When one thinks about New Zealand cultural experiences, the first thing that comes to mind are the indigenous Maori traditions and their importance in the nation’s identity and customs. And that’s exactly what you’ll get to learn about when you delve into the country’s rich heritage. If you need convincing, just look at these 11 great attractions and the insights they offer to visitors.
Rotorua’s Māori villages
Rotorua has quite a strong Māori 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 Māori Village, Whakarewarewa Living Māori 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 they embrace some of the customs – performances, a hāngi dinner, and a marae stay are the norm at these attractions.
Make your way to Christchurch’s Willowbank Wildlife Reserve to get the most out of the South Island’s only Māori 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 Māori people. Kapa haka performances and hāngi dinners are also part of this interactive cultural exchange.
The Waitangi Treaty Grounds have an important place in New Zealand history. This was where the first accord between the British Crown and Māori 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.
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 Māori 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.
Part eco-tour, part heritage encounter, Footprints Waipoua offers an intimate glimpse into how nature and Māori culture go hand-in-hand. A selection of day and nighttime guided tours will take visitors into the Waipoua Forest in the Hokianga Habour, 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.
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 surrounds, 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 with the waka (traditional canoes) to be used on the two-hour return trip. The Split Apple Rock in Kaiteriteri Beach is one of notable sights you’ll encounter as you paddle your way around the ocean.
The word pā normally refers to the fortified settlement sites and villages created by Māori 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 stunning 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.
As its name suggests, the Okains Bay Māori 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, just an hour’s drive from Christchurch and 30 minutes away from the historic town of Akaroa, and originally started out as a private collection of Māori artifacts. 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.
The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa is home to more than 30,000 Maori taonga (treasures) including ancestral carvings, ornaments, garments, 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 artifacts, and their relevance to the nation’s culture and identity, is to embark on one of the museum’s Maori Highlights Tours. The paid, one-hour guided journey departs at 2 p.m. daily, and is designed to offer visitors a thorough understanding of what makes New Zealand culture so unique.
Te Ana Māori Rock Art 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 select from a guided site tour of the sacred rock art sites in Opihi, or you could 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.
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.