Cook's Passenger Transport is a reliable and cheap bus service which travels around the whole island and will stop anywhere you choose. With two buses running clockwise and anti-clockwise, you won't ever have to wait long. Alternatively hire a scooter, although you'll need to take a small test to prove you know your way around the only roundabout!
With only two main roads in Rarotonga, a 20-mile loop around the island, both the coastal and inland routes are pretty quiet. The calmer inland road is great for cyclists who want to explore the island at their own pace, with bike hire a cheap NZ $5-12 a day.
The most popular way to travel, hire a scooter or car from most resorts, downtown Avarua and Arorangi for around NZ $55-70 per day for a car and NZ$20 for a scooter. You will need to obtain a local driving license from the island police stations, for a small fee of NZ$20.
The only two options of travel to the outer islands are flying with Air Rarotonga or by cargo boat. Planes fly regularly to Aitutaki and other Southern islands with flights to the Northern group less so. You will find cargo boats are cheaper, however much less frequent and slower if your sea legs can stand it!
The Cook Islands use the New Zealand Dollar alongside their own distinctive notes and coins, of equal value. The only country to have a three dollar bill, in green or pink, they are a novelty collector's item along with the triangular $2 coin. Unlike other destinations, tipping is unexpected and contrary to Cook Islands custom.
When surviving in paradise, the internet should rarely crop up as a necessity, with many intrepid travellers leaving their Facebook invites pending at the door. However, for those who need a connection to the outside world, there are a number of internet hotspots in Rarotonga and internet access in most hotels for a small fee. Laptop users can also buy a prepaid card.
As you arrive in the Cook Islands you'll be greeted with 'kia orana' as a hello, literally translating to 'may you live long'. Although English is the official language, the Islands all have their own version of Maori, each with their own accent. A few basics such as Meitaki (thank you) and Aere ra (goodbye) will earn a few smiles.
There are around 16 ATMs on Rarotonga and two on Aitutaki, with both ANZ and Westpac branches. Only major credit cards are accepted, any foreign ATM cards and you'll only be able to withdraw cash rather than make purchases. Before leaving, make sure you have some cash leftover to pay for the departure tax of NZ$55.
There are nine airports on the Cook Islands with the main ones on Rarotonga, Aitutaki, Aitiu, Mangaia and Mauke. Domestic flights run every week from all airports and internationally from Rarotonga only. High and low season fares apply with low season being from mid April to late August and high from December to February. Demand is particularly heavy around Christmas.
From Sydney: Air New Zealand offers direct flights from Sydney to Rarotonga with flights taking around six hours.
From Melbourne: Air New Zealand and Virgin Australia offer flights to Rarotonga with a stopover in Auckland. Flights take upwards of eight hours.
From Brisbane: Air New Zealand and Virgin Australia offer flights to Rarotonga with a stopover in Auckland. Flights take upwards of seven hours.
From Perth: Air New Zealand and Virgin Australia offer flights to Rarotonga with a stopover in Auckland. Flights take upwards of eleven hours.
Rarotonga Airport may be small and queues are common but expect a warm welcome nevertheless. You will receive a free 31-day visitors permit, which can be extended later and you will be asked to fill in an arrival form with details of your accommodation. Be aware that the Cook Islands have a 'prior booking requirement' for at least the first night of your stay.
Air-conditioned shuttle buses meet every flight for around NZ$20, or free transfers are usually offered as part of the package if staying at a hotel or resort. If staying in a private house or villa, there are a number of companies to pre arrange transfers with so you'll never be stranded. Alternatively take the local bus.
Given that the distance between the Northern and Southern Island group is 721 miles, island hopping can be a six-hour challenge with the added cost of flights-–and that's if there's enough demand to fill the plane! In spite of this, for the determined traveller it is well worth the extra air miles if discovering the true meaning of remote paradise is what you came for.
Even if you left transfers to the last minute, taxis are always waiting. Located immediately beyond the transfer desks, there are a host of friendly drivers ready to accommodate you. Expect to pay a flat rate of around NZ$10 for a ten-minute journey to Avarua and NZ$20-30 to Muri. The furthest distance you will travel from the airport is 30 minutes away.
There are no ferry services between Rarotonga and Aitutaki, however eco tours or Sail Rarotonga can organise charter sailing trips for reaching the outer islands. Keen travellers can visit the inhabited islands by freighter, however these can be weeks, even months apart. If you have the extra time, check the local island newspaper for running services.
