June 12, 2008 | Comments 0

Rarotonga - An Idyllic South Pacific Escape

If not for its wayward location, Rarotonga could easily be one of the most tourist-friendly islands in the Pacific. It is surprisingly well-developed despite its off path location. While most of the destination ports in Polynesia are barely a few hours from each other (if you’re on a cruise, that is), Rarotonga is accessible only after an entire day’s sail. There’s no wonder why it is such a favorite South Pacific port of call, however, especially for cruise ships which are practically floating islands in themselves. And since the sail comes from relatively distant French Polynesia, the sudden sea voyage can be a welcome change, except for the incurably seasick.

Shoppers will delight at the sheer affordability of practically everything on the island, from bus fares to jewelry. This is probably due to its close proximity to its main source of imports nearby New Zealand. Inland, Rarotonga is safari-friendly as well, as venomous snakes, untamed animals and nasty insects are practically non-existent (except for mosquitoes). Just make sure that you respect the local culture, and keep a respectable distance from stone carvings and established sacred sites.

The surrounding lagoon is one of the island’s prime water attractions, since it is also filtered off by the encircled reef system. The result; narrow strips of beaches with sparkling lagoons, a perfect spot for parasailing, snorkeling, and offshore trips on glass-bottomed boats. This is especially true of Muri Beach, undoubtedly one of the island’s pearl assets. This half-mile stretch of coast also accommodates numerous marine reserves meaning that there are hordes of fish for you to swim with. Beyond the shallow lagoons are great scuba diving spots as well, with even more variety of nature’s eye candy: steep shelves, canyons, walls, veritable coral gardens, and a wide variety of marine life, including stingrays, whales, and turtles.

You can also delve deep into Rarotonga’s lush rain forest with a guided hike. Visit noni fields and avian sanctuaries, and highlight the trip with a dip in the water pool which surrounds Wigmore’s Waterfall; this drops at the immediate base of the island’s highest point, the Needle. Once you’re craving for adventure is sated, try your hand in another related exploit: bargain-shopping. Avarua’s Punanganui Market is a find shopper’s dream, especially on Saturdays when the open-air market is overflowing with authentic local crafts and clothing. You’ll also find this a good place to sample Rarotonga food, such as coconut rolls, and a marinated raw fish delicacy called the ika mata.

Avarua is still a tourist hotspot even in sleepy weekdays; being the official economic center of the Cook Islands, the local postal office, the souvenir shops, the banks, restaurants, and the indoor or open-air markets are within walking distance from each other. The local jewelry stores are also popular for offering the one of the region’s distinct imports the ever-present South Pacific black pearl. Urbane and unspoiled, Rarotonga seems to possess the perfect mix of qualities needed for a thriving ecotourism; surely, these ideal qualities more than makes up for the two-day back-and-forth trip on your South Pacific cruise.

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