For the Love of Travel
For the Love of Travel

Culture and Heritage Highlights in Rarotonga

Highland paradise Mountain-View credit highland paradise

Tear yourself away from the palm-fringed lagoon and explore Rarotonga’s culture and heritage.

Escape the hum-drum of the daily grind to the quintessential South Pacific island paradise of Rarotonga, steeped in heritage and culture. The bewitching blend of serrated mountains, saw-tooth hills, dense tropical jungle bountiful plantations and deliciously bone-white beaches sets the stage for great adventures. Encircled by a coral reef, the Rarotongan lagoon supports a dazzling variety of tropical fish life, with an even greater array of sea life in the deep water outside the reef, including eagle rays, sea turtles and black-tipped reef sharks. But what makes the Rarotongan lagoon so family-pleasing is the shallowness of the crystal clear water, preventing sharks from being able to enter the lagoon.

Beaches And Lagoon scene in Rarotonga. Credit Cook Islands Travel
Beaches And Lagoons. Credit Cook Islands Travel

My 70-something parents have just returned from their maiden holiday on Rarotonga, spell-bound by their tropical adventures. The resolutely island time tempo is as conspicuous as it is infectious. They loved going on improvised drives around the main coastal road, Ara Tapu, marvelling over the colourful shop fronts, roadside fruit stalls, flower-laden gravesites, groaning banana trees and vast taro plantations. Rarotonga exudes an instant likeability which only grows stronger, the longer you stay.  Of course, your idea of South Pacific holiday heaven may well be confined to lounging on the sugar-white sand and dabbling in the turquoise lagoon, in search of Nemo. But if you want to dig a little deeper at Rarotonga’s roots, the island offers a wealth of profoundly enriching and authentic encounters, with nature and the culture to the fore.

Sea view on Avarua and Rarotonga's green jagged mountains. Credit Cook Islands Travel
Sea view on Avarua and Rarotonga’s mountains. Credit Cook Islands Travel

It’s absolutely where the magic happens. Beyond the beach, the broad arc of sugar-white sands and the crisp lagoon palette of electric blues and turquoise hues, the backroads of Rarotonga vividly reveal the life and soul of this South Pacific jewel. Tear yourself away from the beach to dig a little deeper at the roots of the island. Locals loosely consider the coastline hugging main circle island road as the “tourist road.” The backroad, Ara Metua, and its adjoining lanes is like entering another world, where the beating heart of Rarotongan authenticity slaps you in the face at every turn with its living history and village vitality.

Rarotonga from above with the reef separating the lagoon from the ocean. Credit Air Rarotonga
Rarotonga from above. Credit Air Rarotonga

Much of the backroad is a 1000 years old, constructed from coral stone and basalt rock, by the great chief Toi. Prior to European contact, Rarotongans predominantly lived in the foothills of the island, in the shadow of the towering volcanic peaks that serrate the skyline with a Jurassic Park-style aura. Villagers would only venture down to the coastline to fish and collect seafood. The interior provided much greater protection from tropical cyclones and potential enemy attacks. Ireland’s fabled “40 Shades of Green” would meet their match on Rarotonga’s backroads, crowned by mighty peaks like Te Manga.

Te Manga peak in the verdant heartland of Rarotonga. Credit Wondermondo
Te Manga peak in the heartland. Credit Wondermondo

The rich, volcanic soils and tropical climate conspire to produce rampantly fertile growing conditions for a kaleidoscope of lush and verdant vegetation. The backroad is like an open-air supermarket and pharmacy, where trees heave with succulent fruit ripe for the picking, alongside an encyclopaedia of traditional medicinal plants.  As I picked giant paw-paws from a roadside tree, playful piglets cavorted in paddocks while goats munched contentedly on the leftovers of a freshly harvested taro plantation. The backroad ushers you into a timeless world of free-range harmony in abundance. Rarotonga has become a byword for mango, guava, star-fruit and candlenuts, in my book.

