Top foodie travel tips for the Cook Islands and Rarotonga

Ika Mata speciality of the island
Ika Mata, Chinese Style, at Tahiti Cafe

A few weeks ago, my husband and I vacationed on Rarotonga in the Cook Islands, relatively close to Tahiti in the South Pacific. It wasn’t that we always dreamed of seeing this side of the world (it was a 9 hour flight from Los Angeles), but that a a sweetheart travel deal arose and we said, “What the hell?” It was an adventure in food… in drinks… in scuba diving… in carb overload. Although conceived together, Scott wrote this post since he has a better memory. – Taylor

How to Survive in Rarotonga, Cook Islands

Every now and then internet travel sites splash some really intriguing vacation packages up on my screen. And every now and then, like a big game fish, we bite. So when Living Social tossed out a trip for two to Rarotonga, Cook Islands… Sorry, where, you just asked? The Cook Islands are a Polynesian island chain in the South Pacific, kind of like an English-speaking Tahiti, with clear lagoons and beautiful reefs surrounding the island. And Rarotonga, the largest of the islands, is home of the Maitai, a freighter that went down on the reef on Christmas Day, 1916, carrying Model-T cars from San Francisco. So if you like tropical vacations on tiny islands populated by the Maori (who swear they’ve given up cannibalism) then put this rock on your must-see list. But I’ll share some of my insights with you first so you really can experience the tropical paradise you’ll be dreaming about.

First, bring a good chuck of local cash, New Zealand dollars specifically, or stop off at the Western Union right in the middle of town and swap some. Many of the great little lunch stops like Fruits of Paradise and Tahiti Café are cash only. And remember, you’re on an island in the South Pacific that only grows bananas and coconuts. Everything else is shipped in, ergo nothing is cheap. [Taylor’s side note: to save the most, book an apartment/cottage or suite with a kitchen — at a resort, you’re held captive to eating out every meal. There are plenty of choices on the internet.]

Second, the food has a strong island influence. The seafood on Rarotonga is amazingly fresh. When we stopped off at The Mooring (which also does fishing charters), they were cleaning the catch of the day, which quickly turned into some of the best fish sandwiches Taylor and I ever had. Get the Cajun if you like it spicy. There’s a great story behind the husband and wife who set up this lunchery built in a shipping container, but I’ll leave that for you to discover.

Taro leaves - they make this awesome dish called Rukau
Taro leaves at the Saturday market make this awesome dish called Rukau

Ika mata is a dish you find all over the island, and for the raw fish lover, it is heaven (see above pix). Basically, it’s raw tuna and veggies in a coconut sauce, but the tuna is the star by far. We had this dish probably once a day for a week, and it never disappointed. Hit the Tahiti Café for lunch and the Flame Tree for the upscale dinner version (be sure to ask about the “pet” freshwater eel). Also worth mentioning is rukau, a Cooks Islands speciality dish that’s like creamed spinach — made from baked taro leaves that are creamed with coconut milk. Quite delicious, unique and a must try.

Now, a word of warning: The Cook Island locals like their sweet fruits and carbs. If you’re high-protein, low-carb kind of person, get ready to make some compromises. Breads, sweet rolls, pastries, fruits and dessert-grade yogurt are inescapable, especially at breakfast. Even if your hotel promises you breakfast everyday, eggs and bacon will be a special order… an expensive one ($10 for two eggs… really?)

And when it comes to dinner, be prepared for a few hiccups. While tourism is the main source of income for the islands, we definitely ran into quirks. The service was fabulously friendly but somehow a little disconnected, like talking to customer service in India. Also, tipping is officially not expected (according to the tourist guide), yet most of our bills for dinner did have a space for adding gratuity. Maybe it’s American guilt, but I couldn’t help leaving an extra 5-10% when we had great service.

Being a Polynesian island, you may have images in your head of fruity-sweet drinks garnished with a chunk of pineapple and a tiny paper umbrella. You will not be disappointed. There are island drinks served nearly everywhere you can find alcohol on the menu. But I have to throw a few words of caution at you. They are expensive, usually $12-$18, and not always constructed by a caring mixologist. Taylor had the worst pina coloda ever, tasting exactly like unsweetened, alcohol-free whipped coconut fluff. But that was the exception not the rule. Most mixed drinks will be functional facsimiles of what you’re expecting.

Banana wine tasting
George Koketa makes wine from bananas on Rarotonga

The best “bargain” we found for an evening of drinks was the Crown Beach Resort, which had 2-for-1 evening specials on all drinks including wine (decent ones too, mostly from New Zealand). Their Rarotonga Island Iced Tea is wicked strong for $18, and if it doesn’t do the trick, the second one will be right behind it, ready to finish the job.

As an alternative to second-mortgaging your house on drinks, consider stopping off in the duty-free shop before you leave LAX. You might not think the duty-free prices are all that great until you realize that the three weak Mai-tais you just had cost the same as a bottle of good 12-year Scotch. Plan ahead, and you could save a small fortune in adult beverages.

You can also visit the island’s two breweries (Matutu has better brews than Cooks) and one-and-only winery. Uh huh, I said winery! Okay, so it’s a bit on the rustic side, and by rustic I mean it’s on this guy’s porch. He’ll tell you to watch out for the wasps’ nest as they share the tasting room. His wines are based on island bananas and come in red and white (did you know there’s a “red banana”?). We didn’t get a chance to try the red because he was out, but the white was really nice, like a nice sauvignon blanc with strong but balanced banana. He also makes a coconut liqueur (about 18% abv) if you want something a bit sweeter and stronger. Both were wonderful so seek Koteka Winery for some palatable adventure.

But what else is there to do besides eat and drink, you ask? Stay tuned for advice on biking, snorkeling and scuba diving.



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