View of The Needle -- Rarotonga's Highest Point
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The island of Rarotonga lies at the heart of New Zealand's Cook Islands, its beautiful lagoon sheltered by an encircling reef system. While narrow sandy beaches ring the island, the center is dominated by dramatic, lush green mountains reminiscent of "Lord of the Rings," which was filmed at least in part in New Zealand (proper; not here).
While most of the ports are in French Polynesia -- and within a few hours of each other by cruise ship (like Moorea and Tahiti) -- it takes a full day to sail to Rarotonga and another day to get back. So why is this out-of-the-way port a mainstay on South Pacific itineraries? For starters, the sea days are a nice benefit for those who consider their ship as much a destination as the ports; plus, we found the day's journey down and another back increased anticipation and whet the appetite for a change of pace from French Polynesia.
The island is also a bit more polished and prosperous than the islands of French Polynesia, and well developed for tourism; this is once place where it's easy to do your own circle island tour on the local bus system. Finally, it's a financial relief for shoppers. While food and goods are expensive throughout French Polynesia, Rarotonga offers lower prices on just about everything from fried fish lunches at roadside stands to souvenirs and jewelry -- mainly because it is closer to main importer New Zealand than, say, Bora Bora is to France or even the mainland U.S.
Verdant Rarotonga is a perfect choice for safaris and hikes, particularly because there are no snakes, wild animals or poisonous insects on the island (just watch out for mosquitoes with the munchies). Watch out for carvings and maraes, or sacred sites. But water babies will find plenty to do in the shimmering lagoon, including windsurfing, diving and glass-bottom boat tours.
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Other South Pacific Cruise Ports:
Bora Bora • Huahine • Isle of Pines (New Caledonia) • Madang • Moorea • Moreton Island • Nadi • Noumea • Pago Pago • Port Denarau • Raiatea • Rangiroa • Rarotonga • Tahiti (Papeete)
The official language is Cook Islands Maori. English is widely spoken -- with fabulous Down Under accents -- but learning a few local phrases (kia orana means "hello") is sure to spread smiles.
The Cook Islands, like the islands of French Polynesia, are renowned for their production of black pearls and jewelry, and loose pearls are sold throughout the island. Another top-notch gift idea is a CD of traditional singing or drumming -- music is a part of the old Polynesian culture that Christian missionaries weren't able to squash; try Raro Records in town. Cook Island stamps and banknotes are popular with serious collectors of the stuff.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The New Zealand dollar is the standard, though U.S. dollars are widely accepted. The exchange is about $8 U.S. to $10 NZD, but check xe.com for the latest rates. There's an ANZ Bank ATM at Cook's Corner in the town of Avarua, within walking distance of the tender port.
Where You're Docked
Ships anchor in Avatiu Harbor, on the northern side of the island of Rarotonga.
Tour operators set up at the tender dock; there are a few shops and takeaway (sandwich) stands within a stone's throw, the main town of Avarua is within walking distance, and much more bustling with shops and restaurants.
On Foot: The town of Avarua is about a 15-minute walk from the harbor. After disembarking your tender, head toward the left.
By Rental Car: Hertz, Avis and Island Rental are among the companies that rent cars and scooters on the island; remember to drive on the left side of the road. Expect to pay about $65 NZD for the day (or approximately $46 U.S.).
By Bus: This almost perfectly round island is easy to navigate by bus as they only run in two directions: clockwise and "anticlockwise." There's a bus stop in town at Cook's Corner, and stops include the golf club and a waterfall. Bus tickets cost $2.50 NZD one-way, $4 NZD roundtrip.
By Taxi: A few taxis will line up at the dock, but they're limited. Expect to pay about $2 per kilometer; if there's no meter, be sure to agree on a fare before setting off.
Watch Out For
If you are prone to seasickness, you may want to pack your choice of meds as the ride to and from Rarotonga can be choppy (calls sometimes get canceled due to sea conditions -- occasionally at the last minute, which means you'll have to do the trip there and back anyway). Barring a freak storm, it should be the only real "roughness" you'll experience while cruising in this region.
Rarotonga is a tender port, and since ships often miss calls here due to rough water conditions, climbing in and out of tender boats can be tricky; be cautious and follow the instructions of your ship's staff. Another note: Some public restrooms do not stock toilet tissue, so you'll want to carry something in your purse or pocket.
Avarua, the capital of the Cook Islands, is situated on the northern coast of Rarotonga -- just a 15-minute walk from the tender dock. In town you'll find a post office, banks, souvenir and craft shops, and jewelry stores carrying the region's ubiquitous black pearls, restaurants and supermarkets.
