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Rarotonga Cruises

About Rarotonga, Cook Islands

The spellbinding volcanic island of Rarotonga is the sleepy capital of the Cook Islands. Once a New Zealand colony, its needle-like rock, Te Rua Manga, pierces the sky from the island’s center. Surrounded by a lagoon, its dramatic slopes rise up to scenic agricultural highlands where terraced farming provides the Cooks with fresh vegetables and fruits. White sandy beaches lined with palms surround Rarotonga, luring visitors and locals alike. Several ancient marae, communal gathering places typical of Polynesian tribes, dot the landscape and enjoy spectacular seaside settings.

Rarotonga is one of the 15 Cook Islands, a self-governing island nation with an official political association with New Zealand. Polynesian people first arrived here from Tahiti in the 6th century and lived here for a millennium before the Spanish arrived. But it is British Captain James Cook who gave the islands their name; he famously landed on these shores in 1773. Missionary John Williams first sighted Rarotonga in 1813. Europeans left the islands after fighting erupted with the islanders, but returned to continue missionary work in 1821. By 1888, as France was taking over Tahiti, the Cook Islanders requested annexation by the British Crown, laying the foundation for the archipelago’s ties to today’s New Zealand.

Rarotonga Lifestyle and Culture

Locals call their island “Raro” for short, an affectionate term for an astonishingly picturesque island. Because of the mountainous terrain, a 20-mile bitumen roadway encircles the island. Vehicles cannot cross the island’s center directly; inland routes can be traveled only by foot. So most of the highly populated villages hug the coast and the lives of locals revolve very intimately around the comings and goings of the tidewaters. Yet despite its remoteness and size, Rarotonga lives very much in the 21st century. Amid its traditional Polynesian values and its strong oral history, the island enjoys vibrant cafés where you can sample a local homebrew and taste organic artisanal food.

Cook Islanders love being active in their great outdoors, whether snorkeling, cycling or hiking. What’s more, it’s been said that they are the best dancers in the South Pacific. They happily prove their skills each year in April or May during the Te Mire Kapa competition. This “Dancer of the Year” festival is a highlight of the islands’ cultural calendar, as dancers demonstrate their skill and passion for the hip-twisting tamure and other styles.

Rarotonga Sights and Landmarks

Avarua is the national capital of the Cook Islands. This simple town is anchored by the whitewashed CICC, or Cook Islands Christian Church. More than half the islanders make up this popular congregation. Its history stretches back to the London Missionary Society that began welcoming indigenous people into its fold in 1821. A visit here provides fascinating insight into the missionary movement in the South Pacific.

Rarotonga’s most prominent landmark is Te Rua Manga, the massive rock pinnacle that points skyward like a needle from the middle of the island. A series of walking trails head into the lush hills that surround the dramatic peak, passing waterfalls and ancient marae, or meeting places, along the way. More marae line the island’s ancient inner road, or Ara Metua. This byway is concentric to the modern coastal ring road, or Ara Tapu; remarkably, the former was laid by ancestral Polynesians in the 11th century with stone slabs.

Rarotonga Entertainment and Activities

The vibrant culture of the Cook Islands comes alive in its cultural shows, where visitors can determine for themselves if Cook Islanders are indeed the best dancers in the South Pacific. Fanciful headdresses, bright-red skirts and a lively percussive tempo create a lively and festive atmosphere. For another side of local culture, visit two institutions in Avarua. The BCA Art Gallery was once a missionary school; today it hosts artists and displays their work. At the Cook Islands Library & Museum Society, browse a small museum and the titles of an intimate bookshop.

Those seeking a more active visit can rent bicycles and explore the inner and outer ring roads on two wheels. Or take advantage of the island’s many opportunities for snorkeling, paddleboarding or just relaxing on white-sand beaches.

Rarotonga Restaurants and Shopping

Fresh fruit and seafood are on most any menu on Rarotonga. And wood carvings, basketry and fine examples of tivaevae, the craft of patchwork quilts imported by missionary wives, line the shelves of shops.

For the ultimate cultural experience, browse Avarua’s Punanga Nui Market. Fresh produce, the daily catch of fish, firi firi (Tahitian style doughnuts) and more can easily make up a whole meal. Enjoy a more leisurely lunch at LBV, a relaxed eatery that also sells mouthwatering bakery items. For an elegant experience, visit the Tamarind House. This graceful colonial building on the north shore fuses European, Asian and Pacific flavors.

All styles of beautiful quilted fabrics are on display at Tivaevae Collectibles, from bed linens to tablecloths. Other uniquely specialized shops sell ukuleles, pearls, perfumes and oils, stone sculptures, and Cook Islands coins and stamps.