(Updated in 2022!) Crystal clear blue lagoons, rugged green mountain tops, warm tropical breezes, fresh seafood… welcome to Rarotonga.
With two girlfriends by my side, we explored Rarotonga for a week. In this post, I’ll be sharing all my favorite things to do, where to eat and top travel tips, along with recommended hotels/resorts so you can have the best stay possible. Consider this travel guide blog post your one-stop-shop for all your Cook Island research and best things to do in Rarotonga!
On a sunny hillside in Rarotonga, I suddenly found myself being rubbed down with a pungent fruit called Noni. “For the bugs” said Pa, with a loopy grind, as he tossed the used Noni fruit to the side. Pa is the famous Cook Islands’ healer known for his nature walks and cross island treks (and for being rather eccentric.)
The next day, with the Noni scent, scrubbed off my skin, we were casually boarding a small flight to a neighboring island for a day cruising the crystal blue lagoon waters and sipping on beer. The day after that, paddleboarding Muri Beach followed by a luau and cocktails.
There are so many fun things to do in Rarotonga. I see why New Zealanders love hopping over to the Cook Islands for a quick tropical vacation. As an American, my journey took considerably longer, but it was worth the long day of flights.
How did a group of 20-something American girls decide to come to the Cook Islands you ask? Well, we got asked that a lot as most of the visitors seemed to be from New Zealand or Australia. Ever heard of a little show called Survivor? Season 13 (circa 2006) was filmed in Aitutaki, part of the Cook Islands. Ever since my friend has been itching to go.
When she found a flash sale on Air New Zealand, the plans to visit fell into place. One long and very packed flight from LA to Rarotonga later, we found ourselves in the Cook Islands for 6 days. We had a few tours booked, but mostly we explored the island by bus to hunt down all the best things to do in Rarotonga for you!
12 Top Things To Do In Rarotonga Cook Islands + Huge Travel Guide
We spent just about a week on the island and packed it full of fun Rarotonga activities. Because most international flights are limited to the islands, you’ll probably also find yourself here for a week. These are the Rarotonga must see and must do things while here!
1. Muri Night Markets
There are a couple of night markets on Rarotonga and these are a must-do and my favorite dinner of our whole stay! Night markets are filled with stalls of food vendors with cuisine I’ve never seen outside the islands. There’s plenty of tables to sit at and you can roam the stalls finding whatever you’re craving to eat that night.
The most famous and most popular is the Punanga Nui Market in the main village Avarua every Saturday night. We sadly weren’t on the Cook Islands for any Saturday night, but not to fret! We visited the Muri Beach night market instead, this one takes place every Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday. It’s a bit smaller but just as tasty!
I found myself a fresh coconut to drink from and Ika Mata bowl which I’m still drooling over. Ika Mata is a local Cook Islands raw fish dish that’s cooked with coconut milk and HOLY MOLY I’ve never tasted anything like it before. You MUST try this dish at some point on the island!
2. Wigmore’s Waterfall
I loved visiting Wigmore’s Waterfall! I low-key have an obsession with swimming at the base of waterfalls (also with soaking in hot springs but there aren’t any that I know of on Rarotonga.) Wigmore’s is a short walk from the main road, maybe about 10 minutes. Very flat and easy to do for all ages.
There’s a $2 toll you have to pay, but don’t worry – some of that money goes to the local SPCA which you’ll pass by to help care for all the island dogs! You’ll also walk past the abandoned Sheraton hotel which has an interesting history.
Wigmore’s has a LOT of mosquitoes so make sure to bring bug spray. I noticed that they didn’t really bother me the closer I swam to the base of the waterfall, so make sure to jump in quickly! I read online that a lot of visitors were really disappointed in this waterfall as it’s a bit small, but 1) I think they’re complainers and 2) I don’t think they swam in it, which is all the fun!
3. Aitutaki Day Trip Lagoon Cruise
Aitutaki is one of the Cook Islands and about a 45-minute flight from Rarotonga. And let me tell you, it’s hands down one of the most beautiful places I have EVER been to! We kept staring at the water and saying “this isn’t real, this is a postcard”
We booked the Vaka Cruises Aitutaki Day Tour / Lagoon Cruise and I can’t say enough good things about this tour. I highly highly recommend you book it – this day officially is going down as one of my “top days of my life” it’s that fun. Even boarding the tiny plane at sunrise with the Rarotonga island mountains as a backdrop was fun.
First, we got a short bus tour of Aitutaki, where we learned about the history of the small island and see the villages. Then, off to the beach to board of boat for the day, with coconuts waiting! And thus our day island hopping to three islands around the lagoon, including a final stop at One Foot Island so we could send a poscard home to ourselves.
We snorkeled with giant fish, listened to live music, visited Survivor Island (the place they filmed season 13 of Survivor) and pretty much just had the best day ever. I wrote a whole post with tons of photos and more information about the Vaka Cruises you can read if you’re interested.
