HOLIDAY HEAVEN: Amazing beaches with white sand and black rocks on Rarotonga, Cook Islands.
HOLIDAY HEAVEN: Amazing beaches with white sand and black rocks on Rarotonga, Cook Islands. mvaligursky

Escape to tropical paradise

TROPICAL island paradises are often only fair-weather friends.

For most of the year, they may be gently swaying palm trees, calm lagoons and brilliant sunshine enticing visitors into their aquatic playgrounds.

But what happens when it's blowing a gale from trade winds, the lagoon is awash with uncomfortable waves and the sun decides to hide behind clouds?

Well, if you are holidaying on Rarotonga in the Cook Islands, "holiday heaven" means holiday heaven in any weather.

A blustery winter escape recently forced us to explore, discover and uncover much more of Rarotonga than we expected when cocktails while lounging around the pool was no longer an option.

Using the island's quirky clockwise and anti-clockwise buses, walking and hiring a car, we could cover the relatively flat 32km Sacred Road circumnavigation several times over.

Picture-perfect lagoon.
Picture-perfect lagoon. Shirley Sinclair

Rarotonga - so named because it was raro (down) and tonga (south) for the early French Polynesian sailors - is one of 15 islands in the Pacific nation that lies halfway between Auckland in New Zealand and Hawaii's Honolulu.

Direct flights from Sydney can have Aussies in Rarotonga in six hours (or a little longer from Brisbane via Auckland).

Since 1965, the islands - named after Captain James Cook, who sighted them in 1770 - have been self-governing, although New Zealand still manages defence, foreign affairs and currency.

That close relationship sees many Kiwi families flying north for the winter, as we found during our stay at The Rarotongan on beautiful Aroa Beach in the south-west of the island. Our beachfront resort room gave us a bird's-eye view of a dreamy place that doesn't need to be Photoshopped to look spectacular.

Here were all the palms, turquoise waters, reef-breaking waves, sun lounges or hammocks, hibiscus gardens and soft sand underfoot you could ever want. By contrast, if we turned 180 degrees, we found a "lost world" of mist-covered volcanic mountain peaks (the highest of 16 mountains is Mount Te Manga at 658m) and lush green jungle.

A starfish washed up on to the beach.
A starfish washed up on to the beach. Shirley Sinclair

CocoPutt Alehouse is walking distance from The Rarotongan and more than just a laugh-and-a-half for mini-golf fans. Visitors take advantage of beer and meal deals on the covered deck with a view to the highlands.

Shipwreck Hut at Aroa Beachside Inn offers glorious sunsets, and ice-cold local beer, wine and margaritas on the sand.

Visitors can get up close and personal with the jungle life on the Highland Paradise Cultural Centre Sunset Cultural Night. The production of Drums of Our Forefathers offers an entertaining history of the ancient hill-top tribal settlement of King Tinomana, passionately presented in music, song and dancing by his descendants and including a village tour, sacred marae visit and umu feast.

Black Rock in the north-west of the island is so-named in English for the basalt throughout the area that is said to be 1.9 million years old. More importantly to Cook Islanders, it is Tuoro: the departure point for spirits of the dead to leave Rarotonga to begin their journey back to their ancient homeland of Avaiki, to the west. Black Rock is ideal for families as a calm, safe watering hole for swimming.

Closer to the airport in the north, Vaiana Bar and Bistro attracts visitors and residents for casual drinks and dining, with the beach volleyball court at hand and plenty of room to throw frisbees on the sand.

A night market at Punanga Nui Cultural Market near Avarua.
A night market at Punanga Nui Cultural Market near Avarua. Shirley Sinclair

Trader Jack's Bar and Restaurant, overlooking Avarua Harbour, has become an institution since Jack Cooper opened the complex in 1986 - known for its seafood but also for live music and hearty pizzas.

Slip on your reef shoes and take a stroll from the picnic grounds towards the reef at the Great Migration departure point in the north-east in Matavera. The significant historical and cultural site is where the massive Polynesian traditional ocean-going vakas (vessels) left on their Great Migration to Aotearoa (NZ).


A Sunday service in one of the early whitewashed limestone churches, such as Cook Islands Christian Church in Matavera (dedicated in 1857) is a must for an amazing spiritual experience. Visitors from around the world come for the sermons in Cook Island Maori and English, and harmonious male and female voices raising the roof.

Muri is about as close as "touristy" as the Cook Islands get, but that means a wealth of fine eateries, souvenir shops and services all within walking distance for visitors. Among our favourite haunts are La Casita Mexican Cafe and LBV Bakery and Cafe .

Sails Restaurant and Isobar (Rarotonga Sailing Club) at Muri Beach on the east coast is a great place to wile away the afternoon while watching sailors and kitesurfers.

The fish sandwich at Charlie's Beach Cafe and Beach Hire overlooking the lagoon on Akapuao Beach in the southern Titikaveka district is more than most hearty appetites can handle. Swim, paddle, eat and relax in one spot here.

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