∞ Originally published on Whywanderlust.ca on February, 6, 2021. ∞

Joe Waide emerges from the forest onto the Lake Wanaka beach, bare chested, pale fall New Zealand sun glinting off of his ceremonial wood taiaha staff, his features ringed in intricate ta moko black-paint tattoos as he launches into a Māori powhiri welcome his ancestors have uttered for centuries.

“Behold the breath of life,” Waide chants in Te Reo, the Māori language, as he moves through complex patterns of the traditional wero (challenge) hongi (greeting) and haka (dance) that helps to ground manuhiri (visitors) to the land. 

“Thank you to above for bringing us here,” intones the owner-operator of the South Island’s WanaHaka Wine Tours and Māori Culture. “I would like to acknowledge the house we stand on… the Ngāi Tahu, the iwi, the tribe of this region… our ancestors and those that have come before us to give us what we have today.”

What New Zealand offers today is a Māori cultural renaissance. The Indigenous tourism industry here has come a long way from packaged haka performances, reconstructed villages and touristy hangi feasts — similar to Hawaiian luaus. Now there are many more authentic options as a new generation looks to tell truer stories to visitors grounded in the unique histories of more than 55 iwi. Māori in tourism today are more likely to act as cultural interpreters on everything from nature hikes and weka canoeing to wild food foraging, cooking and wine tours — granting visitors the deeper understanding of this fascinating culture.

Some 2.5 million international visitors (6.5 per cent of them Canadians) interacted with Māori cultural experiences while on vacation here in 2019, up more than nine per cent in just one year, according to New Zealand Māori Tourism. Last year, revenues from Māori-related tourism reached new highs of $1.97 billion, which the association credits to “manuhiri seek(ing) deeper and more meaningful engagement” with locals. This trend is creating sustainable jobs and entrepreneurial opportunities for Māori, who are 16.5 per cent of New Zealand’s population, yet face greater unemployment (8 per cent in 2019 versus 4 per cent for the general population) and social issues, the legacy of historic racism and systemic oppression which today’s generation is working hard to undo.

“When I went to school, we didn’t learn Māori in class. Now, even primary schools have their own haka,” Waide explains, noting there are hundreds of haka that tell iwi stories — something like a visual clan tartan or family crest in motion. “Haka is about connection, regardless of your culture,” he continues. “It is a sacred dance. It represents the values and ideals of what it means to live in Aotearoa.”


Rotorua, a town set amid an elemental landscape, is the North Island’s Māori heartland and the centre of the Indigenous tourism boom. Here, the earth’s youngest geothermal centre, formed after the eruption of Mt. Tarawera in 1886, blankets the area in steam from sulphurous lakes, bubbling hot mud pools, geysers and craters. These geological wonders are a main attraction, but so too are ecological adventures, as I discover at Treetops Lodge and Estate wilderness retreat, where Māori naturopath Dani Hunwick reveals the hidden feast in the estate’s forest on a Māori Food Trail hike.

I follow her into the 800-year-old forest, ducking under ropy vines, huge ferns with umbrella canopies and bizarre ti kouka cabbage trees with spindly leaves. Under her touch, the forest turns into a pharmacy. I brush by a red-berried bush and learn the maku maku leaves are used as tea to help with tired eyes and burns. I pass Manuka trees with antibacterial properties (see sidebar on Manuka honey), and clock the kawa kawa plant, which tastes faintly like parsley and has an analgesic effect.

“We believe all plants have a spiritual power and purpose,” says Hunwick, who works as an interpretive guide and lodge spa masseuse. “Because plants have different properties, you can tune into the plant and it will tell you how it can help you.” 

We plunge into her outdoor grocery store, sampling edible plants such as pikopiko, a type of fiddlehead fern and slender supplejack vines that taste like green sea beans. Karamu leaves make a coffee-like infusion and pitch from the giant black mamaku fern is delicious when roasted.

Foragers who taste the forest canopy’s bounty can also arrange to prepare it in one of the estate’s Wild Food Cooking School classes. 

The forest also fuels Māori spirituality. Both the karamu and matipu trees are considered sacred, their branches used in blessings, and some Māori meditate under patete trees.

“In our culture, if modern day life gets heavy we just come into the bush and we let it all go here.” Hunwick says. “That is our connection to our land and our ancestors. Our generation is bringing back Māori culture,” she adds. “More people are willing to teach our holistic ways of relating. We see the need for it: Western culture is mind-numbing, you forget to care about your land and your people. There is more to life than this and our ancestors knew it.”


