From the moment the roaming roosters crow in the morning to when the hibiscus wilt in the evening heat, it seems the only thing to worry about in Rarotonga is a coconut falling from the trees above.
But with so many things to do in this Cook Islands paradise, your holiday can fly by surprisingly fast. We’ve hunted out the best local hangouts, because if you’re going to pull yourself away from a dreamy hotel pool, it has to be for good reason.
Grab a snorkel and mask and head to Tikioki
You can snorkel almost anywhere on the coast, but the best spot is the marine reserve next to Fruits of Rarotonga restaurant. Being shallow but vast, it has large, uninterrupted areas of coral and you’ll skim over hundreds of inquisitive fish.
Make a pit stop at Trader Jacks
This restaurant and bar has achieved cult status, having been resurrected not once but three times after tropical cyclones. Go when the tide is high, sit on the deck and feel the spray as the sea crashes against the restaurant while you sample fresh sashimi and other island delicacies.
Find a friend at Wilson’s
Named after Tom Hanks’ volleyball companion in Cast Away, Wilson’s is a vibrant beach shack that serves colourful cocktails and a Japanese teppanyaki-style menu. Once you’ve made the most of happy hour with your toes in the sand, head to beautiful landmark Black Rock for a quick swim, then lie on the warm rocks and watch the sun go down in the west.
Stay at Nautilus Resort
Right on Muri Beach, the Nautilus is a premium hotel where every thatched villa has its own plunge pool and furnished deck and boasts either beach views or a private garden. The main resort pool overlooks a small island, called a motu, which you can visit using the hotel’s paddleboards and kayaks, or walk to at low tide. If you venture further down the lagoon, there are three other motu that are perfect for private picnics on crushed-coral beaches with dense jungle as your backdrop.
Sample the catch of the day at The Mooring Fish Café
In a bright blue converted shipping container, The Mooring Fish Café is famous locally for its FOB (Fresh off the Boat) sandwich. Watch the local fishermen weigh their catch while you wait for your crusted-mahi and lime mayo FOB feast.
Try fine dining at Tamarind House
In the former office of the Union Steamship Company, this villa serves a great range of fresh local produce. With a manicured garden that gives way to a wild white-sand beach dotted with coconut palms, it’s no surprise that this is also a popular wedding venue.
Climb The Needle
If you want to burn off those poolside piña coladas, get a lift to the base of the Cross-Island Track to Te Rua Manga, also known as The Needle. It’s a serious workout as you climb muddy steps formed by tree roots while holding on to hanging vines for support. When you reach the rocky top, you have the option of going right to the edge for a magical, if vertigo-inducing, view of Avatiu Valley and the coastline below. The three- to four-hour excursion is even better if you find Papua Waterfall. With lush green trees all around, it’s the coolest pool on the island.
Line up for Vili’s Burgers
Reward yourself after your Needle climb at what must be the world’s most popular burger joint without walls. With its small purple kitchen and plentiful park benches, Vili’s Burgers is a place of pilgrimage for many who hear about these burgers long before they land. Every burger comes with Vili’s ‘secret sauce’, which we can tell you is a creamy tomato condiment.
See a show at Te Vara Nui
Te Vara Nui Village
Te Vara Nui’s is the most popular cultural show on the island — even locals come here for a night out. The show tells the legend of Tongaiti, an explorer who came to live in Rarotonga with his beautiful daughters. Performed on an over-water stage with a waterfall behind it, it’s a spectacle of grass-skirted girls and oiled-up fire dancers. A buffet is included with the show, so you can try local dishes such as arrowroot chips before the lights are dimmed.
Graze at the night market
Held four times a week, the night market
in Muri is another fun way to try traditional dishes. Make sure you sample the rukau, a green curry made with taro leaves and coconut cream. And although we know they didn’t originate here, the éclairs from the dessert stalls are delicious. Meander down to Muri Beach afterwards to watch an amazing pink, purple and orange sunset, on show almost every night.
Fly to Aitutaki
Although there’s plenty to keep you in Rarotonga, a day trip to Aitutaki is worth the 45-minute scenic flight. Its expansive lagoon is pinch-yourself pretty, with coconut trees and beaches that seem copied from your laptop’s screensaver. Explore the motu and snorkel over giant pearl clams with the Vaka Cruise. Bonus: the crew doubles as an impressive ukulele band.
Note: Wi-Fi is temperamental in the Cook Islands and many websites don’t do their subjects justice. Ask your hotel manager about their favourite places for more on-the-ground insights.
Words: Jessica-Belle Greer
This article originally appeared in the Autumn 2017 issue of Fashion Quarterly.