Rarotonga: escaping Melbourne’s winter

Most people wouldn’t need to be begged or nagged to go to a South Pacific island, but I did. I had so many reasons not to go, that it’s taken my husband, B, almost 25 years to get me to Rarotonga in the Cook Islands – but I’m glad I finally made it, and now I can’t wait to go back!

Why not?

I didn’t want to go there because:

  1. The main reason was that I associate Rarotonga with the quack ‘Dr’ Milan Brych, who put a lot of Australian cancer patients and their families through hell in the 1970s (including the family of one of my closest friends).
  2. There wouldn’t be anything vegan to eat, especially as my salicylate sensitivity means that I can’t eat a lot of fruit.
  3. There might be a tsunami (OK, that was a pretty dumb excuse).

However, despite all this, with two milestone birthdays to celebrate, this was the year I finally relented and we headed off for a holiday in Rarotonga. And it was beautiful!

I’d heard it would be hard to find anything vegan to eat (seafood is in just about everything), and sometimes it was, especially as I can’t overindulge on fruit, but I was pleasantly surprised.

The island

Rarotonga is the largest of the Cook Islands, about 3 hours north-east of New Zealand.

Most of the tourists are New Zealanders, who I suspect are keeping the place very quiet so it’s not invaded by bogun Australians!

It seriously looks like something out of a movie – lush and tropical, with the middle of the island made up of rugged mountains. The main road goes around the edge of the island and has a great bus service – a clockwise bus and an anti-clockwise bus. They take you pretty much anywhere you want to go, and if not, you can hire a scooter or mo-ped to get you there, if you’re over 21.

The beach

Our accommodation looked over Muri Beach, the main tourist area – but, it’s not ‘touristy’ in the way the Gold Coast or Kuta are touristy – it really just means there are some restaurants and hotels there.

Muri Beach, Rarotonga

Muri Beach, Rarotonga

The beach is quiet, calm and shallow with great snorkelling right off the beach, and at low tide you can even WALK out to the 3 islands in chest deep water – I saw someone do it and it looked pretty funny, but I wouldn’t bother because there are plenty of kayaks and paddle boards available. If I was a stronger swimmer I could have swum over – B did.

The food

We’d booked a self-contained room so that we could cook for ourselves if we needed to, but apart from breakfast, we only had to do that a couple of times.

Saturday morning market

On Saturday morning we ventured out on the anti-clockwise bus to visit the weekly market.

There are lots of food stalls (not much vegan), and lots of stalls selling jewellery made of seeds and shells, sarongs, t-shirts, Hawaiian (or maybe Rarotongan) shirts, but not much in the way of horribly touristy stuff.

We found a few stalls selling fruit smoothies (i.e. the ones without any yoghurt, milk or ice cream).

Our favourite had a heap of NutriBullets set up, and an esky full of the cups with half-frozen made up fruit. When you ordered, they just picked out the right cup, fixed it onto the blender and whizzed it all up for you.

Two fruit smoothies

Fruit smoothies from the Saturday market

My favourite was banana (lower in salicylates), pineapple, and something else. H preferred the passionfruit and pineapple smoothie. We had these many times over the week, because they were also sold at the night market (right next to where we were staying!).

La Casita

Later on we were going for a walk near our accommodation and I spotted a Mexican restaurant with a board out the front that included “vegetarian and vegan options”!! I was so excited I booked us in straight away.

La Casita, Mexican restaurant

You probably can’t make it out, but those magic words “Vegetarian and vegan options” were written on that sandwich board.

The staff were lovely and friendly, and it had a kind of tropical Mexican feel to it.

enchiladas

Enchiladas and cocktails

We ordered cocktails and dips, followed by enchiladas and burritos.

The Rickshaw

The next day we noticed that The Rickshaw, a Vietnamese restaurant next door to the Mexican restaurant, also had vegan options available! So, a couple of days later we turned up there. Turns out it is run by the same woman. She obviously knows there is a bit of a niche market there.

Colourful lights at restaurant entrance

I’m a sucker for any place with coloured lights!

That night we had a tofu stirfry with cashews.

Tofu and cashew stirfry

Tofu and cashew stirfry

Night Market

There was a big night market that ran about 4 nights a week, and it was right next door to our accommodation, so there was no excuse to go anywhere else on those nights.

We checked out all the stalls – mostly smoothies and fish dishes. Of course, we got a smoothie, but one night we noticed this:

market stall with sign showing 'vegan risotto'.

Vegan risotto. Not really ‘risotto’, but quinoa and vegies. Delicious and unexpected!

The daughter of the guy who runs this stall, runs yoga retreats, and she was bringing her group down for dinner. Luckily we got there earlier than they did, because we got this beautiful, colourful, fresh quinoa and vegie dish before they ate it all up.

quinoa risotto

Quinoa risotto

Then B found out that the chocolate churros from the stall next door were also vegan! It was a warm night, and we sat under a marquee, listening to great music and eating fantastic food. Perfect!

churros and smoothies

Churros and smoothies

During the week we ate a LOT of chips, and one day we put together a collection of side dishes: spinach, mashed kumera (white, not the orange one we’re used to), chips and olives. It was an unusual lunch, but it was kind of delicious.

