The capital island
The Cook Islands are "hidden" in a vast expanse of the South Pacific ocean roughly 3,000 kms (1,867 miles) north east of New Zealand and 4,725 kms (2,936 miles) south of Hawaii. The country is actually 15 separate islands...nine in the Southern Group and six in the Northern Group, and they're defined geographically as between 156-167° West and 8-23° South.
Two of the islands - Takutea and Manuae - are uninhabited.
They're spread across 2.2 million square kilometres (nearly 850,000 square miles) of water, which is is an area slightly bigger than Indonesia or Mexico and nearly three times the size of Texas! 1,433 kms (891 miles) separates the most northerly island (Penrhyn) from the most southerly (Mangaia). Rarotonga is the international entry point and the gateway to the rest of the islands
As soon as you step off the plane, you know you've arrived somewhere very special...
Straw hatted Jake Numanga Snr stands in the corner of the arrivals area in Rarotonga airport strumming Polynesian love songs on a banjo, as you wait to get your passport stamped. He's been providing his unique entertainment for every single arriving and departing flight for more than 30 years. And he was awarded an MBE by HM the Queen for his serivces to tourism.
Immigration and customs are efficient but very friendly, welcoming you with words that will quickly become familiar because everyone greets you with them... "kia orana" meaning "may you live long".
Photo credits: Aerial of the island, Ewan Smith, Air Raroronga; Banjo playing Jake Nunmanga Snr, Cook Islands Tourism
Cook's Island Bus is an inexpensive way of travelling. It goes all round the island and stops anywhere you want to get on or off. Services start and end at Cook's Corner in town. Then...you only need to decide if you want to go in a clockwise or anti- clockwise direction!
Scooters are the main form of transport and there are plenty of places to hire them. Helmets are now compulsory and there's an on the spot fine of NZ$250 for not wearing one. Driving licences from Australia, Canada, the UK, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, the USA and EU member countries are now accepted in the Islands (previously you had to queue up to get a Cook Islands licence which was also a great souvenir!). You are allowed to drive the same class of vehicles as in your home country provided it's a full licence (provisional licences are not acceptable) and you're 16 or over
If you're planning to hire a motorbike or scooter, you'll also have to take a short test...to prove you know how to go round the only roundabout on Raro! Drink driving is also illegal and police use breathalysers.
Driving tip: Keep left and give way to traffic from the right
Muri is the main resort beach and normally the jewel in Rarotonga's crown for swimming and snorkelling. But government scientists advised in January, 2021 against taking a dip there. Environmental conditions and human activity have resulted in the water being heavily saturated with foul smelling sediment making it unsafe to swim. Head instead a bit further up the coast to the waters near Fruits of Rarotonga, but don't swim outside the reef
The closest you'll get to a superstore in Rarotonga is the CITC - the Cook Islands Trading Company. It's been a part of Islands' life for over 100 years. They also have a liquor superstore and outlet supermarket just outside town. And for your daily shop, visit their Foodland store on the main street.
Tangaroa is an ancient god whose image you'll see all over the place and an unofficial symbol of the Islands. Small or large, carvings of him are a popular souvenir
The Punanga Nui cultural market near the harbour is a must visit for tourists and islanders alike. The main market day is Saturday (6am- 2pm) and that's the best but you will find some stalls open other weekdays (not Sunday) from 8 till 4 and a night market on Wednesdays. And look out for the fish tree; a sign explains a traditional way of marketing was to tie a catch in a bundle or tui and hang it from a branch
Away from the beach, Rarotonga has a very different landscape. Discover how to explore it safely
Get an insider insight at a cultural attraction that was voted the world's best
Find out where, when and how to watch whales without even stepping off land
Discover where to dine out or party
And much more...