I stepped into the dim foyer of Hiakai, the restaurant owned by Monique Fiso, one of New Zealand’s most buzzed about chefs, and took a moment to fix myself up. A day spent wandering “Windy Wellington” hadn’t done my hair any favors, and I was jet-lagged, disheveled, and late.
But as I ascended a staircase toward the 30-seat dining room, I was immediately soothed by the sounds of the New Zealand psych-rock band Unknown Mortal Orchestra emanating from the stereo in the pared-down space. I found my seat at the chef’s counter, a four-person bar made from smooth, dark stone. I took a breath.
Hiakai means “having a craving for food” in Māori, the language (and ethnicity) of New Zealand’s indigenous people, and Fiso—whose mother is Māori and whose father is Samoan—treats guests to traditional Māori flavors and methods at her restaurant.
I had come to New Zealand with a basic understanding of Māori culture—that the indigenous people consider themselves to be one with the natural world. My hope was to leave with a better sense of how Māori beliefs shape the nation we know today.
I observed Fiso carefully squeeze puréed mamaku (a fern used in Māori traditional medicine) onto a thin slice of beef, then raise her tattooed arm to signal that the dish was ready. Kūmara (sweet potato) gnocchi prepared over a hāngi (pit oven) soon appeared in front of me, and I let its sweet, smoky flavors linger in my mouth. Fiso sprinkled small, white koromiko flower petals on a plate of oysters from Kaipara Harbor, an inlet in the region where Māori tribes settled after arriving from Polynesia by waka (canoe). I downed an oyster expecting a briny tang but was surprised by a piquant kick from the horopito (pepper tree) mignonette granita.
Toward the end of the evening, the kitchen slowed as I ate a mānuka (tea tree)-smoked chocolate truffle with toasted harakeke (New Zealand flax) seeds. Fiso and I chatted about my trip from New York City, where she first made her name as a chef in Michelin-star restaurants. I learned that her favorite arepa joint is near my apartment, and at that moment I didn’t feel so far from home.
A few days later, I took a 30-minute flight in a four-seater plane to Great Barrier Island, a 110-square-mile island 60 miles across the Hauraki Gulf from Auckland. Its vast beaches, dense forests, and green pastures are shared by fewer than 1,000 human residents, as well as cows, sheep, and a native owl species named for the sound of their calls: In English, they’re known as morepork; in Māori, ruru.
On the Barrier (Aotea in Māori), there are no streetlights, road dividers, banks, or ATMs. There is a café called My Fat Puku, and that’s where I met Opo and his wife, Elaine. We began to chat on the outdoor patio after I sat down with my flat white coffee. Opo told me that he is a Māori elder, responsible for maintaining the traditions of his iwi (tribe) and hapu (related clan). He teaches young members of the island’s Māori community how to navigate, calculate seasons, and tell time by using the stars. Celestial knowledge is especially relevant on Aotea, which—thanks to minimal light pollution—was designated one of the world’s few International Dark Sky Sanctuaries in 2017.
Our conversation about stars made me realize it was time to meet Benny, my guide from Star Treks tour company, who was waiting for me at Trillium Lodge across the island. We were scheduled for an evening hike. Before I left, Elaine asked, “Do you mind if I sing you a quick Māori proverb?”
Elaine took a deep breath and closed her eyes. When she opened them, we made eye contact, and she began to sing in a soft tone.
“He aha te mea nui o te ao / He tāngata, he tāngata, he tāngata.”
Elaine smiled before repeating the words. I smiled back. Then she taught me what the proverb meant: “What is the most important thing in the world? It is the people, it is the people, it is the people.”
My feet squished in the swampy wetlands as Benny led us to the Kaitoke Hot Springs. Behind me were Benny’s childhood friend William and Carol, a photographer who had moved to the area from Auckland a few years back. As we passed beneath tall umbrella ferns and thick kānuka trees, they asked what I thought of their home.
“Well, I’ve noticed that everyone waves at each other’s cars in passing,” I said.
They all laughed. Benny explained that there are different waving “styles,” including the peace sign, the full hand wave, and the nod and smile.
We reached a clearing near the hot springs just before sunset, and Benny laid out a home-cooked dinner that his wife, Eve, had prepared. We devoured freshly foraged mussels with brown rice, and fresh lettuce mixed with bell peppers and carrots. After we ate, we took a long, moonlit soak. I leaned back against the earthy edge of the pool and concentrated on the cloud of steam rising from the water. While the lower half of my body simmered, a light drizzle cleared the smell of sulfur in the air and cooled my upper half.
On the walk home, we stopped along a boardwalk built to help hikers traverse the thick swamp. There, we had an unobstructed view of the sky. We sat down on our backpacks while Benny prepared peppery kawakawa tea from an endemic plant used by New Zealand’s indigenous people to treat digestive issues.
“How wild is it that Māori navigators virtually transformed this night sky into a compass?” William said. We tilted our heads back to take in the thousands of glistening stars.
I spent my last day in a native forest on the North Island granted special protections because of its significance to the resident Tūhoe Māori tribe. To access certain parts of the land, called Te Urewera, you must be formally welcomed.
Hinewai, the lead guide of the company Te Urewera Treks, greeted me at the end of a long dirt driveway before leading me down a path toward her camp. I stood on a dewy patch of grass beside a trickling stream while Hinewai recited a songlike karanga. She told me to dip my hands into the creek and splash my face three times. That final flick of water completed the pōwhiri (welcome) and cleared me to pass through to the Te Urewera Treks Bush Camp, where modest tented structures sit amid the rain forest. Before we started our trek, Hinewai explained that by tradition, food and drinks must be shared by host and guest.
“If you don’t mind me asking, exactly which Māori tradition is this?” I inquired.
“You haven’t been told about manaakitanga?” she asked. “The idea is to show others care and consideration to the extent that you’d transform a stranger into family.”
I bit into the toast that Hinewai had prepared and thought, “That’s what I’ve been experiencing in New Zealand at every turn.”
How to do this trip
Assistant editor Sarah Buder traveled to New Zealand on a nine-day trip with Cox & Kings, a luxury travel company that offers small-group and private, customized journeys worldwide. Her itinerary focused on the country’s Māori culture and included stops in the North and South Islands. To personalize a trip according to your own interests, dates, and budget, contact a Cox & Kings specialist. Price depends on itinerary.
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