Two resorts, 10 days, many highlights. Tessa Stockdale has one tough assignment.
TE VAKAROA VILLAS
From Muri Rd, Te Vakaroa doesn't look like much. It's down the end of a small gravel driveway and you'll be craning your neck to get a glimpse of the lagoon. Once you have arrived, however, if the entrance to the property that boasts a jungle waterfall doesn't blow you away at first sight, the room definitely will.
The modern-meets-traditional interior of these boutique villas had us in zen mode before we'd even set eyes on the beach. Our canopy bed looked pretty appealing, as did the plush cane-backed sofas dotted throughout the villa. It wasn't till we pulled back the french door's blinds and stepped into the courtyard that we could appreciate the true beauty of the property.
The lagoon is the front yard, plus there's a beautifully tiled infinity pool and jacuzzi. The lagoon is 23 steps from our courtyard, and gated exclusively for Te Vakaroa guests. Next door, Captain Tama's boat cruises (a must-do), act as our personal island-time alarm, the island drums letting us know it's approximately 11am. Te Vakaroa is an adults-only resort, so blissfully free of the shrieks of young children. A portable speaker in each villa provides the sounds you'd rather hear, poolside, bedside or down on the beach.
Each villa is tucked away and private, while still easily accessible to the lagoon and the pool. A delicious and simple continental breakfast , including exotic fruits, yogurt and fresh baked goods from LBV deli, is delivered to our villa daily.
Tip: Nestle into the poolside cabana and enjoy your breakfast with a view of the lagoon. Afterwards, opt for a dip into the 2m pool to cool off, or relax in the jacuzzi. Te Vakaroa Villas are ideal for larger groups of friends, birthday party getaways or pre- and post-wedding celebrations. The intimate location allows for a private and inclusive accommodation. If you don't feel like dining out or finding the dance floor at Rarotongan party hotspot, Rehab, Nick and Poko at Te Vakaroa are happy to organise their in-house chef and resident DJ to make a party of it, right in your villa.
Nautilus Resort has the finer touches that made our stay special.
We're welcomed by a signature bottle of Nautilus Brut and fruit platter and evening treats are served just in time for a post-dinner cocktail.
We choose to enjoy it next to our private plunge pool, set in front of the lagoon, while the sun set.
The open-plan ares (traditional houses) are perfect for relaxing. Just a few steps from the comfort of our canopy bed is a private front deck with sun loungers and a private plunge pool. It's also a great spot to admire the view of the lagoon.
Nautilus provides complimentary use of snorkel gear, kayaks, stand-up paddleboards and more.
We saw turtles and fish every colour of the rainbow.
Just across the infinity pool is Nautilus Restaurant.
Breakfast there includes continental and a la carte. With choices from lime and coconut pancakes to three-egg omelettes and homemade coconut custard with fresh figs,
your morning should certainly start here.
Dinner menu options allow diners to customise meals to their own tastes and size preferences. Although we eat our body weight in raw fish, the ika mata dish is worth going back for.
Order a cocktail from their extensive list or have bartender Davide whip up something special.
Tip: Grab some homemade coconut soap and bath salts from one of the many stalls in town to turn your spa bath into tropical waters.
Nautilus' onsite spa also has a plethora of treatments, including Thalgo facials, deep-tissue massages and pedicures.
I recommend the Indoceane body ritual for anyone in need of the extra TLC factor.
Including a body scrub, a decadent Thalgo body wrap finishing with a soothing massage, this is something to rid you of all that work or study-related tension.
For blokes, there's the Polynesian body ritual, a body scrub and massage.
Coffee: If you're a coffee drinker try LBV, a few steps up the road from Te Vakaroa Villas and Nautilus Resort. It offers barista-made coffee from the Cook Islands' own Coffee Company. Be sure to try the chocolate banana croissants.
Coconuts: If the smiley locals nestled in their seats roadside isn't enough for you to pull over, then the sight of hanging bananas, coconuts and breadfruit will. Te Puna Market is a must-do. Grab one on the go and two for later in the evening. If you were smart enough to grab a bottle of Appleton's Rum from duty-free then you've got yourself your own happy hour right in your villa.
Market: Visit the Muri Night Markets for a delicious insight into the many Rarotongan dishes. These markets run three nights a week. Locals suggest waiting till Thursday - it's the most popular night, with plenty of food options, cultural dancing and music and plenty of ambiance. Try a chunky monkey coconut smoothie served in a coconut and a raw fish dish from the D'Cuisine stall.
Punanga Nui Markets: From island crafts, black pearls, sarongs and delicious cuisine, these morning markets are the perfect way to ease yourself into Saturday. With Pacific music entertainment and as many fresh coconuts as you can get your hands on, it's easy to get lost and spend most of your morning here. Arrive from 6am, or if you prefer to remain on island time, drive into town and pay it a visit before midday.
View: It may seem odd, but cycling up to Rarotonga's hospital will provide you with Instagram-worthy photos to make everyone back home jealous. With a foreground of a palm-tree canopy leading out to the lagoon and beyond, to the Pacific Ocean - you'll want to sit back and soak it up. Therefore, it's best to pack a picnic and your towels to set yourself for the afternoon.
Ika Mata at Bite Time: For $10 you can feast on fresh yellow-fin tuna mixed with a creamy sauce and fresh garden greens, with a side of rice to give it some substance. If you're feeling extra peckish, for $12 you can add tuna sashimi as a combo.
Sashimi salad at The Mooring Fish Cafe: If you're after quality and willing to pay for it, The Kiwi owned and operated Mooring Cafe is one not to miss. These are some of the best sandwiches you'll find on the island. The fish are caught off the reef and brought straight into the kitchen. It doesn't really get fresher than that. Opt for the garlic prawns doused in avocado and lush greens, or a $13 classic of seared tuna, mahi, chicken or a classic vege combo.
Fish sandwich from Charlie's: This is where you go to get a hearty meal. Despite the sandwiches being larger than your head, you get to enjoy the best view of the lagoon from the family-owned and operated abode.
A burger from Maori Cafe: It certainly doesn't look like much. Trust me, this is one burger you need for that 11am-I'm-so-hung-over-from-happy-hour-cocktails-last-night. When my partner convinced me to take a bite of his vege special: salad, pineapple, egg and cheese with a special sauce my eyes grew wide and we were back the next day.
Experience: The Highland Paradise Cultural Show. If you're after a true cultural experience then the cliff-top site of a former royal residence is the place to visit. With a marae tour, insight into umu cooking and a true Rarotongan feast (taro and ika mata included). MC Taniera prides himself on his ability to wear eight different shirts throughout the night, as he guides the audience through the different cultural dances, traditional costumes and historic moments of Rarotonga, from battles in the time of cannibalism, to the arrival of the missionaries in 1823, up until 2016.
Snorkel & Kayaking: Te Vakaroa Villas and Nautilus Resort both provide snorkelling gear so there is really no excuse to miss out on what the lagoon has to offer. Nautilus caters to all water bunnies with an "aqua room" boasting kayaks, paddle boards as well as offering specialised diving classes. Kayak or snorkel out to Taakoka Island, which is right in front of the resort. Discover the underwater life surrounding the island, then adventure on land for the afternoon.