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Many of the cultural experiences that you can enjoy around New Zealand are run by local iwi (tribes) or descendants of local Māori chiefs, forming a genuine connection to Māori history and heritage. Māori regard the land, soil and water of Aotearoa (New Zealand) as taonga (treasures) and see themselves as the kaitiaki (guardians) of this taonga. This gives tangata whenua (local people) a strong sense of pride and honour when sharing their traditions, sacred places and myths and legends with visitors from around the world.
One of the most well-known myths in Māori culture is how Aotearoa came to be. Legend has it that Maui, a brave demigod, pulled up an enormous fish from the depths of the ocean with his magic fishhook. Maui’s fish became known as the North Island and his waka (canoe) the South Island. Today the North Island is known to Māori as ‘Te Ika a Māui’ or ‘Māui’s fish’, while the South Island is known as ‘Te Waka a Māui’ or ‘Māui’s canoe’. Maui is also known for harnessing the sun, lifting the sky and taming fire - he is a legend in his own right!
You can discover other captivating myths and stories and engage in meaningful Māori cultural experiences in the Bay of Islands, Auckland, Waitomo Caves, Rotorua, Queenstown and Milford Sound.
Before you visit
Before visiting such culturally significant places it might be useful to know how to behave at a marae (meeting house) or during a pōwhiri (a Māori welcome) or cultural performance. This is known as tikanga which can be described as general behaviour and interaction in Māori culture or ‘the Māori way of doing things’. Learning about tikanga will enrich your cultural experience and improve your ability to participate fully.
When visiting a marae it’s important to show respect of the building itself for both the protection and safety of mauri (life force) and mana (status and prestige). It’s also important to remain quiet when cultural performances are taking place and wait for a karakia (prayer) to be said before eating. Tikanga varies between regions and iwi, so it’s vital to listen to your guides or Māori leaders as they prepare you for the interaction.
The Bay of Islands and Cape Reinga
Known as the birthplace of New Zealand, the beautiful Bay of Islands is home to one of the most culturally significant places in New Zealand – the Waitangi Treaty Grounds. It was here in 1840 that Māori chiefs gathered to sign the Treaty of Waitangi with the British Crown. Today you can take a guided tour of Waitangi, listen to the story of this somewhat controversial treaty, and stand in awe of the intricate Māori carvings at the carved marae.
Visit the Bay of Islands on a return day tour from Auckland or spend a few days in the Bay and immerse yourself in other cultural activities. Journey north to the very top of New Zealand - Cape Reinga, where it is believed that the spirits of deceased Māori depart and return to their ancestral homeland of Hawaiki. Enjoy a dolphin watching cruise venturing out to Motukokako Island, cruising through the famous Hole in the Rock and enjoying stunning views of Cape Reinga from the water.
Although Auckland is a bustling city, its roots remain strongly connected to its Māori heritage. Explore Auckland on a City Sights tour followed by an afternoon at the Auckland War Memorial Museum. It’s here where you’ll see a dramatic traditional Māori cultural performance by members of Auckland-based Ngāti Whātua iwi. You’ll also have time to explore the museum marvelling at Māori and Pacific treasures, collections and artworks.
Located within the heart of the Waikato region lie the magical Waitomo Caves. Local Māori chief Tane Tinorau and English surveyor Fred Mace first explored the caves together by candlelight in 1887. Two years later visitors were invited to see the beauty for themselves. Many staff employed at the caves today are direct descendants of Chief Tane Tinorau and his wife Huti. Discover the tranquillity and natural beauty of Waitomo Caves from Auckland or Rotorua.
A popular destination for so many reasons, Rotorua provides a Māori culture experience like none other. The Rotorua Sights day tour gives an insight into New Zealand's Māori culture at Te Puia and Whakarewarewa Thermal Valley. You’ll see beautiful Māori architecture, national schools of carving and weaving and Rotorua's famous geothermal wonderland of bubbling mud pools and bursting geysers.
You can also experience Māori culture with an evening tour of Tamaki Māori Village. Your hair will stand on end witnessing the famous haka war dance and passionate poi dancing and hearing the heartfelt harmonies of traditional waiata (songs) and trying an authentic hangi for dinner is a fun experience.
From Rotorua you can also visit Waitomo Caves and the Hobbiton Movie Set learning about the history of each attraction and connection they still have with local Māori today. The journey to both of these attractions is a cultural experience in itself as you pass Waikato farmland, the Kaimai Ranges and the Waikato River where guides share historic stories.
Queenstown & Te Wai Ponamu World Heritage site
Explore remote areas of Queenstown's Dart River, Te Awa Wakatipu, by jet boat and discover a unique and dramatic environment rich in both natural and cultural heritage and legend. The Dart River Wilderness Safari, run by local tribe Ngāi Tahu, will also take you on a journey through native bush where guides share stories and ancient Māori legends.
Milford Sound or Piopiotahi was first discovered by local Māori more than 1,000 years ago. Māori would make the journey to Milford Sound to hunt, fish and gather a precious stone called pounamu which has traditionally been used make weapons, tools and jewellery. You can visit Milford Sound on a day tour and be in awe of the spectacular natural landscape discovering why it's classed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Read more about the history of this stunning region here.
You can experience Māori culture at any one of these destinations with GreatSights.
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