Andrew Stone has the low down on making the most of the island's high times.

Four short hours from Auckland, Rarotonga is where many New Zealanders first dip their toes in the tropics.

It's a laid-back destination, not wiltingly hot and seldom too crowded. Over a week to 10 days you can feel the tension of your working life lift as your body clock adjusts to island time. Heaps of Kiwis know the place from regular visits.

For first-timers here's a guide to make the most of your precious holiday.
1. Pack your favourite food/drink/condiments. Economy tickets allow you to take 23kg. That's plenty to keep the clothes to a minimum and make up the weight with a slab of vacuum-packed beef, a large frozen chook and some tasty snags if you've booked a place with a kitchen and barbecue. Supermarket food in Raro is not cheap as much is imported. We took an insulated chill box with 12kg of supplies. It meant we prepared some great meals, and stretched the budget.

2. Still on the eating/drinking theme, if you like cocktails this is the place to experiment. Grab some Cuban rum, vodka and a liqueur at duty-free, collect fresh coconuts, limes, pawpaw and mangos at a roadside stall and let your inner Tom Cruise rip.

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3. Make your acquaintance with the marine life. Sea temperatures are pleasant all year round. Lagoons teem with fish. Check whether you need to pack a mask, snorkels and fins otherwise you can hire them around the island. On our snorkelling trips we saw moray eels, clams, octopus, coral, butterfly fish by the score and loads more. Travel if you can when the trade winds have eased. It makes the water more inviting.

Experiment with cocktails using duty-free liquor and local fruit. Photo / Andrew Stone
Experiment with cocktails using duty-free liquor and local fruit. Photo / Andrew Stone

4.

Hire a car or a bike. If there are, for example, four of you, having a car makes things that much easier than getting caught in a downpour on a scooter. The 32km road around the island takes about an hour to drive. By bus, it's much longer as services stop frequently, though it does put you in direct contact with Cook Islanders who may have a relative in your suburb back home. We got a beat-up convertible for our stay, barely roadworthy but ideal with the ragtop down.

5. Walk the cross-island track. Start early from Avatiu Rd which climbs inland from Avarua, the main town. Get dropped at the island's power station for a head start and keep your eye on the Needle, a volcanic knob formed one million years ago and which bristles with magnetic effects. Walk like a goat along razorback ridges and check out the views from the top. Stay alert for a glimpse of long-tailed tropicbirds or a Cook Islands fruit dove. Oddly, I encountered a curious chicken at the base of the Needle. The bush is close and humid: giant vines snake to the sky and mats of twisting roots sit at the base of impressive homalium trees. Give yourself at least four hours for this mission. A bit of a blowout, but worth the effort.

6. Dine at a signature restaurant. It would be a stretch to call Raro a gastronomic paradise but there are places that do food well.

Tamarind House, a colonial mansion just east of Avarua, is a joint venture of Sue and Robert Brown. Raro regulars will know her as Sue Carruthers, who forged a reputation for tropical treats with the Flame Tree and Ambala Gardens. The view from Tamarind's covered veranda stretches across a lawn to a stand of decades old coconut palms and out to the reef. Just the right ambience for some grilled wahoo or fresh tuna.

The Waterline Restaurant & Beach Bar is on the west of the island. Get there before dusk and watch the setting sun plunge below the horizon as you get stuck into a dish of fresh reef octopus.

Explore the cross island track to the Needle, though you might get a bit grubby. Photo / Andrew Stone
Explore the cross island track to the Needle, though you might get a bit grubby. Photo / Andrew Stone

7.

Get along to the Saturday morning market in Avarua. Everyone else does, so try and be early before it gets too busy. If you want an hour-long therapeutic massage ask for Vera. He's got a small caravan near the seawall. For $70 it's a treat. Try the island bread, a tasty fruit smoothie, chicken kebabs, or fresh coconut drunk with a straw. And look out for an 'ei katu, a floral garland. Often made the night before, these $10 fragrant loops will make you feel you're truly in the tropics.

8. Feel the rush of a 767 swoop overhead at the reef end of the airport runway. The Air New Zealand service from Auckland arrives early afternoon so you can time the plane watching with a swim at nearby Black Rock. The big jet makes its final approach over the coastal road and there's a flat area where you can park the bike or car and play chicken with the aircraft as it ruffles your hair.

9. Drive the back roads. A click or two from the main road you'll find the real Rarotonga. A network of narrow sealed roads serves small villages dotted around the island. You'll see kids on bikes, chickens and dogs, mango and pawpaw trees, and sense the pace of life is in sync with the thermometer.

10. You've got 24 hours left. One place you shouldn't miss is Captain Mokos, an open-air diner near Muri Beach. Basically a container, the place specialises in freshly caught fish and serves them hot on buns at lunchtime. Think tropical sliders. Wahoo, marlin, reef fish - the place is super popular so be prepared to queue.

Above the hubbub you can hear in the distance the ocean rolling on to the reef.

What better way to say "Aere ra"?

CHECKLIST
Getting there: Air New Zealand flies direct to Rarotonga from Auckland six times a week.

Getting around: See Polynesian Rental Cars.

Further information: See cookislands.travel/nz.