7 Meaningful Ways to Experience Māori Culture in New Zealand

Be it a haka dance or a guided hike, to experience Māori culture is to experience the best of Aotearoa.

A group of people on a guided tour of Hollyford Track in Fiordland National Park, with giant ferns lining path

Māori culture is an integral part of the fabric of New Zealand.

Courtesy of Fiordland National Park

To celebrate Indigenous culture in New Zealand is to celebrate the country itself, which has so fully embraced its roots that place names are listed both in English (New Zealand) and Māori (Aotearoa), in honor of the tangata whenua, the Indigenous Polynesians who arrived on the mainland by ocean canoe more than 700 years ago.

It’s common practice for welcomes and sign-offs to be said te reo Māori (in the Māori language): Arrive via Air New Zealand and staff will welcome you with a Kia ora; emails may be signed Ngā mihi nui as a “thank you very much” or “kind regards.” And tourism options—either owned and operated by Māori, or in tribute to them—are incredibly varied across the North and South islands.

We know AFAR readers seek meaningful connections to places and people. They want to authentically engage with Indigenous cultures, listen to their stories, and view the world through their eyes. So we consulted with locals and representatives of various New Zealand tourism boards—and checked out a few experiences ourselves—to find seven of the best ways to experience the rich culture and natural bounty of Aotearoa, from haka performances to waka hourua voyages, and the best Indigenous dining experience in the Southern Hemisphere.

New Zealand's All Black rugby team perform the haka during the Rugby World Cup in Paris on October 14, 2023.

New Zealand’s All Blacks team has helped popularize the Māori haka on an international stage.

Photo by Victor Velter/Shutterstock

North Island

1. The Haka Experience

For many, their introduction to Māori culture comes via rugby, of all places. New Zealand’s All Blacks team—the winningest international rugby team—has popularized the haka (a ceremonial Māori war dance or challenge) on global broadcasts. Millions have witnessed the team’s ritual chants, stomping, arm slapping, and tongue wagging, a version of the dance that dates back to the late 1800s. To learn more about the history of the haka and New Zealand rugby, Auckland has a terrific All Blacks Experience that opened in 2020.

Two visitors taking a selfie with dancers at the Auckland Museum

Founded in 1929, the Auckland Museum is devoted to telling the story of New Zealand and its people.

Courtesy of Auckland Museum

But there are multiple ways to experience haka in and around Auckland: The Auckland War Memorial Museum presents two Māori cultural performances daily, and visitors are encouraged to stick around after to talk to the performers. Check the website for haka dance theater Hawaiki TŪ and buy tickets for whatever they have on; their work, which often tours around New Zealand, merges kapa haka, theatrical staging, and AV projections for a modern take. (“Kapa haka” is the term for Māori performing arts, “kapa” means to form a line, and “haka” to dance. Kapa haka involves an emotional and powerful combination of song, dance, and chanting.)

A Maori canoe in the Wellington, New Zealand port

The ancestors of Māori, and the Māori themselves, used canoes to navigate over vast expanses of the Pacific ocean.

Photo by William R. DeCarvalho/Shutterstock

2. Set sail on a waka hourua

It’s believed that the first inhabitants of Aotearoa came across the Pacific in sturdy double-hulled, double-masted voyaging canoes, or waka hourua. Though cruise ships carrying 6,500 passengers have since docked in Auckland’s ports, the study of waka hourua sailing and navigation was revived in the 2000s, in part by the group behind Te Toki Voyaging Trust. Leaders of Te Toki studied with one of the region’s great ocean navigators, Papa Mau of Satawal, Micronesia, before he passed away in 2010, and they have been mentoring new generations in traditional seafaring, marine, and environmental science. Visitors can now book anything from a one-hour sail to a multi-day trip aboard a waka out of Auckland and Kawhia, about two-and-a-half hours southwest of Auckland.

