Food and hospitality are an essential element of Cook Islander culture. As a result the islands host to an excellent range of intentional restaurants and cafes, and local eateries.
Thai, Indian and Italian restaurants are particularly popular in Rarotonga. Chefs also have a way of creating exciting fusion meals that savour both international and Pacific flavours. Some restaurants are only open for dinner; others cater specifically for breakfast and lunch. Resort restaurants serve breakfast, lunch and dinner. Don’t be surprised to eat dinner early in the evenings – most restaurants generally close at 9pm.
A number of island-style cafes focus on traditional dishes. All produce is harvested locally and used fresh; as is seafood. Local catches include deep sea fish such as tuna, mahi mahi and parrot fish. Fish is eaten both raw and cooked. Raw fish, called ika, is marinated in lemon juice or a mixture of vinegar, oil and salt and served with chopped onion and coconut cream.
Traditional cooking is complex and time-consuming. Food is often prepared in an umu – a Polynesian underground oven. Special occasions are usually marked by a feast called an umukai, which translates to "food from the oven". Meat is served as the main dish, and generally accompanied by ika and potato salad.
Kava is a traditional ceremonial drink. Coconut water is also popular. Most restaurants and cafes are licensed to sell beer, wine and spirits – Rarotonga has more than two dozen licensed bars and restaurants, many which feature live entertainment. Night spots stay open till around midnight, or later on Friday and Saturday nights.
Shopping in the Cook Islands is a relaxed and friendly experience. Crafts, home wares, jewellery clothing, gifts and art can be found in Rarotonga’s main town, Avarua and at villages such as Muri Beach. Pushy sellers are rare and bargaining is not customary. Stores are generally open from 9am to 4pm during the week and on Saturday mornings, and closed on Sundays.
Te Punanga Nui market on Saturday morning is the highlight of Rarotonga’s week. Stalls brim with local fruit and vegetables, flowers, music and crafts, while grills cook traditional local food such as Ika Mata and chicken with taro to be eaten on the spot.
Traditional crafts, especially weaving, carving and tivaivai (stitching/sewing) are sold in a number of shops and markets. A revival in traditional carving has been evident in recent years. Woven pandanus baskets are also popular.
Rarotonga is blessed with fragrant and exotic flowers, many of which are used in locally-produced perfumes, oils and soaps. The most fragrant scents are tipani (frangipani), tiare (gardenia), and pitate (jasmine).