Blissful Rarotonga

Both on and off the beaten track.

Both on and off the beaten track.

The crystal clear waters of a lagoon in Rarotonga. Pictures supplied
Guide Ngametua Mamanu of Tumutoa Tours preparing the fruit and coconut feast.
Julie during a stop on the storytellers eco cycle tour.
Reflections at sunset on the western side of Rarotonga.
Tall palms on the Tumutoa walking tour.
A dog cooling off in the lagoon.

Julie Haines discovers there’s more to Pacific island getaways than sandy beaches and snorkelling, when she joins some tours both on and off the beaten track in Rarotonga.

The clock hands at the front of my Cook’s Island bus rested firmly in place at 11.40.

Across the aisle, an elderly man sat with his arm draped around his wife.

“Time on the island stops,” he commented.

And so it felt from the moment I landed at Rarotonga airport, serenaded by live music as I waited at the baggage carousel, through to the moment I departed — stuck in a curious time warp, where travellers forget their cares and worries at home, and get sucked into the blissful pace of island life.

The buses that circle Rarotonga once an hour — one in each direction — are like a window into a postcard. My travel companion was inexorably drawn to the ocean side of the bus, the road lined with coconut trees, long expanses of white coral sand beaches glistening in the sun, the waves crashing on the reef far across the lagoon.

I, on the other hand, felt myself drawn to the inland side, my gaze roving across roadside stalls selling fruit, fertile plantations, small family cemeteries, and children riding on the backs of utes, to the forest-covered mountains beyond.

The view hardly changes the entire circular route, but with scenery as picturesque as this, that is not a bad thing.

The bus drivers are comedians, extracting laughs from passengers at every available opportunity. When I flagged down a bus outside my resort and asked to be dropped off at Tumutoa Tours, my driver waited till I took my seat halfway down the bus then yelled out “Nice man he is. Lots of muscles.” I squirmed with hot embarrassment as a busload of passengers turned and smirked at me.

He wasn’t lying though. As the bus offloaded me, I saw Tumutoa’s guide, Ngametua Mamanu, waiting in full warrior regalia. He took one glance at my jandals and asked “Are you OK walking in those? Or will you need a warrior to carry you?”

It set the scene for an entertaining and informative tour, as Ngametua led another Kiwi and me around his local streets, his neighbour’s three-legged dog loping along beside us.

He stopped to point out Rarotongan flowers, including one traditionally used as a shampoo, and picked hibiscus and sweet-smelling frangipani for us to place behind our ears.

He wove coconut fronds into a basket, then, with a cheerful “Thanks Aunty!” shouted across the plantations, filled it with fruit that he gathered along the way for us to try at the end of the tour. He explained everything from the intricacies of land ownership in Rarotonga to the rubbish system (recyclables are packed up and shipped off to New Zealand).

We strolled past the prison, set on a plantation at the foot of the hills — I can think of worse places to be incarcerated. (And if you want to buy a traditional ukulele or pareu sarong, support prisoner rehabilitation by purchasing one from the prison.)

Further along I stopped to photograph a litter of piglets, their mother leaping to her feet to protect her young as I came close.

Our walk completed, Ngametua clambered up a coconut tree and chucked some coconuts to the ground for us to feast on with the papaya, passionfruit, vikavakava (sweet and sour mango), oranges and starfruit he’d picked earlier, washed down with “Nu”, baby coconut water.

Ngametua’s dog, watching under the shade of a tree, was rewarded for his patience with chunks of coconut, a delicacy adored by dogs, chickens and pigs alike in Rarotonga.

Dogs are a common sight here, quietly tailing tourists, or sitting in the lagoon cooling off. The SPCA is fundraising for an island-wide dog desexing programme, and if you want to do something different on your holiday, you can walk the dogs housed at the SPCA shelter.

Equally common are the free-range chickens that wander in and out of resorts — I even saw a couple at the airport, looking for all intents and purposes like they planned to catch a plane to Aitutaki.

Jaw-dropping scenery, delicious food, soul-refreshing

Of course, no trip to Rarotonga is complete without donning a snorkel to spy on tropical fish darting in and out of rocks in the lagoon — although the sea is so crystal clear you can just as easily wade through the shallow water 30 metres from shore with your head pointed downwards and enjoy the colourful spectacle from a higher vantage point.

We spent an entertaining morning with Koka Lagoon Cruises, travelling out onto the lagoon from Muri Beach on a glass-bottomed boat with “Captain Awesome”, “Captain Delicious” and their equally intriguingly-named team.

