A visit to the South Pacific had been a dream of mine for years. I'd traveled to my share of beautiful islands around the world, but something about this exotic land of crystal clear waters, exotic sandbars and swaying palms seemed especially magical. So when the Cook Islands tourism board invited me to visit for a week, it really was a dream come true. Admittedly, I had to peek at the map on my wall to confirm where the country was located. I'd heard of the Cook Islands, but knew very little about the expansive cluster of islands that sat halfway between Hawaii and New Zealand. My first stop was going to be Rarotonga, the largest of the 15 islands, and a quick Google search confirmed I was headed to paradise. #lovealittleparadise
It's coconuts in paradise when you wander the Titikaveka Backroads on Rarotonga, my first Cook Islands stop.
Every shade of blue along the island's beautiful south coast.
I found my favorite palm tree on Rarotonga, at Little Polynesian Resort.
Breakfast poolside at the beachfront resort.
The tropical interior of Rarotonga was as gorgeous as the island's iconic beaches.
iPhone snaps of the sweetest island pup.
Searching for dinosaurs in this lush grove of palms.
The tastiest fish sandwich at The Mooring (my favorite meal on Rarotonga!).
#hammockgoals at the Little Polynesian Resort.
Channeling those tropical island vibes.
My trip coincided with a rare island storm, so I was all smiles when the sun started to shine!
Loved the luxury of my bungalow's oversized bathroom at Little Polynesian Resort.
Always my favorite island view.
Rainy days in the banana trees.
Welcome to my lavish bungalow.
Cheers to coconuts in paradise.
Enjoying my last moments on Rarotonga before catching a flight to Aitutaki.
Rarotonga is what I imagine Hawaii was like 60 years ago. This South Pacific island oasis truly was a tropical dreamland. A place where I never had to worry about tour buses, tour groups or overcrowded beaches. I can't remember the last time I traveled to an island where I felt like a local so quickly. It was the most intimate little gem, and such a refreshing change of pace. My time on Rarotonga was short, but I loved it so much that I put together a guide to all of my island favorites. The guide would be a bit longer, but a storm hit while I was on Rarotonga and I wasn't able to experience some of the island's most iconic beaches, hikes and dive sites. Guess I'll need to plan a second visit!
Air New Zealand
Who knew it was so easy to get to the South Pacific? Air New Zealand offers one direct flight a week between Los Angeles (LAX) and Rarotonga (RAR). I flew Premium Economy for this 10 hour trip, and it felt like I was traveling in Business Class. A small part of me wished the flight was a bit longer, I've never been so comfortable on a plane! The roomy cabin was equipped with reclining leather seats, full menus, a selection of New Zealand wines, dedicated flight attendants and endless entertainment options. This was my first time traveling with Air New Zealand, and I can't wait to fly with them again.
Rent a Car
It takes about an hour to circle Rarotonga's 32 km coastal road, making everywhere on the island very accessible with a set of wheels. A rental car gave me the freedom to get lost exploring the island's interior backroads, as well as the ease of accessing beaches, restaurants, markets, etc. on my own time, instead of waiting for the bus. They drive on the left side of the road in the Cook Islands, which took some getting used to.
Little Polynesian Resort
This luxurious boutique resort was my private oasis on Rarotonga. It felt like a South Pacific dreamland waking up every morning in my beachfront bungalow with sweeping views of water. Open air pathways connected the resort bungalows to the lobby, restaurant and beachfront infinity pool, creating an intimate experience for guests staying at Little Polynesian Resort. It really was the quintessential island experience to be just steps away from the softest white sand, swaying palms, luxury loungers and beach hammocks.
As I checked into my beachfront bungalow, I felt a bit spoiled. The lavish digs included a split level design with beautiful high ceilings and timber beams - creating an open, airy feeling throughout the space. My king bed overlooked an open sitting area with views of the island lagoon, while the back of the bungalow housed a double vanity bathroom complete with an indoor shower and private outdoor tub.
This is one of the prettiest beaches on Rarotonga. The day the storm cleared, Titikaveka was the first place I headed to soak in the sunshine and the gorgeous turquoise waters. Rarotonga has some of the most picturesque beaches I've ever seen, and it was such a refreshing to swim and sunbath without crowds of tourists and unwanted touts.
For the most iconic spot on Rarotonga, head to Muri Lagoon. The postcard perfect setting is land of shallow water, white sand and dreamy palms. And if that isn't enough, there are also four small islets (motu) that sit in the lagoon, and can be accessed walking through the shallows when the tide is low.
Black Rock Beach
Gorgeous beach on the west coast of Rarotonga - ideal for swimming, snorkeling and catching an island sunset.
One of the best spots on Rarotonga for shore snorkeling. I visited this beach, but unfortunately could not snorkel because of the storm!
For that Jurassic Park photo opportunity, look no further than the lush grove of palms located in the fields across from Little Polynesian Resort. I circled the island several times in search of the perfect set of palms, and this one was the prettiest for chasing dinosaurs.
Stretch of beach with some wonderfully unique palms. I love searching for the funkiest trees when I'm on an island, and Vaima'anga is home to a set of parallel palms that hang over the beach at a 45 degree angle.
Reserved for guests of Little Polynesian Resort, these beach hammocks held up by palm trees are the cutest on the island. When the sun shines and the turquoise water sparkles, they make for the perfect Instagram snap.
This bright blue food stand located on Muri Lagoon is a local favorite. I ate lunch here my first day on Rarotonga, and it was by far the tastiest meal of my trip. The simple menu offers a variety of salads and sandwiches all served on fresh bread with local produce and homemade dressings and sauces. I went with the FOB Sandwich - crumbled mahi mahi smothered in lime mayo. Delish!
Muri Night Market
Located on Muri Beach, more than a dozen local food stalls fill this festive market in the evenings, on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday. The market serves up everything including fruit smoothies, fresh coconut, barbecued meats, noodle dishes, desserts, etc.
Another favorite of mine, especially in the evenings when there is live music. This open air beachfront eatery in Titikaveka is all about good vibes and delicious food with its menu of fish & chips, burgers, paninis, toasties and fresh fish.
BLUSKY or SIM Card
Wi-fi is a bit tricky on the island. Almost everywhere requires a pre-purchased voucher from Blusky which can only be used at hot spot locations scattered around Rarotonga. A SIM card swap would have been the better option, but I didn't unlock my phone before arriving on the island. Or, for anyone in need of a digital detox, Rarotonga is a great place to disconnect from e-mail, Instagram and the web.
Special thanks to Cook Islands Tourism and Little Polynesian Resort for hosting my stay and sponsoring this post.
Photos by myself and Anh-Thi Nguyen (@leftietraveler on Instagram). All honest opinions are my own.