Rarotonga, the most populous of the Cook Islands, is an extinct volcano in the middle of the Pacific. It peaks in the center, slopes steeply downward to the beach, is covered with tropical forest, and is surrounded by a lagoon of shallow water circumscribed by a reef that keeps out the ocean swells.
Raro is the island you’ll always land on first if you come by plane. It has two roads: the Ara Metua, an inner circle around the island built a thousand years ago by the first inhabitants, and the Ara Tapu, an outer slightly wider road that rings the island closer to the beach. (Tapu means sacred or holy or forbidden in most Polynesian languages. We derive the word taboo from it.)
Top speed on the outer superhighway (being facetious there) is 25 MPH, which gives you an idea of the pace of island life. There aren’t that many cars on the island because a lot of younger people ride scooters and most tourists and islanders ride the bus which is comfortable, cheap, and cheery.
The eastern side of the island, near Muri, has the better snorkeling so that’s where we stayed in a bungalow up on the mountain slope. The landscape was well planted with tropical foliage so the view was lovely, but the mosquitoes really do require that you burn a coil or keep the screen doors closed from evening to mid-morning.
Trips to the outer islands are either expensive or very time-consuming. The next most visited island is Aitutaki which is about $400/person for roundtrip air from Raro. Other islands are usually reached by tramp steamers (whose schedules may be fluid).