History buffs and cultural snobs alike usually snigger and sniff haughtily when the words ‘culture’ and ‘New Zealand’ get used in the same sentence. Anyone who has seen any of the Lord of the Rings films will know that the stunning New Zealand countryside certainly looks good with medieval styled castles standing on it, but whether you’d wish it or not, they simply don’t exist.
New Zealand is the youngest country in the world and, for many people, that means it is culturally void. Of course we think that is absolute nonsense but some people refuse to be swayed.
For one thing, New Zealand’s indigenous people, the Maori, have their very own culture that is rich in history. There’s the Maori people’s peerless martial skills and highly developed system of governance. There is also their language and art, and the fact that the colonising British signed the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840, which in many ways, established the modern New Zealand that we see today.
The city of Rotorua in the Bay of Plenty area of the country’s North Island houses one of the largest Maori related tourism industries in the country, but just about every part of New Zealand has its own unique traditions and cultural experiences.
New Zealand also has a number of modern, post-colonial cultural activities that are unique to this beautiful country. The nation’s capital, Wellington has a wonderful mix of museums, art galleries and a bustling café, restaurant and small bar scene.
While Christchurch in the South Island has heroically risen from the ashes of the terrible 2011 earthquakes and has become one of the most innovative and interesting places to visit in the country with its pop-up stores, cafes and its unique cardboard cathedral.
Although one needn’t confine oneself to purely man-made culture when in New Zealand, for – in many ways – the extraordinary landscapes speak for themselves. You just need to visit the glowing green cave systems at Waitomo, Waimangu’s volcanic valley or the pristine coastline around the southern city of Dunedin.
Just about everywhere you go in this uniquely amazing country there is something fascinating and beautiful waiting just around the corner for you. So dive in, ladies and gents, because it’s time to get cultural: Kiwi style.
Waimangu Volcanic Valley
Wandering through a valley of hot springs and bubbling mud baths is something reminiscent of ‘middle earth’, and that’s what you will find at this spectacular geothermal destination.
Only 20 minutes south of New Zealand’s thermal centre, Rotorua, visitors can walk through one of the world’s youngest eco-systems to marvel craters, hot lakes, unusual thermal plants and wildlife.
Explore the magnificent valley with a self-guided walk or join one of the guided tours.
Waimangu Volcanic Valley was created as a direct result of the Tarawera volcanic eruption in 1886, and is the only geo-thermal system in the world that can be pinpointed to an exact time and event.
This remarkable ‘must-see’ attraction has won multiple tourism awards for conservation and sustainability and is one of the more beautiful spots in an already beautiful country.
New Zealand Native Wildlife
Join the enthusiastic and expert guides on the wildlife experience of a lifetime. There are many multi award winning tours which offers tourists absolutely unrivalled sustainable nature and wildlife experiences, visiting some of the most spectacular wildlife spots in New Zealand.
For example, Elm Wildlife Tours in Dunedin is a family owned and operated business, run out of the beautiful southern city of who pride themselves on their conversation and sustainable nature and wildlife experiences.Visitors can choose from several tours of Otago Peninsula and the southeast Coast, with the promise of close encounters with nature in areas inaccessible to others.
As with Australia, New Zealand’s natural flora and fauna are totally unique and feature heavily in the rich cultural history of the landscape.
Tours are timed to coincide with the daily peak of animal activity; blue penguins, New Zealand fur seals, sea lions and rare yellow-eyed penguins are just a few.
Waitomo Cave Systems
Despite being known to the indigenous population of the area for centuries, the Waitomo caves were not properly explored until 1887 by a local Maori chieftain Tane Tinorau and an English born surveyor by the name of Fred Mace. Over 100 years later the caves are a hotspot of both local and international tourists and adventurers looking for a unique experience.
A kilometre long cave stretch with seven entrances awaits you on the west side of Waitomo caves. There is something for people of all experience levels at Green Glow, including caving, abseiling, rock climbing, photography and cave paintings.
Create your own unique tour consisting of your guide and whoever you bring with you! The maximum size is six people, and you can set your own pace.
One of the many highlights of exploring the Waitomo caves is getting to stop and check out the glowworms when you turn out your light! This is a “dry” adventure, meaning you wear comfortable clothes and generally stay out of the water, as opposed to Black Water Rafting when you wear a wetsuit and sit in a tube up to your waist in cold water!
