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CULTURAL

Discover New Zealand's fascinating Maori culture with our guide to the best Maori cultural experiences in the North and South Island.

by Katie Birtles

Maori culture is a living treasure: a dynamic world of thriving customs and passionate, welcoming people who share a deep spiritual connection with the land.

You don’t need to spend hours in a museum to get to know New Zealand’s indigenous Maori culture.

You’ll gain a deeper insight by venturing into the ancient volcanic terrain, rugged mountain ranges, sparkling coastlines and unspoiled forests of New Zealand, known as Aotearoa (‘Land of the Long White Cloud’) to the Maori.

It is one of the youngest cultures in the world, with the first Maori settlers voyaging from East Polynesia in canoes, landing on the North Island around 1000 years ago. Today, Maori culture is the cornerstone of New Zealand’s national identity, proudly preserved and celebrated across the country.

Although the majority of Maori culture is found in the North Island, concentrated around the Northland, Waikato and Auckland regions, you can find amazing glimpses into Maori culture all over the country, including the South Island.

At Wayfairer, we work closely with the local Maori of each region to offer unique, intimate experiences, providing authentic insights into New Zealand’s captivating culture.

Join in traditional Maori ceremonies and cultural shows; witness the spine-tingling power of a live Haka performance; stay in a traditional marae (tribal meeting place); explore stunning cultural sites with Maori guides, learning about their ancestral history and fascinating customs; roam through magical geothermal wonderlands strewn with exploding geysers; stroll among the ancient trees of enchanted forests and search for greenstone along a sacred river, accessible only by Maori people. 

Fascinating and engaging for adults and children alike, here are 12 of the best places in New Zealand for an unforgettable Maori cultural experience.

North Island

  1. Cape Reinga, Northland
  2. Paihia (Bay of Islands), Northland
  3. Auckland
  4. Rotorua, Central North Island
  5. Taupo, Central North Island
  6. Waimarama, Hawke’s Bay
  7. Wellington

South Island

  1. Hokitika, West Coast
  2. Kaikoura
  3. Christchurch
  4. Queenstown

North Island

Cape Reinga, Northland

Cape Reinga Northland New Zealand

Begin your Maori cultural experience at the top of the North Island in Cape Reinga, New Zealand’s most spiritually significant place. Located a three hour drive from Paihia (Bay of Islands), Cape Reinga is as far north as you can go, and it’s a truly enchanting site.

For Maori, Te Rerenga Wairua (Cape Reinga) is where the spirits of deceased Maori depart from this world and begin their final journey to the afterlife. At the crown of the cape is an ancient pohutukawa tree, believed to be over 800 years old. The Maori spirits leap from this tree into the ocean to return to their ancestral homeland of Hawaiki-A-Nui.

Cape Reinga is also the place where two ocean currents collide, and you can witness the Tasman Sea and the Pacific Ocean barrel together in a spectacular swell of waves. 

Paihia (Bay of Islands), Northland

Waitangi treaty grounds bay of islands new zealand

Make your way to Paihia, the gateway to the magical Bay of Islands, and also where you’ll discover the Waitangi Treaty Grounds, New Zealand’s most important historic site.

On 6 February 1840, the Treaty of Waitangi was signed here between the first 43 Maori chiefs and the British Crown, with the purpose of allowing the Maori people and British settlers to live together in New Zealand under a common set of laws.

Over 500 Maori chiefs eventually signed the Treaty, and today the Waitangi Treaty Grounds is a protected site. Visitors can take a guided tour through the historic Treaty House, the Whare Runanga (the House of Assembly) and the Museum of Waitangi, and observe traditional cultural performances.

Auckland

Waiheke Island Auckland New Zealand

 Head to Auckland, New Zealand’s most ethnically diverse city and a hub of Maori culture.

Visit the Auckland War Memorial Museum to experience a fantastic Maori cultural performance which tells the story of Aotearoa (New Zealand) and Tāmaki Makaurau (Auckland) with spirited singing and dancing. You’ll witness the world-famous haka, and will have the opportunity to talk with the performers after the show.

Hop on a ferry to Waiheke Island, where you can take a guided walking tour with a local Maori. You’ll see the beautiful scenery, learn about the island’s history, and even visit a vineyard for wine-tasting.

Rotorua, Central North Island

Maori carvings Rotorua New Zealand

Continue through the Central North Island to Rotorua, the heartland of New Zealand’s Maori culture. It’s an unmissable city brimming with incredible Maori cultural experiences.

Step into the world of Maori at the Tamaki Maori Village where you’ll witness ceremonial rituals, incredible performances, and a traditional hangi dinner. Immerse yourself in an intimate, authentic experience with an overnight stay in a Marae (meeting place), where you’ll sleep in a Whare Moe (carved sleeping house). 

Explore Te Puia, an extraordinary site spanning 60 hectares of active Whakarewarewa geothermal valley, featuring the Southern Hemisphere’s largest active geyser, Pohutu Geyser, along with bubbling mud pools, the endangered Kiwi bird, Maori cultural performances, and New Zealand’s official Maori cultural centre, The New Zealand Māori Arts and Crafts Institute.

Other Maori cultural highlights of Rotorua include Hells Gate Geothermal Park, Mitai Maori Village, Rotorua Museum, Pohutu Cultural Theatre and the nearby Maori glow worm caves of Waitomo.