3. Make a reservation at Hiakai

Hiakai restaurant in Wellington began as a pop-up experience in 2016, when founding chef Monique Fiso created dishes that celebrated her Māori and Samoan roots with the precision of an artist who honed her craft in New York City. “We place a special focus on researching and showcasing [Indigenous] ingredients in modern and inventive ways,” writes the Hiakai team. Much has been said (everywhere from Time magazine to the World’s 50 Best) about how memorable those dishes are, be it a vichyssoise with local potatoes served with mussel ice cream, or kumara (sweet potato) gnocchi in a sauce of huhu grubs. Fiso and her cofounder Katie Monteith also maintain a zero-waste philosophy and a commitment to foraging for wild kai (local ingredients). Fans of the restaurant can continue their education with Fiso’s Hiakai cookbook, which includes a history of Māori food culture, descriptions of traditional ingredients, and recipes.

Houses covering the hills of Christchurch, New Zealand.

Explore Ōtautahi’s (Christchurch’s) Māori roots through Amiki Tour’s multi-cultural storytelling experiences.

Photo by Karissa Best/Unsplash

South Island

4. Meet the locals in Ōtautahi (Christchurch) with Āmiki Tours

Few hosts make travelers feel at home as well as Riwai Grace and his wife Cate, whose Āmiki Tours in Ōtautahi (Christchurch) are deeply rooted in community and the Māori value manaakitanga, or generous hospitality. Riwai has a gift for storytelling—not surprising, given his years spent managing pubs in the United Kingdom—and loves his home, having served for 20 years in Fire and Emergency Services New Zealand. Now he, Cate, and their team take visitors on 75-minute culture walks of Christchurch, incorporating creation stories and showing where ancestors landed on the river banks, as well as longer guided kai (food) tours where Riwai takes you to his favorite local haunts.

A person pausing on a footbridge in front of a waterfall in Fiordland National Park

New Zealand’s Fiordlands are home to the wettest climate in the country.

Courtesy of Fiordland National Park

5. Tramp through Fiordland National Park along Hollyford Track

Fiordland National Park is one of the world’s most beautiful natural landscapes (humbly speaking, as I haven’t been everywhere yet), and within the glacier-carved fjords and forests of the World Heritage site are multi-day hikes like the famed Milford and Routeburn tracks that locals and visitors both adore. The Hollyford Track is the only major route that doesn’t scream with elevation change—moving more gently through the Hollyford Valley with its ancient beech forest and 1,000-year-old giant rimu trees, past waterfalls and down to Martins Bay.

Go “tramping” (trekking) with the guided Hollyford Wilderness Experience, which is owned by Ngāi Tahu Tourism, representing the original inhabitants and guardians of the area. Per a 2023 review of the hike, “Everything is viewed through the lens of the beliefs and values of the Ngāi Tahu original inhabitants, and [our guide] sets the tone with a karakia, a Māori ritual incantation that creates a moment to pause, appreciate and unite on our purpose on these lands today.”

A person peering through a telescope while on theDark Sky Project's Crater Experience in Takapō at night

Through its work, the Dark Sky Project hopes to spark a lifelong appreciate for night skies in visitors.

Courtesy of the Dark Sky Project

6. Stargaze through a Māori lens in Tākāpo

Another joint project with Ngāi Tahu Tourism, the Dark Sky Project, set on Takapō lakefront in the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve, pays careful attention to Māori astronomy. Not only are these experiences in one of the largest International Dark Sky Reserves in the world, but they also offer daytime outings—hear us out—for families traveling with kids who can’t stay up that late. The indoor Dark Sky Experience is a 45-minute astronomy lesson and visual mind-melter that explores the Big Bang and how Māori stories integrate. Hardier travelers can also stargaze from the summit of Mount John or opt to examine the Milky Way at a private observatory.

7. Shop small Māori businesses

Whariki is a nonprofit “designed to support and uplift Māori business owners and professionals, by creating moments of connection and celebration.” In short, it’s an excellent database of Māori-owned businesses, curating gift ideas across home decor, health and beauty, clothing, art, food and drink, kids, and more. I may have run out of time to finish this article because I was too busy browsing the Kawakawa Balms, chilli pata (a spicy stoneground hemp seed spread), and Rua Huia feather necklaces.

Laura Dannen Redman is Afar’s editor at large. She’s an award-winning journalist who can’t sit still and has called Singapore, Seattle, Australia, Boston, and the Jersey Shore home. She’s based in Brooklyn with her equally travel-happy husband and daughters.
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