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.
, 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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
Where You're Docked
Ships anchor in Avatiu Harbor, on the northern side of the island of Rarotonga.
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.
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.
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.