In central Rotorua, there is more to explore. Get close up to geothermic gems at Kuirau Park, a public park with free access to geothermal mud pool foot baths, hot springs, steaming Lake Kuirau, picnic tables and trails. Or spend the day at Waimangu Volcanic Valley preserve and take a self-guided hike or hire a nature interpreter to explore Frying Pan Lake, one of the world’s largest natural hot springs, the shimming blue waters of the Inferno Crater, the Pink Bay geyser and hiking in this wildlife refuge spotting rare birds and plants.

Make sure to experience the serene Whakarewarewa Forest: take a stroll along the many trails, like the Redwoods Memorial Grove, or get above it all on the Redwoods Treewalk, a suspended 40-minute interpretive walk way wending around 120 year old trees 700 metres off the ground. Not a hiker? Bikers can explore the forest on downhill mountain bike treks with local companies like MDA Experiences, founded by two Māori brothers, which also offers volcano heli-tours, waka canoe paddling sessions and cultural visits to the marae (community meeting houses) of Lake Rotoiti. 

After a day outside, immerse yourself in one of Rotorua’s famed hot springs — waters known as waiariki, or water of the gods. Māori used natural hot pools in the region for bathing, healing and recreation, and, on a break from exploring, so can you. Try the Polynesian Spa, founded on the site of a 1925 bathhouse on the shores of Lake Rotorua. It boasts two natural mineral springs: the alkaline Te Whangapipiro spring is soothing for muscles, softens skin, and has antiseptic properties. Acidic water from the Te Pupunitanga spring is good for arthritis, aches and pains. Grab a kiwi fruit smoothie, book a geothermal mud wrap, sink under the surface and watch steam ribbons rise.

Rotorua is also an excellent place to sample memorable Māori-inspired meals. Dine at the Wai Ora Lakeside Spa Resort’s Mokoia Restaurant for Pacific Rim cuisine with an indigenous flair such as rewana potato bread, crayfish with kumara sweet potato puree, seafood with karengo dressing and New Zealand cheese plates. Or try Prince’s Gate Hotel’s indigenous-ingredient infused tasting menu, featuring hangi-cooked high country lamb shank, Blue Wharhou fish with warrigal (sea spinach), smoked venison with horopito pepper, eel and Manuka honey, paired with smart New Zealand wines like Hawkes Bay Te Mata Estate Cabernet Merlot. Gourmets will adore an outing with Charles Royal Māori Food Trails, a local chef-led outfit that offers exclusive bush tours, cooking classes, cruises, homestays and meals with local families incorporating indigenous ingredients such as dried horopito leaves for pepper, kawa kawa, a variety of bush basil, and taewa, local purple potatoes.

For simpler snacks, Rotorua’s walkable downtown and inventive EAT Street are rife with restaurants and streets come alive on weekends and Thursday evenings with music, markets and food trucks. Find fresh fare at Our House Rotorua, which offers beer-battered oysters and rewana fried bread, mussel fritters with a side of kumara fries, and steamed pudding and pavlova. Or test out Terrace Kitchen’s roasted bone marrow, Manuka-smoked pork ribs, or lamb shoulder with a side of buttery kamo kamo on their geothermally heated patio.


Back on the roads of scenic Central Otago wine country with Waide’s WanaHaka tour, I listen as he offers up a new narrative of the region in between vineyard stops for sips of Sauvignon Blancs and Pinot Noirs at area wineries like Rippon, Atkin’s Folly and Wooing Tree.

He shares how provisions in the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi, and a later 1907 Suppression Act, stripped Māori of their land and language and institutionalized discrimination. Only in the late 1970s did the Waitangi Tribunal Commission find the treaty unjust clearing the way for iwis to negotiate directly with government in the1990s to sign a new treaty securing more economic support, including scholarships, business training and grants and a revised inclusive school curriculum.

 Waide explains how despite this treatment, in the Māori tradition the local iwi — descendents of Māori settlers who arrived in the 1100s from Polynesia – still feel called to serve as dedicated guardians of the land and feel a sense of obligation toward the environment, no matter which winery owns it on paper.

