The Cooks Islands are an incredible paradise holiday destination in the South Pacific. And so is iconic French Polynesia. While the main islands, Rarotonga and Tahiti, are different in many ways, Rarotonga has much more in common with Moorea, French Polynesia’s second most visited island after Bora Bora.
While Rarotonga was our home for a couple of years, Moorea was our travel destination a few times. Both islands are pretty similar in terms of nature, lifestyle, and activities on offer. So, we’re happy to give you some insider insights on both to help you find out which island is the better destination for you – Rarotonga or Moorea.
Rarotonga or Moorea – where to travel? Both islands are similar in population and visitor numbers, infrastructure, landscape, relaxed lifestyle, and ideal for a beach holiday. However, Moorea offers more activities and high-end accommodations but is also more expensive than Rarotonga.
Here is everything that you should know about these two great tropical islands.
PS: Besides, we also have details on how the two capital islands of both nations, Rarotonga and Tahiti, compare (see at the end of the post).
Rarotonga or Moorea? Relaxed Rarotonga
Rarotonga is the main island of the Cook Islands, with the capital Avarua. It’s part of the southern island group and has a size of about 67 kilometers2/ 26 miles2. It hosts 13,000 of the 17,500 country’s residents and the vast majority of its annual 170,000 tourists.
Although it is the country’s main island, you will still find a relaxed lifestyle and hardly any shopping and entertainment industry. Instead, the island’s nature and welcoming islanders are the winning recipes.
Regarding accommodation and restaurants, cafés you can choose from all styles, from simple to upscale, and for all budgets. Luckily, there are none of the well-known big hotel or restaurant chains on Rarotonga.
Moving around the island is easy because only one ring road leads around the island, 32 kilometers/ 20 miles in circumference. Therefore, you cannot get lost – the worst case is that you end up where you started. Everything and everyone moves on this main street, from the famous island bus (clockwise and anti-clockwise once per hour) to cars, tons of mopeds, bicycles, pedestrians, and now and then dogs and pigs. There are quite some potholes and no traffic lights, and everybody is on island time – no rush at all.
Rarotonga is the perfect environment for a relaxing beach vacation, with some great snorkeling and diving spots, as well as various opportunities for (kite) surfing, kayaking, deep-sea fishing, and whale watching during whale season from July to October. You can also try the traditional spearfishing, the Cook Islands’ number one fishing method to put food on the table.
Needless to add that the lagoon is as fantastic as you would expect from the South Pacific, with splendid white beaches and turquoise blue water 😉
The mountains invite you to go hiking. In addition to the well-known Cross-Island Track, you’ll find numerous idyllic hiking trails through the green rainforest and along valleys and streams.
Rarotonga’s highest peak is Te Manga, with 653 meters/ 2,142 feet.
You can also immerse yourself in Maori culture. In addition to the big evening shows, which are a bit touristy, you have a large selection of local tour operators who will give you a personal insight into their culture. Around their houses you can take traditional meals, dancing, drumming and weaving classes and they will also take you to lesser-known places on the island.
If you’re interested in learning more about what to do on the island, we’ve also rounded up 12 insider tips for Rarotonga.
Rarotonga is also the distribution point for the outer islands if you want to explore more of the country’s stunning island world. Only the local airline Air Rarotonga takes you to other destinations in the Cook Islands – unless you want to hop on one of the combined supply- and passenger ships. Which – to be honest – is not so pleasant, does not make a big price difference, and takes a lot longer.
One other important topic to mention: Rarotonga and the entire Cook Islands are very safe, the crime rate is low. So do not worry if you forgot to lock the door…
Slight downer, the weather is a bit unstable, with a yearly average temperature of 23°C / 73°F only. So, you also have to be prepared for chilly and windy days.
Rarotonga or Moorea? Laid-Back Moorea
The population of Moorea is 16,000, and it receives about 174.000 tourists each year, which puts it in second place behind Bora Bora.