After an energising snorkel in the marine reserve we headed for Motu Koromiri (No Touching Island), one of the four islands swimming distance from Muri and a favourite with honeymooners — and contrary to the island’s name, according to Captain Delicious, “a lot of touching goes on there”.

We arrived in high spirits, accompanied the whole journey by joyful ukulele playing and singing by the crew. They continued to entertain us ashore with pareu-tying and coconut frond weaving demonstrations.

After a delicious BBQ lunch, Captain Awesome showed us why he’s a record holder at climbing coconut trees — able to ascend a 20-metre trunk in six seconds — much to the delight and cheers of the tourists below.

“When I’m climbing up everybody clap your hands,” he joked. “When I fall down, don’t clap!”

There are other adventurous ways to get off the beaten track in Rarotonga, including Pa’s Cross Island Hike, Pa’s Herbal Nature Walk, Raro Quad Tours, Raro Mountain Safari Tours, Raro Buggy Tours, Highland Paradise day tour, and the Raro Reef Sub tour, to name but a few.

One good way to see a slice of Rarotongan life is to join Storytellers Eco Cycle Tours. Their tours cater for riders of all abilities, and for the serially unfit such as myself the easy three-hour Discover tour was perfect. This tour covers between eight to 12 kilometres, but with frequent stops to learn about the crops, history and culture of Rarotongans.

Our guides Dave and Jim led us through a plantation and let us try Rarotongan oranges (used in the original Raro juice before the powdered variety took over), passionfruit and papaya straight from the plant.

Revolted faces were pulled all around as we sampled the flesh and juice of the Noni fruit, a medicinal plant that locals swear by for curing colds, pneumonia, flu and even cancer. It’s also supposedly great for skin (supermodel Miranda Kerr swears by it), and can ease sunburn and the itch from mosquito bites. I can attest to the latter — though the blue cheese smell that it emits is so foul, you wouldn’t want to stand too close to people afterwards. If you want to purchase some bottles of Noni juice to take home to New Zealand, the gift shops at Cook’s Corner bus terminal and the departure lounge at the airport sell them, and customs in Auckland will let you sail through.

The highlight of the tour for me though was cycling to a small waterfall hidden in the bush, a favourite swimming spot with locals in summer. We plunged into the icy water and let the waterfall massage our backs, before resuming our bike ride along laneways rarely-accessed by tourists.

Over lunch Jim explained to us how he unintentionally became a guide with Storytellers.

“I didn’t even apply,” he explained with bemusement.

His aunty told him he was going to help out “and in Rarotonga, you don’t argue with your aunties”.
Three years down the track he loves the job and, since it was a tour highlight for everyone in my group, it’s fair to say he’s great at it.

On my final night in Rarotonga I joined a progressive dinner tour with a busload of other tourists. We started with a guided tour around a local garden and an entrée of arrowroot, banana salad and ika mata (raw fish marinated in lemon juice and then mixed with coconut). We laughed as our host told how all the ingredients came from her garden “and I even caught the fish myself, over the counter at the fish shop.”

At the next stop our host laid out two tables with dozens of mouth-watering dishes. Our tummies were groaning with anticipation as she explained the recipes and the joy she got from cooking. As at our first stop, the ingredients were freshly-sourced and nothing came from cans — but my eyes were truly bigger than my stomach, as there was so much amazing food.

Our final stop was at a colonial home owned by the equivalent of a town mayor. Over a dessert of fresh tropical fruit and banana bread they explained the history of the property, and entertained us with music from a ukulele, an empty water bottle turned into a drum, and spoons in a wine bottle. It was an experience I would recommend to everyone.

Tummy sated, soul relaxed, and eyes gorged on a week’s worth of jaw-dropping scenery, it was time to join the chickens at the airport. After a week on an island where the most dangerous thing you can do is park a rental car under a coconut tree or drink too many cocktails, I felt carefree and content — and am already planning my next trip to this tropical paradise.


Julie Haines discovers there’s more to Pacific island getaways than sandy beaches and snorkelling, when she joins some tours both on and off the beaten track in Rarotonga.

The clock hands at the front of my Cook’s Island bus rested firmly in place at 11.40.

Across the aisle, an elderly man sat with his arm draped around his wife.

“Time on the island stops,” he commented.

