The island’s name means ‘down south’ and as the largest and most populated of the Cook Islands, it is the jumping off point for exploring the rest of the Cook Islands. At just 671 sq km (259 sq mi), Rarotonga is one of the most beautiful of the Cook Islands, and often referred to as the ‘Jewel of the Pacific’ and it’s easy to see why.
Long palm fringed beaches and coral-filled seas make this island paradise an idyllic haven for travellers. Along the coastline, the lagoon is an ideal place for snorkeling and getting close to the wildlife in the water. The climate is equable and rarely ventures outside the margins of 18 °C to 29 °C (64 °F to 84 °F). The interior is a volcanic mountainous region which is virtually uninhabited. The summit is called Te Rua Manga (The Needle), aptly named for its jagged peaks. It has dense jungle and a cloud forest beginning at 400 m (1.300 ft) above sea level, abundant in rare indigenous species of plants. The Cook Islands Natural Heritage Project was set up to educate people about the need for conservation and actively promotes eco-tourism.
In 1997 Japanese archaeologists found an undiscovered sacred site on Motu Tapu, an islet in the lagoon at Ngatangiia. This dated human life on Rarotonga to about 5.000 years ago. Statues of Tangaroa, the god of fertility, are still dotted around the island. The Polynesian dancing here is considered to be some of the best in Polynesia, and was described by a nineteenth century missionary as, ‘positively obscene’.
Land tends to belong to families and is rarely sold and derelict houses pepper the island as without ownership of the land as well, they are un-saleable. There is much nineteenth century architecture to be seen, leftover from when the missionaries arrived on the island and one of note, is the Cook Island Christian Church. There are many of these scattered over the Cook Islands and this one has an interesting graveyard and pretty exterior.
Population: 18.000 (2006)
When to go: the weeklong Te Maeva Nui Festival takes place annually at the end of July, and is worth a visit for this vibrant expression of Polynesian culture.
Don’t miss: The spectacular diving.
You should know: In areas of the lagoon marked by boundary poles, taking any fish, coral or shells is strictly prohibited.