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.
1. The Haka Experience
- Location: 88 Federal St., SkyCity Entertainment Precinct, Auckland | Find on Google Maps
- Book now: $37 for 90-minute guided experience. experienceallblacks.com
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.
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.)
2. Set sail on a waka hourua
- Book now: Contact Te Toki for details. tetoki.org
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
- Location: 40 Wallace St., Mount Cook, Wellington | Find on Google Maps
- Book now: $140 for tasting menu. hiakai.co.nz
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.
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.
5. Tramp through Fiordland National Park along Hollyford Track
- Location: Shop 10/23 Town Centre, Te Anau | Find on Google Maps
- Book now: From $3,248 for a four-day experience. hollyfordtrack.com
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.”
6. Stargaze through a Māori lens in Tākāpo
- Location: 1 Motuariki Lane, Takapō | Find on Google Maps
- Book now: $31 for Dark Sky Experience, $116 for Summit Experience. darkskyproject.co.nz
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
- Shop now: whariki.co.nz
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.