Old favourites and new openings, and island traditions and café culture combine for the best eating and drinking on the Cook Islands’ most popular destinations of Rarotonga and Aitutaki.
The Kai Guy
Dishing up island and international flavours, The Kai Guy food truck is usually parked up near Rarotonga’s Avatiu Harbour. Local fish and grilled chimichurri chicken are highlights of The Kai Guy’s tacos, while the Greek-style Johnny Raro gyro wrap with slow-roasted lamb, feta and tzatziki may bring back memories of a different kind of island stay. They have a strong Instagram game, so see @thekaiguyraro for regular specials including frozen virgin margaritas and beef brisket burritos.
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The Mooring Fish Cafe
Currently relocated to Muri after reluctantly relinquishing their waterfront spot near Avana Harbour, the longstanding Mooring Fish Cafe is still focused on serving up Rarotonga’s best fish sandwiches. Ocean-fresh tuna and mahi mahi is crammed into Turkish-style loaves – try the FOB (‘Fresh of the Boat’) with mahi mahi and a lime mayo – or dig into a refreshing bowl of traditional ika mata (raw fish cured in coconut milk and lime juice). They’re on the lookout for a new beachfront location. See Facebook for updates.
Opened by an Air Rarotonga pilot and his good mate in late 2021, Soul Cafe’s hip ambience is around 10 minutes’ walk from downtown Avarua, the Cook Islands’ exceptionally laid-back capital. Local ingredients are harnessed in dishes including eggs benedict served with coconut cream-infused rukau (young taro leaves), while seasonal mango, paw paw and banana is used for huge smoothies. The Scoop Dog with banana, peanut butter and an optional espresso shot is the ideal preparation for a day of Raro adventures. Next door, Soul’s barbers shop is recommended for the ultimate island fade.
Lagoon-side fine dining make Muri’s Nautilus Resort an essential destination for travelling foodies. Kick things off with an espresso martini made with Cook Islands coffee from the remote island of Atiu, before exploring a menu that’s equally focused on local ingredients. Delicate ceviche combines the freshest of fish with coconut foam with a tomato and taro salsa, while the taro and breadfruit ‘Island Fries’, wasabi aioli and a cold beer is a perfect combo for a tropical dusk. A few friendly dogs occasionally wander in from the beach, but they’re uniformly well-behaved. Welcome to Rarotonga.
Muri Night Market
Rarotonga’s best cheap eats feature at this regular event kicking off around 5pm on Sundays and from Tuesday to Thursday. There’s plenty of room at the market’s shared tables, and cash is essential for most purchases. The Seafood Man is renowned for his seafood curries and garlic prawns, while stir fries and sticky soy-laced ribs are the go at Tikioki Taka’s friendly stall. Leave room for dessert of icecream and smoothies from Be Fruitful’s colourful caravan. Several of the stalls also feature at Saturday morning’s Punanga Nui market in Avarua.
Formerly operating from a beachfront shipping container, Charlie’s has expanded across the last couple of years, and is now a sprawling location on Rarotonga’s south coast that’s equally popular with locals and visitors. Secure a spot on the expansive deck and team views of the lagoon and reef with wood-fired pizza and a handle of Cook Islands lager. The combo plate of tuna sashimi and ika mata is a good pick for seafood fans. Live music kicks off at 6.30pm after the 4pm to 6pm happy hour, with the eponymous Charlie often manning the bass guitar to accompany ukulele action and soulful island harmonies.
Located on Rarotonga’s west coast, in close proximity to the island’s bigger family-friendly resorts, Beluga’s outdoor tables and cool white décor make it a top spot for coffee and all-day dining. Brunch is highly rated, while salads and local seafood combine with a myriad of global flavours later in the day. Don’t miss checking out the local arts, crafts and giftware on display – much of it is for sale.
In the shadow of a sprawling mango tree planted by James’ great-grandfather, James and Karin Crombie at Aitutaki’s Avatea Cafe craft brilliant food influenced by local flavours. Seared tuna topped with creamy guacamole is served in taco shells made from Māori-style fry bread, while there’s a real tropical kick to the fish curry with dragonfruit and homemade naan. Karin’s keen to focus on Aitutaki ingredients – especially herbs, fruit and vegetables – and refreshing drinks options include smoothies and locally-brewed kombucha. Adjacent to the café is a compact shop selling cool t-shirts, tropics-inspired candles and interesting homeware.
For an enterprise established in 2017, the Rarotonga Brewery have done a great job with distribution across both Rarotonga and Aitutaki. Focusing on sustainability and minimising environmental waste on a remote island, they’ve wisely steered away from producing bottled beer, and their refreshing Cook Islands lager is available exclusively on tap at local cafés, bars and restaurants. Refillable takeaway two-litre flagons and branded cooler bags are available at the brewery, and the enthusiastic team are always keen to conduct brewery tours.
Despite being framed by palm trees and patrolled by a posse of chickens, Koru Cafe is still Aitutaki’s best approximation of a New Zealand café, and its sunny location near the airport is a good spot to fuel up for lagoon adventures later in the day. The Big Breakfast wouldn’t be out of place along Ponsonby Road or Cuba Street, while Koru’s seafood and mezze platters are ideal for a leisurely lunch. Coffee and a wedge of lime and coconut cake is a good mid-afternoon option. If you’re self-catering in an Aitutaki holiday rental, order 24 hours ahead for one of Koru’s popular barbecue packs.
Air New Zealand offers frequent flights from Auckland to Rarotonga. See cookislands.travel/travelchecklist for the latest on Covid-19 vaccination and testing requirements for New Zealand travellers to the Cook Islands
The writer visited Rarotonga with the assistance of Cook Islands Tourism and Air New Zealand.