warmly welcomed into the Ngatangiia Christian church. All the ladies wore beautiful handmade hats, and many of the men were in their Sunday best. 

We enjoyed the church hymns, the men’s voices harmonizing with the women’s. Many of the songs as well as the sermon were in Ma¯ori, but it was all very soothing and uplifting. What beautiful voices everyone had!

After church, we began our walk back to the hotel in torrential rain with one umbrella between us. Sure enough, a nice couple picked us up in their car and drove us right to our place. The people we met in the Cooks were all extremely welcoming and had great senses of humor. 

For dinner, we walked 50 feet to the Muri Night Market, right next door. This market is quite well known on Rarotonga, and it operates four times a week. There were many food booths, with covered picnic tables, loudspeakers playing music and a few booths selling craft items. 

Mike ordered fish and prawns with salad and rice (NZD20, or $12), and I had a smoothie (NZD11), which was quite delicious. We ate there at least two or three times during our stay due to the convenience and reasonable prices. 

Exploring the island

Monday was the rainiest day of our visit, so we decided to go into the main town of Avarua for a bit of shopping. NZD30 buys a bus pass for 10 rides, which can be shared. It’s only 32 kilometers around the island on the one main 2-lane road, so taking the bus was easy. They run every hour, going clockwise and counterclockwise. 

After shopping, we made our way to Trader Jacks (Ara Tapu; trader
jackscookislands.com)
for lunch. We were excited, as the Vaka Eiva outrigger canoe races were going on, and the boat ramp at TJ’s was the start and finish point for all the races. This was extra special for me because, when I lived in Hawaii, I used to paddle these beautiful boats. 

Mike had a smoked marlin salad, and I had a poke bowl. Our total cost, including two beers and a soda, was NZD51.50.

The Cook Islands’ currency is based on the New Zealand dollar, and at the time of our trip, the US dollar was quite strong, so prices for us were very reasonable. 

After returning from Avarua with our goods, we arrived at our bungalow to find the door wide open! Luckily, nothing was missing. We reported this to the office, and the next day we had a new lock on the door. 

Dinner that night was at the Asian-themed Rickshaw Rarotonga restaurant, a short walk down the road. Our two dishes plus sparkling water cost NZD55 total, including a tip. There was so much food that we took some home for lunch the next day.

We awoke the next day to cloudy skies but no rain. It was time to get wet in the kayaks, which were already in the water, so we grabbed our paddles and off we went to a deserted motu (island). 

We walked along the beach until the mosquitoes found us. I was fortunate enough to see a stingray in the clear, blue-green water. 

As we headed back, we decided to explore another motu, called Taakoka. 

I have to mention that there are many dogs running loose on the beaches and roads, some with collars on. They are very resourceful, and all we encountered were friendly. We saw lots of free-range chickens too.

We later walked a short way down the road from our hotel to the Te Ara Museum (NZD30 admission for two), a small museum that recalls the history of the Cook Islands through some interesting displays. There was a small shop of high-quality items and a café on site. 

Another dinner at the Muri Night Market provided more leftovers for lunch. If you like dessert, you definitely need to visit the dessert lady early, as she does run out. We purchased a large piece of passion-fruit cheesecake to take back to our room for NZD7.

A wonderful Wednesday

One of the highlights of our trip was our trek across Rarotonga. We decided to go with a group led by a guide to learn more about the island, and Pa’s Trek (phone +682 21079, pastreks.com) is quite well known on Raro. We booked our reservation online from home and paid cash to the driver on the trek day (NZD70 per person). Pickup at our hotel and lunch were included. 

We met Bruce, our guide, who looked extremely fit. I should mention that this trek was short (about 3 miles), but the terrain was extremely steep over the middle part of the island, so this trek is not for everyone. 

Mike testing the rope on the Raemaru Mountain Track. (We chose not to climb this rock wall.)

Our group of 10 started our walk on a dirt road, but that quickly became a narrow, rocky, slippery trail. A steep climb took us up to Te Rua Manga, or The Needle, fairly quickly. At its base, we were offered the opportunity to go farther along the side, aided by chains and rope, following carefully placed footsteps. Bruce was a great guide, and I made it safely through this precarious section. 

The view from the top was truly spectacular. The day was glorious as we watched beautiful, red-tailed tropical birds swoop by. 

Going down the other side of the island was more difficult than the ascent due to the steepness, slippery mud and stream crossings. Forget about keeping your shoes dry! 

