The village is named for Hunter family matriarch Vara, who was the early international face of Rarotonga, before commercial airlines ever flew here.
She appeared on national television and mixed, and turned the heads of the likes of Hollywood’s Marlon Brando. She was the momentum in getting Rarotonga on the map and into the hearts of the world, winning an Outstanding Contribution to Tourism Award in 2016 for her achievements. Tour guide and host Ruth Tangiiau Mave, whose family roots go back to her great-grandmother, a matiapo, and Nooroa Ngametua who last year won the masters’ division of the Dancer of the Year competition, alternate stories and captivate the audience throughout the tour.
“Legend has it that the original settlers came from Avaiki,” says Ruth, “and other Pacific nations including New Zealand all share different versions of that same name: Hawaiki in New Zealand, Hafaiki in Tahiti and Savaiki in Samoa. They migrated for the sake of the voyage, or due to overpopulation, that kind of thing.”
A visit from a chief named Tongaiti to the Cook Islands brought new cultural influences with more colourful costumes and dance, which were quickly adopted and are now portrayed in the Te Vara Nui night show.
Between about 1,000 and 1,400 years ago, migrants sailed from the Cook Islands in vessels carved out of mahogany trees down to New Zealand, leaving from the Avana passage. Taking animals and tools with them, they navigated by the moon and stars, says Ruth.
According to legends 20 vaka left Rarotonga, one came home, two sailed to other islands and 10 were unaccounted for. Seven arrived in New Zealand and each vaka - Takitimu, Tokomaru, Kurahaupo, Aotea, Tainui, Te Arawa and Mataatua became the names of some of New Zealand’s early Maori tribes.
“We had our fair share of war, conflict and cannibalism until Christianity first came to us from Tahiti in 1821”, says Ruth. She says this brought peace to the Cook Islands and ended much of the conflict.
During the tour, guests smell the medicinal noni fruit and learn things such as how to use pawpaw to keep mosquitos and intestinal worms away and that the smell of the gardenia flower clears the sinuses.
Toward the end of a highly entertaining historical tour, smorgasbord smells wafted across the village, beckoning guests to the next stage of the event – a buffet dinner and the over-water night show.