The Pacific Blue flights arrive and depart at midnight, and the early hours of the morning. The Air NZ flights have a more civilised arrival and departure time, but depart too early and arrive too late for connections to Australia.
Air New Zealand has code share arrangements with all other Star Alliance members including United Airlines and Rarotonga is a popular stopover on round-the-world flights.
There is a Westpac ATM at arrivals after you pass through immigration and customs. There are two duty free stores open to meet all incoming international flights. There is a cafe open in the departures area for departing flights, but don't expect to be able to get anything to eat or drink if arriving on one of the late night flights.
Rarotonga is made up of districts containing several villages located mainly around the coastal fringe of the island. Avarua is the main village on the northern side of the island and has most of the population and services. People tend to refer to it as the town. Muri on the eastern side is probably the main tourist centre, with apartments and the Pacific Resort scattered around the lagoon. Aroa is on the western side is a protected lagoon and beach, and home to the Rarotongan. The airport situated in Nikao, is close to Avarua, about 2km anti-clockwise.
Rarotonga's main island is encircled by a 32km two-lane (one each way) bitumen road that is in good condition. There is also an inner road that is paved, but narrow, and doesn't quite go around the entire island due to property owners.
Expect a remarkable number of chickens to cross the road. It is hard to understand why they do this, but they do. Dogs, walkers, children, and coconuts provide other obstacles on the roads that keep driving interesting. The speed limit is 50km/h, with 30km/h in some towns. Allowing 30 minutes should really get you to the fartherest point on the island, provided you start off in the right direction.
The main road is called Ara Tapu. The inner road, Ara Metua, links side roads between the inner and outer roads and have more recently been given names. Addresses with just the village name in the address can be assumed to be on the main road, or not far from it. The local free maps available at the airport and tourist information are quite detailed, and list the villages, and most places of visitor interest.
If you head off on any of the unsealed roads that start off heading inland, expect them to quickly peter out to narrow unsealed roads, with stream crossings often more suited to quad bikes.
The requirement to obtain a $20 Cook Islands driver's license has been rescinded, although it does make a nice souvenir, you can drive on the island(s) for up to 6 months as long as you hold a valid drivers license from your home country.
There are plenty of rental car choices around the island. Some operate from multiple locations. Expect to pay around $50-60 per day for a small car. $15-20 extra to pick up or drop from the airport. The opening hours, like everything else on Rarotonga can be limited. Expect many to open around 09:00, and close again before 16:00 on weekdays, expect some to be open for very limited times on Sundays, if at all, the accomodations at which you are staying can often times be of great service in assisting you with a rental car.
By motor scooter
To drive a scooter you need a Cook Islands driver’s license. If you don't have a motorbike licence, be prepared to do a short test, which requires you to zigzag between cones to demonstrate that you are able to control a bike. Some places can issue you with a temporary license for $10, no test or queueing up required.
The licensing section at the Police HQ in Avarua is open 08:00-12:00 and 13:00-15:00. The drivers license office stops administering the tests at 14:30 so it's best to arrive in the morning or as close to 13:00 as possible to ensure that you can get your license. Pay $20 for the licence, and $5 for the test. If you happen to be travelling to Aitutaki it is wise to obtain your licence there, because there are no queues and it costs $2.50 instead of $20. On the other islands, nobody asks for a licence.
It is not compulsory to wear helmets by law, unless the speed for motorised scooters and motor bikes is exceeded (40km/h).
There are lots of motor scooter hire options. You will find a couple in most villages. Expect to pay around $20 per day or $100 a week for scooter hire.
Buses circle the island clockwise and anti-clockwise every hour. Clockwise buses leave town on the hour, and anti-clockwise at 25 minutes past the hour, and take around 55 minutes for the trip. The locals all own scooters, so it is usually visitors using the bus service. The anti-clockwise buses break for lunch, and don't run Saturday afternoons, Sundays, early mornings or in the evenings. The clockwise buses do not run on Sunday evenings either. The sign on the front of the bus states its direction. If you're going to use it regularly, you can buy a day pass or a book of 10 tickets.
The bus has designated stops on the map, and there are a few bus shelters around to wait in. However the bus will pick up and drop off almost anywhere on the round island route, although the drivers prefer spots where they can pull off the road to let traffic pass. Single trips are $5, return trips are $8, a day pass is $16. All-day family passes cost $26, for two adults and an unlimited amount of children in the one family (children are 15 and under). A pass for 10 one-way trips is $30.
Some buses have buttons to request a stop, but these are just for show. Pressing them will probably see you doing another lap of the island. Simply stand up and tell the driver when you want to get off.
