The Sights You Can’t Miss on Rarotonga
Rarotonga is more than just a place to unwind on the beach. The island has a rich history, magnificent natural formations and cultural highlights that certainly should be added to your sightseeing itinerary. In this guide to sightseeing on Rarotonga, we go show you where to find majestic waterfalls, ancient maraes and even a spooky derelict hotel site. It’s all here in this list of the top sights on Rarotonga!
Before we begin, open up The Complete Travel Guide to Rarotonga and Where to Stay on Rarotonga: The Best Rarotonga Accommodations for more essential trip-planning advice.
1. Te Rua Manga (The Needle)
One of the most prominent sights on Rarotonga, Te Rua Manga, otherwise known as The Needle, is an exposed breccia structure reaching 413m (1,355ft) high. While The Needle can be admired all the way from shore on the northern side of the island, those who want a closer look will have to do a portion of the Cross Island Trek. The full walk is 6km/3.7 miles (3-4 hours). Those just wanting to climb up to The Needle, however, can start from the north side of the trail, trek up to the summit and return back the same way (1h30mins-2 hours). Guided hikes are available for the whole Cross Island Trek with Maunga Tours or a spectacular view of The Needle from a mountaintop can be experienced with Raro Safari Tours.
Location: It’s recommended to walk from north to south, starting from the end of Uruau Drive in Avarua (if walking from town, this adds an additional 3km/1 mile to your journey). The trail ends at the end of Papua Road, which is approximately 1.6km (1 mile) from the main road where you can catch the bus. Learn more about bus transport in Taking the Bus in Rarotonga: Bus Fares, Routes & More.
2. Black Rock
A volcanic outcrop among the sand, Black Rock is not only a spiritual site but a glorious place to snorkel or reef walk. The rock is said to be where Rarotonga’s spirits depart to the afterlife, which you can learn more about on the interpretation panel erected in front of the rock. At low tide, the rock pools are interesting to investigate, while it’s also a fun snorkelling spot at high tide. Check out more places to snorkel in The Best Snorkelling in Rarotonga: Top 7 Places to Snorkel.
Location: Main Road (Ara Tapu), Nikao (northwestern side of Rarotonga).
3. Matai Shipwreck
This British cargo ship that wrecked on the Avarua Harbour on Christmas Day, 1916 is now part of the reef. Either admire “The Boiler” poking out of the ocean from shore at Trader Jacks or swim out to ship yourself. Caution: Only strong swimmers with fins and snorkelling gear should make the journey – and at low tide with other people. The swim is about 500m (1,600ft) from shore. Alternatively, the Matai Shipwreck can be admired on Raro Reef Sub and snorkelling tours with Ariki Adventures and KiteSUP.
Location: Trader Jacks, Main Road (Ara Tapu), the western end of Avarua.
4. Papua Waterfall (Wigmore’s Waterfall)
Cool off and get some “cool” pics at the Papua Waterfall. Also known as Wigmore’s Waterfall, the falls can be found among the forest in a clearing with picnic tables to make the most of your visit. The waterfall is at its best when there hasn’t been a dry spell (which, luckily, isn’t too often on Rarotonga) and swimming is best done in the bottom pool; not on top where the water pipes are. Remember to take some insect repellent with you and to avoid climbing the sides where rocks have been known to fall! Once you have all of the safety aspects in mind, this is a great place to take adventurous kids, as listed in the 30 Things to Do on Rarotonga with Kids.
Location: End of Papua Road, Vaimaanga. To drive up the road to the waterfall, you may be asked for a donation (around NZ$2 for bikes and NZ$5 for cars/trucks).
5. Avana Point (Vaka Migration Site)
Located just north of Muri is the spot where the Maori set off in their canoes (vaka) to make the migration to Aotearoa New Zealand. The site has a memorial with commemorative stones set in the circle listing the names of each vaka that departed from Avana Point. Many New Zealand Maori can trace their heritage back to these vaka from Rarotonga. The spot is also good for watching the sunrise and enjoying some stargazing.
