Your guide to travelling Rarotonga on a budget

Writer Carmen Lichi celebrates a wallet-friendly milestone birthday in the Cook Islands

Stay for less

From hostels and homestays, to budget hotels and five-star luxury, there’s an array of Rarotonga accommodation options. I found the Edgewater Resort & Spa to be the perfect place, both for poolside cocktails with my bestie and as a safe spot to keep my four-year-old entertained. The wild child made lots of friends at the fabulous Coconuts Kids Club, where he folded origami fish, tie-dyed sarongs and went for nature walks. The club has morning, afternoon and evening sessions, plus you can hire an on-site babysitter for a reasonable $15-an-hour. Nearby, the Rarotonga Backpackers is another great option, starting from $60 per night for a double room with an en suite, so you can splash more cash on activities. There are travellers from around the world, so you’re always in good company, and there’s a communal kitchen with a microwave and gas cooker.

Cocktails and crayons kept mum and son busy!

BYO snacks & snorkels

Hiring snorkel sets can quickly add up, so it’s definitely worth bringing them from home. Meanwhile, duty-free spirits keep sundowners affordable – just add local coconut cream and pineapple juice for a piña colada! And though there’s nothing like an antipasto platter, snacks such as chips, crackers and cheese are expensive here, so consider stopping by the supermarket before you jump on your plane. When it comes to dining out, we found the local food trucks very affordable, especially the friendly Vibe Fish Van, which serves the freshest seafood, including the best fish ‘n’ chips and local delicacy ika mata. Pair it with a cold beer from the Rarotonga Brewery, where a litre of takeaway lager costs just $12!

Use local transport

Explore on foot where possible and use the local buses ($4 per trip), which run regularly both clockwise and anticlockwise around the island’s 32km circumference. If you’re adventurous, scooters can be a great budget alternative to a hire car. For your licence, take a written and practical test at the police station in downtown Avarua, then ride with caution, looking out for potholes and stray dogs!

Affordable experiences

Tourists have often reported that 7 days is the optimal time for a holiday to Rarotonga. Here are some of the amazing activities you can fit into that time.

Hike the needle

It’s not for the faint-hearted, but if you’re a keen tramper and balance isn’t a challenge, Pa’s Cross Island Hike with Maunga Tours is a must! Guide Bruce is a mine of information about Rarotonga folklore, while a refreshing dip at Wigmore’s Waterfall is a great way to conclude the walk.

Hire a kayak

Muri Lagoon is a fab place for a paddle. Expect to pay around $15 for one hour in a single kayak or $25 for two hours. Afterwards, unwind at the cool Muri Beach Club Hotel, famed for its $45 fishbowl cocktails served in a 1.5-litre orb.

Live music & dancing

Get into the groove at Charlie’s, a convivial bar where you can sup on a fresh coconut while sharing plates of tuna sashimi and ika mata. A fave with the locals, happy hour runs from 4pm to 6pm, then the live music kicks off from 6.30pm.

Captain Tama’s lagoon cruise

A fun whānau-friendly option, Tama and his talented glass-bottom-boat crew bring laughter, songs and delicious home-cooked kai to an island, with fish-feeding and snorkel opportunities en route. My four-year-old deemed this one of the highlights of the trip. Visit for more info.

All aboard for a cruisy holiday adventure!

Spa treatment

The Ocean Escape Resort and Spa has a touch of Saint-Tropez glamour and a top-notch massage at its Essential Spa ($60 for 45 mins) was the perfect birthday treat. After choosing from one of several coconut-based essential oils, my charming masseuse February skilfully worked on unwinding my many knots. I felt so chilled, I practically floated out of the place!

Storytellers eco-cycle tour

Kiwi expat Corinna’s bike tour is a fun way to understand local culture and you don’t have to be a cycling pro. Over four hours, we covered around 15km, with plenty of pitstops, including historic Black Rock and even Raro’s only prison. Corinna pointed out an array of flora and fauna, showed us how to hull a coconut and told tales of the island’s bloody tribal battles.

Day & night markets

Local character Paul and his award-winning hot sauces are among the many attractions at the Punanga Nui Cultural Market, from 8am to midday every Saturday. The night markets at Muri are also a good way to sample local fare.

Paul’s hot sauce is not one to miss!

Volunteer at the SPCA

With more than 30 dogs to walk twice a day, the Cook Islands SPCA staff have their work cut out for them. Any helping hands are welcome – from donations to dog walkers. Check them out on Facebook. Near the Punanga Nui markets, there’s also an SPCA op shop, which will accept used clothing, shoes, sunglasses etc. All proceeds go towards looking after the copious canines.

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