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If you're looking for an island paradise in the South Pacific, the green mountains and sandy shores of Rarotonga make a terrific case for themselves. The biggest population center in the Cook Islands still leaves plenty of space to kick back and enjoy the sea and the sky, but the people here know how to show you the best of the island, both in the jungles and beneath the waves. You can find plenty of things to do in Rarotonga if you've got an eye for adventure, want to get to know the island's unique take on Maori culture, or just enjoy warm waters and incredible sights.
The Cook Islands' capital city and home to half of Rarotonga's population, Avarua features the island's airport and most of its northern coast. And its name means "Two Harbors," so you can expect to see some boats as well. The beachside markets offer a great collection of local crafts, and trails through the rainforest lead to the tooth-like peaks that loom over the shore.
An almost unbroken line of beaches runs along Rarotonga's southeastern edge, hosting some of the island's best snorkeling waters and plenty of small-town charm. You can find some prime waters for kayaking or windsurfing in the Muri Lagoon, or take a bike inland for hike along the Avana Stream.
Quirky cafés and beach resorts make up the sights along the western coast. Sheltered from the southeastern trade winds, the area offers a peaceful setting to settle in, admire the ocean, and catch a great Pacific sunset. Humpback whales gather off the coast in the summer months, and Black Rock in the north marks a major site in Maori spiritual teachings.
No matter where you're staying on Rarotonga, you won't be far from the sea. Whether you're in the mood to relax in a bungalow at Aroa Beach or go diving amid the corals at the Tikioki Marine Sanctuary, you get plenty of chances to explore the rich array of marine life all around you. Get a colorful introduction to the history of this place at the Cook Islands Library and Museum or the living heritage community at Te Vara Nui Village. And if you feel like exploring the sights farther inland, the Avana Valley puts you in the jungle between the island's highest volcanic peaks.
There's no better way maximize your time underwater than with a scuba dive with a pro who can help you find the best sea creatures that mingle under the waves. If you want to explore without quite as much gear, try setting out in a glass-bottomed boat with some time for snorkeling thrown in.
You can find plenty of ways to explore on dry land, too. Hop on an electric tuk tuk for a ride filled with landmarks, gardens, and coconut trees, or venture inland on a tour bus to admire the view from some of the best lookouts you can reach on wheels.
And it's well worth remembering the Polynesian culture all around you. Whether you're interested in some of the island's finest fabrics and handicrafts, are looking to learn about the island's history and legends from a local expert, or want to experience a spectacular performance with dinner and a show, there's plenty to experience as you get to know life on island time, Rarotonga style.