Rarotonga, Cook Islands travel guide: The biggest little island in the Pacific

Each time Trader Jacks gets torn down by a cyclone, locals pitch in to help build another bar. Maybe that says something about Rarotonga – locals help each other in times of trouble – or perhaps it tells you how much value they put on cold beer in this part of the Pacific. I'm at the third incarnation of Trader Jacks – owner Jack Cooper can't find anyone who'll insure it these days – but then, what company would underwrite a bar in the tropics this close to the water? It's so close there's an emergency lifebuoy on the wall beside the bar lest the ocean gets in. Local kids swim in the tiny harbour just a few metres past the outside tables and if ex-pat regulars didn't drink with their backs to the view they'd see a parade of humpbacks just beyond the century-old shipwreck on the harbour's coral-fringed perimeter.

A lot of people say Trader Jacks is the best bar in the South Pacific – but on Rarotonga, it has stiff competition. No other island in the Pacific has so many options (excluding resort bars), except Oahu, and perhaps Maui. The sunset bars on Rarotonga's west coast at Arorangi are built on the beach and they're full of salty characters, but I love the bars built along the waterfront of Rarotonga's capital, Avarua.

For all its famed beauty, the South Pacific sure has a lot of ugly capital cities – like Papeete, Pago Pago, Apia and Honiara – but Avarua is different. I think Avarua epitomises Rarotonga. It's not that it's unsophisticated, but there's a quaintness about the place that takes you back in time. Avarua could be the setting for a Somerset Maugham short story or a James A. Michener saga; maybe it was, both authors spent time in Rarotonga. There are more dogs and pigs on the streets surrounding Avarua than cars. There are no traffic lights; the only traffic hazard I have ever encountered was a rogue mango that dropped onto my head from a tree growing right over the road. There is no high-rise in Avarua, or anywhere in Rarotonga for that matter. No building can be taller than a coconut tree – it's the law. And the mountains sure make for one hell of a pretty backdrop – they rise almost a kilometre, straight up, with black volcanic peaks that form perfect triangles among all the greenery.

For all its beauty, Rarotonga still flies under the radar of most travellers. More than 300,000 Australians will visit Fiji this year and 90,000 will holiday in Vanuatu, yet only 24,500 will travel further east to Rarotonga.

Tourists who do make it here have a habit of congregating in cafes around Muri Beach on the east side of the island. I bet most of them don't even realise that if they were to venture just a few hundred metres off the coast road (Ara Tapu) they would find the Pacific's oldest road – Are Metua – built a thousand years ago. Here, locals live as they always have – off arrowroot, paw paw and taro plantations, their pigs and goats tied up beside them, as much for companionship as meat. Each time I drive up here I find a new path into a valley I've never seen before (there are trails to 22 water catchment areas just off the Are Metua), or venture around the edge of a prehistoric volcanic caldera. On an island that's just 67 square kilometres in size, I still manage to get lost in here most times.

"There's so much inside this island that no-one even knows about," says guide Jimmy Mare as we head into Rarotonga's interior on a bicycle tour (Storytellers Eco-Cycle Tours). "When I was 18 I walked all day and I found a marae [a sacred Polynesian site] as big as a rugby field right up there behind the mountains, and human bones. There's so much history up there, and no-one even goes in there."

White terns – so delicate they look like a puff of breeze might blow them into space – circle above us, beside red-tailed tropicbirds. I hike the cross-island trail – from north to south – scrambling along a chain across rock platforms with sheer drop-offs, trampling through creeks within thick, tropical rainforest; but I'm barely scratching the surface. The hinterland area has been inhabited for more than a thousand years. The first missionaries (Fletcher Christian and his mutinous shipmates are believed to be the first Europeans to discover Rarotonga, on their six-month quest to find an island on which to hide from the British) convinced locals to move to the coast, leaving their secrets forever buried in these mountains.

I'm as taken with these mountains as I am with any of Rarotonga's beaches or lagoon. Most mornings, I kayak or paddle-board to the reef that encircles Rarotonga and watch the mountains change colour with the rising sun. One morning I venture far beyond the reef on a jet ski. We kill the engines and drift, and an enormous humpback whale comes up right beside us. One evening, I join a paddle-board tour on Muri Lagoon – where I learnt to sail as a six-year-old, manoeuvring sailing dinghies between coral heads – and we let the stars guide us out to an uninhabited island (motu). Lagoon cruises, deep-sea fishing charters, and diving excursions are also among the activities on Rarotonga.

That's not to say, however, that a holiday to Rarotonga must be physical. Dining out is the Cook Islands' favoured national pastime. Tamarind House, a refitted 113-year-old colonial home built right on the lagoon near Avarua, is regarded as one of the South Pacific's finest seafood restaurants, while Polynesia's best fish burgers are served out of a shipping container at The Mooring Fish Cafe, beside Muri Lagoon. Fisherman Steve Kavana fillets his morning catch out front. My favourite ways to eat like a Polynesian are to sit outside in the warm night air eating Cook Islands delicacies prepared by locals and served up on their verandah at Plantation House or feasting on Rarotonga's national dish – ika mata (raw tuna marinated in lime, soaked in coconut cream, with onions, carrots and capsicum) and pork, chicken and vegetables served out of an underground oven (umu) on a progressive dinner prepared by three local families.

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Rarotonga has acquired a certain modern sophistication – these days Kombucha is as plentiful as coconuts and a new cafe opens almost monthly – but the lead news story during my visit is about an investigation into taro theft. Locals can still determine the law and have argued that wearing a helmet while riding a scooter would ruin their hair for church. As such, locals aged over 25 aren't required to wear helmets, but visitors must. And nothing in Rarotonga ever runs on time. "Island time", they'll say – it's never an excuse, merely an explanation. These are the sorts of things that make me feel like it's still the same place I grew up in three-and-a-half decades ago.

Craig Tansley travelled as a guest of Cook Islands Tourism and Air New Zealand.

TRIP NOTES

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cookislands.travel

traveller.com.au/cook-islands

FLY

Air New Zealand flies direct to Rarotonga from Sydney every Friday night, or via New Zealand daily, see airnewzealand.com.au

STAY

Spacifica Travel has seven-night packages at the Little Polynesian Resort, including airport transfers and daily breakfast from $2449 pp twin share, call 1800 800 722. See pacificresort.com/little-polynesian/

EAT

Dine at one of the South Pacific's most lauded eateries, tamarindrarotonga.com; enjoy sunset drinks on the beach, waterline-restaurant.com; try the Cook Islands' best fish burgers, mooringfishcafe.com; take a progressive dining tour, cookislandstours.co.ck (under 'Our Experiences'); drink on Avarua Harbour, traderjackscookislands.com

PLAY

Join a bike tour into Rarotonga's hinterland, storytellers.co.ck; take a jetski tour around Rarotonga, rarotongawatersports.co.nz; take a stand-up paddleboard tour at night on Muri Lagoon, kitesup.co

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