Taupo, Central North Island

Nearby Taupo has a rich Maori culture, and Wayfairer works with the local Maori to arrange intimate and immersive Maori cultural experiences for your New Zealand holiday.

Experience a powerful Powhiri (Maori welcome) with Delani Brown, a master carver of his Taupo-based Tuwharetoa tribe. In Maori tribes, the carver is the guardian of stories and traditions, kept alive through his beautiful work, and they are second only to the chief of the tribe. Delani is a gentle, spiritual man, and will spend time with you to share his wonderful stories and customs.

Meet Tom Loughlin, a charismatic local, experienced Maori chef, search and rescue specialist (tracker), and a renowned tangata whenua (person of the land). He will take you on a full day Kai Waho experience to the Kaimanawa Ranges, where you’ll hike, cook, and learn about the Maori relationship with the land.

Visit Lake Taupo to see the extraordinary Mine Bay Maori Rock Carvings. One of New Zealand’s most spectacular artworks, the intricate carvings rise 14 metres above Lake Taupo and each carving has a unique story and meaning. You can see the carvings on a kayaking tour or on a relaxing cruise across the lake.

Lake Taupo maori carvings New Zealand

Waimarama, Hawke’s Bay

Moving down to the east coast of the North Island, you’ll find the sunny seaside town of Waimarama in Hawke’s Bay. Here, you can meet with members of the Ngati Kurukuru tribe and the ancestral owners of the Hakikino Conservation Reserve, for a truly unique experience.

You’ll explore Waimarama beach, where the Maori landed over 800 years ago to make repairs to the great migration canoe Takitimu, before settling in the surrounding hills and establishing the fortress of Hakikino.

You’ll be guided through archaeological sites, native bush and wetlands, and sacred cultural sites, while learning about the native language and folklore, and gaining fascinating insight into the ancestral history and ancient way of life for the Maori people.

Wellington

New Zealand’s capital city is a trove of Maori cultural experiences, designed to offer a deeper understanding of the country’s unique, dynamic culture.

The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa in Wellington provides an incredible insight into New Zealand’s history, culture and identity. Te Papa Tongarewa translates to “container of treasures”, with the museum housing more than 30,000 Maori taonga (treasures). Roam the halls of artworks, ornaments, garments, archaeological artifacts, ancestral carvings, and interactive displays. 

Wellington city also offers a 'Hidden Maori Treasures Cultural Walking Tour' where you can see the archaeological remains of a whare (house) in the Pa (village) site, get exclusive access to a non-public excavation site, and learn about eh Maori who lived in the Pa and how they arrived in Wellington.

South Island

Hokitika, West Coast

Hokitika gorge new zealand

Crossing to the west coast of the South Island, you’ll find some incredible Maori cultural experiences in Hokitika. Along the West Coast is Arahura Pa, a sacred Maori Reserve where  you can find beautiful pounamu (greenstone), a prized treasure for the Maori. Pounamu carving is an ancient Maori tradition, and the local tribes are known as kaitiaki (guardians) of pounamu.

At Wayfairer, we can arrange a unique cultural experience with Bevan Climo, the son of the Paramount Chief in the Hokitika area and a master pounamu carver in New Zealand. Bevan will guide you through the pounamu heartland and along the Arahura, a sacred river only accessible by Maori. You’ll roam the spectacular landscape, searching for pounamu, and learning how to carve it. This area is notoriously difficult to get into, unless you are fortunate to have a guide like Bevan, and the day is a special, memorable experience.

Kaikoura

Moving to the east coast to the coastal town of Kaikoura, you can join immersive, interactive tours offering intimate insights into the Maori culture of the region.

Guided by a member of the local sub-tribe Ngāti Kurī, you’ll visit stunning sacred sites, and roam through ancient forest, learning about edible and medicinal plants. You’ll learn about the area’s ancestral history and traditions, listen to local legends, get involved in traditional customs including weaving with harakeke, and even be given a Maori name.

Christchurch, Canterbury

Maori carvings New Zealand

Venturing south to Christchurch and the Willowbank Wildlife Reserve, you’ll find Ko Tane, the South Island’s only Maori village experience.

You’ll observe a traditional powhiri (welcome ceremony) and a powerful Whakangahau (Maori cultural performance) and have the opportunity to learn the poi dance and the haka. Enjoy a traditional hangi feast and hand feed the deer that wander out of the reserve. After dinner, you’ll watch a final performance, the poroporoaki (farewell ceremony).

The Willowbank Wildlife Reserve is home to over 100 wildlife species, some highly endangered including the kaka (a rare bush parrot) and the takahe (a flightless bird previously thought to be extinct). It’s also the only reserve in the world with a guaranteed chance of spotting the iconic kiwi bird in the wild.

Queenstown

Continuing south to Queenstown, where you can witness the world-famous Haka at the Skyline Gondola.

Enjoy a delicious buffet dinner at the Skyline Restaurant, taking in the breathtaking Queenstown skyline, then enjoy a cultural show of traditional Maori song and dance performed by a local Kapa Haka group.

Incorporating the war dance and the poi dance, the performance is a brilliant, spine-tingling display of New Zealand Maori culture.

Visit our Luxury New Zealand Holidays page to discover more incredible experiences destinations in New Zealand, or speak with one our New Zealand Travel Specialists to start customising your dream New Zealand holiday.        

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