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Traveling completely around Rarotonga and seeing the sights should take about 4 hours, with the help of a motor; allow a full day if you go by bicycle. A better idea is to take the guided tour offered by the Cook Islands Cultural Village. Book at any hotel activities desk. You can do the circle island tour independently by car or motorbike, but you'll miss the informative commentary. Here's what you'll see, traveling clockwise from Avarua.

The North Coast

About 1km (a half-mile) past the Kii Kii Motel, signs mark a small dirt road to the right. It leads to the Marae Arai-Te-Tonga, one of the most sacred spots on the island. Before the coming of Europeans, these stone structures formed a koutu, or royal court. The investiture of high chiefs took place here amid much pomp and circumstance. Offerings to the gods and the "first fruits" of each season were also brought here and presented to the local ariki, or chief. The basalt investiture pillar, the major remaining structure, stands slightly offset from a rectangular platform about 3.5m (11 ft.) long, 2m (6 1/2 ft.) wide, and 20cm (8 in.) high. Such temples, or maraes, are still considered sacred by some Cook Islanders, so don't walk on them.

The ancient Ara Metua road crosses by Arai-Te-Tonga and leads south a few yards to a small marae on the banks of Tupapa Stream. A trail follows the stream up to the peaks of Mounts Te Ikurangi, Te Manga, and Te Atukura, but these are difficult climbs; it's advisable to make them only with a local guide.

The East Coast

Back on the main road, Matavera village begins about 2km (1 1/4 miles) beyond Tupapa Stream. Notable for the picturesque Cook Islands Christian Church and graveyard on the mountain side of the road, it's worth a stop for a photograph before continuing on to historic Ngatangiia village. Legend has it that a fleet of canoes left Ngatangiia sometime around A.D. 1350 and sailed off to colonize New Zealand, departing from a point across the road from where the Cook Islands Christian Church now stands in the center of the village. The canoes left on their voyage through Ngatangiia Passage, which lies between the mainland and Motu Tapu, a low island.

Ngatangiia also had its day in the sun in the early 1800s, when it was the headquarters of Charles Pitman, a missionary who came with the Rev. John Williams and later translated The Pilgrim's Progress into Cook Islands Maori. Unlike many of his fellow missionaries, Pitman carefully avoided becoming involved in local politics or business, and he objected strongly when Williams forced the Cook Islanders to build The Messenger of Peace. The courthouse across from the church was the first one built in the Cook Islands.

The shore at Ngatangiia, with three small islands sitting on the reef beyond the lagoon, is one of the most beautiful parts of Rarotonga's coast. An old stone fish trap is visible underwater between the beach and the islands. Such traps were quite common throughout eastern Polynesia: Fish were caught inside as the tide ebbed and flowed through Ngatangiia Passage.

South of Ngatangiia begins magnificent Muri Beach. Sailboats glide across the crystal-clear lagoon, the island's best for boating.

Take a Fruit Break

You can pull off the road, take a dip, and grab a fresh fruit juice or a smoothie at Fruits of Rarotonga, near The Little Polynesian (tel. 21-509). This country store also sells jams, chutneys, relishes, and other fruit products, and it'll keep your bag while you're in the water. It's open Monday to Friday 7:30am to 5pm and Saturday 9am to 5pm.

The South Coast

The Cook Islands Christian Church in the village of Titikaveka was built in 1841 of coral blocks hand-cut from the reef (almost a mile away) and carried to the building site. Offshore, the Titikaveka Lagoon is the deepest on the island and has the best snorkeling. There are several public parks along the beach; the one opposite the Seventh-day Adventist church has restrooms.

Above the village, a part of the mountain is preserved in its natural state by the Takitumu Conservation Area (tel. 29-906; kakerori@tca.co.ck). The area is the only home of the unique and endangered kakerori (Pomarea dimidiata), a sparrow-size yellowish bird that is native to Rarotonga. The conservation program has raised the kakerori population from 29 in 1989 to more than 130 today. Rangers lead nature walks in the forest. Call for times, prices, and reservations.

From Takitumu, the road runs along the south coast and passes the late Albert Henry's white beachside home, now home to the Queen's representative. Mount Te Rua Manga, the rock spire also known as "The Needle," can be seen through the palms from the main road between Vaima Restaurant and the Rarotongan Beach Resort & Spa. Assuming that construction hasn't resumed, you also will pass what may still look like a modern ruin. It's the site of the highly controversial Sheraton hotel project, which stood vacant for 10 years but is apparently back on track as the Rarotonga Resort & Spa Managed by Hilton (www.hiltonrarotonga.co.nz).

The West Coast

The road turns the island's southwestern corner at Aroa, home of The Rarotongan Beach Resort & Spa, and heads along the west coast to the low white walls of Arorangi, the coastal community founded by the missionary Aaron Buzacott in 1828. Arorangi replaced the old inland village, Puaikura, where the Tahitian missionary Papeiha went to teach Christianity after he had converted all of Aitutaki. Papeiha is buried in the yard of Arorangi's Cook Islands Christian Church, built in 1849. According to Polynesian legend, the canoes that left Ngatangiia in the 1300s stopped in Arorangi before heading off west to New Zealand. There is no reef passage near Arorangi, but the story enables the people on both sides of Rarotonga to claim credit for colonizing New Zealand.

The flat-topped mountain behind Arorangi is Mount Raemaru. Another legend says that mighty warriors from Aitutaki, which had no mountain, stole the top of Raemaru and took it home with them. There is a steep and somewhat dangerous trail to the top of Mount Raemaru.

The area north of Arorangi is well developed with hotels, restaurants, and shops. The shore just before the golf course is known as Black Rock because of the volcanic outcrop standing sentinel in the lagoon offshore. According to ancient Maori belief, the souls of the dead bid farewell to Rarotonga from this point before journeying to the fatherland, which the Cook Islanders called Avaiki.

There are two ways to proceed after passing the golf course. The main road continues around the west end of the airport runway (be careful; there are more road accidents on this sharp curve than anywhere else on Rarotonga). The New Zealand government built the original airstrip during World War II. It was enlarged to handle jumbo jets, and Queen Elizabeth II officially opened the new strip in 1974. The Parliament building is located on the shore about halfway along the length of the runway. Parliament meets from February to March and from July to September. Visitors can observe the proceedings from the gallery.

The other way to return to Avarua from Black Rock is to turn right on the first paved road past the golf course and then left at the dead-end intersection onto the Ara Metua, or "back road." Located about halfway to town, Tereora College was established as a mission school in 1865. An international stadium was built on the college campus for the 1985 South Pacific Mini Games held on Rarotonga and is now the site of rock 'em, sock 'em rugby games on Saturday afternoons from June through August.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.