When we heard that one of our Gnational Gnomads, Dr. Cacinda Maloney of PointsandTravel, was going to do a Polynesian Crossing in the South Pacific Ocean with her son to go scuba diving, we couldn’t wait to hear her take on what to expect when going to the Cook Islands!
A lesser-known gem in the South Pacific Ocean, the Cook Islands, are rich in culture and natural beauty that rivals the likes of other elite island tourist destinations. With 15 beautiful islands to explore, it is hard to pick just one. But Rarotonga, the main island, is a good place to start. Once there, your options are boundless with so much of the island to explore. Whether you prefer to go on nature explorations, lounge by the beach, learn about island history, or discover subaquatic wonders, Rarotonga simply has it all. There is so much to do, in fact, that a guide to the Cook Islands is essential. That’s why here you will get a comprehensive list of the most exciting tours I found in and around Rarotonga of the Cook Islands.
Discover Bright Colors in the Local Street Art
If you want to see some local art combined with a beautiful backdrop, look no further than Rarotonga. Polynesia is known to have a rich artistic culture and here is no exception. This shines through via art, murals and wood sculptures that are all over the place. The locals have decorated the buildings with art that truly represents the island. The street art here is special as it tells stories of the history of the local people and the environment they live in.
Explore the Takitimu Conservation Area
You can get familiar with the rainforests of Rarotonga that are a tangle of tropical plants and rare birds like the Kakerori. Known as the Rarotonga monarch, it is only found on this island. The Takitimu Conservation Area is a wild valley on the southern part of the island that is home to some of Rarotonga’s endangered native bird species. Serious efforts are underway to preserve their habitat and keep their populations from dwindling.
You can do a little good for the world by going on a tour to this nature reserve as proceeds aid the preservation of the rare bird species that inhabit this rainforest. This is also your chance to learn about the fascinating tropical plants that cloak this ancient island. Your guide will provide you with valuable knowledge of the ecological history of Rarotonga. He will tell you about the conservation efforts being made to preserve it. The tours are conducted down a graded path, making this nature walk relatively easy to navigate.
Circumnavigate Rarotonga by 4×4 Jeep
Hold on! Soon you can venture off the beaten track on this 4×4 adventure to the heights of Rarotonga. Stop at Orau-O-Uritau at the beginning of the Avatiu Valley. Your guide will give a brief introduction before you continue deep into the rainforest. Climbing to 984ft (300m) above sea level in your 4×4, you can take in the spectacular views. They include Te Rua Manga or The Needle, Rarotonga’s most distinctive natural spire.
From there, you will head towards the west side of the island where you can overlook the communities of Arorangi and Nikao. Your guide will allow the tour to pause for photos at Wigmore’s Waterfall before continuing to the picturesque Papaaroa Beach. Here the palm trees and the lagoon’s clear water looks like it was taken from a screensaver. Finally, your guide will stop at some of the ancient marae (ancient sacred sites dedicated to the various gods from the earliest settlers) to explain their historical significance to the island before you return to the main town of Avarua.
At these sites, there is a lot of knowledge to absorb how the ancient communities of Rarotonga went about their spiritual lives. As well as, what traditions and practices were most important to the village elders. Unfortunately, due to the constant wet climate on Rarotonga, many of the stones at these sites have been worn down. Despite this, the maraes are visited by thousands of tourists every year. It serves as an important piece of ancient Polynesian history.
One of the most important maraes in all of Rarotonga is Arai-te-Tonga, which was built around 1350 AD. It, along with other maraes on the island are connected by the largest “monument” in all of Rarotonga, Ara Metua, the ancient island road. This ancient road connected the sacred sites to each other making it easier for the tribes to communicate and worship with neighboring village peoples.
According to accounts of early missionaries to the island, the ancient road was very sophisticated. It was made of a layer of ground-up coral with granite slabs on top. Nowadays much of the ancient road has been covered by the modern one. But portions of it can still be seen at some of the marae sites. It is definitely worth a visit!
Lounge on a Catamaran in Muri Lagoon
At Muri Lagoon, you can cruise across the crystal-clear waters located on the eastern side of the island in a comfortable glass bottom boat. A local band will entertain you as you sail on the water while on your way to the best snorkeling spots in the lagoon. After you have explored the underwater world, your tour guide will take you to Koromiri, a tiny uninhabited island within the lagoon. There you can explore the island or continue swimming in the beautiful waters before the guides serve a BBQ lunch. As entertainment, your guide will shimmy up and down the palm trees to provide a coconut husking demonstration.
Explore the Reef at the Aroa Lagoonarium
Visit the Aroa Lagoonarium, a sheltered all-tide natural marine wonderland. Here you can experience the best snorkeling in all of Rarotonga! Meet the colorful, friendly tropical fish and even feed them by hand. At this tourist hotspot, you will have the chance to snorkel, paddleboard, and kayak in the shallow lagoon. It is a safe place for fish and humans alike. Also, you can find the locals offering lessons in Hula dancing, Pareu tying, and coconut husking here. Get immersed in the island life while the Ukulele and the drums play at the best beach in all of Rarotonga.
Take a Day Trip to Aitutaki
Taking a day trip to the other islands is another exciting adventure to go in if you are in the Cook Islands. The islands are separated into the Northern and Southern groups, Rarotonga belonging to the latter.
From Rarotonga, you can fly 50 minutes north to the award-winning beaches of Aitutaki. There you can enjoy the sand and the sun that has been spared mass tourism so far. The national airline, Air Rarotonga, organizes daily flights and tours that include a return flight. On the tour expect to see the oldest church in the Cook Islands as well as some massive Banyan trees.
The main highlight of Aitutaki, however, is Tapuaetai or One Foot Island. This islet, located southeast of the main island, offers the best views of the lagoon and allows visitors to walk out to a sandbank off the island during low tide.
Overall, the Cook Islands are a beautiful, yet far off place that has great distances even between its own islands. However, this makes them more special with unique wildlife and cultural traditions that have come from their isolation. I highly recommend that you consider staying on Rarotonga the next time you need a classic beach vacation. The culture, history, and landscapes will not disappoint.
Dr. Cacinda Maloney of PointsandTravel is an official Travelocity Gnational Gnomad. Gnational Gnomads is an exclusive group of high profile travel and lifestyle experts who offer tips and inspiration on behalf of Travelocity.
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