On Saturdays, the Punanganui Market in Avarua is a bargain-hunter's dream with arts and crafts, clothing, and fresh fruits and vegetables; it's also a good place to sample local cuisine like coconut rolls and ika mata (marinated raw fish).
Muri Beach is Rarotonga's prettiest and busiest stretch of sand, sweeping in a small arch for over half a mile along the island's southeast coast. There's a shallow lagoon for swimming and snorkeling, and many areas are protected marine reserves -- which means fish are plentiful.
There are guided safaris and hikes for all levels of fitness through the rainforest, noni plantations and bird sanctuaries -- and to Wigmore's Waterfall and the base of the Needle, the highest point on the island near its center. Pa's, a local operator, offers mountain and nature tours on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
Though the lagoon itself is shallow, there are great scuba spots just off the reef: wreck dives, walls, drop offs, canyons, coral gardens and an abundance of fish life (and whales, turtles and rays). Because calls do get canceled from time to time, we recommend booking through your ship's excursion department; however, there are local operators offering dives, including Dive Rarotonga and Cook Islands Divers.
Been There, Done That
Legend has it that Ngatangiia Harbor was the site where 22 canoes began the first migration from the Cook Islands to populate New Zealand in 1350. Today, the space is a public park with a few places to sit (a picnic lunch is a nice idea; see Lunching) and an excellent spot to snap pictures of the glittering harbor and the mossy mountains that rise above it. Look for the monumental circle of seven rocks that represent the seven canoes that made it.
For duffers, there's a nine-hole golf course at the Rarotongan Golf Club. The club is open from 8 a.m. daily (closed Sundays); you can hire a half set of clubs.
If you'd like to learn more about Cook Islands history and culture, visit Cook Islands Cultural Village on Rarotonga. There are nine thatched huts, each devoted to a different aspect of island life, including handicrafts, fire making, coconut husking and traditional medicine.
Vegetables, fish and fruit are the staples of Rarotongan cuisine; if you want to take a light picnic lunch on the bus or your scooter elsewhere on the island, stop by one of the many takeaways for a chicken or egg sandwich to go.
Close to the Port: For a casual lunch, try Fish n Chips just to the left of the tender dock -- follow the scent of fresh seafood and French fries; there are wooden tables and benches near the counter with a great view of the harbor and your ship at anchor. Open for lunch though hours may vary.
Ethnic Cuisine: For a change of pace from typical island eats, Raviz Indian Cuisine on the main drag in the town center is open for lunch Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. until 2:30 p.m. Menu items include lamb, beef, seafood and chicken curries, and tandoori breads. Not in the mood for a sit-down affair? For $6.50 NZD, grab a takeaway curry box with rice and head toward a picnic spot on the island, such as Ngatangiia Harbor.
Light Cafe Lunch: Cafe Salsa serves salads and creative wood-fired pizzas on the main drag in downtown Avarua, next to the CITC supermarket. Tables are set up on the sidewalk for prime people watching. Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Local Favorite: You'll see locals and tourists alike at Trader Jack's, on a pier near the traffic circle. The open-air restaurant and bar are nautical in decor with paddlewheels on the walls, and pure fun -- look for the "Ass of the Week" plaque near the restrooms (it's a mounted toilet seat that reveals a mirror when the lid is lifted). Must-eats include the fish tacos and the "fishwich," a grilled or fried filet on toasted bread with tartar sauce and cheese. Open for lunch and dinner seven days a week.
Best Overall Tour: A circle island tour takes travelers along the Ara Tapu -- a centuries-old coastal road paved with volcanic rock. The tour includes photo stops at Ngatangiia Harbor and Muri Beach. About 3 hours.
Best for Art Lovers: Cruisers can meet with local artists on an Ariki Art & Cultural excursion. The tour itself is guided by a local artist, and visits a variety of local artists' homes and studios covering different genres like pearl shell carving, canvas painting, sculpture, tattooing and textiles. Photo ops exist; you'll stop at Ngatangiia Point and Muri Beach. About 3.5 hours.
Best for Active Travelers: Takitumu Nature Hike is a two-hour trek highlighting local efforts to preserve native species, including the Kakerori Bird, the island's indigenous flycatcher. A guide will lead you over uneven terrain through a rainforest and point out medicinal plants. Bring insect repellent! About 2.25 hours.
Staying in Touch
Computers with Internet access are available at Tele Com at Cook's Corner; you can purchase calling cards at Tele Post.
For More Information
On the Web: www.cook-islands.com
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--by Melissa Baldwin, Senior Editor
Images appear courtesy of Melissa Baldwin.