Rarotonga is perfect for families, finds Graham Hepburn

You hear a lot of talk about "island time" on Rarotonga, the relaxed local attitude towards when things may or may not happen.

And it's an easy attitude to adopt, especially as my supposed smartphone doesn't recognise the Cook Islands as having a time zone, so I'm never really sure what time it is. Not that I care after a couple of days, as the family falls into a relaxed daily rhythm of lazing about on the beaches, swimming and snorkelling, seeing a few sights, and eating out.

For families, the hassle-free nature of holidaying on Rarotonga is hugely appealing - it's easy to get around on the 32km coastal road, you can use your New Zealand currency, and there are plenty of activities, accommodation options and places to eat.

Having a bit of local knowledge on your side also helps and our hosts Andrew and Melinda Ponga, at Kakera Villa Apartments, are full of advice on everything from the best places to swim to where to get a good coffee.


With the latter in mind, they steer us down the road to the Cook Islands Coffee Company, where Neil Dearlove roasts coffee and serves espresso. His small cafe becomes our daily launching point for forays around the island in our hire car, once we managed to get the kids out of our apartment's plunge pool and away from playing with the Pongas' dog, Blackie.

Travelling the roads is entertainment in itself as they are always buzzing with locals and tourists breezing around on scooters and motorbikes. The fact that no one wears a helmet adds to the sense of freedom and relaxation, although making helmets compulsory is an issue being hotly debated in the local newspaper, the Cook Island News.

Rarotonga's topography resembles a hat: the coast is its flat brim and the mountainous inland its peak. Beachlovers have plenty of options but for those who enjoy trekking there are some good trails. The cross-island trek is particularly popular.

Muri Lagoon, with its postcard-worthy coconut palm-fringed white sand beach and turquoise waters, is a popular spot for swimming and snorkelling. It's from here we head out on a glass-bottom boat ride with Koka Lagoon Cruises. Our skipper, who goes by the moniker Captain Bligh, takes us to a reef off Titikaveka for snorkelling in the marine reserve. The boat fairly rocks along as Captain Bligh and the crew belt out some Cook Islands music with the help of bandleader Brother Love, a local legend. The music and the crew's sense of humour seems to power the boat along, stopping at a motu (island) in the lagoon for lunch. Afterwards, one of the crew members, Papatu Jack, appears in traditional garb and delivers an entertaining show all about the coconut, which he calls "the tree of life" because the tree and its fruit can be turned to so many uses. A couple of male passengers are roped in to try their hand at climbing a coconut tree, much to the amusement of everyone except them.

Papatu Jack, recently crowned coconut tree climbing champion of the South Pacific, shows how it's done with an explosive shimmy up the trunk, before touching the top and pirouetting down again as if it's a fireman's pole rather than a tree that could tear your skin off. "Island time" goes out the window as he hits the ground in six seconds. "He did it in five yesterday," mutters Captain Bligh as he wanders past.

That same mix of humour and cultural insight is at play when we visit Highland Paradise for an evening of feasting and entertainment. Our guide Danny is proud of his culture but barely contains his mischievous sense of humour as he guides us around an old marae that is being restored in the mountainous hinterlands.

Singing, dancing and an umu feast are part of a terrific show that takes in the history of the Cook Islands, showcasing its culture and connections with New Zealand, although Danny gives Kiwis in the audience a hard time about our low-key greeting "Kia ora" compared with the islands' "Kia orana" (warmer and more welcoming, in his opinion). And he's also dismissive of our paddle-driven waka as opposed to the vaka (sail-powered catamarans) of the Cook Islanders.

And that's one of the things about Rarotonga - you don't feel too far from home because the language is familiar, and a lot of the locals have lived and worked in New Zealand or have relatives doing that.

It's just a pity island time hasn't taken hold over here.

Where to stay
Kakera Villa Apartments: Three luxury, serviced, self-catering villas. Wedding packages for family groups is a speciality, and include accommodation, wedding planning, wedding service and reception. We stayed in Apartment Karanga ($400-$430 a night), which has a large living space, all the mod cons and a lovely courtyard garden with shallow plunge pool.

Where to eat

Eating out in Rarotonga costs about the same as it does in New Zealand, but if you want some cheap eats, hit the markets. Coffee addicts should keep their eyes peeled for an orange road cone with the word "Coffee" stamped on it sitting at the roadside in Matavera in the morning. This is the low-key signage for the Cook Islands Coffee Company, run by Neil Dearlove. Neil roasts his own coffee and makes a mean brew. His son bakes fresh bread and croissants available on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. If you're looking for an idyllic beachfront restaurant, it's hard to go past Vaima, where you can scrunch your bare feet in the sand and enjoy a drink and a bite to eat while the sun goes down and the kids play on the beach.

For cheaper beachfront eats The Flying Boat Fish n Chips out front of the Cook Islands Game Fishing Club is a must. Buy a drink from the fishing club and take it out to your table overlooking the sea. The Mooring Fish Cafe at Avana Harbour has the same sort of simple appeal but isn't licensed. Raw fish, fish sandwiches and salads are their speciality.

If you like fish, check out the charming Tahiti Cafe, which does raw fish dishes as well as fish and chips. Rickshaw Cafe does Vietnamese, Malaysian and Thai dishes in a delightful setting lit up with candles and fairy lights.

Getting around
Bus: Taking the bus is a great way to meet the locals and get a feel for the island but might test the patience of kids waiting in the heat. Services run clockwise and anti-clockwise around the island. Fares are $4 one-way, $7 return, 10-ride concession $25, family pass $26.

Car: For a family, hiring a car is logical as it gives you the freedom to travel where and when you want. Our Polynesian Rentals Corolla cost $540 for eight days. You must have a local licence to drive on the island from the Police Station at Avarua. This is simply a matter of presenting your passport and driver's licence to the police and paying the $20 fee.

Scooter: Buzzing around the island on a scooter is great fun. Hireage is around $20 a day or $140 a week. You will need to pass a skills test (a simple process at a nominal cost that the rental company can normally take care of). And you also need to pay $20 for the licence from the police.

Things to do

Your accommodation provider often can get you special rates with tourist operators, and look out for special deals or discount vouchers handed out at the Saturday morning market.

Punanga Nui Markets: Downtown Avarua comes alive on Saturday morning with markets selling cooked food, produce and crafts. Get there early with the locals if you want to pick up fish or fresh produce. There's normally a cultural show on the stage as well.

Island nights: Some of the bigger resorts run cultural nights, usually involving dinner and a show. The music, dancing and singing is infectious, it's great fun for adults and kids alike. The Highland Paradise dinner and show normally costs $89 an adult, $50 a child.

Lagoon cruises: See a bit of the lagoon on a glass-bottom boat, do some snorkelling, and enjoy local music and humour with a barbecued fish lunch. On Koka Lagoon Cruises, we paid $99 for an adult and a child on a 3½-hour cruise.
Snorkelling: Good spots to check out the fish life and coral are Muri Lagoon and, further around the island, at Titikaveka.

The Cook Islands Whale and Wildlife Centre has a fascinating collection of live creatures, historical artefacts and various exhibits relating to the marine environment. Family pass $36.

Families with babies

Check out CocoTots, a local business that hires out all sorts of baby paraphernalia, such as buggies, cots, car seats, toy boxes and baby monitors so you don't have to bring them with you on the plane.

Graham Hepburn and his family were hosted by Kakera Villa Apartments.