Along the way, we saw wild orchids, puakenikeni flowers and lovely butterflies. At last we came to Wigmore’s Waterfall, where some of the younger members of our group climbed up the waterfall or swam in the pool below. Our driver met us with sandwiches, papaya (called pawpaw there) and bananas. It was an excellent adventure. 

That evening we tried dinner at Charlie’s (Titikaveka; charliesraro.com), which we had heard other visitors recommend, but we were disappointed. The food was more quantity than quality. The fish sandwich (NZD14) was soooo huge that four people could have shared one! The restaurant does sit right on the beach and had a lively bar scene, though.

Mixing with the locals

Thursday morning we indulged in more watersports, then used our bus pass to get to the west side of the island for another hike. It was easy to locate the Raemaru Mountain Track trailhead, and the trail was well signed. 

After a 45-minute ascent, enjoying nice views as we climbed, we came to a halt at the foot of a large rock wall. The only way up was via a thick rope, and we could see small metal rungs far above. We decided that we wanted to live another day, so we chose to sit down and eat our lunch. We saw no other people on our hike, only more butterflies, forest and flowers.

The other activity we had booked in advance of our trip was a progressive dinner, booked online at Viator.com. It cost NZD99 per person, including pickup and drop-off at our hotel. 

Our group of 16 visited three locals’ homes. At our first stop, Danny (the host) talked to us about life on Raro and took us on a tour of his extensive garden, with many fruit trees and a few broken-down cars. We also met his wife, who had prepared an ahi tuna appetizer with lemon and coconut milk, tomato and other veggies. She also served banana in coconut milk, topped with fresh coconut, and some arrowroot. Our driver and another fellow played their guitars while we ate outside. Fabulous start!

Next was a different home, where the main course and wine were served. There was an abundance of food, including fish, chicken (very tender), various salads, yams and more. The lady of the house spoke about her life and how her father had built the house block by concrete block. 

At our last stop, the lady of the manor was dressed in a pareau (sarong) and a haku lei (ring of flowers on the head), and she wore a large necklace of the beautiful black pearls that can be seen everywhere on the island. 

Dessert was fruits served with some lovely cake with cream filling. Toward the end of the evening, our hosts sang the national anthem to us. 

This tour is not to be missed!

A final day

Our colorful progressive-dinner hostess and her daughter preparing for the group to hit the dessert table.

On our last day on the island, we were pleased to learn that we could have a late checkout of 9 p.m., as our flight was scheduled to depart just before midnight. After breakfast, we used the free bikes from the hotel. Mike rode to a beach to snorkel, and I went to the Maire Nui Botanical Gardens (NZD5 to enter; just put your money in the box). I walked around for 30 minutes enjoying many of the plants that were familiar to me from my time in Hawaii. 

After lunch back at our place, we took the double kayak out for one last paddle around Taakoka Island. The water was so clear, we didn’t need a snorkel to see the many brightly colored tropical fish. 

Our last meal on the island was at Sails Restaurant on Muri Beach. We both had fresh fish, which came with various sides, wine and two desserts. Our table was outside, and we looked right out to the lagoon. The bill came to a grand total of $82.

Here are a few tips if you are planning a trip to the Cook Islands. 

Take some instant coffee; the hotel didn’t provide any. 

No one (except at the nicer restaurants) expects a tip, which was so refreshing. 

Black pearls are THE thing to buy there. 

Our one regret was that we did not have time to go to one of the outer islands, which are said to be even more laid-back and beautiful. On our next trip, we will spend a few days on Aitutaki.

Kia orana

Please login or subscribe to ITN to read the entire post.
One of the many roaming dogs we saw, catching some rays on Muri Beach.

My partner, Mike, and I wanted to get away for Thanksgiving 2019, preferably going somewhere warm and new to us. An Outside magazine article got me thinking about the Cook Islands. With no high-rises or big resorts, the islands have a wonderful, laid-back charm, perhaps reminiscent of the Hawaiian islands back in the ’50s. 

I called my cousin, who had been there twice, for a bit of advice. My cousin had loved it there, and by the end of the week, so did we!

Getting there

Location of Cook Islands

We used my airline retiree privileges to fly from Redmond, Oregon, to Los Angeles the day before our overseas flight, spending the night with a friend before boarding our nonstop Air New Zealand flight to Rarotonga International Airport late on the night of Nov. 23. 

Our flight cost $1,885 round trip for the two of us in coach, plus an additional $100 each for reserved seats. For Mike’s early Christmas present, I bid online on an upgrade to Premium Economy, and we were confirmed a few days before our flight, adding another $290 each (one way only). It was worth the cost. 