Location: A gravel roadside clearing on the coastal side of the Main Road (Ara Tapu) opposite the Ngatangiia CICC Church, Ngatangiia.
6. CICC Church Avarua
Some of Rarotonga’s most noteworthy architecture comes from the CICC churches scattered around the island. CICC (Cook Islands Christian Church) is the oldest denomination of Christianity on the island, originally established by the London Missionary Society (LMS) in the early 1800s, resulting in some of the oldest churches in the country made from coral limestone. The CICC Church Avarua or “Avarua Ekalesia” is the most striking at 30ft (9m) high with The Needle piercing the sky as its backdrop. An interpretation panel at the entrance of the church tells more of its history while experiencing a Sunday church service along with moving hymns sung beautifully by the locals is not to be missed. Check out more noteworthy churches in the 10 Best Churches in Rarotonga & the Cook Islands.
Location: Makea Tinirau Road, Avarua (northern side of Rarotonga).
7. Muri Beach
Rarotonga is all about the beach, so some of the top sights on Rarotonga have to be its beaches! By far the most popular, Muri Beach is a hub of resorts, villas and watersports. With lagoon cruises, kitesurfing, stand-up paddleboarding, snorkelling and kayaking, there’s never a dull moment here, while the restaurants and cafes lining the sands make it easy to replenish. Wake up early to catch an awesome sunrise or admire the four islets (motu) at any time of day. Check out more of Raro’s top beaches in the 10 Best Beaches on Rarotonga.
Location: Southeastern part of Rarotonga between Te Manava and Avana Drive.
8. Arai-Te-Tonga Marae
The site and rocky statue behind the Arai-Te-Tonga sign just off the Ara Metua (inland) road, is one of the first “koutu” (royal courts) that was built by the first settlers in Rarotonga in 1350 AD. Learn about its history on the interpretation panel and see the deliberate arrangement of stones in the grassy clearing that marks the site of the marae (gathering place). More fascinating maraes around the island are listed in the 10 Best Historical Sites on Rarotonga.
Location: Corner of the Inland Road (Ara Metua) and Maotangi Road, Tupapa (eastern side of Rarotonga).
9. Punanga Nui Market
The Punanga Nui Market comes to life on a Saturday morning until noon. The island’s passionate artists, chefs, growers and gatherers come together in a whirlwind of tropical produce, smoothies, barbecued treats, pareu (sarongs) of all colours and black pearls. It’s a sight on Rarotonga not to be missed! Check out more markets in the 5 Best Markets in Rarotonga & the Cook Islands.
Location: Main Road (Ara Tapu), west end of Avarua. Only open on a Saturday.
10. Derelict Sheraton Resort Site
Not your typical tourist attraction, the remains of the never completed Sheraton Resort have become a dot on the map and stop on guided tours. Join Raro Safari Tours or Raro Buggy Tours, for example, and you will hear about how the Cook Islands Government hired some “dodgy” contractors, some say from the Italian mafia, to build the first large-scale five-star hotel on the island. Needless to say, the agreement was a dupe, the government were plunged into $80 million of debt, and some 40 years on, the remains of this resort are a spooky reminder of this blunder.
Location: On the inland side of the Main Road (Ara Tapu) at the western end of Vaimaanga (south side of Rarotonga).
More About Sightseeing on Rarotonga
That’s it for the best sights on Rarotonga and our complete guide to sightseeing on Rarotonga. Now, discover more sights and attractions with these lists:
- The 10 Most Famous Places in Rarotonga & the Cook Islands
- 10 Best Sightseeing Tours in Rarotonga & the Cook Islands
- Where to Take Pictures in Rarotonga & the Cook Islands: 10 Best Photography Spots
Finally, don’t miss a thing off your bucket list by checking out the 50 Best Things to Do on Rarotonga and 101 Best Things to Do in the Cook Islands: The Ultimate List.