RARO ‘down’, TONGA ‘south’
Rarotonga is one of 15 Islands that make up the Cook Islands, spread across 1,800,000km₂ and situated within the Southern group of Islands in the Pacific Ocean. It is the ‘main Island’, the youngest, biggest and the most populated of the Cook Islands with approximately 15,000 living here. An average population is given because at any one time, residents can be living short term in New Zealand, Australia and on outer Islands in the group.
Located in the continent of Oceania and in the central Southern Pacific ocean, on the map it is between Samoa and Tahiti and is only 32km in circumference.
Rarotonga has a lush green mountainous centre with high rising peaks and ridges. Remnants of what once was a volcanic pyramid. The highest of these measuring at 658m above sea level. The coastal fringe is flat and where most of the residents reside. The Island is completely encircled by a reef giving it a lagoon that stretches right around the entire Island. On the other side of the reef, the ocean floor slopes to a much deeper level.
The only international airport in Cook Islands is here and some of the outer Islands can be reached via this airport on Rarotonga if you wish to visit the less populated and more remote Islands.
Tourism is the main industry here and heavily relied on for the economy, followed by offshore banking, pearl farming, fruit and fish exports.
A self governing country, they are in free association with New Zealand, who are responsible for defence and external affairs along with Cook Islands Government. They have their own prime minister as head of the government and also a Queens representative as the head of state.
The climate in Rarotonga is moderate to tropical. The best weather is between the months of May – November, with an average daily temperature of 26℃ / 78℉ and an overnight low of 19℃ / 66℉. With an average rainfall during the winter months of just 6 days per month, this time of year is also the high tourist season.
The months of December – April are during the hot and wet season, with an average daily temperature of 28℃ / 82℉ and an overnight temperature of 23℃ / 73℉. During the wet season, the average is 10 days of rain per month with January having the most rain.
Don’t let the warmer and wetter months deter you though. The rain doesn’t last long and there are less tourists to share the Island with. Do be careful when booking flights in December though as there is a busy time with locals flying in and out of Rarotonga and New Zealand for Christmas and family time so book flights early if you want to visit then.
Cook Islands Maori is the local language although English is widely spoken.
PHRASES USED OFTEN
Kia Orana = Hello, Goodbye, May you live long
Meitaki = Thank you
Ka Kite = See you later
Kia Manuia = May you enjoy good fortune
Ae = Yes
Kare = No
Cook Islands have their own currency although the New Zealand dollar is mainly used.
EFTPOS and credit card facilities are available at most businesses, restaurants and retail outlets.
Banks and money exchanges are in Avarua and open between 9am-3pm Monday - Friday.
The 3 types of ATM's you will find in Rarotonga are owned by BCI (Bank of Cook Islands), BSP Bank South Pacific) and ANZ (Australia & New Zealand) All charge international withdrawal fees to visitors, however we found the BCI ATM to be cheapest on fees . As an example we paid $2.86nz ATM operator fee using BCI ATM compared to $6.89nz using the ANZ ATM which was a surprise. We were also charged an international withdrawal fee from our bank at home of $5aud each time we withdrew money from our account.
We recommend withdrawing $500 at a time so you have enough to last a few days and not be charged a withdrawal fee every day but not too much to carry around. If using a credit card for purchases, each transaction will incur an international fee so check your fees before you go so you're aware of charges each time you use it and can plan accordingly.
If you'll be using your debit card and/or credit card while on holiday here, I advise notifying your credit card company and your bank that you will be traveling before you go. This will avoid it being blocked by your bank while you're away.
Cook Islands are one of the last countries in the world to see the day out being very close to the International Date Line. The time difference to Australia is -20 hours AEST and -22 hours from New Zealand. Almost a day behind so be sure to book your accommodation accordingly.
These are free, granted on arrival and valid for 31 days.
If you’re a New Zealand citizen, your Visa is valid for 90 days.
If not a resident of NZ, you’d like to stay longer and you have a valid reason to do so, you need to apply to The Department of Immigration in Rarotonga for an extension that is done month by month and there will be a fee charged. The maximum time you can stay is 5 months if approved.
Departure tax is not charged as this fee is included in all flight costs.
Declare all food items on arrival into Rarotonga.
The allowances for the usual items are, up to 4.5 litres of Beer and 2 litres of other alcohol. 200 cigarettes, 20 cigars or 250grams of tobacco. Duty free shopping for other goods is available to all visitors on arrival and departure, at the airport and at shops around the Island. Goods over the value of $750NZ are liable for duty.
WiFi is not available everywhere in Rarotonga. Purchase data packages from www.bluesky.co.ck and at the Bluesky shop in Avarua. You can then access data at one of the 170 WiFi hotspots around the Island. Most of these can be found at restaurant and accommodation locations. Data pack prices are:
$10 NZD for 500mb for 7 days
$25 NZD for 1.5gb for 14 days and
$50 NZD for 3 gb for 30 days.
Driving in Raro is on the left side of the road. Your drivers licence from home is accepted to drive cars here. If you'd like to drive a scooter and don't hold a motorbike licence from home, you'll need to get this licence here. Read my article VEHICLE RENTAL TIPS for more information.
Baby seats and seat belts are not mandatory while driving in Rarotonga. It’s not unusual to see a local holding their baby on their lap while driving.
The maximum speed anywhere on the Island is 50km/h. Through towns and villages the limit is 40km/h. and 30km/h in Avarua and Muri. Around school zones is 20km/h during school times.