With 134 kilometers2/ 52 miles2, Moorea has double the size of Rarotonga, and it also has a circle-road, which is 60 kilometers / 37 miles long.
Moorea is much quieter and more relaxed than its big sister island Tahiti, and you actually don’t notice the tourist numbers. Many small villages are scattered around the island, and so are the resorts and guesthouses, and tourism integrates well into idyllic island life.
The accommodations on Moorea are more on the high-end side, with a couple of well-known resort chains.
Still, you always find cheaper options, like beautiful guesthouses run by welcoming locals, where you can join the island living style even better.
The food scene is like Rarotonga, a mix of everything from fast food to fine dining, but Moorea also has a touch of French cuisine.
To get around, you can jump on the island bus that starts in the center of Vaiare village, where one bus per hour drives along the east coast and a second one along the west coast. Other than on Rarotonga, there are only a few fixed bus stops, so just wave the bus down if you need it.
It’s also easy to get around by any type of rental vehicle, and especially cycling is a great way to do so. Because the island road is not too busy and not too steep – unless you turn off in the direction of the mountains – and you can explore many idyllic dirt roads by bike.
An advantage of Moorea’s location is that it’s just a stone’s throw from Tahiti, 17 kilometers/ 11 miles to be precise. You can catch the ferry boat that connects Vaiare with downtown Papeete, running several times per day. So, you can enjoy relaxed days on the less touristy and laid-back Moorea and jump on the ferry if you are in the mood for dazzling city life and more activities in Tahiti.
Moorea has heaps of stunning beaches and snorkeling places in its wide lagoon area, with an aquarium of fish, including little reef sharks and stingrays. All types of surfing are on offer – also Windsurfing, which does not work on Rarotonga, where the lagoon is too shallow and rocky.
You can go diving or deep-sea-fishing in the open water, and it is also a pretty good place during whale season (August to October) to swim with the giant humpback whales.
Moorea also has a couple of marine animal sanctuaries. Like the Dolphin Center, a rescue station and retirement home for dolphins who lived in zoo aquariums for some time or have been trained for movies, etc.
You can meet these incredible animals and go for a swim with them.
There are some great hiking routes through Moorea’s mountains. Like The Pass of the Three Coconuts, which takes you up over Opunohu Bay and a stunning view towards bay and mountain peaks. Moorea’s highest summit is Mont Tohiea, with 1,207 meters/ 3,960 feet.
You can find Polynesian culture everywhere on Moorea. In the language, the dishes, and many places of worship. And passionate local guides love to show you their island.
Because of tourism, many inhabitants speak English, but not nearly as many as in Tahiti. So, if you plan to hit the off-beaten tracks of Moorea, it is of advantage to speak some French.
Moorea’s is comfortably warm, with an average temperature of 27°C / 81°F throughout the year, and has a good mixture of sun and rain. So you do not need to worry about getting cold.
Rarotonga or Moorea: Which One Is a Better Choice for You?
If you’d like to enjoy beach life and unwind with only a few activities around you, Rarotonga is the place to go. You have a good selection of accommodation and restaurants, for every taste and in all price categories. Generally, everything is cheaper on Rarotonga than on Moorea.
The disadvantage is the lack of city life, and there are just not many shops and entertainment. Besides, the weather is more unstable than on Moorea, and on average also 4°C / 39°F cooler.
Moorea is the winner if you are looking for more activities in the ocean and on land. Also, the proximity to Tahiti is of advantage if you need a little more hustle and bustle during your stay. And the temperatures are always comfortable at 27°C / 81°F and come with a good mixture of sun and rain.
However, Moorea is overall quite expensive.
We hope our article helps you finding another fantastic dream travel destination. The islands of the South Pacific are still so unspoiled and laid-back and so worth traveling. An no matter where you touch the ground, the Cook Islands or French Polynesia, Rarotonga or Moorea, you are definitely in paradise :-))
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And all the details regarding both countries’ most stunning lagoons, Aitutaki in the Cook Islands and Bora Bora in French Polynesia.