"There is a feeling of unity now and diversity I have never seen."
Juliana James and her sister Susan Ngamane first came to commemorate Waitangi Day at the Treaty Grounds about 15 years ago, soon after the Foreshore and Seabed debacle.
They returned this year, travelling together from the Coromandel, and say things this time could not be more different.
"Back then you'd struggle to fill a school hall at the dawn service, and it was very divided, a feeling of us and them. Now it is us, us, us."
Similar sentiments were expressed throughout the day at Waitangi, from people of all ages and nationalities, who had come from all corners of the country for the experience.
There was one protester - a woman who spoke out at the dawn ceremony against the Government's abortion law reforms, and inequality.
And it was not that grievances and breaches of Te Tiriti o Waitangi were forgotten, nor forgiven, but simply that there was hope and things were improving, and that the kōrero (conversation) about how to do so was flowing freely.
It was a quieter affair than it would have been but for the recent Northland and Auckland Covid-19 cases.
About 3000 people attended the dawn service, and up to 25,000 through the day - well down on 2020, the 180th anniversary, when about 40,000 people attended.
But for those attending - scanning and sanitising on entry - many felt a sense of pride of place in the world to be there.
Waitangi National Trust chairman Pita Tipene, who opened the 5am dawn ceremony, said the feeling among tangata whenua and government officials was "upbeat" and recognised how lucky we were to have created a sanctuary where Covid hasn't overtaken us.
Bishop Te Kītohi Wiremu Pikaahu, who officiated the ceremony, said the positive spirit of Waitangi was gaining momentum.
"Because the Prime Minister, her delegation, government ministers, they come in the spirit of unity."
The dignitaries even broke with tradition and sat outside Te Whare Rūnanga - not wanting to be in an enclosed space - heightening the sense of unity, and perhaps starting a new tradition in itself.
People mingled and had kōrero about what the day meant for them, and where as a nation we were heading.
The chance to do so was enhanced by the fact they had a compostable plate of hot food in their hands, thanks to the Prime Minister's now traditional Waitangi barbecue breakfast: a tradition that now caters for 2500 people.
Dinesh Khadka, who migrated to New Zealand from Nepal 20 years ago, was visiting Waitangi for the first time with family and friends.
"I feel like the attitudes in New Zealand have changed, accepting all communities, and this is what Te Tiriti seems to be about," said Khadka, president of the New Zealand Nepal Society.
"Before it didn't feel like home, but now it does."
Unity was a common sentiment over the past several days, from general attendees to politicians and iwi leaders.
"I have been moved by the answers you have brought to us since last year," Te Rūnanga o Ngāti Hine chairman Te Waihoroi Shortland told Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and government ministers during the pōwhiri on Thursday.
"This is the first time I have been on Waitangi, and been awakened, and I thank you for that."
He was mostly referring to the recently-announced $150 million investment fund to buoy on the stalled Ngāpuhi Treaty settlement process.
But he, and others, also noted the Government's progress on reforming Oranga Tamariki, and finding a solution at Ihumātao.
The constitutional question remained a hot topic, as was Māori rights to freshwater.
Down at the forum next to Te Tii Marae rich discussions were had, including about the closest thing that came to conflict at this year's Waitangi: the debate over who could speak during the whaikōrero stage of the pōwhiri.
Opposition leader Judith Collins spoke out about not being afforded the opportunity to speak during the politicians' pōwhiri, with Ardern being the only woman allowed.
As Māori leaders and tikanga experts pointed out, the powhiri, like much of kawa (protocol), was about balance - women led the karanga, men the whaikōrero, and together in waiata and hui to follow.
As always, one of the highlights was a waka display culminating in a mass haka by about 300 kaihoe (paddlers) on Tii Beach.
Thirteen waka took part this year including the waka hourua (double-hulled voyaging waka) Ngahiraka Mai Tawhiti, built by the late Sir Hekenukumai Busby.
The great waka Ngātokimatawhaorua didn't take to the water this year because of the sheer number of men needed to paddle it. The waka takes a crew of 80.
Speaking to media Ardern implored every New Zealander experience visiting Waitangi, on Waitangi Day.
"One of the most consistent things I hear from people coming for the first time is it is a fantastic experience, not the place seen in the past.
"Not that we should shy away from protest. We shouldn't take protests at Waitangi as failure - this is a day where we should be able to reflect on where we are as a nation and we shouldn't be afraid of that.
"But this is a place all New Zealanders should come."
- Additional reporting Peter de Graaf, Adam Pearse, Claire Trevett