“I don’t think I’ve done anything special, I’ve just worked hard for my children,” she said.
And indeed she has worked hard throughout her life, but as well as that, she epitomises Cook Islands culture, and is most certainly a well-known Cook Islands identity.
In her younger days while living in Auckland with her young family, Vara famously performed and showcased Cook Islands culture in the Pacific region. She worked as an entertainer for weddings, balls, and functions playing the ukulele and dancing, with a repertoire of New Zealand Maori, Samoan, Tahitian ad Cook Islands dance items. She danced in New Zealand, Australia, and Tahiti and toured with well-known Maori entertainer, the late Sir Howard Morrison.
In the early 70s Vara and her husband moved back to Rarotonga with her young family. In the 1980s they established a family business, Ariana Bungalows, which Vara managed in her inimitable style, greeting all her guests at the airport in her signature pareu and ei katu. She was known by many for her courteous, gentle, helpful nature.
Vara was a familiar sight on Rarotonga’s roads in her Ariana Bungalows van, transporting guests to town and wherever they needed to go. When the bungalows were sold, Vara took on a management role at Club Raro in the early ’90s, managing the resort in her inimitable friendly style for a couple of years. Meanwhile, her daughters were a familiar sight at the resort’s island nights, performing in a dance troupe.
Following her Club Raro stint, Vara started Vara’s Backpackers at her homestead in Muri, initially as a small-scale operation, renting out rooms in the family home on Muri beach. She oversaw the expansion of the business as a hugely popular hostel, with Vara again greeting her guests at the airport until her children insisted she slow down and hire someone to make the late night/early morning airport transfers. Otherwise she could be found tending the gardens at the hostel, always with time for a friendly word with guests passing through.
Her identity and personality are such, that she even has a clothing label named after her. T-shirt Factory’s Don Carlaw says on every occasion he encountered Vara, she was always poised and elegant, positive and gentle and willing to lend a helping hand.
“She’s a real identity on the island and someone I respect. I admire her and wanted to honour her with this label.”.
More recently, she lent her name to the spectacular cultural village Te Vara Nui, with its over-water island show, established in her honour. Vara’s experience and skills as a dancer were integral to the show’s choreography.
She also showed the chefs how to prepare the traditional island dishes that are served as part of the buffet. And of course, she could always be found with her gardening gloves on, helping to create the beautiful gardens that surround the village.
Until a few months ago she could be found at Te Vara Nui’s entrance, greeting guests on arrival with her beautiful smile and friendly greeting, and making the rounds of the tables chatting to guests and graciously accommodating photo requests.
One often-repeated story is that of Vara catching the eye of Marlon Brando while on holiday in Tahiti, and famously rejecting his advances at a local nightspot. Looking back at old photos of this stunning and elegant Cook Islands maiden, the story does not surprise.
Now almost into her 80s Mama Vara still spends time in her garden, and enjoys time with her large family: seven children, 19 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
- Serena Hunter