Travel

Where to Uncover Māori Culture in Aotearoa

Immerse yourself.

No trip across the tahuaroa (ocean) to Aotearoa New Zealand is complete without uncovering some of the traditions and customs of the tangata whenua (original inhabitants of New Zealand). Māori culture is integral to contemporary Aotearoa New Zealand with tikanga (customs and traditional values)an important part of daily life, such as manaakitanga (the concept of welcoming guests and providing warm hospitality) or kaitiakitanga (the respect and guardianship Māori have for the natural world and their role in protecting their whenua, or land).

The Central North Island (Bay of Plenty, Hamilton-Waikato, Rotorua and Taupō) is home to a wealth of experience that offers insight into te ao Māori (Māori world-view). Here are the top destinations across the four regions where you can uncover and learn more about Māori culture in Aotearoa.

Bay of Plenty

The coastal Bay of Plenty is home to waterfront cities, sleepy beachside towns and cultural experiences that offer a rich experience.

Mataatua

In Whakatāne, you will find the revered Mataatua Wharenui: a fully carved Māori ancestral house that travelled the world for over a century, before returning home to its people – the Ngāti Awa Māori tribe of the Eastern Bay of Plenty.

An alternative to other more commercial cultural options available in the larger centres, Mataatua is a remarkably personal encounter defined by a rich and genuine insight into a fascinating culture, the legendary story of the house that came home and the warmth of welcome as visitors arrive as strangers, but leave as friends.

Whirinaki Forest Footsteps

The Whirinaki Rainforest is a majestic, ancient and spiritual realm where you will be taken for a guided walking journey into the heart of this vast, Jurassic-like forest. Become awestruck when you feel the earthly vibrations as the ngahere (forest) comes alive. The breath of Tāne (God of forests and of birds) will envelop you as you stand in the shadows of giants and walk in the footsteps of Aotearoa New Zealand’s forefathers.

Mauao Adventures

Mauao Adventures are all about educating visitors on Te Mauri o te Moana (the life essence of the oceans). The company specialises in stand up paddle boarding, waka ama (outrigger canoe) experiences, and walking tours of Mauao and is all about facilitating and nurturing your journey and connection with the sea by providing a safe, interactive and educational platform using ocean activities.

Hamilton-Waikato

The city of Hamilton is the hub of a network of smaller towns across the Waikato region, each with its own unique charms. Here you’ll find a wealth of cultural experiences that allow you to connect directly with the natural world.

Waitomo Glowworm Cave

Enter a whole new world at Waitomo Glowworm Cave, one of New Zealand’s best natural attractions. You can take a guided boat ride through the glowworm grotto and discover a world 30 million years in the making. You’ll marvel at Mother Nature’s light display as you glide silently through the starry wonderland. Many of the cave guides are direct descendants of the Māori chief who originally explored the cave, bringing you story-telling handed down from generation to generation.

Te Parapara at Hamilton Gardens

Hamilton Gardens is made up of over 18 beautifully landscaped gardens fitting into five different collections: Paradise, Productive, Fantasy, Cultivar and Landscape. The Te Parapara Garden at Hamilton Gardens is New Zealand’s first and only traditional Māori garden, and a rich record of the region’s pre-European history. Focusing on the plants, techniques and culture associated with pre-European Māori horticulture, food gathering and food preservation and storage, Te Parapara includes the built and carved structures of a rare palisade fencing (taepa), three forms of traditional Māori storehouses (pataka), a ceremonial gateway (waharoa) and ancestral pou.

Te Ara Wai Journeys

Te Ara Wai Journeys is a free, self-guided tour of culturally significant sites throughout the Waipā District. Discover places of local and national importance, and hear unique stories told by local experts. Central to Te Ara Wai Journeys is a website where you can access the stories online and on your mobile phone as you visit six zones of historical and cultural significance. These include the key sites of the 1863-64 New Zealand Land Wars, in which the British Army invaded the region and confiscated 1.2 million acres of land. At each stop along the way, you can watch a selection of short video and audio interviews with local experts giving different perspectives on what happened at each site. Storytellers include iwi leaders with direct links to the battles, as well as historians, writers, military experts, archaeologists and more.

Rotorua

Rotorua has you covered for culture, with a range of experiences that highlights te ao Māori and leaves travellers to the region rich in understanding.

TAMAKI MAORI VILLAGE

Te Pā Tū (previously Tamaki Māori Village)

Te Pā Tū celebrates Māori history and honours te taiao (the natural environment) with generous, genuine, and beautifully curated knowledge-sharing events. The experience has been designed to act as a tourism operation that gives more than it takes – sustaining land, place, stories and people. Alongside the sharing of entertainment and stories, Te Pā Tū shares the Māori culture through kai (food). Through the sharing of food and the stories that accompany it, including harvesting techniques and preparation processes, visitors can connect and learn about Māori lived experiences.

Te Puia

This experience features dramatic geysers, bubbling mud, and beautiful native bush explored through personalised guided tours. Te Puia is home to the New Zealand Māori Arts and Crafts Institute and offers a state-of-the-art Kiwi Conservation Centre where you can get close to New Zealand’s national treasure – the flightless native bird, the Kiwi. For generations Te Puia has welcomed manuhiri (visitors) from all over the world to explore the magic hidden within Te Whakarewarewa Valley geothermal area and the Southern Hemisphere’s largest active geyser, Pōhutu.

Mitai Māori Village

An evening at Mitai will give you an authentic introduction to Māori culture, leaving you amazed and in awe. A visit to the village promises traditional entertainment, education and an authentic hāngī dining experience. Enter the world of Mitai, and learn about the history of this once-flourishing area.

Taupō

Home to ancient forests alive with birdsong, the thundering Huka Falls and steaming geothermal valleys with rejuvenating hot springs – Taupō is a must-see region when taking a New Zealand mini-break with meaning.

Ngātoroirangi Mine Bay Māori Rock Carvings

The giant Māori Rock Carving of Ngatoroirangi on Lake Taupo has been hailed as one of New Zealand’s most extraordinary contemporary Māori artworks. Towering 14 metres above the deep water of Lake Taupō, the carving has become one of the North Island’s biggest tourist attractions. Inspired by a vision of a tattooed face, marae-taught carver Matahi Whakataka-Brightwell created the likeness to be a permanent connection of her family to the land.

The Haka Shop

At the Haka Shop you will meet the real locals of Taupō to hear the real stories of the iwi of the area. The Haka Shop welcomes you with their special philosophy of interacting with visitors in an up close and personal way – whanaungatanga (sharing the love). Here you’ll feel part of the whanau.

Opotaka Historic Reserve

Opotaka is the site of a historical Māori pa (fortified village) where you can learn about the history of the famous Ka Mate Haka, see the remains of the Māori settlement, and enjoy spectacular views across Lake Rotoaira to Mt Tongariro. The site has been restored in recent years, and is now managed by Heritage New Zealand.

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Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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