Bicycles would seem to be a very practical way of getting around. Road speeds are slow, and taking the inner road is also an option for cyclists. However it is very tiring in the heat for non-experienced cyclists and you will be constantly overtaken by buses, cars and scooters. It is illegal for bicycles (and scooters) to travel two abreast, and you must ride single file at the left of the lane.
Bicycle hire is available widely, most rental places and resorts have them. Don't expect them to be very high in quality.
The villages tend to be around 15-20 minutes walk from each other. Most places on the island are within walking distance to a beach, an ATM or small convenience store. There aren't many footpaths outside of Avarua & Arorangi, but traffic is slow and walking on the main road isn't a problem. Walk on the RIGHT hand side facing the oncoming traffic on your side of the road, please. Walking along the beach between villages is usually possible, especially at low tide.
The diving in and around the reef is breathtaking. With warm tropical waters of around 27 degrees C in summer time, only a short 3mm wetsuit is required. If you are a certified diver, you can book a dive with one of many dive operators on the main island. A two tank boat dive will cost you about $140 with all equipment provided.
There are wrecks (but well broken up) to explore, small cave systems and plenty of fish. In August you should be lucky enough to experience diving with whales that are passing by the island.
Black Rock, located on the west coast of Rarotonga, is great for snorkeling
Snorkelling in Rarotonga is easy, and a great variety of tropical fish and corals can be seen snorkelling off the beaches in calm waters all around the island. Not all beaches are suitable - some rocky beaches are not so pleasant but head for the coral lagoons and sandy beaches.
Muri beach offers beautiful clear, shallow water - it remains shallow very far out so is ideal for beginners, and perhaps a bit better on the high tide. You can also book on a snorkelling cruise around this lagoon in a glass-bottomed boat, stopping off to snorkel by a small island, and a barbecue lunch and cultural show on the other side of the lagoon, however this doesn't really take you anywhere a competent swimmer with fins can't get to from the beach. Watch out for the currents between the island and the beach on the tide.
Snorkelling can be done at the Aroa Lagoon Marine Reserve directly in front of The Rarotongan Beach Resort & Spa, you can access the lagoon either side of the resort. The Aroa Lagoon Marine Reserve has been continuously operating as a dedicated Marine Reserve in Rarotonga as well as being a natural breeding ground for several hundreds of species of tropical reef fish. The result is that you will be able to see hundreds of fish with metres of the white sand shores of Aroa Beach. There is no need to feed the fish! and please avoid standing on the corals. Snorkelling equipment, lessons and guided snorkelling tours (both night and day) are complimentary to guests of The Rarotongan Beach Resort & Spa or are available at The Dive Centre just 200m up the road. Expect large schools of Trevally, Moray Eels, butterfly fish, sea bream, wrasse and much more. Also expect to see octopuses, clams, and eels.
Also try the beach in front of the Fruits of Rarotonga, which is where the first permanent marine reserve was established on Rarotonga.
In front of fruits of Rarotonga the snorkelling is quite good, also try in front of The Dive centre - right next to the Rarotongan Resort.
There are several inland walking tracks which can be followed for a pleasant few hours in the bush. The Needle & Cross-Island Walk crosses the island from Uruau Drive to Wigmore's Waterfall and is steep and challenging in places. The Raemaru track goes up to Raemaru Peak (350m).
Rarotonga was formed by a giant, rocky volcano. Just a few thousand years ago, it collapsed into a beautiful, round island teeming with wildlife. There are lots of small peaks around the area and waterfalls hidden in mini-sanctuaries around the jungle. They are easy to tramp to and to bike to.
There are walks along streams providing opportunities for fresh water swimming.
The local guidebooks recommend a guide for the more difficult treks which cost around $60 which includes a lunch and transportation to and from the trail heads. For people who are experienced hikers this is not the case. The needle trail is marked with green markers. Guides are good for information on local flora and fauna. A guidebook is available at the Treasure Chest which has topographical maps along with information on flora and fauna.
The Sea wall is relatively close to the airport, you can stand on the sea wall and when the jets come in it's about ten feet above your head. Check the wind sock to see which direction the planes will land. The locals call this getting jet blasted. If getting jetblasted during landing is a bit too tame, head for the eastern end of the runway: Getting jetblasted during takeoff is much more exciting (and deafening if you live dangerously and forgo the reasonable precaution of earplugs).
Muri lagoon is a great place to windsurf, although the winds are never really that strong, great for beginners. You can rent them in the building right beside the sailing club.
