Alexia Santamaria explores the Waikato's winter attractions in afterglow of New Zealand's first Matariki holiday
For many New Zealanders, learning about Matariki is an incremental process. Most of us are aware of the essentials - the significance of the stars and the concept of a new year beginning but there's so much more to discover about this beautiful celebration, as we found out on a recent trip to the Waikato. Embarrassingly, as with many aspects of Te Ao Māori, our teen boys knew a lot more than us, but were gentle with us as we acquired new knowledge in interesting and interactive ways.
Our first ever Matariki public holiday started with a walk through central Hamilton. But it wasn't just any walk. The Matariki Star Walk - on till 17 July - is designed to take you through all seven stars (it's seven, rather than nine for Tainui) using a map that becomes available each time you scan a QR code at the previous location. It starts at The Meteor Theatre and goes on to Centreplace with stops at Waikato Museum, SkyCity Hamilton, The Bearded Weasel, Hamilton Central Business Association and Hamilton City Library in between. Each stop has a poster with the name of one of the stars (Matariki, Tupu-aa-nuku, Tupu-aa-rangi, Waitii, Waitaa, Waipuna-aa-rangi and Ururangi) with information on its significance.
The clever thing about this, especially for families, is that you not only get to learn about each of the stars and their meaning, but you also get to see what Kirikiriroa has to offer in the way of fun activities - both free and paid. We loved kicking things off at the Meteor Gallery with the Aho Hīnātore exhibition, (on till 16 July) a series of paintings by Jordyn Daniels (Ngāi Tahu) depicting atua wāhine. When you have Xbox obsessed teen boys it's so great to get them thinking about things outside their usual realm, and in any gallery we always love asking them which pieces of art they are drawn to, and why. The answers are never what we think.
The Waipuna-aa-rangi QR code was on a poster in Waikato Museum but we didn't stop to linger as we know we would have ended up there all day and never completed the trail. If you haven't taken your kids there before, definitely do, as there's a lot of hands-on fun - covid restrictions pending of course. Heading towards the stops at SkyCity and The Bearded Weasel (excellent fried chicken) we took the river route as it's always a must-do for any trip to Hamilton - there's something very soothing strolling by the side of this mighty awa. The poster for Waitaa was actually in the Bowling Alley at SkyCity, which looked very cool, and we noticed an Escape Room on the way in too. The stops in Garden Place took us to the library to find the Matariki star herself and this bright colourful building clearly offers a lot more than just books with all kinds of
from coding, to art club to photographic exhibitions and more.
It was great to finish the star search at Centreplace where we located the final poster (Tupu-aa-rangi) - the boys made us promise to come back for shopping, food and any one of the activities available inside the mall (Mini Golf, Escape Rooms, Megazone Laser Tag, Hologate and Virtual Reality) We escaped on a promise of food truck action at the Maanawatia a Matariki celebrations at Hamilton Lake. After grabbing tacos and hot dogs we had a lovely, relaxing afternoon listening to live music on our rug on this lakeside setting. Our boys are too big for playgrounds now but we couldn't help but think how much they would have loved the enormous one there by the water when they were younger. A true godsend for tiring out little legs.
After a good sleep at the Ventura Inn and Suites (well located and kitted out for families) it was off for some retail therapy at The Base where the kids didn't have to be asked twice to don VR goggles and check out Guardian Maia in an immersive Matariki experience. There were also screens where they could try out the brand new Guardian Maia adventure game. This was designed and created in New Zealand by Metia Interactive - and it was very cool to see Matariki challenges set in Te Ao Māori - even cooler that it will soon be available from Google Play and the Apple Store for everyone.
After that it was time to head a little further south to Tauwhare Pa. It always amazes me to find treasures like The Sculpture Park at Waitakaruru Arboretum I've never even heard of before. It's a delightful 2km trail with the most amazing, often large, sculptures to admire. We wound through ponds, cliffs, rocks and more 30,000 trees from around the world in this wonderland born from a former quarry. The large scissors and fibreglass knitting were a big hit as were the curious faces of sculptures set in amongst trees and bush.
Then it was on through Cambridge for lunch and to our final stop for our Matariki weekend at Waitomo Caves. We felt extremely privileged to take part in the first ever Matariki tour of this well-known tourist attraction where we witness a beautiful Powhiri, enjoyed Kawakawa tea and had a special nightime cave tour where we were the only group in the place. Our guide was a direct descendent of the chief who first explored the caves and was full of interesting facts and great jokes. The cavern-like natural cathedrals, stalactites, stalagmites and gloworms were - as always - mesmerising and it was hard not to connect their sparkly presence with Ngā Whetū o Matariki.
After resting our heads at the Waitomo Homestead Cabins overnight we made our way back home the next day, full of joy and contemplation of this new public holiday and its importance to Aotearoa. Sharing quality family time, eating together, remembering those who have passed, looking to the future with hope; celebrating Matariki - wherever and however you do it - is a shining ray of light in a complicated world.
Where we ate - and you should too
An important part of Matariki is sharing good kai with those you love. Here are some family-friendly Waikato suggestions
The River Kitchen (Hamilton) - a must for brunch. With a huge focus on local producers, this is food made with love. Pokeno pork and fennel bangers with miso mash and caramelised onions were the perfect start to a day and the boys loved their big breakfast, luscious pancakes with with pears, maple syrup and labneh - and a s'mores hot chocolate that has to be seen to be believed.
The Chilli House (Hamilton) - this place is constantly packed, maybe because dumplings and noodles are freshly made on the daily. Dumplings doused in Sichuan sauce and Youpo Noodles for us, spring onion pancakes and unadorned dumplings for the boys.
Bull and Bear (Hamilton) - Fun bites to share. The sourdough parmesan bread will be gone in seconds (as will the gyoza, fried chicken and pork belly) There are also pizzas and larger shared dishes - warning: if you order the flatbread topped with Hawkes Bay pulled lamb shoulder, curry, pickled onion, mango relish, mint cumin yoghurt and coriander you're probably not going to want to share.
Alpino (Cambridge) - If you are passing through Cambridge this little slice of Italy is an essential stop. The kids will be all over the pizza and cicchetti, like stringy mozzarella bites with lemon aioli - and you'll love the more grown up dishes like crispy skinned snapper with Jerusalem artichokes three ways or homemade pappardelle pasta with braised goat ragu, pomegranate and shaved parmesan
Fat Kiwi Cafe (Otorohanga) Lots of great breakfast and brunchy options here but you're likely to be distracted by the cabinet heaving with home baked goodness. Panini, slices, sweets, salads and sausage rolls the size of your head (okay not quite, but they are big) Something for everyone.