The supermarkets and grocery shops were pretty well stocked, so we also cooked a couple of simple meals ourselves. Some of the vegies had travelled a long way and looked a bit worse for wear, so we chose frozen vegies instead. We had no trouble getting soy milk or tinned beans. I didn’t see tofu, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was there. We didn’t go to the biggest supermarket, which would have had the biggest range.

We also found a dairy-free chocolate fudge from a shop next to the main bus stop. That made waiting a bit more enjoyable. I’m told it was made with LOTS of sugar and nuts…and I can’t remember what else.

Sign advertising the fudge

Sign at the bus stop, advertising the makers of the dairy-free fudge. (Only one of their fudges is dairy free.)

The animals

The other great thing about Rarotonga is the animals.

Dogs

When we first went to the beach we saw a lot of dogs wandering around. I was a bit wary, because I’d heard that some of the Pacific Islands have trouble with stray dogs.

H is obsessed with dogs though, so she went straight over and made friends with them, and I realised they were all friendly and well cared for.

Beach with children on rope swing and dogs watching

If you look closely you’ll see some kids playing on a rope swing while the dogs watched and played too.

The dogs make themselves at home. They play with the kids, hitch rides on paddle boards, lie around in the sun, and sometimes even attach themselves to tourists for the duration of their stay.

Dog sleeping in the sun

One of the chilled-out, free-roaming dogs.

We had one friendly dog who walked us home from the market each night. He would have liked to come into our room with us, I think, but that was forbidden where we stayed. Besides, he probably had an owner waiting for him.

Esther Honey Foundation

I asked around and did some Googling and found out about the Esther Honey Foundation. They are the only vet service on the island, and they have done a lot of work to care for the islands dogs and cats (most of whom are owned, but wander around free). There’s a link to more information below.

Esther Honey Foundation sign

Esther Honey Foundation

They are staffed by volunteer vets and vet nurses from all over the world who come over and donate their time to help the animals, while living in this tropical paradise.

Black dog looking up at the camera

Mumma, the resident dog at Esther Honey Foundation.

We visited to make a donation and meet some of the animals and staff. This is Mumma, who lives at the hospital. She’s very friendly and likes to go to the beach. You should see her cross the road! She’s very careful and waits until it’s safe to cross.

Chickens

The other animals that are EVERYWHERE are chickens. There are mother chooks wandering around with their chicks, overseen by protective roosters who make sure nobody bothers them. Unlike the ones I’ve seen in Bali, these were glossy and healthy.

It was so lovely to see them getting a chance to live like proper little families. Our favourite little family wandered in and out of our verandah and garden while Dad strutted around keeping an eye on everyone. (I dread to think what happens to them in the end.)

When it rained we noticed the 6 tiny chicks were huddled underneath their mum’s feathers keeping dry. Here’s a really bad picture. It was taken through a window and I had to zoom, so it’s pretty grainy, but you can just make out a couple of the tiny chicks heads poking out.

Chicks peeping out from under their mother's feathers

You can just see the chicks peeping out.

They came to say goodbye to us as we were waiting for our airport bus on our last night. It was the closest they’d knowingly got to us. (They had come closer one day when I was lying in my hammock reading a book, but I kept very still, and I don’t think they knew I was there.)

Chicken with 6 tiny chicks

Goodbye to our favourite chicken family. Daddy rooster was strutting around the outside of the verandah.

It was a fantastic trip. The island was just perfect, the people were really nice, and I hope to get back there, and to some of the other South Pacific Islands one day… maybe next year? I hope…

More about Rarotonga

Read about Esther Honey Foundation.

Article about the ‘Brych Yard’ Cemetery where many of Milan Brych’s Australian patients were buried. Heartbreaking!

Muri Beachcomber resort, where we stayed

Here’s a quick video to give you an idea – but just ignore the part about the black pearls. :-/

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12 thoughts on “Rarotonga: escaping Melbourne’s winter

  1. this is brilliant! Ha, I can just imagine what it was like to see the ‘vegan’ on those signs! It sounds beautiful and I’m glad you got to eat well. I share the same hesitations about going on a cruise to Vanuatu (my husband wants to do that), because I think no vegan foods and tsunamis (I’ve had the same tsunami nightmare on and off since I was a kid!)

    • I don’t think I’d even heard of tsunamis when I was a kid. A couple of days after we got back, I heard there was an earthquake in the ocean just off Tonga (not too far from Rarotonga!). As far as I know, nothing happened, but if I’d heard about it while I was there I would have been pretty terrified, and probably would have hired a scooter and run up to the top of the mountain!

  2. Sounds like a great holiday – it is interesting they had a yoga retreat – that is good to show the sort of people coming to the island as they are more likely to want healthy food and influence the food available there. Glad you found some yummy meals and that it was a great place to visit.

  3. Looks like you had a really relaxing time. I’m inspired that you sought out an animal clinic to donate to while you holidayed there, I like that a lot, next place I go I’ll look beyond my vacation too. What a proud looking mama hen, love that she can just floof her feathers around six young 🙂

    • I was really fascinated to watch the rooster charging around protecting them. When I was in my hammock and the hen and chicks walked past me, I looked up to see the rooster standing right in front of me, staring me down. You wouldn’t want to mess with his family. He looked pretty fierce – doing an excellent job of protecting them all!

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