Rarotonga—the most populated of the Cook Islands, about 2,000 miles northeast of New Zealand and 2,800 miles south of Hawaii—is an idyllic place for a laid-back beach vacation. The volcanic island is only 20 miles around, which takes around an hour to drive. The perimeter offers pretty beach after pretty beach, while the interior is rugged, jungle-covered, and mountainous.
From dining on local Polynesian food to shopping at the Saturday markets and hiking a cross-island trail, there's more than enough to keep visitors entertained for a week or more in Raro.
Swim and Kayak in the Calm Waters of Muri Lagoon
While you won't be the only tourist on popular Muri Beach like you might be elsewhere on the island, you'll still be able to find your own private strip of white sand. Located on the south-west coast, Muri's sheltered clear blue lagoon is a calm place to paddle a kayak, swim in wave-free waters, and for kids to play. The off-shore reef protects the white-sand beach from the open ocean, and the islands (or motu) in the lagoon—Taakoka, Koromiri, Oneroa, and Motutapu—can be paddled, swum, or even walked to when the tide is low (for the latter, take reef shoes).
Dine at the Muri Night Markets
Wherever you're staying on Raro, you should dine at the Muri Night Markets at least once. The outdoor market at Muri Beach (alongside the road, not on the beach itself) operates four times a week, on Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. Although it officially runs from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m., it's best to get there early—5 p.m. on the dot isn't a bad idea—as some of the more popular food stalls run out of food very quickly.
Tasty dishes to look out for are local ika mata (marinated raw fish), Raro-style chicken curry, grilled prawns, and tropical fruit juices. Most vendors only sell food, but you can also pick up a few souvenirs here. If there's rain, expect fewer vendors to show, but there will still be some options, as well as covered seating.
Watch the Sunset From the West Coast
The west coast of Rarotonga is the best place to see the beautiful sunsets. If you're staying on this side of the island then you can enjoy them from the comfort of your hotel or the nearest beach every night at around 6 p.m. The timing doesn't change much throughout the year, as Rarotonga is quite close to the equator.
Shop at the Punanga Nui Markets
While the Muri Night Markets mainly sell food, the large Punanga Nui Markets sell a wide range of Cook Islands souvenirs. Held every Saturday morning in Raro's small capital, Avarua, they're well loved by locals as well as tourists. Grab breakfast (and lunch!), pick up some snacks to take back to your accommodation, watch some live music or dancing, and shop for some high-quality, hand-made souvenirs.
Ride the Bus Around the Island
While many visitors rent a car or a scooter to get around Raro, it's also fun to ride the local bus. In fact, if you plan to go to the Saturday Punanga Nui Market it's a good idea to take the bus even if you do have your own wheels, because it'll save you the hassle of trying to find a parking spot.
The bus has just two routes: clockwise and counter-clockwise. They run roughly according to schedule, and timetables are easily available at hotels or convenience stores. Riding the bus is a nice way to do a circuit of the whole island before choosing which beaches or other attractions you want to hone in on. Although it only takes an hour to get around the island directly, some buses stop at the station in Avarua for a while.
Experience Local Culture on a Progressive Dinner
Foodies, or anyone interested in experiencing local Rarotongan culture, won't want to miss a progressive dinner. Over the course of an evening you'll be taken to several local homes throughout Rarotonga's villages, where you'll be served authentic food and get an insight into how Rarotongan people live away from the fancy resorts. You'll probably also be entertained with traditional music, too.
Learn About Rarotonga’s Sea Life
Although small, the Discover Marine and Wildlife Eco Centre is a great destination on a rainy day, or if you're traveling with kids. There are detailed information boards on the environment and ecosystems of all of the Cook Islands, as well as aquariums with turtles, enormous coconut crabs, and clams. Plus, the center is just up the road from one of Raro's best restaurants, Beluga, on Rarotonga's west coast.
Take a Glass-Bottomed Boat Ride
Another Muri Beach must-do is taking a glass-bottomed boat cruise out into the lagoon, past the islands and to the coral reef. The glass panels in the center allow you to see the colorful tropical fish one you're anchored near the reef, and if you want a closer look you can don some flippers and a snorkel and dive in. The friendly local crew entertains with their singing and drumming, and afterwards you'll be taken to a barbecue on one of the islands.
A couple of operators run these tours, and are pretty similar. It's a good idea to book a few days in advance, as spaces fill up quickly.
Have a Drink at the Rarotonga Sailing Club
After a strenuous day swimming in the lagoon or lounging on a towel in the sand, head to the Rarotonga Sailing Club for a refreshing happy hour cocktail or beer. The historic club was established in 1940, and overlooks the beach and the water. If you're feeling active you can take a sailing lesson here, too.
Hike to the Needle
Hiking to the highest point on Rarotonga is perhaps the exact opposite of a relaxing beach vacation, but that's all the more reason to give it a go. Te Rua Manga, or the Needle, is the 1,354-foot rocky pinnacle in the center of Rarotonga. The north-to-south hike across the island via the Needle is Raro's most popular hike, and takes three to four hours to complete. It shouldn't be underestimated, though. If there's been any rain, parts of the trail get very slippery, and the towards the top it's very overgrown with bush. It's recommended to go with a guide on an organized tour unless you're a highly experienced hiker.