And so it felt from the moment I landed at Rarotonga airport, serenaded by live music as I waited at the baggage carousel, through to the moment I departed — stuck in a curious time warp, where travellers forget their cares and worries at home, and get sucked into the blissful pace of island life.

The buses that circle Rarotonga once an hour — one in each direction — are like a window into a postcard. My travel companion was inexorably drawn to the ocean side of the bus, the road lined with coconut trees, long expanses of white coral sand beaches glistening in the sun, the waves crashing on the reef far across the lagoon.

I, on the other hand, felt myself drawn to the inland side, my gaze roving across roadside stalls selling fruit, fertile plantations, small family cemeteries, and children riding on the backs of utes, to the forest-covered mountains beyond.

The view hardly changes the entire circular route, but with scenery as picturesque as this, that is not a bad thing.

The bus drivers are comedians, extracting laughs from passengers at every available opportunity. When I flagged down a bus outside my resort and asked to be dropped off at Tumutoa Tours, my driver waited till I took my seat halfway down the bus then yelled out “Nice man he is. Lots of muscles.” I squirmed with hot embarrassment as a busload of passengers turned and smirked at me.

He wasn’t lying though. As the bus offloaded me, I saw Tumutoa’s guide, Ngametua Mamanu, waiting in full warrior regalia. He took one glance at my jandals and asked “Are you OK walking in those? Or will you need a warrior to carry you?”

It set the scene for an entertaining and informative tour, as Ngametua led another Kiwi and me around his local streets, his neighbour’s three-legged dog loping along beside us.

He stopped to point out Rarotongan flowers, including one traditionally used as a shampoo, and picked hibiscus and sweet-smelling frangipani for us to place behind our ears.

He wove coconut fronds into a basket, then, with a cheerful “Thanks Aunty!” shouted across the plantations, filled it with fruit that he gathered along the way for us to try at the end of the tour. He explained everything from the intricacies of land ownership in Rarotonga to the rubbish system (recyclables are packed up and shipped off to New Zealand).

We strolled past the prison, set on a plantation at the foot of the hills — I can think of worse places to be incarcerated. (And if you want to buy a traditional ukulele or pareu sarong, support prisoner rehabilitation by purchasing one from the prison.)

Further along I stopped to photograph a litter of piglets, their mother leaping to her feet to protect her young as I came close.

Our walk completed, Ngametua clambered up a coconut tree and chucked some coconuts to the ground for us to feast on with the papaya, passionfruit, vikavakava (sweet and sour mango), oranges and starfruit he’d picked earlier, washed down with “Nu”, baby coconut water.

Ngametua’s dog, watching under the shade of a tree, was rewarded for his patience with chunks of coconut, a delicacy adored by dogs, chickens and pigs alike in Rarotonga.

Dogs are a common sight here, quietly tailing tourists, or sitting in the lagoon cooling off. The SPCA is fundraising for an island-wide dog desexing programme, and if you want to do something different on your holiday, you can walk the dogs housed at the SPCA shelter.

Equally common are the free-range chickens that wander in and out of resorts — I even saw a couple at the airport, looking for all intents and purposes like they planned to catch a plane to Aitutaki.

Jaw-dropping scenery, delicious food, soul-refreshing

Of course, no trip to Rarotonga is complete without donning a snorkel to spy on tropical fish darting in and out of rocks in the lagoon — although the sea is so crystal clear you can just as easily wade through the shallow water 30 metres from shore with your head pointed downwards and enjoy the colourful spectacle from a higher vantage point.

We spent an entertaining morning with Koka Lagoon Cruises, travelling out onto the lagoon from Muri Beach on a glass-bottomed boat with “Captain Awesome”, “Captain Delicious” and their equally intriguingly-named team.

After an energising snorkel in the marine reserve we headed for Motu Koromiri (No Touching Island), one of the four islands swimming distance from Muri and a favourite with honeymooners — and contrary to the island’s name, according to Captain Delicious, “a lot of touching goes on there”.

We arrived in high spirits, accompanied the whole journey by joyful ukulele playing and singing by the crew. They continued to entertain us ashore with pareu-tying and coconut frond weaving demonstrations.

After a delicious BBQ lunch, Captain Awesome showed us why he’s a record holder at climbing coconut trees — able to ascend a 20-metre trunk in six seconds — much to the delight and cheers of the tourists below.

“When I’m climbing up everybody clap your hands,” he joked. “When I fall down, don’t clap!”