For our five nights on Rarotonga, we booked a room at the Muri Beachcomber through Booking.com. Our stay included free pickup and drop-off at the airport, a small Continental-style breakfast (left in the refrigerator by the maids every day) and free use of kayaks, stand-up paddleboards, snorkeling gear and bicycles for a total cost of $1,176. 

We had a sea-view bungalow with a kitchenette and an outdoor table with two chairs. It was literally steps from the beach. This setup was perfect for us, as we like to have breakfast and sometimes lunch on our own, going out for dinner. 

The complex showed some wear and tear, but it was clean and bright. There was also an on-site coin-operated laundry and a front office.

Don’t plan on having good internet service during your visit; it’s better to pack a good book or two.

After flying all night, we were lucky to be able to check right into our room after our 5:30 a.m. arrival. (The normal check-in time is noon.) 

A Sunday outing

Outrigger canoe races out of Avarua, the main town on Rarotonga.

Our goal for that Sunday was to go to a church service, which we had heard about from several sources. We walked 20 minutes down the road in the rain and were warmly welcomed into the Ngatangiia Christian church. All the ladies wore beautiful handmade hats, and many of the men were in their Sunday best. 

We enjoyed the church hymns, the men’s voices harmonizing with the women’s. Many of the songs as well as the sermon were in Ma¯ori, but it was all very soothing and uplifting. What beautiful voices everyone had!

After church, we began our walk back to the hotel in torrential rain with one umbrella between us. Sure enough, a nice couple picked us up in their car and drove us right to our place. The people we met in the Cooks were all extremely welcoming and had great senses of humor. 

For dinner, we walked 50 feet to the Muri Night Market, right next door. This market is quite well known on Rarotonga, and it operates four times a week. There were many food booths, with covered picnic tables, loudspeakers playing music and a few booths selling craft items. 

Mike ordered fish and prawns with salad and rice (NZD20, or $12), and I had a smoothie (NZD11), which was quite delicious. We ate there at least two or three times during our stay due to the convenience and reasonable prices. 

Exploring the island

Monday was the rainiest day of our visit, so we decided to go into the main town of Avarua for a bit of shopping. NZD30 buys a bus pass for 10 rides, which can be shared. It’s only 32 kilometers around the island on the one main 2-lane road, so taking the bus was easy. They run every hour, going clockwise and counterclockwise. 

After shopping, we made our way to Trader Jacks (Ara Tapu; trader
jackscookislands.com)
for lunch. We were excited, as the Vaka Eiva outrigger canoe races were going on, and the boat ramp at TJ’s was the start and finish point for all the races. This was extra special for me because, when I lived in Hawaii, I used to paddle these beautiful boats. 

Mike had a smoked marlin salad, and I had a poke bowl. Our total cost, including two beers and a soda, was NZD51.50.

The Cook Islands’ currency is based on the New Zealand dollar, and at the time of our trip, the US dollar was quite strong, so prices for us were very reasonable. 

After returning from Avarua with our goods, we arrived at our bungalow to find the door wide open! Luckily, nothing was missing. We reported this to the office, and the next day we had a new lock on the door. 

Dinner that night was at the Asian-themed Rickshaw Rarotonga restaurant, a short walk down the road. Our two dishes plus sparkling water cost NZD55 total, including a tip. There was so much food that we took some home for lunch the next day.

We awoke the next day to cloudy skies but no rain. It was time to get wet in the kayaks, which were already in the water, so we grabbed our paddles and off we went to a deserted motu (island). 

We walked along the beach until the mosquitoes found us. I was fortunate enough to see a stingray in the clear, blue-green water. 

As we headed back, we decided to explore another motu, called Taakoka. 

I have to mention that there are many dogs running loose on the beaches and roads, some with collars on. They are very resourceful, and all we encountered were friendly. We saw lots of free-range chickens too.

We later walked a short way down the road from our hotel to the Te Ara Museum (NZD30 admission for two), a small museum that recalls the history of the Cook Islands through some interesting displays. There was a small shop of high-quality items and a café on site. 

Another dinner at the Muri Night Market provided more leftovers for lunch. If you like dessert, you definitely need to visit the dessert lady early, as she does run out. We purchased a large piece of passion-fruit cheesecake to take back to our room for NZD7.

A wonderful Wednesday

One of the highlights of our trip was our trek across Rarotonga. We decided to go with a group led by a guide to learn more about the island, and Pa’s Trek (phone +682 21079, pastreks.com) is quite well known on Raro. We booked our reservation online from home and paid cash to the driver on the trek day (NZD70 per person). Pickup at our hotel and lunch were included. 

