Rarotonga, Cook Islands: Ten fun but inexpensive things to do

Rarotonga is the perfect choice for travellers seeking sun, surf and serenity.
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Rarotonga is the perfect choice for travellers seeking sun, surf and serenity.

Right now it seems that every second New Zealander is holidaying in Rarotonga.

And why not? What must rate as the most laid-back island in the South Pacific is only a four-hour flight from our horrible winter - a short trip to some much appreciated sun and warmth.

The Cook Islands' currency is the New Zealand dollar, and this helps make Rarotonga an affordable holiday destination. Even better, there are plenty of activities that are either super-cheap or free. Here's a list of 10 of the most inexpensive activities on Rarotonga.  

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Pawpaw, bananas and lime - the perfect Rarotongan breakfast.
Rob Maetzig

Pawpaw, bananas and lime - the perfect Rarotongan breakfast.

1) Eat breakfast

Here's a brilliant way to begin your day in Raro - take a slice of locally-grown pawpaw, peel one of the island's thin-skinned ladyfinger bananas, squeeze the juice of a segment of lime over it all, and eat. It's delicious sunshine on a plate.

Inexpensive, too. Right now in Rarotonga pawpaws are costing as little as $3 at any shop or roadside stall, and bananas are priced at around $6 a bunch of six or eight. We found limes for around $6 a kilogram. All this means that the dish we photographed for this article probably cost less than $1. Most days we figured that was easily inexpensive enough to go for seconds.

A bus service circles Rarotonga clockwise and anti-clockwise all day.
Rob Maetzig

A bus service circles Rarotonga clockwise and anti-clockwise all day.

2) Catch a bus

Feel like a drive but haven't got a rental car or scooter? For just $5 you can climb aboard one of Rarotonga's circle-island buses and enjoy a ride right around the island. You can even choose which way you want to go, because the service runs both clockwise and anti-clockwise.

These buses aren't air-conditioned, and at times the ride can become a bit harsh, but the trips are fun. And, if you want to spend all day riding on them, then you can pay $16 for an all-day pass that allows you to hop on and off as many times as you like.

It's relaxing just looking at the beach.
Rob Maetzig

It's relaxing just looking at the beach.

3) Go to the beach

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One of the benefits of holidaying on a compact circular island such as Rarotonga is that if it is windy and raining on one side, then there's a good chance it will be calm and sunny on the other. So you simply hop into your car, or onto your scooter, or the circle-island bus, and find a beach.

It's a pleasant experience sitting on a beach anywhere around Rarotonga - the views are fantastic, and there's the constant roar of surf pounding the reef the protects the island. Many of the beaches also offer excellent snorkelling and swimming, particularly along Muri on the south-eastern side, and at Black Rock to the north. And visits to these beaches is absolutely free.

Getting wired on Rarotonga's golf course.
Rob Maetzig

Getting wired on Rarotonga's golf course.

4) Play golf among the wires

The Rarotongan Golf Club has what has to rate as one of the most hard-case courses around. Why? Because if you play 18 holes by taking on the nine-hole course twice, you are hitting your ball through communications masts and wires on 10 of the holes. The rules say that if your ball hits any of these, you must replay your shot without penalty.

But it doesn't really matter - all those masts and wires simply add to the fun. In fact there are many who can claim to have legitimately scored a hole-in-one, even after they've had one or more balls ricochet out of bounds. Also fun is the fact that some of the fairways are shared by golfers playing in opposite directions, which means you do need to keep an eye on who is hitting where. And not take anything too seriously.

It can feel like a big jet is about to land on your head.
Rob Maetzig

It can feel like a big jet is about to land on your head.

5) Channel your inner plane-spotter

One of the fun and free things to do in Rarotonga is to get to the end of the airport's runway when the big passenger jets are landing or taking off. Runway 08 (that's the western end) is a good spot when the jets are coming in to land off the sea - when you stand at a sea wall, it really does feel as if the plane is going to land on top of you.

You can get even closer at the end of Runway 26 (that's the eastern end). Things can get really dramatic on those occasions when the jets are taking off from that end. If you are close to the perimeter fence you'll get hit by the rush of air from the engines as the aircraft powers up to begin its takeoff run - at that stage you begin to feel you might get blown into a nearby taro patch.

