Exploring the many shops, craft outlets and markets is a great way to immerse yourself in the community. Rarotonga’s main shopping area is downtown Avarua, where visitors will discover unique black pearls, quality handcrafts, colourful clothing and electrical goods. A variety of shops are located all around the island but the largest concentration of shops stretches from Avatiu Harbour to the Portofino Restaurant. Duty-free traders are mainly centred in Avarua, with a few shops in resorts and at the airport. They offer an array of competitively-priced goods ranging from cameras, watches and stereos to fine china and designer perfumes.
Early Saturday morning is the best time to visit the market, and you will find plenty of bargains from arts and crafts, pearls and clothing to cooked meals, fresh fruit and vegetables. The market is also a great place to sample some of the local dishes, including home-baked coconut rolls, eke (octopus) and ika mata (marinated raw fish). It closes at 12 noon.
The dozen or so clothing outlets offer everything from island-style clothing and made-to-measure garments to exclusive imports. One of the first things a visitor should buy is a brightly coloured pareu (sarong). This all-purpose wrap-around (about 2m long) is easily worn by both men and women, and ideal for casual wear in the hot island climate. The light, colourful fabrics wash and dry quickly and are equally good as picnic cloths or towels. A pareu sells for about NZ$15 but can cost more. Dresses, skirts, blouses and shirts in the vibrant island-style fabrics are also popular – prices will vary.
A good gift idea is a CD or tape of a local group performing the traditional drum dance. Mother of pearl and polished shells make distinctive pieces, or treat yourself to a piece of the exquisite black pearl jewellery for which the Cooks are renowned. Rarotonga has many fragrant flowers, including tipani (frangipani), tiare maori or tiare taina (gardenia) and pitate (jasmine), and the locally made perfumes, soaps and oils make an ideal souvenir. For those with a passion for collecting, the colourful range of Cook Island stamps are sought after the world over, and make the perfect portable souvenir.
For food and liquor supplies, there are several larger supermarkets featuring a delicatessen bar and a range of fresh and imported goods catering for all needs. Much of the food comes from New Zealand, flown in fresh, chilled, tinned or snap frozen. Most shops in Avarua are closed on Sundays but village shops are open from 6am-9am, and 5pm-9pm.
Mention the words ‘Pacific Art’ and most people will immediately define it as masks, spears, tapa and tivaevae. Not any more. A young generation of Cook Islanders has redefined the arts scene and it has a rich story to tell. Traditional motifs, symbols and imagery now blend into the rich textures of oils and acrylics, giving a whole new dimension to the local art form. A strong form of expressionism has emerged in both a figurative and painterly style. Vibrant red hibiscus flowers draw you into a canvas alive with elements of generic history – a dog wanders across another canvas, casually observing rapid changes in the everyday life of Cook Islanders.
Cook Island artists have recently gained media attention from international art publications and have already begun to exhibit in New Zealand. Contemporary works by artists Mahiriki Tangaroa, Tim Buchanan, Ian George, Mike Tavioni and many others can be found in galleries around the Pacific. The website also features many local artists' work - just visit the site to see more.
Handcrafts are highly prized in the Cook Islands. Among the best-known souvenirs are the lacy coconut fibre rito hats, brightly coloured pareu, local art, tivaevae (handstitched quilts), wood carvings, shellcraft, pottery and tapa. Tapa is the original bark cloth of the islands, once used in all traditional garments. It is currently enjoying a revival in popularity, although Atiu is the only island in the Cooks where it is made. The cloth is produced from the laborious process of beating the bark, then decorating it with traditional cultural patterns.
Woodcarvings, fine grass skirts and baskets are all locally produced, and make great conversation pieces back home. Palm and pandanus leaves used for weaving are so well processed, the end product often looks like linen. One of the finest examples of local handcraft is the rito hat. These are not just a curio, but a vital part of every Cook Island woman’s dress. The women of the Cooks are also well known for their needlework, particularly the hand-stitched quilts known as tivaevae. Each is decorated with colourful patterns, usually depicting plants and flowers. A tivaevae may take many months to make, which is reflected in the cost. Other sought-after crafts include woven baskets, often made from the coconut fibre, carved bowls, pandanus bags and handmade pottery. The beautifully carved slit drums (pate) from the northern island group are another prized souvenir.
Shopping Fact File
- Shopping hours are normally from 8am to 4pm during the week, and from 8am to noon on Saturday.
- Some resort and village shops are open during the evening and on Sunday, and the airport shops are open for all international flights.
- If you decide to buy something, please don’t attempt to bargain as this is not an accepted custom in the Cook Islands.
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