We just completed our third trip to Raro, and I went with my husband and 7-year old son. For Part 1, I'll cover general travel notes. Subsequent parts will have details on activities and dining.
Air New Zealand: We continue to be big fans. Because LAX-RAR direct flights have been reduced to once a week, we took the non-direct flight that goes from LA to Auckland, then Auckland to Raro. We almost did not make the connection in Auckland because our original flight from LA was delayed, but fortunately, we were able to get on an earlier flight. Customer service, in-flight entertainment, and child gift bags were great. The plane's exterior and emergency preparedness video were based on The Hobbit (really fun for fans like us).
Summer Season: Our prior trips have been during winter in Raro, so we had no expectations. It was hot, with occasional showers, but there were also cloudy and windy days. It was also "quieter", which presented both pros and cons. The cons for us were island nights being canceled at various resorts, and that there were no other children at The Rarotongan kids club.
Island Maps at the Airport: We rely on these fold-out maps for convenience while driving, and a summary of activity/island night/special dinner schedules at the different resorts. There was only one map (The Circuit) on the kiosks next to the immigration line (no Jasons or Cook island Sun this time). It was also hard to find this map outside the airport, but The Rarotongan had it.
Polynesian Car Rentals: They used to be Budget, and we got the same friendly and efficient service. We got a Toyota Rav4, and it worked great (the a/c and extra large sunroof really helped with the heat). They also got us a 24-hour temporary license. Pick up and return (late night) were easy.
Drivers License: We did not know that they now require a passport. Remember to bring it, $20, and a pen.
Police Checkpoints: First time we saw these on Raro. They set up checkpoints on the main road near Titikaveka one evening. They waved us through on our way to Te Vara Nui from The Rarotongan, and actually stopped us later that evening on our way back to ask where we were going and if we were ok driving.
Prepaid Wifi Cards: We get this at the Telecom Shop in Avarua, so we can access TripAdvisor and restaurant websites. It is no longer a card, but is now a receipt with the username and password printed on it. Telecom's login page does not allow you to save the login info, so we made sure to keep that receipt. The Rarotongan is no longer a Telecom Hotspot, and they have a different server that was more expensive, so we were not able to use wifi at the resort. We were able to use Telecom wifi at the Islander on the Beach.
The Rarotongan: We chose to stay here again because of the location, room, and kids club. We stayed in a Deluxe Beachside Suite again, and it's perfect for us three (one very large bed, plus a separate bed for my son, and those beds were super comfortable), has great a/c and fan, blackout shades, screened windows and sliding doors, safe, jet tub, and outdoor shower. Insect room spray was provided. We still like The Rarotongan, especially the ocean views, beach amenities, daily buffet breakfast, pool with waterfall, kids club staff, and snorkeling in Aroa Lagoon (we bring our own mask and snorkel, but don't bother packing up fins). The Activities Hut had everything else we needed, in addition to children's size life jacket and fins (wish they didn't have the rule on returning towels by 5pm, though). We were disappointed about the fire dance show being canceled (this was a favorite from prior trips), and having no other children aside from my son at the kids club, but we knew these were attributable to the season and not the resort.
Islander on the Beach (Vaimaanga): Great self-catering accommodation, and will definitely stay there again in the future. It had an unbeatable layout (2 bedrooms, each with awesome views), was very clean, had screened windows, fans, Telecom wifi hotspot, complete kitchen, strong water pressure and hot shower, and even had a private clothes drying area and laundry room. We prefer it over Tarani's next door (which we stayed at before), even if Tarani's has a/c and the Islander on the Beach does not. We enjoyed the spectacular daytime and nighttime views from the deck, outdoor shower, snorkeling, and kayaking (there were 3 kayaks for our use). Geoff, the owner, was so nice, and welcomed us with pawpaw. We managed to stop by their smoothie/lunch stall at Punanga Nui market, and thought their smoothies were better/creamier than others that are too aerated for our liking. What worried us after checking in were all the dog pawprints on the beach. Later that day, we saw 6 dogs on their own, plus another two that checked us out but quickly ran off after my husband shouted "away". Every afternoon after that, we would see a lady walking a group of 6 dogs (not sure if they were the same ones we saw on our first day). We got used to seeing dogs, but remained vigilant because of our 7-year old (he was not allowed to be out on the deck and beach alone). It was disconcerting to hear and see dogs going totally crazy over kite surfers one afternoon, but we had no issues with aggressive dogs during our entire stay there.
Dogs: We did have one scary incident related to dogs. We were going to Café Ariki for dinner one night, and merely going off memory on how to get to the restaurant. Travelling southbound from the main road (it was already dark), we should have turned left at the T-intersection, but went right into another dead end in a residential area. We were making a U-turn when 3 big, black dogs ran towards our vehicle. They were relentless, and lunged at the Rav4 even after my husband sped up. They kept on barking and ran beside the vehicle up until we turned right to get to the correct street where Café Ariki was. We shuddered at the idea of those dogs doing that with people on scooters or walking. On another day, we saw the same 3 black dogs at the T-intersection, but they did not run after our vehicle this time (maybe because it was daytime).
Mosquitos: I'm a "mosquito-magnet", so I always spray my clothes with Permethrin, use 20% DEET and 15% Picaridin on my exposed skin, and wear white/light-colored clothing, for tropical vacations. I covered up during the lagoon cruise because I know there are a lot of mosquitos on the motu across from Muri (based on prior trips). My husband did part of the cross-island trek (without Pa this time), and he said there were so many more flying bugs this time (not a problem for him because he does not usually get bitten). It was nice knowing that most of the restaurants we went to burned mosquito coils (I happen to like the smell, so I don't have to see the coils to know they are around). This trip, I only got bites on my feet and ankles (they were so itchy, though) because I forgot to spray them one rainy morning, and on my hands (shows how much mosquitos like me) while dining at Flame Tree near the pond with the giant eel.
Will be doing Part 2 in a few days...