Rarotonga, Cook Islands – Part 1 – Off to tropical paradise we go….

When it’s the depths of Winter in Canberra, what do you do in the July school holidays but head to a tropical paradise? Yes these blogs are a bit behind, there were so many trips in the last year (South America, Antarctica, Cook Islands, USA and Fiji) and I’m slowly wading through the photos and write ups. But here is Part 1 of our little tropical escape to Rarotonga in the Cook Islands back in July 2023.

The kids were all keen for a snorkeling and diving getaway, and after looking at a number of options we decided on a trip to Rarotonga, the largest of the Cook Islands, a nation of 15 islands in the central South Pacific. None of us had been to the Cook Islands before, so it was a new country to explore, and the diving and snorkeling was meant to be superb, and superb it was!

Off to Sydney we go…..

Jetstar offer acceptably priced flights direct from Sydney to Rarotonga, making it an efficient option to get to the Cook Islands. Unfortunately the connection from Canberra was not a good price so we decided to drive up to Sydney.

It was Sunday the 9th of July and school holidays. We headed off from Canberra, in the afternoon, for the 3 hour drive, giving us plenty of time before the 9.30pm flight out of Sydney.

After a big morning of cleaning and packing the kids took the opportunity to nap in the car. Soren was somewhere in the very back row, under a pile of bags! We are actually pretty good at traveling light, despite 3 kids. However, dive and snorkel gear (not to mention camera gear) and there was a lot of bags.

Killing time pre-flight

We made it to Sydney by 5.30pm, Anto dropped the kids (and pile of luggage off) and took the car to the offsite parking. We’d been so efficient, we were first in line waiting for the Jetstar check-in to open. Once we were all checked in, it was off to the Amex lounge for some food and a compulsory ‘I’m on holidays now’ gin and tonic for me.

We had 2 hours of eating and drinking time before it was time to board. Unfortunately the flight was not on time, so it was almost 10pm before we finally took off. Not ideal before an overnight flight, on Jetstar. We did come prepared with our own pillows and blankets though….

The kids did sleep a bit. Anto and I, not a wink. Luckily it’s only a 5 and a half hour flight we crossed the international date line, so landed by 7am Sunday morning, meaning we got to do Sunday again 😛

It took us forever to get through immigration and get our SIM cards. The usual problem with a tiny Pacific airport with limited staff, but you know you’ll eventually get there. Luckily it was warm and sunny. The sun was about the only thing keeping a tired Astrid awake.

Hello Rarotonga…..

With the hire car easily located in the car park (which was a whole 2 rows big), Astrid demonstrated how she needed more sleep (we knew the feeling). Into the car it was, and we set off to explore Rarotonga and find the first of our 2 Airbnbs for our 9 day stay.

Rarotonga is the largest of the 15 islands that make up the Cook Islands, but it is still a mere 68 square kilometres in area. The island is volcanic and the interior of the island is made up of rainforest and volcanic peaks. The main highway (and only major paved road) rings the island and is 32km in length.

Our first half of the trip we were staying in an Airbnb in the Takitumu District, on the opposite side of the island to the airport. Navigating in Rarotonga isn’t that difficult on the main highway, as long as you pick the correct direction to travel in. Either clockwise or anticlockwise.

As we drove around, the sight of the tropical plants and trees and the gorgeous coloured water with the obvious shallow reefs, lifted our tired spirits, pretty quickly.

A quick stop off to check out the views near our accommodation. That water and sand was going to be rather inviting later that day!

Afternoon exploring….

Thankfully we could get into our accommodation well before check in time. After no sleep it felt much later than it actually was. It was rather tricky finding our Airbnb as the roads off the main highway are mostly dirt and hard to navigate between lack of signs and roaming dogs and roosters!

Luckily when we did finally find our Airbnb, it was huge with 4 bedrooms, a big living area and good sized kitchen. We of course had nothing in the kitchen, so it was off to find a supermarket. As Cook Islanders are very religious, we were aware there wasn’t going to be much open on a Sunday. We found an open small supermarket not far from where we were staying and managed to get a few supplies. Food can be expensive in Rarotonga as most things need to be imported (from New Zealand or Australia). It was definitely not going to be a week of gourmet eating, but the views and snorkeling were going to make up for that, we hoped.

With some tin baked beans and spaghetti in our bellies it was time for a rest as it was far too long since we last slept.

With jet lag in full force (yes it was still Sunday!) we convinced ourselves we needed to get up and go and explore some beaches. First in order was the beach not far from our accommodation (we were about 400m inland from this gorgeous view).

Most of Rarotonga is surrounded by shallow lagoon, with plenty of reef that is easily accessible. All a bit tired to be bothered dragging our full snorkel kit down to the beach, we decided that checking out the water temp and plentiful fish, just off the beach was a good plan. There were plenty of fish to be seen just circling our feet, and we were all keen to return for a proper snorkel, the next day.

