The Cooks Islands are an awesome paradise holiday destination in the South Pacific. And so is iconic French Polynesia. The two main islands, Rarotonga and Tahiti, are the entry points into their country and, at the same time, two wonderful holiday destinations.
We know both islands very well. We lived on Rarotonga in the Cook Islands for a couple of years, but we also explored Tahiti in French Polynesia many times. So we’re happy to give you some insider insights on both to help you find out which island is a better fit for you – Rarotonga or Tahiti.
Rarotonga or Tahiti – where to travel? In general, Rarotonga is smaller (in size and population), less expensive, less touristy, and suitable for a relaxing beach vacation. Tahiti is much bigger, offers more activities, and a mix of beach and city lifestyle. Both are stunning tropical island destinations.
Here is what is important for you to know about both paradise islands, to find your perfect travel destination. Let’s jump into it.
Rarotonga or Tahiti? Dreamy Rarotonga
Rarotonga is the main island of the Cook Islands, with the capital Avarua. It’s part of the southern island group and with a size of about 67 kilometers2/ 26 miles2 rather small. The majority of the country’s 13,000 residents and also most of the annual around 170.000 tourists live here.
Nevertheless, the island is still dreamy, with many wonderful and uncrowded white beaches and well-arranged accommodation, and places to eat and drink. Shops do offer basics, so do not expect many shopping options, and take everything with you that you do not want to miss during your stay.
Accommodation and restaurants range from basic to luxurious/ fine dining, and you can choose based on your preferences and how much you want to spend on them.
There is only one main road that leads around the island, 32 kilometers/ 20 miles in circumference, on which everything and everybody moves. From the famous island bus 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. So, you easily get into island mode, and it never takes you too long to get from point A to point B.
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 difference in price, 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 more unstable and the temperature in average 4°C / 39°F colder than on Tahiti, because Rarotonga is further down south. So you also have to be prepared for chilly and windy days.
Rarotonga or Tahiti? Dazzling Tahiti
French Polynesia’s Tahiti, with its capital Papeete, is a dazzling and bustling island, and you find yourself in a melting pot of Polynesian tradition and French lifestyle. About 196,000 people, which is around 70% of the countries’ population, stay on the main island.
Almost 137,000 residents alone live in the urban area of Papeete, mixed with twice as many tourists who come there every year. So, the city offers everything you can imagine as a holiday destination. Here you will find shops and restaurants of all kinds, an entire entertainment industry, but also a sometimes-hectic bustle.
In contrast to Rarotonga, larger hotel chains are represented in Tahiti, and the majority of the accommodations are on the high-price end. The restaurants offer you a choice of all types of cuisine, from inexpensive to fine dining.
With 1044 kilometers2/ 403 miles2, Tahiti is 15 times the size of Rarotonga and has a comprehensive road network, where you can quickly get around by public transport and car. Vice versa, it can get quite busy on the streets.
When you leave Papeete, you will find stunning black sand beaches, like the famous Lafayette. White beaches are pretty rare in Tahiti, but still, there are a couple of awesome ones – such as Maui or Toaroto Beach.
The mountain ranges of Tahiti are spectacular. They put the island in a wild volcanic scenery and offer you lush tropical vegetation, valleys, rivers, magnificent waterfalls, basins to swim in, ancient cultural sites, caves, and unique lava tubes. All this makes hiking an extraordinary experience. You can even access the volcanic crater of its highest peak, Mont Orohena, with 2,241 meters/ 7,352 feet, or hike the second-highest summit Mont Aorai.
While Tahiti Iti, the more significant western part of the island, is more touristy and houses most of the island’s attractions, Tahiti Nui, the smaller eastern corner, is a laid-back surfer’s paradise. The place to go if you are after off-beaten tracks. Here you will find simple, affordable accommodation, quaint little towns, and also Teahupoo, the worldwide known surf spot with its legendary waves, where international surfing profs like to meet and compete.
It is also a perfect area to get away completely, as there are no more roads along Tahiti Nui‘s southeast coast, and you can reach the few (guest)houses, small secluded beaches, and excellent coral banks only by boat.
Despite the strong French influence, you can feel the Polynesian culture in daily life everywhere. Also, one can take dance classes for the Ori Tahiti, the traditional Tahitian dance, and drum lessons. You also can attend cultural events at many locations, some of which take place at ancient sites in the jungle areas of Tahiti, which is a great experience.
Papeete is the distribution point for the islands of French Polynesia. You can easily explore the entire country by using the local airline Air Tahiti or boat. There is a wide range of cruise ships and sailing boats that offer island tours, all starting from the port in the center of Papeete. And, which is really great fun, you can go island hopping with Air Tahiti across all five archipelagos with the Multi-Island pass.
Last but not least, Tahiti has a cozy average temperature of 27°C / 81°F all year around. Actually, you’ll never feel cold 😉
Rarotonga or Tahiti: Which One Is a Better Choice for You?
You can quickly make idyllic Rarotonga your home. In about 2 hours, you get easily around the entire island by scooter or bus and have a good idea of what’s available, making the island also suitable for a short getaway.
If you prefer a quiet vacation without too many activities and you are not after city life and shopping, Rarotonga is an excellent choice. It’s a great place to just relax and unwind.
At the same time, you can enjoy fabulous beaches, a wonderful lagoon, and excursions and hikes without many people around you. In terms of price, there is accommodation and places to eat and drink for all budgets.
But Rarotonga’s weather is more unstable than Tahiti’s, averaging 23°C / 73°F across the year.
On the contrary, you need a lot more time to explore Tahiti. Because the island is so much bigger than Rarotonga and also has many more activities on offer. Be it in nature, with the stunning black or white beaches, countless excursions, as well as an extensive fantastic mountain area. You should plan at least two weeks for a visit, better more. You can also either enjoy city life or completely withdraw from everything, like on Tahiti Nui.
In terms of price, you have to plan more budget for accommodation and food, but most groceries from the supermarket are cheaper than in Rarotonga.
Tahiti is always hot, with an average of 27°C / 81°F all year round. You do not need to worry about warm clothes.
We hope our article helps you to choose your perfect dream travel destination. The South Pacific is so worth traveling to. An no matter where you touch the ground, Rarotonga or Tahiti, you definitely found a piece of paradise :-))
You Might Be Also Interested In…
Our comparison of the two island nations Cook Islands and French Polynesia in general
and Rarotonga and French Polynesia’s second most visited island Moorea.
And all the details regarding both countries’ most stunning lagoons, Aitutaki in the Cook Islands and Bora Bora in French Polynesia.
You can also get more insights from the Cook Islands Tourism and French Polynesian Tourism websites.