We met Bruce, our guide, who looked extremely fit. I should mention that this trek was short (about 3 miles), but the terrain was extremely steep over the middle part of the island, so this trek is not for everyone. 

Mike testing the rope on the Raemaru Mountain Track. (We chose not to climb this rock wall.)

Our group of 10 started our walk on a dirt road, but that quickly became a narrow, rocky, slippery trail. A steep climb took us up to Te Rua Manga, or The Needle, fairly quickly. At its base, we were offered the opportunity to go farther along the side, aided by chains and rope, following carefully placed footsteps. Bruce was a great guide, and I made it safely through this precarious section. 

The view from the top was truly spectacular. The day was glorious as we watched beautiful, red-tailed tropical birds swoop by. 

Going down the other side of the island was more difficult than the ascent due to the steepness, slippery mud and stream crossings. Forget about keeping your shoes dry! 

Along the way, we saw wild orchids, puakenikeni flowers and lovely butterflies. At last we came to Wigmore’s Waterfall, where some of the younger members of our group climbed up the waterfall or swam in the pool below. Our driver met us with sandwiches, papaya (called pawpaw there) and bananas. It was an excellent adventure. 

That evening we tried dinner at Charlie’s (Titikaveka; charliesraro.com), which we had heard other visitors recommend, but we were disappointed. The food was more quantity than quality. The fish sandwich (NZD14) was soooo huge that four people could have shared one! The restaurant does sit right on the beach and had a lively bar scene, though.

Mixing with the locals

Thursday morning we indulged in more watersports, then used our bus pass to get to the west side of the island for another hike. It was easy to locate the Raemaru Mountain Track trailhead, and the trail was well signed. 

After a 45-minute ascent, enjoying nice views as we climbed, we came to a halt at the foot of a large rock wall. The only way up was via a thick rope, and we could see small metal rungs far above. We decided that we wanted to live another day, so we chose to sit down and eat our lunch. We saw no other people on our hike, only more butterflies, forest and flowers.

The other activity we had booked in advance of our trip was a progressive dinner, booked online at Viator.com. It cost NZD99 per person, including pickup and drop-off at our hotel. 

Our group of 16 visited three locals’ homes. At our first stop, Danny (the host) talked to us about life on Raro and took us on a tour of his extensive garden, with many fruit trees and a few broken-down cars. We also met his wife, who had prepared an ahi tuna appetizer with lemon and coconut milk, tomato and other veggies. She also served banana in coconut milk, topped with fresh coconut, and some arrowroot. Our driver and another fellow played their guitars while we ate outside. Fabulous start!

Next was a different home, where the main course and wine were served. There was an abundance of food, including fish, chicken (very tender), various salads, yams and more. The lady of the house spoke about her life and how her father had built the house block by concrete block. 

At our last stop, the lady of the manor was dressed in a pareau (sarong) and a haku lei (ring of flowers on the head), and she wore a large necklace of the beautiful black pearls that can be seen everywhere on the island. 

Dessert was fruits served with some lovely cake with cream filling. Toward the end of the evening, our hosts sang the national anthem to us. 

This tour is not to be missed!

A final day

Our colorful progressive-dinner hostess and her daughter preparing for the group to hit the dessert table.

On our last day on the island, we were pleased to learn that we could have a late checkout of 9 p.m., as our flight was scheduled to depart just before midnight. After breakfast, we used the free bikes from the hotel. Mike rode to a beach to snorkel, and I went to the Maire Nui Botanical Gardens (NZD5 to enter; just put your money in the box). I walked around for 30 minutes enjoying many of the plants that were familiar to me from my time in Hawaii. 

After lunch back at our place, we took the double kayak out for one last paddle around Taakoka Island. The water was so clear, we didn’t need a snorkel to see the many brightly colored tropical fish. 

Our last meal on the island was at Sails Restaurant on Muri Beach. We both had fresh fish, which came with various sides, wine and two desserts. Our table was outside, and we looked right out to the lagoon. The bill came to a grand total of $82.

Here are a few tips if you are planning a trip to the Cook Islands. 

Take some instant coffee; the hotel didn’t provide any. 

No one (except at the nicer restaurants) expects a tip, which was so refreshing. 

Black pearls are THE thing to buy there. 

Our one regret was that we did not have time to go to one of the outer islands, which are said to be even more laid-back and beautiful. On our next trip, we will spend a few days on Aitutaki.

Kia orana