The longest day…..

After going back in time 20 hours between Canberra and Rarotonga, Sunday was a very long day (44 hours in total)! By the time it got to dinner time we were very tired and rather hungry. There was no breakfast on our flight and we’d barely eaten lunch. We found a burger joint (Villis) that was open for dinner, and after a longer than hoped wait, given how tired we were, we had burgers, chips and watched the sunset.

Our afternoon swim and warm tropical weather left us excited for more aquatic adventures the next day, when we were hopefully going to be far less tired.

Monday 10 July….

Normally you’d be pleased with a Sunday that went for 44 hours, but we were all rather glad when it was finally Monday in Rarotonga, and we had a full 8 days of swimming and snorkelling in front of us. We’d all managed to sleep in til at least 8.30am (clearly we were tired as that is unheard of) and were ready for a big day ahead.

Our little piece of Paradise…

Our first Airbnb for our Rarotonga stay was ‘Paradise Holiday Homes’, which was on of a collection of villas in a quiet spot a few hundred metres off the highway. The place was huge and we made ourselves at home pretty quickly.

There was plenty of wood (literally every surface) but with 4 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, our own pool and plenty of living area and a washing machine, we could have stayed indefinitely. The kids enjoyed the outdoor pool area and we had plenty of room inside to cook and watch Tour de France replays between card games.

Being the middle of July, I didn’t think the unheated pool temp was quite warm enough (the ocean was fine) but the kids didn’t care and spent plenty of time there. It was certainly pleasant hanging out in the pool area and we didn’t have to share with anyone.

With 4 bedrooms, each of the kids got their own double or queensized bed (slight overkill for a 4 year old Zinnia), but less fighting for us.

There was no real ‘free to air’ TV but we weren’t inside much during the day and were happy to play our holiday tradition of UNO and catch up on streamed cycling. Given the size of the Villa we could have easily fitted in several more people and it was very quiet aside from the general noise of roosters (a Rarotonga staple).

Snorkeling here we come….

We were all keen to get back out to that beautiful water, so post-breakfast it was time to get all the gear together and head back to the same spot we’d been to the day before, not far from our accommodation. While normally we’d walk such a short distance, with the large quantity of gear we found having a car super convenient – load up the boot and a few minutes later we were ready to gear up and head into the water.

Again our beach was fairly deserted and the sun was shining. We could see fish metres from our feet so it was time to dive in.

Our last snorkeling trip was the previous May (2022), in Magnetic Island, Queensland. Astrid had since completed her open water dive course and all kids had gotten much taller and stronger. Soren’s snorkeling had improved out of sight with his stronger swimming and both older kids were off and racing. The water is quite shallow, out to a drop-off shelf and we could snorkel easily with the minimal current. We had Zinnia suited up with her safety sausage for extra buoyancy and she took off, finally getting the hang of her mask, even if she vetoed fins.

I love warm, tropical water to snorkel in, so was happy as a clam (or blue starfish). We spent the first couple of snorkels battling with the underwater housing for the camera, but managed to get a few shots. Including some rays that Anto and Astrid had seen out past the drop-off.

We felt super lucky to see rays on our first proper day out snorkeling, it’s always a treat to see them gliding along the bottom.

All three kids were in tropical heaven! They love to snorkel and we were already inpressed with the quantity and variety of fish, and we’d only tried one spot so far.

Afternoon relaxing….

After a long snorkel it was time to hang out by the pool. We were definitely all enjoying the warm weather break from the cold Canberra Winter.

During our grocery shops, the kids had spied the freezers of New Zealand icecream. They had been a big fan of NZ icecream during our trip there in 2020. So we were definitely conned into an icecream for afternoon tea. I guess they needed the energy to fuel more snorkeling!

Afternoon snorkeling at ‘Fruits of Rarotonga’….

Definitely keen for more snorkeling we grabbed our gear and head to a slightly different spot for the afternoon. My internet research had lead me to believe that there was excellent snorkeling at a spot called ‘Fruits of Rarotonga’ which was a few hundred metres from our morning spot. As far as I could establish the name came from a drinks store of the same name that used to be near the car park (i.e. dirt patch). Said store, was no longer there but we did find the spot!

We saw a very similar range of fish and coral to our morning snorkel and again were lucky enough to see a few rays (well Anto and Astrid did again!).

We had a few camera issues again (damn leaking housing) but we did capture those rays, briefly.

Soren highly approved the snorkeling and no one was keen to get out!

Celebrating our first full day in tropical paradise….

All that snorkeling and everyone was hungry. We’d spied a Mexican restaurant not too far from where we were staying. Alas, they didn’t have any free tables so we headed to another popular spot – Charlie’s Bar. It was certainly busy but we could get a table, so success!

There was a bit of a wait for food, but eventually our pizza and fisherman’s platter arrived. In the meantime cocktails for the adults and lemonade for the kids helped. The jet lag might have hit the kids again!