Diving enthusiasts will relish the chance to explore the underwater world of Aroa Marine Reserve; a protected sanctuary offering some of the island's best coral and tropical fish in abundance. Dive one to three metres beneath crystal clear waters for an up close and personal experience. At around AUD$70, even children can put their best flipper forward.
This designated whale sanctuary covers some two million square kilometres of ocean, so whatever island you're on, you are likely to see one! July to October, the whales swim close to shore so you needn't even venture into the water. In Rarotonga there are a number of prime spots for whale watching.
For an alternative island adventure and a tour that puts you in the drivers seat, hire a quad bike or 4WD on Rarotonga. Get off the roads and venture through hidden valleys, across rivers and rugged terrain, with views of the majestic Te Atukura Mountain. For families or the big kid inside you, lose yourself on a trail not often ventured.
Venture to the makatea cliffs of Mangaia, the oldest island in the Cooks for grand caves and staggering labyrinthine chambers. A burial site for past Islander generations, Mangaia is so peaceful it is almost haunting. With daily flights, although there are no 'official' tours, though the locals are more than willing to personally take you through them.
The best in Island dining, boasting a romantic ocean view and first-rate food. With a delectable menu influenced by owner, Sue Carruthers' Kenyan roots and subsequent globetrotting, it is little wonder Islanders see this restaurant as iconic. Set in a lovingly restored colonial house on 2.5 acres of lawn sweeping down to the lagoon, this is an island gem.
Tricky to find but definitely an island secret worth knowing. This cafe is lesser known to tourists, serving fresh island food, always popular with the locals. Generous portions and great value for money, you can't go wrong with their selection of fish and for those with a sweet tooth, treat yourself to one of the cakes.
Possibly the best cafe on the island, serving great coffee with friendly service and a laid back atmosphere – well worth a stop on your way to Ootu Beach. With free Wi-FI, sending those enviable photos to friends back home is pain free. Keen to get out there and explore? For delicious food on the go, picnic lunches and BBQ packs are offered.
Situated on the grounds of the Crown Beach Resort, this restaurant offers innovative dishes and the best New Zealand lamb (the owner's family is also the local meat importer). Try the sumptuous aged steak or chef's special seafood risotto. Affordable dishes and attentive service; be sure to make a reservation.
Situated on the old harbour, this is known as one of the best bars in the South Pacific and is a hit with the affluent locals for after work drinks. With floor to ceiling window views over the harbour, this is a great place to share a drink and watch the sun go down.
For nights out as colourful as its history, the Banana Court is popular with both locals and tourists, particularly Wednesday and Friday nights. With RnB every Wednesday, live acoustics (plus free vodka) on Tuesdays and Island rhythms on Fridays, there is always something for everyone.
Although the clubs and bars on the island only stay open till midnight on a weekday and 2am on Fridays, if you want the best party and DJ sets, Rehab is the place. Get there for around 10.30pm when the club really livens up, but be prepared to sweat!
A fun night for the family, enjoy a taste of the local culture with costumes, dancing and a live music performance. A traditional Polynesian dinner known as umukai, baked in an underground oven, is also served in most resorts, giving visitors the chance to taste the local cuisine.
Do the climb the easy way. Rarotonga's safari tours offer adventure and panoramic views, all from the back of a 4x4 jeep. With trips running twice daily, explore the island's hidden natural beauty through a route normally inaccessible to tourists. Full day tours will cost around NZ$85 per adult and NZ$45 per child. Alternatively book a half-day tour and explore the rest of the island on bike.
Grab a local guide and discover the most famous cave on the island, Anatakitaki also known as the Kopeka Cave. Its limestone caverns filled with stalactites and stalagmites are truly extraordinary. The caves are also home to the kopeka, a bird unique to the island that locates its nest through echoes. A word of warning, make sure you wear something more appropriate than thongs!
Rarotonga's cross island trek is one of the most popular on the Cook Islands, from north to south in three hours passing Te Rua Manga, 'The Needle', named for its near vertical summit. Once you have tackled the challenge of the rainforest, finish up at Papua Waterfall for a well-deserved swim. Guided treks are offered twice a week, however, the route can be achieved on your own if a confident hiker.
One Foot Island or Tapuaeta'i Motu, is an idyllic island located in the south of Aitutaki Lagoon. Easily reached by boat, spend a day wandering barefoot on its pristine beach before enjoying a picnic prepared by the locals. Great for snorkelling, scuba diving or fishing. Couples will love to get away for a few hours. If you ever get stuck on an island, you would hope it was One Foot.
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