There are other adventurous ways to get off the beaten track in Rarotonga, including Pa’s Cross Island Hike, Pa’s Herbal Nature Walk, Raro Quad Tours, Raro Mountain Safari Tours, Raro Buggy Tours, Highland Paradise day tour, and the Raro Reef Sub tour, to name but a few.

One good way to see a slice of Rarotongan life is to join Storytellers Eco Cycle Tours. Their tours cater for riders of all abilities, and for the serially unfit such as myself the easy three-hour Discover tour was perfect. This tour covers between eight to 12 kilometres, but with frequent stops to learn about the crops, history and culture of Rarotongans.

Our guides Dave and Jim led us through a plantation and let us try Rarotongan oranges (used in the original Raro juice before the powdered variety took over), passionfruit and papaya straight from the plant.

Revolted faces were pulled all around as we sampled the flesh and juice of the Noni fruit, a medicinal plant that locals swear by for curing colds, pneumonia, flu and even cancer. It’s also supposedly great for skin (supermodel Miranda Kerr swears by it), and can ease sunburn and the itch from mosquito bites. I can attest to the latter — though the blue cheese smell that it emits is so foul, you wouldn’t want to stand too close to people afterwards. If you want to purchase some bottles of Noni juice to take home to New Zealand, the gift shops at Cook’s Corner bus terminal and the departure lounge at the airport sell them, and customs in Auckland will let you sail through.

The highlight of the tour for me though was cycling to a small waterfall hidden in the bush, a favourite swimming spot with locals in summer. We plunged into the icy water and let the waterfall massage our backs, before resuming our bike ride along laneways rarely-accessed by tourists.

Over lunch Jim explained to us how he unintentionally became a guide with Storytellers.

“I didn’t even apply,” he explained with bemusement.

His aunty told him he was going to help out “and in Rarotonga, you don’t argue with your aunties”.
Three years down the track he loves the job and, since it was a tour highlight for everyone in my group, it’s fair to say he’s great at it.

On my final night in Rarotonga I joined a progressive dinner tour with a busload of other tourists. We started with a guided tour around a local garden and an entrée of arrowroot, banana salad and ika mata (raw fish marinated in lemon juice and then mixed with coconut). We laughed as our host told how all the ingredients came from her garden “and I even caught the fish myself, over the counter at the fish shop.”

At the next stop our host laid out two tables with dozens of mouth-watering dishes. Our tummies were groaning with anticipation as she explained the recipes and the joy she got from cooking. As at our first stop, the ingredients were freshly-sourced and nothing came from cans — but my eyes were truly bigger than my stomach, as there was so much amazing food.

Our final stop was at a colonial home owned by the equivalent of a town mayor. Over a dessert of fresh tropical fruit and banana bread they explained the history of the property, and entertained us with music from a ukulele, an empty water bottle turned into a drum, and spoons in a wine bottle. It was an experience I would recommend to everyone.

Tummy sated, soul relaxed, and eyes gorged on a week’s worth of jaw-dropping scenery, it was time to join the chickens at the airport. After a week on an island where the most dangerous thing you can do is park a rental car under a coconut tree or drink too many cocktails, I felt carefree and content — and am already planning my next trip to this tropical paradise.


FACTBOX

Tumutoa Discovery Walking Tour – Facebook: tumutoa-tours, tel +682 79521.

Koka Lagoon Cruiseswww.kokalagooncruises.com, bookings@kokalagooncruises.com

Storytellers Eco Cycle Tourswww.storytellers.co.ck, tours@storytellers.co.ck

Rarotonga Progressive Diningwww.cookislandstours.co.ck, bookings@cookislandstours.co.ck

Getting around:

Although the Cook’s Island Bus (www.busaboutraro.com) is an easy way to get around the island and can be flagged down anywhere on the main road, scooter and car rentals are equally popular and inexpensive options, with rental companies located close to most resorts. The maximum speed limit is 50kmh on the open road and 40km/h in villages (30kmh in Avarua and Muri) — slow and leisurely, just like the pace of life in Rarotonga.

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Rose, New Plymouth - 2 months ago
I have been to Raro (my favorite island destination) three times and haven't done half of what you have. It really is a beautiful place and I'll have to try some of those tours next time.

Terresa Andrews, Auckland - 2 months ago
Rarotonga is so beautiful but Aitutaki tops it. I travel to Rarotonga every year and always choose one of the southern Cook Islands, Aitu, Mauke and Mitiaro.