The Best Cultural Experiences to Try in New Zealand

Experience Maori customs and heritage first-hand in Tamaki Maori Village, Rotorua, New Zealand (Aotearoa)
Experience Maori customs and heritage first-hand in Tamaki Maori Village, Rotorua, New Zealand (Aotearoa) | © Dominic Byrne / Alamy Stock Photo
Thalita Alves

When one thinks about New Zealand’s culture and heritage, the first things that come to mind may be the indigenous Maori traditions and their importance to the nation’s identity and customs. And that’s exactly what you’ll learn about when you experience the country’s top cultural attractions and tours. If you need convincing, check out these 11 great experiences and the insights they can offer visitors.

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Rotorua’s mountain villages

Rotorua has quite a strong Maori connection – and part of its appeal (besides the geothermal attractions) is the fact that visitors can experience the culture first-hand. There are various cultural exchanges to choose from: some of the most renowned include the Tamaki Maori Village, Whakarewarewa Living Maori Village, Te Puia and Mitai āaori Village. These places encourage visitors to learn a bit more about New Zealand’s indigenous heritage and history while embracing some of the customs. Performances, a hāngi dinner and a marae stay are the norm at these attractions.

Ko Tane – Willowbank Wildlife Reserve

Make your way to Christchurch’s Willowbank Wildlife Reserve to get the most out of the South Island’s only Maori village experience. A visit to Ko Tane begins with a traditional pōwhiri (a welcoming ceremony) before visitors are taken into the village to learn about the traditional hunting tools, cooking methods and legends of the local Maori people. Kapa haka performances and hāngi dinners are also part of this interactive cultural exchange.

Waitangi Treaty Grounds

The Waitangi Treaty Grounds have an important place in New Zealand’s history. This was where the first accord between the British Crown and Maori chiefs was signed in 1840. The document, known as the Treaty of Waitangi, has its controversies because of its divergent versions – but it continues to play a strong role in society today. A day pass for the Waitangi Treaty Grounds includes guided tours, admission to the local museum and an evening hāngi and concert. If you’re visiting in February, this is also the key place for Waitangi Day commemorations – a date widely considered to be New Zealand’s national holiday.

Maori cultural shows

These differ slightly from the aforementioned village exchanges as there’s only a performance element to them. Traditional song and dance, haka performances and poi displays come into play as these shows delve into Maori mythology and history. Some of the most popular shows of the kind can be found in Auckland and Queenstown: the former is organised by the War Memorial Museum and runs three times daily; the latter is an evening showcase by the local Kiwi Haka Company at the Skyline Gondola and runs four times a night.

Footprints Waipoua

Part eco-tour, part heritage encounter, Footprints Waipoua offers an intimate glimpse into how nature and Maori culture go hand in hand. A selection of day- and night-time guided tours will take visitors into the Waipoua Forest in the Hokianga Harbour, near Cape Reinga, as the locals share the ancestral knowledge embedded deep within the land. All tour guides are part of the region’s Ngāpuhi tribe – they are basically passing on the wisdom that has been taught to their families across generations.

Waka tours – Abel Tasman National Park

New Zealand’s national parks are widely regarded for their hiking terrains and incredibly diverse natural features. If you’re exploring Abel Tasman National Park and its surroundings, you can tap into something extra: a memorable cultural experience of the coastal and forested scenery. The waka tours always start with a karakia (prayer) for protection before guides begin explaining the traditional tikanga (etiquette) related to the waka (traditional canoes) to be used on the two-hour return trip. The Split Apple Rock in Kaiteriteri Beach is one of the notable sights you’ll encounter as you paddle your way around the ocean.

Historic Maori pā sites

The word normally refers to the fortified settlement sites and villages created by Maori to protect their land and food supplies. Traditionally, these were viewed to hold strong mana (prestige), representing the power and strategic abilities of the tribes that built it. If you want to see the remnants of these historically significant landmarks, the North Island is the primary place to go. Notable sites include the Otatara Pā in Hawke’s Bay, known for its outstanding defensive elements and spectacular coastal views; Koru Pā, one of the first settlements of its kind in the Taranaki Region; and Te Teoteo Pā, known for playing a major defensive role in the 1863-64 Waikato Campaign of the New Zealand Land Wars.

Okains Bay Maori and Colonial Museum

As its name suggests, the Okains Bay Maori and Colonial Museum offers a full picture of New Zealand’s past, from its indigenous ancestry to its settlement history. The museum is located in the Banks Peninsula – a 90-minute drive from Christchurch and 30 minutes away from the historic town of Akaroa – and originally started out as a private collection of Maori artefacts. Key exhibits include a working blacksmith’s shop, a war canoe that dates back to 1867, and a rare Akaroa hei tiki (pounamu necklace) that made its way back from England after the museum’s founder tracked it down.

Maori Highlights Tour – Te Papa Museum

The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa is home to more than 30,000 Maori taonga (treasures), including ancestral carvings, ornaments, garments and weaponry, as well as a selection of archaeological fragments that paint a picture of New Zealand’s natural history. One of the best ways to get insight into these artefacts, and their relevance to the nation’s culture and identity, is to embark on one of the museum’s Maori Highlights Tours. Each paid, one-hour guided journey departs daily at 2pm and is designed to offer visitors a thorough understanding of what makes New Zealand’s culture so unique.

Te Ana Maori Rock Art Centre

The Te Ana Maori Rock Art Centre is run by the South Island’s principal tribe, the Ngāi Tahu. This is a place that offers a mix of natural history and artistry. You can choose from a guided site tour of the sacred rock art sites in Opihi, or you can opt to stay indoors to learn about the craft through the interactive exhibits in the art centre itself. Both options will provide plenty of local wisdom about the tribal stories and ancestral origins that are embedded in this traditional art form.

Bonz ‘N’ Stonz Carving Studio

For a unique cultural experience that comes with your own souvenir to take home, venture into the West Coast town of Hokitika to do some traditional carving. Bonz ‘N’ Stonz is a studio and gallery that focuses entirely on traditional bone, greenstone jade (pounamu) and shell carvings. Their classes allow visitors to design and carve their own pendants, as they learn about traditional jewellery making from a renowned local artist who has been teaching the craft for several years.

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