Whoever said "Look, don't touch" didn't know much about Kiwis. These are some of the best places to get hands-on with our history and traditions, writes Ewan McDonald
Literally, figuratively and mythologically, there's only one place to begin our voyage. At Ōpononi, Manea Footprints of Kupe immerses visitors in Te Ao Māori: the entry past carvings of gods; the pōwhiri welcoming them into the whare where a 4D experience recounts the journey of Kupe, who triggered Polynesian migration to Aotearoa; cultural performances before the 75-minute tour ends beside Hokianga Harbour.
A few clicks south, Footprints Waipoua's twilight tour is an entrancing way to experience the ages-old forest, local guides sharing legends and waiata as day changes to night and an ancient landscape comes to life.
In the neighbourhood: Awesome Adventures Hokianga's jetski tours, shared kaimoana dinners, hikes and fishing; Tu Tika Tours' days with local families.
It ain't the chimpanzees' tea-party anymore. Te Wao Nui covers a fifth of reimagined Auckland Zoo, showcasing different regions from alpine heights to dense forests and sandy beaches, encountering more than 100 native plants and 60 bird and animal species.
A cornerstone of Kiwi culture, suit up for the All Blacks in Tāmaki Makaurau at SkyCity's state-of-the-art shrine to the team; at Haka on the Park in (where else?) Eden Park, visitors learn the district's pre-rugby heritage and practice haka moves in the changing room before performing it on the sacred turf.
In the neighbourhood: Te Manutaupua Tours explore Auckland's history from a Māori perspective; Howick Historical Village from a settler perspective.
Come face-to-face with that history. In 1863-1864 Waikato rang to battle cries, soldiers' boots and warships as 18,000 British troops and 2000 Waikato Māori fought for the fertile farmland. The war's impact lingers today: learn the why, when, where and why via the Waikato War Driving App, a self-guided tour of 13 important sites from (surprise!) Newmarket to Pirongia.
In the neighbourhood: Waikato Museum's behind-the-scenes taonga tour; feel the rush at Waihī's Gold Discovery Centre.
Bay of Plenty
To Whakatāne, said to be our longest continually occupied settlement and the remarkable story of a wharenui that travelled the world for over a century before returning to its people.
Ngāti Awa built Mataatua in 1875. Within a few years, it was pulled down and sent to Sydney for an exhibition, moving to Melbourne and London before pitching up in Otago Museum in 1925.
Iwi won a long-running case to have the house returned, restoring and opening it in 2011. In their words, "If commercial cultural attractions are not your cup of kawakawa tea, and a personal, interactive and genuine immersion into Māori culture is what you seek, make your way to Mataatua."
Rotorua, as you'd expect from its history as a tourist town and heritage as a genuinely bicultural city, has an unfair share of excellent experiences. Head to Tamaki Māori Village, a recreated site in a 200-year-old tawa forest to enjoy traditions, performances, and make and eat a ginormous puku burger (it defeated this burger-lover).
Mitai Māori Village connects Māori and Pasifika voyages through music, dance and food while longer-established Whakarewarewa, Te Puia geyser and Totally Tarawera volcano tours are still worth your time and money.
There'll be several "only in…" experiences in this whirlwind trip, two in Tairāwhiti Gisborne. From Ruatoria, a Ngāti Porou guide takes guests on an off-road ride to sunrise up Maunga Hikurangi, first point on the mainland warmed by Rā each day.
Voted "one of the world's best marine life experiences", Dive Tatapouri allows visitors to interact with stingrays and other sea life, as well as local culture. Of which there's plenty: nearby, Paikea rode a whale to land at Whāngārā (yep, that book and movie); Hikurangi, raised by Māui when he fished up Te Ika-a-Māui; James Cook's first landing.
But it's not all about the past. Just outside Napier, Waimarama Maori Tours hosts one of most authentic experiences of living Māori culture and heritage at 62ha Hakikino Conservation Reserve, the iwi's historical birthplace where heritage is preserved through community initiatives.
In the neighbourhood: Art Deco Trust walking tours; try to escape from the country's oldest prison; Artists for Oceans, paintings on Napier's sea walls and buildings.
It doesn't get any more hands-on than paddling a canoe down Te Awa Tupua (Whanganui River) while listening to the history of people and place told by a cultural navigator. Owhango Adventures offer guided journeys that are hopefully not totally immersive.
The wonderfully named Marton Sash and Door Cycle Trail is a Grade 2, 2 to 3 hour track along a historic bush tramway through regenerating native forest with views of the central peaks.
It might not be the Mississippi, but riverboats have cruised this waterway since the 1880s. Two still do: paddle steamer Waimarie, salvaged from the riverbed after 50 years, and Wairua, restored to 1900s glory and offering day trips or bespoke cruises from Whanganui.
There's much more to Taranaki than the maunga. Nau Mai New Plymouth Tours creates small-group tours of sights large and small, guides sharing stories and local knowledge. Garden-lovers will make for Tūpare, one of the country's finest cultivations, appreciating views over high tea in the gorgeous arts and crafts homestead.