There are ANZ and Westpac ATM's scattered at regular intervals along the villages of the main road. All the supermarkets accept credit cards for supplies purchased above $20 minimum. Currency exchange is available at the ANZ, Westpac banks and Western Union in Avarua, and the fees for exchange are around $8 per transaction.
Due to import of supplies, non-local foods and groceries are expensive, therefore it is worth the trip into Avarua to shop at the large grocery outlets. Expect the range available to be limited to service the small island population.
Black pearls are local produce, and there are several shops selling these in Avarua and other villages.
The resorts at the Rarotongan and Pacific have their own resort shops, as do some of the smaller accommodation providers.
Every Saturday there is a growers market in Avarua, called Punanga Nui, where you can listen to live music buy music, local fruits, vegetables, fresh fish, souvenirs and cooked food platters. It ends at noon, make sure you get there before then. There is also a variety of food stalls at the market.
Local produce tends to be seasonal. Mangoes grow wild, and are plentiful and cheap during summer. Avocados are also plentiful in summer/autumn. Outside of season, however, these fruits can be hard to come by. Passionfruit, guava and paw-paw and oranges are other seasonal fruits freshly available in season. Starfruit, pawpaw and coconuts tend to be plentiful year round, and these can be just as cheap at the village convenience stores as they can be in Avarua. Fresh reef fish is available daily near the harbour in Avarua, but not in the supermarket. Taro, kumara (sweet potato), and breadfruit are also grown locally, and make delicious island fries. Fidjian spinach known as Bele is popular, as are the leaves of the Taro,called "rukau" and which are commonly available.
There is an Island Night on every night at one of the resorts. Ask at tourist information for the roster for the resorts.
There a selection of some 30+ restaurants and cafes on the island to choose from. Making a booking can be a good idea, if you want to be sure not to end up hungry. Pacific Rim, Italian, pizza, Mexican, are all options, or try the seafood platter at the Sailing Club on the lagoon at Muri, with reef fish, octopus, and rukau (taro leaves). The resorts and some of the other accommodation all have a choice of restaurants.
Expect to pay around $18-25 at a restaurant for a main course. Burgers at Fruits of Rarotonga cost $6. There are takeaway hot meals in Avarua for $7. Espresso coffee is available widely, expect to pay $4, look for some blends of Atiu coffee to try the local produce or coffee from the "Cook Islands Coffee Company", imported beans locally roasted .
The island has major problems with waste management, so please consider using the available refilling facilities for water and beer. Drinking coconuts also produces no non biodegradable waste.
Vaima drinking water is locally produced. It is available in many supermarkets and can be refilled on the back road in Avarua.
There are 2 microbreweries on the island, so before you buy imported beer and produce even more waste on the island it's a good idea to try the local beer which you both can refill:
Imported alcohol can be purchased in the supermarkets and convenience stores until 21:00 - but not on a Sunday.
There are a few backpacker type places, many villas, from large complexes to one or two villas in a group. There is also resort style accommodation.
Consider where on the island you want to stay, and pick a location near a beach or lagoon if you are looking for the beach and snorkelling activities. The accommodation providers are used to people arriving and departing at odd hours, according to the flight schedules. Don't expect any discounts for arriving at accommodation at 02:00, and expect to pay extra to check in early or to get a late checkout. Resorts like the Rarotongan and the Pacific have their rates for early and late checkout by the hour on their website.
Mobile phone towers are located at regular intervals around the island, and mobile reception is good. Roaming or picking up a prepaid SIM card are both options.
Payphones are available at the airport and in Avarua.
Wi-Fi hot spots are available in Avarua, and now widely found at the resorts, hotels, and many restaurants. You are never more than a few minutes from one, but there is no free access. Internet terminals are located in Avarua, in the resorts, and at the airport. Expect to pay $2-$3 for ten minutes or so. Some resorts have internet access provided by Zenbu wireless. Rates are $0.10 per MB so 100MB costs $10, 500MB costs $50, etc.
Internet access is extremely expensive. Telecom Cook Islands (BlueSky) offers Wi-Fi hot spots at their office, in some hotels and restaurants, and at the airport (beware, it works only before security checks, once you're in you have no more reception and cannot finish the rest of your credit! Clever, eh?). Prepaid cards in various denominations can be purchased from the hotels and the post office. Logically, data is measured, not time. You can now (July 2016) buy a visitor's SIM card from BlueSky for $49 from the BlueSky shops which will last 30 days and includes 30 minutes of local calls, 300 texts and 3GB of data which is the best deal available by far.
Rarotonga is the gateway to all the other islands in the group.
The uninhabited islands of Takutea and Suwarrow can be visited by private yacht, or with a research vessel stationed at Rarotonga.