Chilled, low rise, low key and staggeringly beautiful, Rarotonga makes a strong play for being the perfect Pacific paradise. The largest of the Cook Islands, but with a population of around 11,000, it is surrounded by a camera-friendly lagoon and takes roughly an hour to drive around. But infrastructure is good – there's no slumming it here – local character bursts through and the swaying coconut palms feel an integral part of the package rather than a tacky add-on.
Relatively new, and providing a cultural alternative to the beachy goodness elsewhere, Te Ara in Muri doubles as place for local artists to sell their works and a museum about the Islands' history. The latter delves into traditional hierarchies and beliefs, the changes brought by European missionaries and – most fascinating of all – the spread of the Polynesian people by canoe across the Pacific.
The Nautilus Resort's restaurant is open to outsiders, and makes a commendable effort to use Polynesian ingredients. This might mean parrotfish as a main, sea grapes as part of a starter, taro puree or coconut twists to sauces. The cocktail list also makes admirable, inventive deviations from the old standards thrown together elsewhere. See nautilusresortrarotonga.com.
Storytellers Eco Tours hands guests a bike and helmet, then takes them away from the coast to explore snatches of genuine Rarotongan life. In practice, this means dodging strutting chickens, plucking ultra-fresh fruit from gardens, hearing legends deeply ingrained in the local culture and stopping off for a swim under a waterfall. See storytellers.co.ck.
The most drool-worthy part of Rarotonga's surrounding lagoon is at Muri, where four purdy islets are within easy swimming distance. It's easy enough to explore unaided, but a half day glass-bottomed boat cruise is undeniable fun. Koka Lagoon Cruises throws in guided snorkelling tours, coconut husking demos and a freshly caught fish barbecue lunch for $NZ79. See kokalagooncruises.com.
The Muri Beach Club is parked right on the white sand beach, and offers spacious rooms with a sizeable pool. But its real selling point is the location, plus the free snorkel and kayak hire for those who want to go explore the lagoon. Prices start at $NZ362. See muribeachclubhotel.com.
Rarotonga has got a rather surprising craft brewing scene going on, with the Matutu Brewery near Muri joined in October last year by the Rarotonga Brewery near the airport. The latter is the place to stock up if you want to avoid resort mini-bar prices – they'll fill a 1.5L bottle of refreshing lager straight from the tap for $NZ10. See Facebook.com/rarotongabrewery.
David Whitley was a guest of Cook Islands Tourism, see cookislands.travel.