Cheap eats at the Muri night market.
Rob Maetzig

Cheap eats at the Muri night market.

6) Go to the night market

You can bet the local restaurateurs are moaning about this. Down in Muri there's a night market, which is essentially a whole lot of trestle tables and chairs surrounded by stalls that serve up inexpensive and delicious food. Initially it was held just on Thursday nights - but it has proved so massively popular it now operates four nights a week.

All sorts of dishes are cooked up at the Muri night markets, and they all cost no more than $15. Our choices? A seafood curry, followed by a huge crepe filled with sliced bananas and whipped cream and covered with Baileys, and a great big piece of cake that we took back to base to enjoy with a cuppa.

Up through the jungle on the Cross Island Walk.
Rob Maetzig

Up through the jungle on the Cross Island Walk.

7) Take to the high ground

What's known as the Cross Island Walk is a strenuous trek that, if you are heading east-west, starts at the main town of Avarua, heads up through the jungle to the peak known as Te Rua Maunga, then down through the jungle again to the other side of Rarotonga, emerging alongside that edifice that is a cross between a unique tourism attraction and a national embarrassment - the unfinished and now dilapidated and graffiti-strewn Sheraton resort.

If you're not reasonably fit, don't attempt this walk. And locals strongly advise against trying it when it is raining, because the track becomes very slippery. But the ascent and descent, which is aided by the presence of plenty of tree roots that can be used as grab handles, is rewarded not only with magnificent views at the top, but the prospect of a cold beer at the bottom - just turn right when you reach the road, walk to the nearby Rarotongan Resort, and order one.

Snorkelling is a fun and free Rarotongan activity.

Snorkelling is a fun and free Rarotongan activity.

8) Swim with the fish

Everyone knows that the snorkelling can be great in the lagoon surrounding Rarotonga. And it's free - well, maybe you have to buy some snorkelling gear, and don't forget to wear either flippers or sand shoes, because coral cuts can quickly infect.

Many agree that the best snorkelling location is the south-eastern side of the island, particularly off a little shop called the Fruits of Rarotonga. But it doesn't really matter where you go, because if the conditions are right you'll spot plenty of tropical fish. And what can be better than splashing around in warm water under the Raro sun?

There's plenty of fresh food to purchase along Ara Tapu.
Rob Maetzig

There's plenty of fresh food to purchase along Ara Tapu.

9) Buy street food

Well, it's not really street food - but road food. The main road that circles Rarotonga is called Ara Tapu, and while it is sealed for its entire 32 kilometres, the speed limit is never more than 50kmh and quite often a lot slower than that. But that allows plenty of time to spot food stalls and stop.

They offer everything from fresh fruit and vegetables, to coconuts, to cakes and pastries, to the doughnuts that Cook Islanders seem to love and have them for sale seemingly everywhere. Stop and try them - after all, you are on holiday and you can work on losing the weight when you get back home.

Watch the roosters - they're far less relaxed than you will be.
Rob Maetzig

Watch the roosters - they're far less relaxed than you will be.

10) Watch the roosters

Once you've been on Rarotonga for a few days and you have slowed down your pace of life to what is known as Island Time (translation: doing nothing), a great way to while away the hours is to watch the chooks - particularly the roosters.

In stark contrast to the visitors who watch them, they never seem to relax. They're too busy guarding their harems of hens, and they'll crow if they suspect another rooster is nearby. Which is always the case, because there are heaps of roosters on Rarotonga, even right up at the summit of the Cross Island Walk where they'll follow you in the off-chance you'll feed them.

MORE INFORMATION feelraro.co.nz

GETTING THERE Air New Zealand and Jetstar fly from Auckland to Rarotonga.  See airnewzealand.co.nz and jetstar.co.nz.

GETTING AROUND Hire a scooter, it's the best way to see the islands.  They can be rented daily or weekly.  If you're after a scooter, be prepared to take a test at the Avarua police station, and present your driver's licence.  It costs $20.

The writer travelled on his own dime.

 - Stuff

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