To know Bubbles Mihinui was to love her.

She was softly spoken, articulate, ladylike and had a smile that could light up a dark room.

Her frail, slow-moving 86-year-old frame was rarely seen without her walking stick in one hand and her kete (flax handbag) in the other.

If you wanted to know anything about Whakarewarewa - you'd ask Bubbles.

If you wanted to host dignitaries in Rotorua - you'd ask Bubbles.

If you wanted advice on Maori protocol, flax weaving or kapa haka - you'd ask Bubbles.

But if you wanted to learn to drive or cook Bubbles would be your last port of call.

As hundreds of mourners streamed through Te Pakira marae at Whakarewarewa this week for her tangi, stories about Bubbles flowed.

Until two years ago, Bubbles could still be seen driving her turquoise car around town on her way to appointments and community functions.

It was always to her family's surprise that she kept passing her driving test.

"Mum was a terrible driver," her daughter Watu says.

The gears were her biggest problem - but she refused to drive an automatic because, in her eyes, they were for people who couldn't drive.

Even her mokopuna, Makarena Raimona, said it was embarrassing driving with her because she's always revved the car in first gear and would take ages to change up to second, despite the noise of the engine.

Watu says that in the latter years, they noticed four big holes in the side of their house near the driveway.

"But mum would always say 'no, don't know how that got there'."

After a series of minor strokes a couple of years ago, a doctor finally told Bubbles that it was probably best she did not drive anymore - much to the gratitude of her family.

Bubbles is the mother of five children - Whakarato, Roimata, Watu, Roku and Mahara. A sixth child, who was also called Roku, drowned in a stream in Whakarewarewa when he was 18 months old.

Roimata, one of the three daughters, attributes much of her mother's success to the support she was given by their father, Whakapu Werata Mihinui (Ted).

While Ted worked as a fencer and then at Waipa Mill, he was the main home keeper and did most of the cooking.

"If you ever tasted mum's cooking, you'd know why," Roimata jokes.

"We had a wonderful father. He was the most gentle of men you could find. He allowed her much more freedom to become the person she became than 99 per cent of the men today."

The kind and loving nature of Ted and Bubbles meant the Mihinui household was never empty.

The three bedrooms of the Froude St home would always be full with visitors, friends, children of friends, probationary teachers at Whakarewarewa School, welfare children and even hitchhikers Ted stumbled across who couldn't get a lift.

Roimata remembers once sleeping in a big bed with her parents and three other siblings.

"It was absolutely wonderful," she says.

Despite Bubbles' health problems, her death on Monday night was a shock to her family and friends.

Dorothy Huhana Mihinui was her real name but Aunty Bubbles or Kuia Bubbles was what those who knew her called her.

Why the name Bubbles? Even Bubbles didn't know. The pet name was given to her by her mother but no one knew why - only that their family was known for giving people nicknames.

She was born in Whakarewarewa Village in 1919 to her Maori mother Watu Waretini and Australian father Samuel Sewell.

Bubbles and her brother were sent to Auckland to live with their grandparents when her mother became ill. She died at the age of 27.

Her grandfather, Waretini Te Mutukuri, was described as her mentor.

When her grandfather retired from work in the Tourist Department in Auckland in the 1930s, the family moved back to Rotorua.

Following a family tradition, Bubbles set her heart on guiding.

Tuhourangi chief Mita Taupopoki picked the guides for the village and Guide Bella Papakura became Bubbles' teacher.

Guide Bubbles was registered in the role in 1938. While she hosted many dignitaries, her philosophy was to treat everyone as if they were a VIP.

After being awarded the Sir Kingi Ihaka Award in 2004 for her services to tourism she told the Daily Post she loved showing people the real Maori culture. "When I was teaching guides at Whakarewarewa, I'd tell them to always 'don't make it up, you don't have to' ... Tourists don't believe you about a lot of things you tell them until you actually show them. It's one thing to talk about our culture but it's another to actually show people. If you open up a steam box and show them the food cooking inside, give them a taste, and they are just so amazed by it. We have such a beautiful culture to share with the world."

In 1982, she was appointed public relations officer for the New Zealand Maori Arts and Crafts Institute, now Te Puia. Retiring in 1985, she was approached to stand for the Rotorua District Council but she didn't think guiding and politics mixed.

As well as guiding, working at the institute and keeping up her roles in the community (including being the secretary of Te Pakira Marae committee and secretary of the Whakarewarewa Football Club), Bubbles also ran concert parties at hotels and had a cleaning contract - although as the daughters recall, their mother had the contract and they had to go and do the cleaning.

Bubbles lived a long life despite being a smoker until she was in her 70s. She was among those who took a Waitangi Tribunal claim against the Government for encouraging Maori to smoke and not earlier warning against the health dangers. The claim wasn't successful.

But her involvement with the Government wasn't always controversial. She was held in high regard by all government officials - Prime Minister Helen Clark took time out from her busy schedule to attend Bubbles' tangi this week.

It was hotly debated inside the meeting house where Miss Clark would sit, considering the meeting house was packed with people and tradition means the seats are only for men.

Miss Clark took a place right beside Bubbles' coffin, alongside female family members and close friends.

Watu admits the family was "quite chuffed" to see Miss Clark.

"She has such a tight schedule and tangihana can be quite time consuming."

One of the proudest moments in Bubbles' life was in 2002 when she became a Distinguished Companion of New Zealand Order of Merit.

Watu says that as the family were preparing for the big ceremony at Te Pakira Marae, one of the mokopuna wanted to know what the award meant.

"I tried to explain that it was like becoming a dame. She asked 'does that mean we call kuia Sir Bubbles now?"