Life is laid back on Rarotonga, the most populous of the Cook Islands, but the residents are still an active bunch. Though there are plenty of white sandy beaches on which to laze—and people do, with plenty of napping— locals love to get out and move. Join them in snorkeling, diving, riding—bikes, horses, scooters—fishing, bush walking, and playing squash and tennis. Another popular, if odd, and favorite activity is lining up along the sea wall adjacent to the airport's runway to be jetblasted.
The Mooring Fish Cafe
Two seafood-loving ladies have taken over a disused shipping container, applied some palm thatching to the roof, added tables shaded by blue umbrellas, and positioned it right in front of the gorgeous lagoon. Such is the Mooring Fish Cafe at the Avana Fishing Club on Avana Harbour, near the Muri lagoon and beach. Regulars flock here for the FOB (fresh off the boat) crumbed mahi mahi sandwich and the wonderful fruit smoothies and coconut drinks. There's a variety of other delicious fish sandwiches, made with locally baked Turkish bread and accompanied by homemade mayo and salad, including the "Tijuana Tuna," which has a kicky Cajun sauce. Also on the menu is ika mata, a raw fish salad specific to the Cook Islands.
Sands Restaurant and Bar
New Zealand–born celebrity chef Tony Bullivant, who has created meals for the likes of Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney, and opera star Kiri Te Kanawa, delights patrons at the Moana Sands Beachfront Hotel & Villas. The newly named Sands Restaurant and Bar serves a "Pacific fusion" menu, where classic international dishes get a new twist, and the island's freshest seafood is prepared to perfection. Start with the blue cheese, apple, and vegetable spring rolls, or the seafood Caesar Salad with smoked marlin and prawn tails. Mains include parmesan-crumbled parrot fish served with maniota fries (made from the root vegetable cassava), and baked pork loin rubbed with garlic and wrapped in bacon. If there's room, finish off with coconut cashew pie with vanilla ice cream and berry sauce. There's a good wine list featuring mostly Australian and New Zealand bottles, and a live band plays several nights a week.
Now here's a stylish setting to savor South Seas fare—a charming Colonial house, set amid lush grounds right on the lagoon. Built in 1910 to accommodate the managers of the Union Steamship Company, and later the home of the British Counsul, Tamarind House opened as a restaurant in 2004. Proprietors Sue Carruthers and Robert Brown had previously run a small café in Rarotonga but wanted a gorgeous setting for a more upmarket restaurant. Diners can start with ika mata (the Cook Islands version of raw tuna with lime and coconut) or shrimp with papaya, before moving on to a vegetarian lasagna with taro leaves and pumpkin, island fish or coconut chicken curry, or an array of fresh daily seafood specials. Tamarind is also popular for morning coffee and cake.
Just on the fringe of Rarotonga's main town of Avarua, the Tahiti Cafe is the perfect lunch spot. It's small, with only about 15 tables, but the fish platters really pack a punch. Try the selection of raw fish prepared in several styles, from Tahitian (that's poisson cru with lime juice and coconut milk), Chinese (with various sauces), and sashimi. There are also fish and chicken platters and individual portions if you're not up for sharing. It's a breezy outdoor venue where you bring your own drinks—alcoholic or otherwise—and there's Wi-Fi.
A veritable Cook Islands institution, this beloved restaurant and bar is nothing if not a survivor. Opened by New Zealander Jack Cooper in 1986, it has been wiped out by three cyclones but is still trading strong on Avarua's harbor. Patrons go for the fresh seafood—consider starting with fish chowder, the sushi and sashimi, or a delicious stir-fried dish called "Wok the Line," with noodles and a medley of seafood. Main courses feature line-caught fish of the day cooked in a variety of styles, from pan-fried and crumbed to the exotic Bombay dish, a parrotfish steamed in a banana leaf with coconut, peanuts, coriander, and chili. Non-seafood eaters enjoy the pizzas, char-grilled beef loin strip, and roast chicken. Try to get a seat on the terrace to watch the sunset, cocktail in hand, to the strains of a ukulele band.
Te Vara Nui
This popular new attraction presents a crash course in Cook Islands cultural life. The Te Vara Nui experience has two components: a late-afternoon village tour and an evening dinner and show—these can be combined. A warrior greets guests at the village gates and escorts them to a series of huts—the coconut hut, the witchdoctor's hut, and the carving hut, to name a few—along with the marae, an open-air sacred site. Here guests learn about the Cook Islands Maori history and culture. This 2.5-hour tour is followed by a delicious dinner buffet of local and western foods and a one-hour high-energy show, arguably the best cultural performance on the island, with hula and fire dancing. The village is a short distance from the Muri resorts.
Going Troppo Night Life Tour
Rarotonga has gorgeous natural scenery to savor by day and plenty of entertainment to enjoy at night. For a small island, it has an impressive nightlife scene, with some 50 restaurants and a couple dozen bars. Friday is the big night out, with bars open until 2 am, compared with the usual midnight closure. A fun way to join the party and visit several spots in one evening is to take a seat on the Going Troppo Night Life Tour bus. "Go Troppo" in the Oceania region means having an "insane time," as troppo is slang for the tropical diseases that make people a little crazy. A 35-seater bus picks up patrons from their hotels and hits the nightclubs, pubs, and bars of Avarua for a fun time. Everybody is issued one free cocktail, and a few onboard games help get the party started. It's a six-hour tour, starting at 6pm and lasting until 1 am, so prepare by first enjoying an afternoon nap in the shade of a palm tree.
Visitors flock to Cook Islands to enjoy the slow pace and the glorious lagoon and beaches. As Rarotonga's only coastal road is just 32 km (20 miles) in circumference, it's easy to visit many of its gorgeous beaches by rental car or local bus. The water is a pleasant 25 degrees Celsius (77 degrees Fahrenheit) most of the year and is stinger-free, making it safe for all to enjoy. On the west coast, Arorangi is a long sandy beach by day and the perfect sunset-viewing spot at dusk; the deepest and widest section of the lagoon that encloses Raratonga is at Muri on the southeast corner of the island. It has a lovely beach and several picturesque motu (islands), and it's where most resorts are located. Rather than to watch stunning sunsets, this is the place for mesmerizing moonrises. The south coast lagoon, especially around the village of Tikiaveka, has great snorkeling, as does much of the south coast.
Cross Island Walk
Rarotonga is a small island, just 67 square kilometers (26 square miles), but its jungle-like interior harbors ancient temples, called marae, waterfalls, and dramatic rock formations. The best way to explore it is via the Cross Island Walk, which begins in the Avatiu Valley in the north and wends through rain forest past Te Rua Manga mountain, known as the Needle. The walk takes about four hours. It's best to tackle it as part of an organized tour such as those run by Adventure Cook Islands or Pa's Trek, the latter being a gentle nature walk led by an expert (Pa) in agriculture and nature's healing plants. Some tours include mountain climbing, and most visit the marae.
Punanga Nui Market
The market in the little capital town of Avarua is a Saturday morning tradition for locals and tourists alike. Stalls abound with souvenirs, including black pearls, tivaevae (appliqué embroidered homewares such as quilts), sarongs, crafts, clothing, and fresh fruit and vegetables. Food stalls are popular, with the one selling waffles and coconut especially recommended—also look out for crepes, fresh bread, dips, and smoothies. The market opens early (6 am), making it popular for breakfasts of coconut rolls and locally grown coffee. Some say the clothes and souvenirs are the same price as in the shops, but the atmosphere is what draws the crowds, along with the free cultural entertainment—singing, dancing, and drumming. You can get here by public bus, but be warned: they are often packed.