The non-vegetarian members of the family voted that the seafood was pretty good. Given the amount of sea surrounding the island, we were hopeful that was going to be the case.

Day 3 – Tuesday 11 July….

Who would have guessed, but our third day was more water-based activities! Unfortunately one of which involved an early alarm, never a good thing on holidays….

Anto and Astrid go diving…..

Anto and Astrid were off for their first dive of the trip, and Astrid’s first dive since completing her Open Water course a couple of weeks earlier (her 12th birthday present!). I had them both dropped down at the dive shop on our side of the island by 8.30am, ready for their first Rarotonga adventure.

Anto and Astrid reported some excellent diving. Plenty of pretty coral, some great fish and turtles! Yep they lucked out with turtles on their first dive…..

Astrid was taking to this diving thing pretty well. She was certainly enjoying the warmer tropical water compared to the water temperature down the NSW South Coast (Bateman’s Bay) where she did her Open Water training in June!

Astrid’s first real dives and she gets to swim with turtles! Both Anto and Astrid were chuffed with that experience. It’s always a highlight…..

Anto and Astrid had a great morning out diving, it’s a very short boat trip out, warm water and excellent coral, fish and turtles so they were happy little divers when I went to collect them around 1.30.

Beach time with Soren and Zinnia….

While the others were off having fun with turtles, Soren and Zinnia and I decided to enjoy more of those beautiful views with some beach and snorkeling time.

It was hard to believe the beaches were so quiet, given it was such a pretty spot and this was right next to a resort area. As the entire island is surrounded by lagoon, there are plenty of places for people to swim and snorkel, and we didn’t find it particularly crowded anywhere.

We took our snorkeling gear down so we could say hello to the fish and Zinnia made sure she made the most of the time to build sandcastles and moats.

This was definitely more fun that Canberra Winter weather!

The tiny hermit crabs were very popular with the kids. They were rather cute!

Soren certainly enjoyed some swimming training in the warm, clear water, with plenty of fish to keep him company…..

In the neighbourhood…..

Between swims and snorkels we spent some time wandering around the neighbourhood near our Airbnb. There were plenty of interesting tropical fruits, and many free range chickens and roosters. Seemingly everyone has their own chickens and plenty of pretty (but noisy) roosters, in Rarotonga.

There were also more than a few goats around. They were obviously pets as they’d have a long rope on them, and they’d roam around munching on the grass and plants. An efficient tropical mowing method, it would appear.

Afternoon snorkeling….

With everyone back from their morning adventures, we voted for some more snorkeling in the afternoon. Our local spot in Muri lagoon, was hard to beat, and there was never anyone there, so we could park the car right next to the beach. Very convenient!

The kids had fun finding coconuts, which were not very hard to find! The biggest challenge was remembering not to park the car under the coconut trees – all the hire car insurance doesn’t cover coconut damage.

We were enjoying the ease of snorkeling in such calm and warm water. Our afternoon adventures had Soren and I heading out to the drop-off, in search of rays. We didn’t manage to find any but we saw plenty of very large fish patrolling the deeper water. Unfortunately no pictures from the afternoon aquatic adventures as the camera housing was misbehaving, but we had plenty of lovely memories anyway.

Dinner at the Muri night markets……

One of the must-do’s in Rarotonga is visit the Muri Night Markets for dinner. The markets are open from around 5pm on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday evenings. We’d arrived in Rarotonga on Sunday but had vetoed the markets that night as we were all way too jet-lagged to deal with crowds. When we’d driven past though, there were lines of people everywhere and good smelling food. Now Tuesday this was our first chance to try the markets for dinner.

The markets are outdoor, which isn’t a problem with the temperature in Rarotonga, but if it rains, you get wet. All the info on the markets advised getting there early as there are long lines for most vendors. You also need cash, very few places will accept cards. Food isn’t particularly cheap in the Cook Islands but the prices at the markets were fairly reasonable compared with restaurant prices. There were plenty of different options, so once we all made our selections, Anto and I commenced the process of lining up for all our desired treats.

There was a pretty good range of different vegetarian options I could choose from and the kids had endless things they wanted to try.

The markets weren’t too busy when we first arrived, which meant the lines were not too crazy. Most food was cooked fresh so the kids would wait to collect it, while we ordered the next thing. By 6pm the lines were building up and vendors would sometimes run out of popular items that had sold out, so it does pay to go early.

The kids had spied fritters and icecream as one of the many dessert options, so we did have to line up again for those, but one huge serving fed all 3 kids!

Up next….

Well that was just our first few days in Rarotonga, there was more sunshine, beautiful beaches and fabulous snorkeling ahead. We had also booked a special turtle snorkeling experience for Astrid, Soren and I, so in the next instalment there will be an abundance of turtle pics. The turtle snorkel was definitely a travel highlight for all of us!

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