Palmerston North has a fascinating (no, honestly) concept in He Ara Kotahi, a 7km path linking the city and Linton Military Camp.
Another 1.8km route connects to Massey University, bringing to life the area's natural, indigenous, cultural, military, agricultural and contemporary history in one easy walk. The city hosts our newest native wildlife recovery centre, a chance to meet animals rehabilitating after treatment at Massey University's Wildbase Hospital.
In the neighbourhood: Te Āpiti Manawatū Gorge, a lush natural playground with native bush and birds, walking and mountain-bike tracks.
Pukāha National Wildlife Centre, 20 minutes north of Masterton, is a national treasure, the breeding centre for kiwi, kōkako and kākā (giant eels, tuatara and wēta hang out too) inside the ancient forest. Visit the trees with Te Hīkoi o Pūkaha, a 2hr tour where iwi guides tell of whakapapa, wairuatanga and whenua, and complete the experience at Rere Te Maramara carving workshop.
On your next visit to the capital, sidestep Te Papa, Zealandia and the cable car and seek out He Tohu at the National Library to eyeball Te Tiriti o Waitangi, the 1893 Women's Suffrage Petition and He Whakaputanga, the 1835 Declaration of Independence. We'd suggest a guided tour of Parliament, but you've probably heard enough from the Beehive recently.
From a Pākehā perspective, Nelson is one of our older cities (my five- and six-fathers pitched a tent in 1841). That story is told at Willowbank Heritage Village - vintage shop displays and dress-ups, tea parties, shooting range, burger bar… oh, hang on… and Founders Heritage Park. An alternative view comes while paddling the coastline with Waka Abel Tasman, tāngata whenua guides relating stories of tūpuna and passing on some te reo Māori.
Twenty million years in the making, Kahurangi National Park on the West Coast is one of our most surreal, least explored regions. An easy day tour from Westport or Reefton, Ōpārara Kahurangi National Park Guided Tours transport visitors to ancient moa bones and complex cave systems.
The coast's recent history is entwined with resources: see the rugged ways of mining life at Denniston and Reefton, pioneer hardship at Shantytown and, at Hokitika, marvel at the greenstone that gave the middle island its name - Te Wai Pounamu.
In the neighbourhood (it's a pretty big 'hood): Haast's spectacular beach, lake and wetland World Heritage sites.
Crossing the Alps, the Ko Tāne experience is sensibly and sensitively sited inside Christchurch's Willowbank Nature Reserve, blending kapa haka – and learning poi and the haka, and sharing kai – with the motu's original plants and wildlife. Leave "New Zealand's most English city" for Akaroa where Marie Haley co-opts the district's nature, history and cultures in The Seventh Generation, encompassing her background as local, wildlife ranger and wildside co-ordinator into tours celebrating sustainable lifestyles, regenerating landscapes and promoting an ethical future (personally recommended).
In the neighbourhood: Punt on the Avon, waka on Ōtākaro. Your choice.
Set aside 13.8 billion years for the world-leading Dark Sky Project at Takapō Tekapo where science, Māori heritage and multi-media come together in a Big Bang that explains how we all got here.
Queenstown is pretty much one giant immersive experience so let's fly on to Wanaka and WanaHaka, wine tourism that connects the Māori footprint to lands producing renowned reds and whites.
In the neighbourhood: Hayes Engineering Works and Homestead, Oturehua, a Tohu Whenua site honouring Kiwi inventor Ernest Hayes and family.
Two "been there, done that" recommendations for Dunedin. Otago Peninsula stargazing evenings with Horizon Tours (a whānau business) unveil clear night skies. The Māori view of astronomy is told in legend and song, explaining knowledge of navigation, crop planting and harvesting kaimoana. A magical night even if you don't get a glimpse of the Southern Lights.
Its name familiar to older Kiwis, Karitāne is a picture-book seaside settlement 30 minutes north of Dunedin. Rich in Maori and European history, the iwi has established a waka experience to show how people traversed the Pacific to these islands and a pā experience to explain customs, history and lifestyle, tradition is interwoven with projects supporting today's families and tomorrow's generations.
Few Kiwis venture into deepest Fiordland. At Piopiotahi Milford Sound, the Southern Discoveries Underwater Observatory is a genuine "the only place in the world where…" experience. Go 10m below the surface into a floating laboratory to see a unique environment where species that normally live at great depths survive in shallow surroundings.
Te Anau Glowworm Caves is an astonishing underground world of limestone passages, sculpted rock, whirlpools, a roaring waterfall – and a hidden grotto inhabited by glowworms.
We won't make it to Rakiura on this trip; the last ports of call are in Southland. Tumu Toka Curioscape on the Catlins is a world-class interpretive centre sharing the special story of Curio Bay, its people, wildlife and the 180 million-year-old petrified forest.
In Riverton, one of the province's earliest European settlements, Te Hikoi is an interactive display revealing how Maori and Europeans adapted to survive on the wild coast, creating a legacy for us to appreciate today.
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