Increasingly those owners are Māori. To date there are a dozen Māori-owned wineries in New Zealand. Māori Point Vineyard and Kuru Kuru Wines are located in Central Otago, while Tiki Wine and Vineyards was established in Christchurch, Tohu Wines in Marlborough, Te Pa Family Vineyards in Blenheim, Bird Wines in Tauranga and Ostler Wine in the Waitaki Valley, some of them members of a new Māori wine collective called Tuku.

Lately, he enthuses, while consumers have been embracing Māori wine, food, experiences and culture, New Zealand government and tourism organizations have been embracing the Māori conservation concept of tiaki to offset the effect of millennials in VW vans “free camping” outside designated parks and dumping waste at ecologically sensitive sites.

Tiaki is a principle to empower visitors to take that step into also embracing and protecting the land,” Waide explains with passion in his voice “being stewards rather then destroying it with travel and tourism.”

I take his words to heart. Hours after we part, I glance in a mirror and see he’s also left his mark: a smudge of ta moko tattoo paint on my forehead left from our greeting. It’s faint, but there: proof of New Zealand’s Māori magic and wisdom, shared.


North Island Māori tourism options outside Rotorua include guided walking tours with Footprints Waipoua through spectacular natural landscapes. Guides from the Te Roroa iwi take visitors through the Waipoua Forest in Northlands, sharing legends and wisdom about the environment. In the Wirinaki Forest Park in Central North Island, the Ngati Whare and Tuhoe iwis offer similar hikes entwining Māori history with education on traditional medicine.

If you prefer solo exploration, you can download an app created by a Māori-owned tech start up, Arataki Cultural Trails, which will narrate your trail walk around The Mount near Tauranga Harbour in the northeast, adding Māori perspectives to your Bay of Plenty tour.

On the South Island, the coastal fishing community of Kaikoura lays claim to one of New Zealand’s most successful Māori-owned marine wildlife tour companies, Whale Watch Kaikoura. Four families mortgaged their homes to buy their first boat in 1987 to provide jobs to the economically struggling Ngai Kuri iwi in town. Today, it employs 75 people and has won international tourism awards for sustainably showing visitors sperm whales.


What kind of honey is worth $2,800 a jar? 
New Zealand’s liquid gold. This isn’t just any Kiwi bee sweet treat — it’s an antibacterial certified natural health product called manuka honey produced almost exclusively in this country. 
Honey production can be a lucrative business.

The $2,800 honey comes from the manuka groves of The True Honey Co., but there are dozens of other brands commanding rich prices. Treetops Lodge and Estate produces and bottles their own house brand, made with 30 per cent manuka flower trees and wildflowers. In December, when the manuka blossoms bloom in the valleys, the land looks white as snow.

Real manuka honey doesn’t just taste good, it could help you feel good. The honey’s said to heal — the result of antioxidant properties shown to kill bacteria in labs. The antibacterial activity is caused by a chemical called methylgluoxal (MG) in the honey. All real New Zealand manuka honey is regulated and rated: marked with MG 85 or Unique Manuka Factor UMF 5+ at the lowest potency up to the purest quality at MG 1455 or UMF 28+ which commands top dollar internationally.


Kia Ora!: a greeting; roughly, be well

Haere mai: welcome

Aotearoa: New Zealand, land of the long white cloud

Māoritanga: Māori culture
Ta moko: Māori tattooing

Te Kunga: cultural protocols
Manaaki manuhiri: care and respect for all

Mana: a person’s honour or reputation

Whanau: family and close friends

Kaitiaki: guardians of the land
Manaakitanga: Māori hospitality

Tangata whenua: indigenous people of the land


Tourism New Zealand: Newzealand.com/int/
Air New Zealand: Airnewzealand.ca
Māori tourism: Māoritourism.co.nz
Rotorua Tourism: rotoruanz.com
Wanaka Tourism: Lakewanaka.co.nz 
Tuku Māori Wine Collective: Tuku.nz
Tiaki New Zealand: Tiakinewzealand.com
WanaHaka: Wanahaka.co.nz
Treetops Lodge Māori Food Trail: treetops.co.nz/experience/wild-food-experiences/

Mokoia Restaurant: Mokoiarestaurant.co.nz

Prince’s Gate Hotel: princesgate.co.nz/taste-indigenous-new-zealand

Elaine O’Connor travelled as a guest of Tourism New Zealand and Air New Zealand. Neither reviewed this article. Read more travel tales at Whywanderlust.ca, follow on Instagram @Why.Wanderlust or on Twitter @WhyWanderlust.

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