4. Eat Ika Mata
Ika Mata is a local dish that I pretty much fell in love with. Low key googling how to make it on my flight back. It’s tuna marinated in lime and coconut milk, using topped with tomatoes or other greens. Sometimes served in a bowl with rice and pickled ginger.
Usually, I don’t list a local food dish under “things to do” but I’m so obsessed with this dish, it quickly became my missing every day: eat all the Ika Mata that I can before I leave!!
5. Museum Tour
Across the street from the prettiest, Cook Island Christian Church in Rarotonga is the museum and library. Costing $5 to enter the museum, this makes a great first day stop so you can learn more about the history of the island. It’s small and will probably only take about 30 minutes to browse, but makes a great crash course on native culture and customs.
Looking for things to do in Rarotonga when it’s raining? This is a good one! But, just remember that Rarotonga weather is a lot like any tropical place. Rain usually doesn’t last all day and instead comes in light waves, a lot like Florida or Portland. It should clear up soon enough!
6. Muri Beach
I think Muri Beach is the best beach in Rarotonga. We kept coming back to this one again and again as swimming here is, in my opinion, one of the best free things to do in Rarotonga. If I visited the Cook Islands again, I would want to book a hotel closer to Muri Lagoon because it’s where all the fun stuff seems to happen.
I love Muri Beach so much compared to the other beaches because it has a huge, calm lagoon. Unlike the beach next to our hotel, which has a small lagoon/reef and thus lots of waves which makes it not as fun to swim in. Muri, though, is tranquil and large. It’s perfect for swimming, kayaking, parasailing or paddleboarding.
The sand/beach itself is long and clean. There are a handful of waterfront restaurants to grab drinks or lunch at. The little town of Muri is also where you’ll find the Muri Night Market, Te Vara Nui show and other little shops.
Looking for romantic things to do in Rarotonga? Sunset walk on Muri beach followed by drinks and dinner at Sails.
Basically, make sure to set aside time to hang out near Muri beach, or better yet, book the Pacific Resort hotel so it’s all within footsteps. It’ll save you a lot of time riding the bus!
7. Brewery Tour
The Rarotonga Brewery offers free tours AND a free pint aftward! I love beer, it’s my drink of choice. My husband and I are always keen ot visit local breweries or beer festivals when traveling.
On this trip, we packed in other activities to do in Rarotonga so we didn’t have time to grab a pint here, but it sounds really fun! Another good thing to do if it’s raining too hard to be outside.
8. Te Vara Nui
Te Vara Nui is a cultural show slash luau dinner that takes place almost nightly on the island in Muri Beach. It’s one of the top-rated Rarotonga attractions and requires advanced reservations to ensure you grab a seat!
I’m going to be honest here – I had fun but I thought in general that the show was overpriced for what it was. I just visited Maui and did a luau there which was much, much better than this show, so perhaps I was spoiled in Hawaii?
I thought the food was just okay, but the service was really slow. For instance, we ordered a bottle of wine that took over 30 minutes to arrive and by the time it did, we were already done eating. If you come, I highly suggest arriving a bit early so you can order drinks before it gets crazy. Also, for the high price of the ticket, I was frustrated that alcohol wasn’t included. (That Maui luau has an open bar and was similarly priced.)
That being said, if you haven’t seen a luau before, I think the show itself was fun. A bit short, but does a great job at teaching you the legend of Tongaiti and some of the native cultural dances and outfits. I wouldn’t do this again if I returned, though.
9. Pa’s Nature Walks or Hikes
Pa is quite the character. At the age of 70-something, Pa is the island’s most famous healer and embodies exactly what you expect a remote island’s medicine man to look like. He offers an intense cross-island hike past Te Rua Manga (aka The Needle) and to Wigmore’s waterfall. We almost booked that but decided against it last minute (because TBH I’m not in the best of shape right now and I was pretty sure I would be miserable.)
Instead, we did his nature walk! Skip the Maire Nui garden tour and walk with Pa instead. You’ll meet at his home where he’ll go over tons of island plants and how they work as natural remedies. We went for a short walk, but most of the tour was just standing around listening to Pa.
We learned that wild yellow peppers help with bug bites and that the fruit Noni helps to repel bugs, just to name a few of the things. His hikes are always one of the top Rarotonga tourist attractions.
Obviously, snorkeling is one of the top Rarotonga things to do and see! You’re on an island after all! You can snorkel pretty much anywhere on the island as Rarotonga has a really big reef/lagoon area. The most popular place to snorkel is Muri Beach, Titikaveka Beach and Black Rock Beach.
Just head to a local surf shop to rent snorkels or buy some at one of the markets in town. Some hotels also offer them to their guests! You can also snorkel The Aroa Lagoon Marine Sanctuary that’s full of marine life. We didn’t get a chance to do visit the marine reserve this time, but I would absolutely prioritize this on my next trip.
11. Paddle Boarding or Kayaking
The crystal clear waters of the lagoons around the island are also really great for paddleboarding or kayaking! Normally I go the kayaking route as I really love it, but I have never tried to stand up paddleboarding (SUP) before so we rented some from the SUP shop in Muri Beach for $30 for two hours.
