The Cook Islands' capital can be seen on foot, as this picturesque little South Seas town winds for only a mile or so along the curving waterfront between Avarua and Avatiu, its two harbors. Virtually every sight and most of the shops sit along or just off the main around-the-island road, which for this mile passes through town as the divided Te Ara Maire Nui (Marine Drive).
A Stroll Around Avarua
Let's start at the traffic circle in the heart of town at Avarua Harbour, which is both the beginning and end of the round-island road. The rusty carcass on the reef offshore belonged to the SS Maitai, a trading ship that went aground in 1916. At the circle is the courthouse. To the west, the low-slung structure with a large veranda houses a restaurant, several shops, and the Banana Court, once one of the South Pacific's most infamous watering holes.
From the traffic circle, walk east to the modern Beachcomber, Ltd.. This pearl and handicraft shop occupies a coral-block building erected in 1843 as a school for missionary children. The local legislative council met here from 1888 to 1901, but by 1968 it was condemned as unsafe. It was restored to its present grandeur in 1992.
In a shady parklike setting across the road stand Taputapuatea marae and the restored palace of Queen Makea Takau Ariki. Don't enter the grounds without permission, for they are tabu to us commoners. The palace was reputedly a lively place when Queen Makea was around in the 19th century.
Facing the palace grounds across the road running inland is the Cook Islands Christian Church. This whitewashed coral block structure was constructed in 1855. Just to the left of the main entrance is the grave of Sir Albert Henry, the late prime minister. A bust of Sir Albert sits atop the grave, complete with shell lei and flower crown. Robert Dean Frisbie, an American-born writer and colorful South Seas character, is buried in the inland corner of the graveyard, next to the road. Frisbee served in the U.S. army during World War I, and his gravestone is an official Department of Defense marker.
To the right, near the end of the road, is the Cook Islands Library and Museum (tel. 26-468). The museum is small but well worth a visit to see its excellent examples of Cook Islands handicrafts; a canoe from Pukapuka built in the old style, with planks lashed together; the island's first printing press (brought to Rarotonga by the London Missionary Society in the 1830s and used until the 1950s by the government printing office); and the bell and compass from the Yankee, a world-famous yacht that in 1964 wrecked on the reef behind the Beachcomber, where its forlorn skeleton rusted away for 30 years. The library and museum are open Monday to Friday 9am to 1pm, Saturday 9:30am to 12:30pm, and on Tuesday also from 4 to 8pm. Admission to the museum is by NZ$2.50 (US$2/£1) donation.
Farther up the inland road stands Takamoa Theological College, opened in 1842 by the London Missionary Society. The original Takamoa Mission House still sits on the campus.
Walk a block east on Makea Tinerau Road in front of the library and museum to the Sir Geoffrey Henry National Cultural Centre (also known as Te Puna Korero), the country's showplace, built in time for the 1992 South Pacific Festival of the Arts. The large green building houses the Civic Auditorium, and the long yellow structures contain government offices as well as the National Museum and National Library (tel. 20-725). Exhibits at the National Museum feature contemporary and replicated examples of ancient crafts. The museum is open Monday to Friday from 9am to noon and 1 to 4pm. Admission is by donation. The library usually is open Monday and Wednesday 9am to 8pm and Friday 9am to 4pm.
Opposite the museum is the Tupapa Sports Ground. Like other South Pacific islanders formerly under New Zealand or Australian rule, the Cook Islanders take their rugby seriously. Although much of the action has shifted to the stadium at Tereora College behind the airport, Tupapa may still see a brawl or two on Saturday afternoons.
Walk back to the main road, turn left, and head to downtown. You can take a break at one of the restaurants or snack bars along the way. From the traffic circle west is a lovely stroll, either by the storefronts or along the seafront promenade. At the west end of town, stroll through Punanga Nui Market, where vendors sell clothing and souvenirs and food stalls offer takeout food that you can munch at picnic tables under the shade of casuarinas whispering in the wind.
End your tour at Avatiu Harbour, which is Rarotonga's commercial port (the small anchorage at Avarua is strictly a small-boat refuge).