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South Pacific Paradise - Rarotonga - The Soul of Polynesia
Rarotonga, Cook Islands
Located in the middle of the South Pacific as far south of the equator as Hawaii is north on the same longitude, Rarotonga is one of the fifteen islands that together comprise the Cook Islands. It is the political and economic hub of the Cooks and the jump off point to the other islands of the southern and northern group. It is, as one might expect, a tropical paradise with an ancient and lush green volcanic inland surrounded by thousands of coconut palms encircled completely by a reef. The reef forms a shallow lagoon around the perimeter of the island that varies in width from about 20 meters to about a kilometer at Muri beach.
Background: Rarotonga's people are the Maori, a Polynesian people not to be confused immediately with the New Zealand Maori. It's no coincidence that the New Zealand Maori share the name, however, for Rarotongan history records the departure of fourteen canoes to New Zealand at around 1350AD. Some departed from other Polynesian islands and some from Avana Harbour in Rarotonga. Thus they are distant relatives. When Europeans arrived here a few centuries ago they found, to their surprise, a coral road encircling a good part of the island dating back almost 1000 years. The conditions under which such a road would have been constructed have been lost, but the road remains as the inland road -- the Ara Metua or the Great Road of Toi. Politically the Cook Islands are an independent nation with a free association with New Zealand. This entails that all Cook Islanders have citizenship rights in New Zealand and as such more of them live there than in Rarotonga, the most populated island of the Cooks. This also seems to entail a certain amount of wealth being earned in New Zealand, much of which finds its way back to family and friends in the Cooks. And of those who remain, most seem to remain because they have managed to successfully earn a living within the limited economic potential available. Much of the money comes from tourism, some agriculture and the pearling industry taking off from the northern islands of Manihiki and Penrhyn.
Getting There and Around: Rarotonga is a sleepy place and its size makes it easy to explore on a rented bicycle or motorcycle or by bus. The around-the-island bus trip takes about an hour. There are 2 buses constantly running clockwise and counter-clockwise around the island. A one-way ticket costs $2NZ and when flagged down it will stop most anywhere. The rental workhorses are mostly 100cc semi-automatics and are sufficient to carry two and cost about $50NZ for 3 days. The driving is on the left and is fairly reserved with sane drivers and speed limits. Beware, however: one needs to get a local driver's license to legally drive in the Cook Islands, and this essentially means showing up with valid home license at the police station in the capital Avarua with $10 in hand. If you have an automobile license and are intending to rent a motorcycle, you have two options: either do a road test for an extra $5 or rent first, drive to the police station on it, and when it's pointed out you don't have the appropriate home license, you may just get the license you need because you've demonstrated an ability to get there already. As bizarre as this sounds, it was recommended to us and worked. The majority of visitors will arrive via Air New Zealand as it's the only major carrier that serves the Cooks.
Upon arriving at the airport and seeing the bustle there, one would imagine that Rarotonga is a busy place. It's not. Just about everyone who services the needs of tourists shows up to greet the flights. The rest of the time the airport is all but deserted for generally no more than one flight arrives every day or two. Air Rarotonga flies smaller commuter planes to the outer islands, but that's about the only exception.
Staying There: Because of its size, where you stay on Rarotonga makes little difference with regards to what you have access to. The farthest point away at any given time is about 25 minutes by vehicle. There is plenty of accommodation from backpacker places to motels and resorts. Generally, the resorts are ridiculously expensive unless they are taken on a package trip. And with motels being reasonable starting at about $40NZ per night, a pair of travelers would likely enjoy the space over paying $15NZ each and up for backpacker stays. You should note that the Cook Islands government currently requires that all visitors have pre-arranged accommodation before arrival; this is to be listed on the entry card. And although the extent to which this is enforced or followed up is hard to estimate, it likely pays to book something for at least the first night. If you are inclined to shop at a supermarket for your food, it's probably worth staying closer to Avarua as it has a few good supermarkets.
Activities: There is good swimming around most of the island in the lagoon. The lagoon is narrowest just south east of Avarua and it is the widest on the south east coast near Muri Beach and as a result this is the only area where sailing is available. The water is generally safe, shallow and calm in the lagoon with a few exceptions. At several places around the island there are passages in the reef where all the water that is breaking over the reef into the lagoon generally seems to exit. Swimming near these passages is very dangerous and should be avoided; they are marked on all the locally available maps. Snorkeling can be done most anywhere but the water is generally quite shallow. Note when looking for a snorkeling spot around the island, that there are a number of protected zones to allow regeneration of some of the creatures that the locals harvest as food. The most notable of these are the absolutely huge snails approaching 30 cm in width. We didn't see any until we were at protected areas snorkeling and then they were so plentiful it was hard to believe we hadn't seen them previously. There's a protected beach about 1 km west of the end of the runway near Black Rock with parking and some picnic tables; you can see these snails here.
Diving is done along the outer perimeter of the reef and there are two major operators in Rarotonga, the one most convenient to town is in Arorangi about 5 km away. Because the diving is done all around the island, no matter the weather, there's always some calmer water to be found.
A great way to get oriented regarding the scale and location of various places is to take the scenic flight offered by Air Rarotonga. For $55NZ per person, you'll be flown around the island for about 20 minutes and get some otherwise impossible views.
Hiking is a great way to explore and immerse yourself in the natural beauty of Rarotonga. A popular route through the lush interior is the across the island hike which will take 3-4 hours one way. Not to be missed is the Te Rua Manga, a.k.a 'the needle', a sharp rocky pinnacle that can be spotted between other peaks from various points around the island. Also on this hike is Wigmore's Waterfall which can reached on a short trip from the south of the island, but bring insect repellent! One of the lesser explored routes offers one of the real joys of discovery: a 'secret' swimming hole. It is to be found in Avana Stream along the road that runs parallel. This road starts just south of Avana Harbour; it's easy to find on a map since it's the longest marked road going inland. Please take the term road loosely as it quickly becomes one best navigated on foot. Hiking up to its end will also present some beautiful island views, particularly down the valley to Avana Harbour.
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