Now more than ever, the Cook Islands are an accessible destination to soothe your cold, stressed-out city-oriented lives thanks to a new direct flight service to Australia. Of the Cook’s 15 islands, Rarotonga is its capital and largest island where we spent a week-long voyage. Enclosed by a continuous sky-blue lagoon full of fish and coral with 200m of sheltered swimming before waves crash in the distance and a towering, green jagged mountain range in the middle of the island; Rarotonga is that ultimate postcard/Instagram dream shot. When you are on Rarotonga, you won’t want to spend much time inside. There is so much to explore and the stunning outdoors plays host to numerous blissful dining experiences.
Due to its close proximity, trade and international influence with New Zealand, English is naturally the primary language spoken. There is one direct flight from Sydney to Rarotonga each week through Air New Zealand (and around seven from Auckland), so whilst it is accessible, it is still a largely untouched and authentic cultural holiday. There are only a handful of buildings over one storey, no sense of being preyed upon or being taken advantage of by locals bombarding you with things to sell and only one main road around the whole island – the busses run on “Clockwise” and “Anti-clockwise” routes. A Saturday night will see one of the two radio stations on Raro play Stevie Wonder into a dance hit from the 1990’s as you zip around the island and the moon blinks between palm trees. Don’t get the wrong idea though, Rarotonga isn’t an undeveloped or struggling spot at all; it’s completely the opposite and perhaps the last genuine and faithful South Pacific experience.
The Cook Islands are a bouquet of bright, clean and fresh scenes, but the sensory delight doesn’t stop at sight; these same charming, inviting and calming qualities are inserted into their recipes and menus.
Getting straight to point, the Progressive Dinner on Rarotonga was undoubtedly our favorite activity of them all. Through local homes, each course is prepared and served by a local who hosts you and around twenty others at their home.
These hosts happily exchange stories of their families, culture and homes as they serve you heritage dishes with the likes of fish, taro, breadfruit and pawpaw. Each course saw a buffet of choices for you to load your plate with and a mountain of food was strongly encouraged. The plentiful options between meat and vegetable dishes means all dietary requirements should easily be catered for. The same busses that pick you up from anywhere on the island transport you between each course and along the way your driver will tell you even more stories – everything from pointing out the different types of coconuts to his memories of goats and cattle making their way onto the unfenced airport runways causing planes to abandon landings to having the creamiest Ika Mata competitions. Undoubtedly the Cook Islands signature dish, Ika Mata is a light local raw tuna and coconut cream dish that appears on every menu across the island and for us, appeared at two of the three houses.
Our driver Ben, along with the other bus driver played the ukulele and guitar and sung throughout each course as the pale blue skies above us slowly transformed into neon pink and orange streaks. Changes in seating mean you’ll more than likely be making friends with new guests at each course. Chances are you’ll run into other tourists you’ve already seen on the island; for us, we spent some time reminiscing with a Canadian couple we hiked across the island with earlier in the day.
The Progressive Dinner runs twice a week on Mondays and Thursdays and hosts rotate for each event based on their availability. The hosts for our session ranged from former politicians to former charity workers and school teachers to mums who’s children have grown up and moved out. The entire night gives you a complete and authentic Cook Islands experience that immerses you into the entire picture of Cook Islands locals.
For more information on the Progressive Dinner and to book you can head HERE.
Te Vara Nui
Te Vara Nui is the premier option if you want entertainment and a show with your dinner. As well as offering a cultural village experience during the day, Te Vara Nui is a stunning tropically themed venue that surrounds a small lagoon and stage. A luscious rock waterfall garden greets guests and directs them to the venue at the back.
An extensive and delicious island/western fusion buffet makes local produce the hero as taro, fish and fruit again are the highlight in Te Vara Nui’s feast. Multiple visits to the buffet are encouraged and cocktails are priced affordably between $13 and mid-$20.
The show is rich with passion, colour and flair as the dancers and actors perform the legend of Tongaiti who came across a set of floating islands, one of which was the beautiful “Tumu-Te-Varovaro”, Rarotonga. A large live band with at five different drummers produce the music for the night and a soundtrack the actors who are constantly chanting and bouncing around the stage with infectious smiles.
By the seaside
A great feature of Rarotonga is that takeaway and comfort food spots are in a calming seaside location. For only $15 Palace One Takeaway is a must-visit for an exorbitant burger. The Palace Burger has two beef patties, two eggs, and well… two lots of everything. It is a tower of a feast that can easily be shared by two people or the ultimate goal in a food challenge. The shop also has a happy hour for $3.50 burgers throughout the day.
Wilson’s Beach Bar at Castaway Resort is a funky island themed bar with cocktails, live music, bonfires, great food and perfectly located for the sun to set in front of you. The menu is a Japanese/island fusion with Yakitori Skewers, Tuna Sashimi and Beef Titaki being enticing options. Skewers are available individually or as part of platters.
Across from Muri Beach, Muri Night Markets is a hot food market with stalls offering everything from pizza to seafood curries to barbecue platters to sweet desserts. All stalls are nicely priced and what you’d expect to pay at a food market. The markets offer a chance to talk to local chefs, growers and farmers who use the event as their main source of income. They stall owners aren’t afraid to throw around recommendations and praise of other dishes and owners nearby.
The food market runs Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday every week from 5-8pm with live music and dancers. The markets offer renting a plate for a gold coin to help reduce the waste and rubbish.
For more information on all activities mentioned or to see more of what is on offer across all the islands you can head to Cook Island Tourism HERE. For more information on Air New Zealand’s direct service to Rarotonga from Sydney you can head HERE.
To read Lachlan’s piece “The best outdoor activities in Rarotonga, Cook Islands: The inimitable, authentic island paradise” you can head HERE.