Rarotonga has an international airport and is the entry point to other Cook Islands. It is located in the North/West corner of the Island, running from the ocean edge at the West end of runway. Stand at the Island edge to watch incoming and departing flights. Most flights in and out of Rarotonga are at night so do arrange airport transfers or a taxi to your accommodation before you arrive. Duty free for arrivals is located just inside the building before you get to immigration (I’ve heard the 2nd store is slightly cheaper) Duty free shops for departures will open when the departure lounge is open for the next flight.
Some accommodation will offer airport transfers for a fee but some do not and you must arrange your transport from the airport to your accommodation prior to arrival into Rarotonga. Most flights arrive in the middle of the night when the local bus isn't running however if you do happen to arrive or depart during the day you can catch the local round island bus for a small cost.
*The average price through one of the transfer companies at $30pp.
*A taxi will be cheaper but you will need to pre book this. The cost for a taxi is about $20pp. Again head to Cook Islands Booking for taxi info.
*Alternatively you can arrange through Go-Cook Islands car rental company to have a hire car waiting at the airport for you.
For the best sunset views be on the West or South/West side of the Island to catch the magical and colourful sunsets. Alternatively, for gorgeous and equally colourful sunrises, be on the East side of the Island.
There are so many types of accommodation to suit all tastes and budget. Boutique hotels, resort and spas, motel rooms, units, suites, bungalows, huts, villas, houses, glamping tents and backpackers. Prices range from under $50 to over $600 a night.
The highest building I’ve seen in Rarotonga is just 3 storeys high as no building can be built taller than the coconut trees. A quirky little rule in Rarotonga which makes high rise buildings non existent.
If you’re coming to Cook Islands, remember it is the tropics. Expect to see some rust in your accommodation and be willing to share it with geckos, small crabs and even the odd cockroach, even in the high end resorts and boutiques.
The only bedding provided is sheets and sometimes a blanket as it’s quite warm overnight and nothing else is needed.
The sewerage systems are septic so take care of the waste water and don’t flush any extras.
No camping is permitted for travelers in Rarotonga.
Topless or nude sunbathing is offensive and not allowed.
Loose and light cotton clothing is all that’s required; Dress’, shorts, shirts, singlets and Pareu (cotton wrap/sarong) Bathers are acceptable while on the beaches, poolside and at accommodation but not outside of these areas.
If attending a church service, ladies wear a dress or skirt to the knees, a top covering shoulders and shoes. Dress hats are also worn by the local women. Men can wear long pants, a shirt and shoes.
There are water stations dotted around the Island. Please refill your bottles using this water to avoid adding to the plastic waste from buying bottled water. The water at these stations is safe to drink.
While this is not a party Island there are a number of bars and some clubs for a bit of night life on holiday. Alcohol is also served in restaurants. Buy your own to drink at your accommodation from duty free on arrival. Alcohol is also available from bottle shops, supermarkets and service stations. Buy your alcohol before 9pm each day though and prepare for Sunday. No alcohol is sold on a Sunday, this is only available where drinks are served on Sunday.
All lifestyle diets are catered for in Rarotonga. Gluten free, vegetarian, vegan and meat lovers. They provide and make the most of the Islands resources where possible. Seafood is a large part of their diet, also Taro, Papaya and Coconut. The traditional way to cook their food is in an under ground oven called an Umu. If you have the chance to try this food, it’s delicious.
Even though there are plenty of supermarkets and most grocery items you’re used to are available, visitors are allowed to bring some food into Rarotonga as long as it is declared and sealed. This might be a good idea to supplement food costs. Dry packaged foods and snacks are best as they are lightweight and easy to carry. You can even bring meat with you as long as it is vacuum sealed and packaged in an esky that closes properly especially if checking it in. You can take a small esky as carry on luggage if not exceeding weight limits with your airline. Don’t forget to declare it on entry.
You can always cook your own meals as supermarket prices are a little higher than home as most items are imported from New Zealand and other countries. Meat and dairy foods can be expensive but there are always cheaper alternatives available here. Fresh fruit and vegetables are a much cheaper option. Have fruit for breakfast and cook your own vegetarian, rice and pasta dishes to keep meal costs down.
All power sockets are type I, at 240v and with a frequency of 50Hz. If you’re coming from Australia, New Zealand or Argentina there is no need to buy a power adapter for your electrical items. However, if coming from other parts of the world you’ll need to bring an adapter with you.
Please dial 999 for Police, Medical and Fire emergencies.
We highly recommend you take out travel insurance before you leave home in case of any situations while away from home.
Look for safety signs before boating or swimming near a passage in the lagoon and while hiking in Rarotonga.
While crime is low, always keep valuables safe and locked.
The only public transport is the local buses. A bus that runs clockwise around the Island operates during the day and night until 11pm. The anti clockwise bus runs only during the day. For more Raro Bus info, read my article '15 Affordable activities to do in Rarotonga'
There are no dangerous animals roaming around Rarotonga. The only 2 that come to mind to cause harm would be Stone fish sometimes lurking in the lagoon in the rocky areas and also Mosquitoes that may be carrying airborne diseases if there is an outbreak. Wear reef shoes when swimming in the lagoon and wear insect repellent while in Rarotonga. There are no snakes or poisonous spiders. The most common (introduced) animals in Rarotonga are dogs, cats, pigs, cows and chooks for pets and some to provide products for the locals. Coconut crabs used to exist but have been eaten to extinction in Rarotonga, although they have survived on other Cook Islands.
Rubbish and recycling goes in the bins provided, not rolling around the Island to blow out into the sea. If you do see any rubbish, please do your bit and pick it up and put it in the bin when you find one.