The lagoon is calm and not too deep, perfect for paddling around! I wasn’t very good at standing so I kneeled for most of it. There are a few islands in the lagoon that we paddled to, took a swimming break and almost just floated around in the sunshine. Worked up an appetite for lunch!
12. Raro Buggy Tours
Ready to get super muddy and explore trails that are off the beaten path – literally? Raro Buggy Tours is a new tour company that lets you self drive (with a group) all around muddy island trails. It’s perfect for adventure thrill seekers!
Where to Eat in Rarotonga
There are a LOT of restaurants and places to eat in Rarotonga! These were my favorites
As I mentioned, the Night Markets are a great place to head for dinner! There are so many stalls with all sorts of food – from local cuisines to pizza and nachos for those afraid to dabble in something new.
I highly recommend you visit the Muri Beach night market and look for the Nuka Kai stall. Order the Ika Mata bowl for my favorite meal of the whole trip!
Located in the main village, Trader Jack’s is a hopping place. They have a beautiful and large patio right up against the water. Come here for a drink or a sunset dinner. I personally tried the poke bowl and really loved how fresh it was!
Castaway is a hotel but it also has a restaurant and bar on the beach! We ate here a few times because it’s so close to ur room (aka the nights we wanted to be lazy!) I personally think they have the best breakfast on the island. I ate their Hawaiian Buffalo dish a few times — a poached egg with a beef patty, grilled pineapple and polenta. So freaking savory and tasty!
In the evenings, come for a cocktail, live music and some Japanese food.
Mooring Fish Cafe
This famous cafe lives up to the hype. Located on the east side of Muri (it’s a bit of a walk from the main stripe, just a warning!) this cafe serves food out of a shipping container. There’s tons of outdoor picnic tables rigth on the lagoon’s shores.
I recommend ordering one of their sandwiches, but asking for it in salad form! You’ll get an island twist on the meal.
In the main area of Muri is Sails, a restaurant with mostly outdoor patio seating right on the water just steps away from the beach you’ll be hanging out on. This was our most frequented spot! They have good deals on beer and cocktail or happy hour and a nicely priced lunch menu. If you haven’t tried Ika Mata yet, order it here!
We didn’t get a chance to eat here, but it came highly recommended as a top-notch dinner with live music! I got the impression it was a bit fancy, so come here for your special dinner out.
Recommended Rarotonga Accommodation
There are a LOT of Rarotonga resorts! These are the top 3 I recommend to ensure you have a relaxing stay!
Pacific Resort in Muri Beach
This luxury resort is right on Muri Beach. If I return to Rarotonga, I would totally book there. Why? For starters, location location location! It’s just steps away from most of the activities we did, so it would drastically cut down on the amount of time we spent traveling on the bus around the Island.
Also, the property is stunning. We walked through it a few times to get to the beach and very lovely. Rooms seem to mostly be in private bungalows, with a few rigth on the water. They also have a fun barefoot bar in the sand and frequently have booking specials (like book 5 nights, pay for 3, etc.) Would totally stay here with my husband!
This was the hotel we stayed at! As a group of three, we needed a hotel that has a room with three beds. We also really wanted one that was adults only (kids cramp my vibe yo.) The Castaway Resort fit the bill and was also pretty affordable for a casual girls trip!
The owners here are REALLY nice. Go to the front desk and they’ll help you with literally anything you need or want to know, which is the major plus of this spot. Also, we were able to stay in our room much later than normal checkout (9pm vs 10am!) because our flight left at midnight. The owner thought it would be more enjoyable for us! Love it.
The Rarotongan Beach Resort
A four-star resort we kept driving by on the bus! It looked really impressive from the front and upon looking at the photos online, holy moly I swooned! The beach is large and stunning. They have an onsite restaurant including private candlelit dinners. Pools and a spa, too.
It’s not in walking distance to Muri to other little towns, but it’s much closer to it than Castaway was, perhaps just a 10-15 minute bus ride vs a 30 minute one! Perfect for those looking for a nice hotel that’s further away from the hustle of Muri.
What To Pack For Rarotonga
Rarotonga is an island but has a mix of activities and areas, so you need to pack special for it! Here’s my packing list
- Bug spray
- Reef safe sunscreen
- New Zealand dollars cash
- Comfy sandals like these
- Swimsuits (at least 2-3, you’ll be living in them!)
- Skirts (to pull over swimsuits)
- Nice dresses for dinner like this one!
- Yoga pants + top for hiking
- Hiking boots or sturdy sandals
- Beach bag
- Waterbottle (I love this one!)
- Hand sanitizer
I hope this helps you plan what to do in Rarotonga and have a great time on your South Pacific island vacation! This beautiful place is special and utterly unique. I’m not sure there’s anywhere else in the world quite like the Cook Islands…
If you have anything to add or questions, leave a comment below! Or, DM me on Instagram @thewhimsysoul and I’ll be happy to help!