Six years after I was last on Rarotonga, and exactly 750 days since I last boarded an international flight, it's a slightly unfamiliar thrill to touchdown at Avarua airport in the lee of the island's forested and mountainous interior. 

But less than four hours after leaving Auckland, Rarotonga's sounds, sights and aromas all kick back into place, and I'm again wondering why other airports don't offer a musical welcome for visitors.

A woman offers up a fresh slice of watermelon in the Cook Islands.
A warm welcome back to the Cook Islands.

In the arrivals’ hall, Cook Islands musician Papatua Papatua is blending sweet Polynesian melodies with loping ukulele rhythms and by the time a garlanded 'ei of frangipani flowers is draped around my neck, it feels like I've never been away.

Rarotonga is a destination I know well, and while it would be easy to relax by the lagoon or pool, after more than two years exclusively experiencing New Zealand, I'm keen to start exploring and find out what's the latest. I'm staying at Muri Lagoon Villas, a lagoon-side self-catering option on the island’s southeast coast, and the 13km drive via Avarua – definitely one of the world's most laid-back capitals – reveals a mix of the familiar and the new. An island-style pulled pork wrap at the new Kai Guy food truck eases into a frosty Cook Islands lager on the deck at Trader Jack's – still the best spot to see Rarotonga's waka ama crews heading out for an after-work paddle – while late afternoon rush-hour traffic down the east coast consists mainly of scooter-riding locals and a ute carrying a canine trio also wearing 'eis. Lucky dogs.

Leaving Auckland on a Saturday morning means you arrive in Rarotonga on a Friday afternoon, ideal timing to take in Avarua's Punanga Nui market the following morning. After a pickup from Muri, I'm soon exploring the market with Corrina Tucker from Storytellers Eco Cycle & Walking Tours. Six years ago I biked around Rarotonga's south coast – including through the abandoned site of the unfinished Sheraton resort – with Storytellers’ original owners, but since taking over in 2018, Corrina has put her own stamp on the business. The former Massey University environmental sociology lecturer has taken a keen interest in Cook Islands’ culture and natural history, and recently self-published six booklets showcasing Rarotonga’s churches, flora and historic places.

At the market, a smoothie and a crepe crammed with tropical fruit makes an ideal breakfast before the ride, and we're soon on two wheels heading down Rarotonga's northwest coast past the stark basalt formations at Tuoro. On a nearby seawall, Corrina points out a colourful work in progress that will eventually be the South Pacific's longest mural, including all 15 islands of the Cooks archipelago, and telling the story of Marae Moana, the nation’s pioneering multi-use marine park spanning two million square kilometres. 

Two men hold freshly caught seafood in the Cook Islands.
Freshly caught seafood in the Cook Islands.

Leaving the coast, we venture on island backroads to Ara Metua, Rarotonga's 1,000 year-old inland route, now framed by plantations and groves of fruit trees. Incorporating the stories of tribal battles and Rarotonga’s system of ariki (traditional high chiefs), Corrina's narrative is interspersed by our continual grazing from nearby trees. After a multi-course menu of passionfruit, mango and wild guava, I'm glad of my decision to skip the coconut buns at the market. Smart, because I've still got room for lunch of pawpaw salad and parrotfish at the end of the tour. 

But plenty of sea air and exercise means I'm soon hungry again, so I drive along Rarotonga's south coast for dinner at Charlie's. Six years ago, Charlie's was a simple affair, operating out of a single shipping container, and offering a concise menu of fish sandwiches. Slabs of seared tuna or wahoo wrapped in focaccia are still an option, but now there's also wood-fired pizza, sashimi and ika mata (marinated raw fish salad), all served on a covered deck overlooking the lagoon. By the time the eponymous Charlie joins the band on bass guitar, it’s already a great night.

Two people get muddy on a Raro Buggy Tour.
Get dirty with Raro Buggy Tours.

Next up is another adventure inland beyond the lagoon; I catch up with Fili Maoate from Raro Buggy Tours for an 8am start. Back in 2016, I joined one of their tours, driving a low-slung buggy to explore the backroads of the south coast in a relaxed mix of on- and off-road driving. Fili warns me to expect a very different experience this time. 

Part one of Raro Buggy Tours 2022-style involves driving a compact all-terrain vehicle probably more at home on a South Island sheep station. In Fili's hands, it’s also suited to a winding red-dirt tropical racetrack. I'm soon following him speedily through a natural maze, framed by young pawpaw trees, and it's already far more exciting than my 2016 experience.

Then we transfer into purpose-built buggies framed by roll cages and we set off on a track with many more twists and turns and made incredibly muddy by an overnight thunderstorm. Water crashes through the buggies' open floors, we drift around muddy berms like a Cook Islands remake of The Fast & the Furious and after 15 minutes of action, I am totally covered in a sheen of glossy mud. Fortunately, the experience ends at Rarotonga's only waterfall for the ultimate outdoor shower.

A woman dives with a sea scooter in Rarotonga.
Head underwater in Rarotonga.

A 6.30am pickup from Muri sees me embarking on a final Rarotongan adventure. The new day begins surprisingly quickly, transforming from an inky dawn to soft daylight like a colourised movie. After a safety briefing on the beach, our Turtle Sea Scooter Safari group heads out into the Avaavaroa Passage. Ariki Adventures’ co-owner Kavae Tamariki ('KT') leads us to where we're likely to spot sea turtles.

We don't have to wait long. A hawksbill turtle swims past, followed soon after by a green turtle, and a few sleek, giant trevally. Below us I can see the shadowy outline of an eagle ray, slowly patrolling the passage's sandy floor; moray eels and reef sharks are also often seen here.

Looking back at the island's mountains, now becoming more distinct with the lifting of morning mist, it's a brilliant way to cap off a return to Rarotonga, and a return to international travel.

Reported by Brett Atkinson for our Spring 2022 issue

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