Visit Rarotonga: things to know before you go

Rarotonga is the most populated in a series of islands that make up the Cook Islands nation. It’s also one of the most idillic places in the world with white sand beaches, crystal clear water, an abundance of sea life, incredible snorkelling spots and a laid back attitude that gives the perfect feeling of island time. A visit to Rarotonga should be on every persons bucket list.

There are so many things about the little island nation, however, that completely took us by surprise. Here are some things you should know before you visit the island:

1. The Cook Islands is not a country

For you travel nuts out there trying to visit every country in the world, you should know that Cook Islands is not a country, it is in fact an associated state of New Zealand. A fact, even as a New Zealander, I didn’t know until just before I actually visited!

New Zealand acts on behalf of the Cook Islands (and Niue) for defence and foreign affairs issues when requested, otherwise the Cook Islands governs itself.

So technically the Cook Islands is not a United Nations Member state and therefore not its own country.

2. They use New Zealand Dollars

Due to the point above, the Cook Islands mostly use New Zealand dollars. They do also have their own Cook Island currency, which is at a par with the NZD. When you pay for something you might find that you get some Cook Island coins as change. Just be sure to spend this before you leave, as the local currency isn’t accepted in New Zealand or anywhere else.

3. They’re an entire day behind New Zealand

Visit Rarotonga
Muri Beach

New Zealand is known for being the first to see the sun in the world, but our assumption was, that with the Cook Islands being so close their timezone wouldn’t be much different. Well, it’s not that different, only one or two hours depending on daylight saving, however, they are on the eastern side of the dateline, meaning they’re an entire day behind.

We thought Jetstar had completely screwed up our booking (and let’s be real, that could happen with Jetstar), but it turns out that when you return to New Zealand you really do miss an entire 23 hours.

Now, normally this wouldn’t be much of a big deal, but we actually went to Rarotonga to celebrate New Year – so we were the last in the world to see in the year and we spent that time in the airport and on a plane home. That’s why those flights were cheaper! We didn’t mind, of course, as the novelty made the experience all the more interesting.

4. It’s Kia Orana, not Kia Ora

Not to be confused with Kia Ora, New Zealand’s national Maori greeting, in the Cook Islands everyone greets you with Kia Orana.

Something we didn’t realise, is that much like Maori immigrants, Cook Islanders’ ancestors are originally from Polynesia. As a Kiwi (if you happen to be one of the many who visit each year) you will notice many similarities between Maori and Cook Island culture.

When in Rome, or Rarotonga, as the case may be, you should forget hello and embrace Kia Orana. Expect to say Kia Orana all day long, as the locals are very friendly.

5. It’s really bloody expensive

Sometimes when we visit island nations we just have this expectation that everything will be fairly cheap. It’s absolutely not the case in Rarotonga. Imported goods (most of which come from NZ) are expensive of course, but so are local goods.

The price of fruit blew our minds. When you visit places like Indonesia, Thailand, Hong Kong, you take for granted that tropical fruit will be both cheap and amazing. Fruit in Rarotonga is of a lesser standard of that in Asia and MUCH more expensive. We’re talking NZ$15 for one pineapple (WOW) and up to NZ$20 for a single watermelon. Which is to say, you will pay much more for fresh tropical fruit in Rarotonga than you will in New Zealand – a country which doesn’t grow tropical fruit.

I can’t explain why this is… it just is.

5. Airbnbs are much cheaper than resorts

Resorts in Rarotonga can cost you an arm and a leg. If you have the money to pay for them, then happy days. If not, you’ll save a lot of money by staying in an Airbnb.

If you do choose a resort, then make sure you organise a shuttle to bring you from the airport (most have shuttles included) as it will make getting to your place much easier.

6. Addresses are sketchy

If you do choose an Airbnb make sure you really study the directions you’ve been given and read these to your taxi driver. Addresses are a little sketchy in Rarotonga. We ended up driving around in circles at 1am trying to find our accommodation because the driver had no idea where to go and there wasn’t any official address to give him. (Side note, our original shuttle driver never turned up, or perhaps he fell asleep. Either way he wasn’t there to pick us up… oops.)

When we asked our host the next day what our address was he said to tell the drivers that it’s “Nick’s house”.

Rarotonga is the kind of place where you say turn left, then right, then we’re the place with the red door by the coconut tree. Since you probably don’t know which coconut tree they’re talking about and many flights arrive really late at night, it’s a good idea to have a handle on directions before you arrive, just like we didn’t!

6. Muri is possibly the best place to base yourself

We ended up staying in an Airbnb in a mountain location away from the beach. It was beautiful, quiet and a great place to relax. However, if we went back we’d definitely stay in or nearer to Muri Beach. Muri is the most picturesque location on the island and has everything you need close by. If you really want to relax and just enjoy your holiday without having to move around too much, then this is the place to be.

We hope you’ve learned a lot about the island before visiting and that this information has helped you plan a better trip.

Read here for our top things to do in Rarotonga.

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