Freshly picked tropical fruit in Rarotonga. Credit Tropical sky
Fresh tropical fruit. Credit Tropical sky

If you’re doing a self-drive, keep an eye out for roaming animals. On one occasion, a massive pig barrelled out in front of me, staring at me in panic before frantically hoofing it across the road. I slammed on the brakes of my rental, gripped by the fear of the insurance excess, managing to save his bacon and my bank account.

Just past Muri village, definitely call into the sacred site of Avana Harbour. It was here in 700BC that Polynesian voyaging canoes made their first Rarotonga landing arrived from Tahiti and Samoa. Avana Passage was also the departure point for the great migration to Aotearoa, in approximately 1340AD.

Double-hulled traditional Vaka at Avana Passage. Credit cook islands travel
Vaka at Avana Passage. Credit Cook Islands Travel

The names of the seven lead canoes are proudly emblazoned on the hoardings at Avana, although some locals told me their oral history suggests 200 canoes actually took part in the Great Migration. Today, Avana Harbour and Avatiu Harbour is regularly home to Marumaru Atua, a traditional double-hulled voyaging canoe. It’s an evocative sight, binding the ocean-faring past with the present.

My parent’s favourite dinner was enjoyed at the iconic Trader Jacks, on the Avarua waterfront. Rarotonga’s best-known bar and restaurant has been a labour of love for its colourful and often controversial owner, Kiwi-born Jack Cooper, who sadly passed away earlier this year in Rarotonga.

Trader Jacks Rarotonga on the harbourfront. Credit cook islands travel
Trader Jacks Rarotonga. Credit Cook Islands Travel

Ripped apart by three cyclones since it was first established in 1986, there a re numerous stories associated with the pub, including Zac Guildford’s notoriously naked appearance at the bar, some years ago. Needless to stay, catch of the day seafood is a hot seller. I highly recommend the Cajun Parrot fish fillets with roast vegetable, pesto rice, paw paw salsa and turmeric aioli.

Highland Paradise Cultural performers in traditional dress. Credit Highland Paradise
Highland Paradise Cultural performers. Credit Highland Paradise

Let’s be honest, island night shows can be a bit of a tourist trap. But if you want to partake in a mix of local music, dancing and food, with a heightened sense of authenticity and heritage, Highland Paradise is an excellent choice. Perched on the slopes of the sacred peak of Maungaroa, stands the site of the ancient mountain refuge of the Tinomana people. Abandoned in the 19th century, following the tribe’s conversion to Christianity, the village was reclaimed from the jungle just thirty five years ago, by Raymond Pirangi, a descendant of the last pre-Christian high chief (ariki) of the Tinomana.

Highland Paradise old marae site stretching back 1000 years. Credit Highland Paradise
Highland Paradise old marae site. Credit Highland Paradise

Amongst 25 developed acres of magnificent gardens and views you will experience drumming, singing, dancing, weaving, carving, medicine making, story-telling and umu feasting just as they were more than 600 years ago on this very spot! The lush botanical garden commands soul-stirring views across the west coast of Rarotonga, yet the highlight for me, was seeing the remains of the ancient marae, which has been carbon-dated to 500AD. Danny Mataroa has a personal connection through tribal links to the village and guides people through the cultural history of Highland Paradise. Danny pointed out, as we stood in the lush grounds, the neighbouring flat-top mountain of Raemaru.

Highland Paradise experience in Rarotonga. Credit Cook Islands Travel
Highland Paradise experience. Credit Cook Islands Travel

Legend has it that a major tribal conquest led to the top of the mountain being sliced off and spirited away to Aitutaki, because the locals didn’t have a decent sized hill on their island.)  After a moving tapu lifting ceremony in which offerings are made to the ancestors of the marae, guests are welcomed into the cultural centre for an ebullient showcase of traditional entertainment, as you tuck into a hearty buffet dinner, replete with traditional foods including taro, arrowroot, wahoo fish and rukau. (Rukau are the young leaves of a taro plant, very high in iron, and after being boiled for several hours, are mixed with coconut cream to produce a delightful dish – and a staple for Rarotongans.)  Lock in a magical holiday in a little South Pacific paradise.

Roadside stalls in Rarotonga. Credit Mike Yardley
Roadside stalls. Credit Mike Yardley