This is exactly what you go to the South Pacific for: to get barreled so hard you can’t keep your mouth closed. Blake Thornton.
The heart of the South Pacific.
Words: Michael Kew
Photos: Jeremy Wilmotte
Where: The largest of the fifteen-island Cooks archipelago, Rarotonga lies smack-dab in the center of the South Pacific, surrounded by Tokelau, Samoa, Nuie, and Tahiti.
What: What many consider to be a cheaper and less touristy version of Tahiti, Rarotonga is the capital of the Cooks, a lovely volcanic island surrounded by a pristine barrier reef. The terrain is lush and verdant, featuring dramatic mountain peaks and dense rain forest, much like Tahiti. Although there are no Teahupoos on Rarotonga, the island has its own array of consistent, hard-hitting reef-pass waves, generally reserved for surfers who are comfortable in shallow South Pacific juice.
When: Rarotonga has waves year-round, thanks to various reef passes facing different swell windows. The best surf, however, usually happens during the austral summer (November to March), when strong North Pacific storms feed swell to the South Pacific, met by the prevailing southeasterly trade winds, causing favorable offshore conditions on Rarotonga's northern and western shores. The austral winter (May to September) is much more consistent, offering strong south swell, but unfortunately the trades can be harsh. Get it glassy, though, and you're in for a treat.
Why: Because it's somewhere new, beautiful, affordable, and exotic, and you can find uncrowded or empty surf almost every day. Granted, the waves are powerful and they break over gnarly, shallow reef, but if you can get past that, Rarotonga might become your newfound South Seas eden.
How: Air New Zealand and Pacific Blue are the only international carriers serving Rarotonga International Airport. From Los Angeles, Air New Zealand has a direct flight to Rarotonga, typically a $1,000 ticket. Upon landing you are issued a free 31-day visitor's pass. Once on the island, getting around is very easy (driving is done on the left side of the road), and car rental rates are reasonable. You can rent a car, motor scooter, or bicycle at the airport, but we recommend the car if you're driving around with surfboards. Since the road follows the coast around the entire island, access to surf spots is easy and straightforward.
Places to stay: There are plenty of options to suit any budget, and several hotels are adjacent to surf spots, particularly the south coast's renowned Rarotongan Beach Resort (rarotongan.co.ck), which has a long, barreling left reef in front of it. Other key properties include the Oasis (ck/oasisvillage/index.htm), which is near ultra-consistent Black Rock Reef; the Paradise Inn (paradiseinnrarotonga.com), centrally located near the lefthander at Avarua Harbor; and Avana Marine Condos, (avanacondos.co.ck), next to the fun right-hander at Avana Pass.
Places to eat: Rarotonga has a lot of good restaurants, ranging from luxurious Western-style cuisine to local roadside specialties like ika mata (the Cooks' version of poisson cru), and coconut crab. Check out the Flame Tree at Muri Beach, Sandals Restaurant inside of the Pacific Resort, and Whitesands Restaurant inside of the Rarotongan Beach Resort. Local fresh seafood, fruits, and vegetables are abundant, too, and many of the accommodations have kitchen facilities, so you can cook your own food. Either way, you won't go hungry here.
Babes and bros: Rarotonga actually has a decent little nightlife scene thanks to the regular influx of happy tourists from New Zealand, Australia, England, and the U.S. When they get together with the equally fun-loving Cook Islanders, a grand ol' time is to be had by all, especially on Friday nights, when you can take a nightlife bus tour, which costs about $15 (well worth every penny). Trader Jack's at Avarua's old harbor is one of the best bars in all of the South Pacific, joined by the CocoBar, the Nu Bar, the Banana Court, and Whatever! Bar.
Crowd factor: There are a handful of local surfers, mostly expats, and a significant population of bodyboarders on Rarotonga. Since the waves are powerful and good at breaking boards, and because surfboards are hard to come by, bodyboards are a good alternative for the locals. Either way, the island is far from crowded, and even if you do encounter a few guys out at, say, Black Rock or Avana Pass, chances are they'll only greet you with a smile.
Stuff to bring: Rarotonga epitomizes the South Pacific, and when you think South Pacific, what do you need there? Boardshorts, tropical wax, a few barrel-tuned boards, and plenty of sunblock. Reef booties are a major necessity, too, since accessing many of the spots requires a slow stroll over urchins and coral.
If the surf is flat: You should definitely consider doing a few hikes in the island's mountainous interior; local travel agents can book you for the popular Cross-Island Trek, a very interesting guided walk. Since the lagoon waters are crystal clear, snorkeling is a favorite pastime, as are diving, deep-sea fishing, whale watching, windsurfing, sailing, kayaking, and canoeing.
More information: Pick up a copy of Lonely Planet's Rarotonga And The Cook Islands (6th edition), the most comprehensive guidebook available. Online, the official site of the Cook Islands Tourism Corporation (cook-islands.com) is loaded with useful information. For surfing, check the site for Niki's Surf Shop (cookislandsurf.co.ck), and for some great surf photos, go to pbase.com/aqohana/cary_rar_surf.