The capital of the Canterbury region in New Zealand’s South Island is a city on the rebound. Between September 2010 and June 2011 a series of devastating earthquakes ripped through the Garden City leaving a trail of destruction in their wakes.
Kiwis on the whole are a hardy lot however, and nowhere is that better exemplified than in Christchurch. Innovative ideas have popped up all over the city – and show no signs of stopping as the people make the best of the hand that’s been dealt to them.
While many of Christchurch’s beautiful old, colonial buildings were irrevocably damaged in the quakes, many have been rebuilt but in totally different, brilliant and often colourful ways. Take the city’s famous cathedral for one. Once an austere, gothic style cathedral in the medieval mould has now been replaced by a transitional ‘Cardboard’ replica designed by a Japanese architect. You won’t see anything like this, anywhere.
Another experience unique to Christchurch is the Re:Start Mall. Which has utilised empty shipping containers and beautifully landscaped gardens to recreate an eco-friendly and highly sustainable outdoor shopping area. If you’re in the area you should definitely head down on the weekends to see the markets.
This much visited historic sight is located a short 20 minute drive from New Zealand’s adrenalin sport capital, Queenstown in the South Island.
Built on the banks of the Arrow River, Arrowtown started its life as a regional centre for gold mining in the 1860s. The famously beautiful, tree-lined avenues that typify the rustic aesthetic of the old town were first planted in the 1870s after the gold rush passed and a more permanent town was established.
The town became a popular tourist destination in the 1950s and has continued in that vein up until the modern day mostly because it still boasts loads of historic buildings, monuments and features from the 19th century as well as a lovely old museum.
Also worth a visit if you’re in the region is the old Chinese mining settlement, which features a number of preserved and refurbished miners huts.
Also if you visit in winter, best be sure to pack a ski jacket because the ski slopes in the area are some of the best to be found in New Zealand.
Experiencing the unique traditional culture of the Maori is a big part of any trip to Aotearoa (New Zealand). Archeological evidence indicates they discovered the country some time between 800-1,000 AD, on one of the last deliberate voyages of colonisation across the Pacific.
In modern New Zealand, around 14 per cent of the population claim Maori heritage and their language and culture has a major impact upon just about every aspect of the country. New Zealand is very proud of its Maori ancestors and a large number of fantastic museums and maraes (traditional meeting houses) can be found on both islands.
The Waitangi National Reserve is where the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi was signed between the Europeans and Maori leaders. The treaty is controversial as the promises made to the Maori regarding land rights and protection were changed in the translated English version, leading to the Maori Wars in the late 1840s. The reserve is beautiful, and includes a stunning marae, a 35m Maori war canoe and the treaty house where the document was signed.
The Museum of New Zealand in Wellington has a fantastic number of Maori exhibits while the Auckland Museum presents daily performances of Manaia, which gives a look at Maori culture through narrative, song and dance.
The Maori have been involved in tourism since 1870, when the Tuhourangi people south of Rotorua owned the ‘eighth’ wonder of the world, the Pink and White Terraces – impressive and beautiful layers of thermal pools. Despite its destruction by the eruption of Mt Tarawera in 1886, Rotorua has become a hub for Maori tourism, taking advantage of the many geothermal fields and attractions of the central volcanic plateau. Maori entertainers can be seen at many venues performing a concerts. Some of these performances are accompanied by a ‘hangi’ – a meal steam-cooked in a traditional Maori way.
New Zealand’s capital city is probably the most interesting and appealing city in the country – especially if you hit it on a good day when the sun dances on the harbour and the city comes alive with Wellingtonians lunching and jogging along the waterfront.
Wellington’s sheer vibrancy and colourful character make it the country’s centre for culture and the arts. Te Papa, the national museum is here, so too is the nation’s parliament.
The city’s nightlife, food and café culture is also world-class, young and cool. There are more cafés per head than New York for example and lots of small-bars.
The Te Papa is one of the best museums in the country, with a wonderful series of Maori exhibits in particular. From virtual reality rides to a living Marae (Maori meeting house), stories of the first Pakeha settlers, interactive natural history exhibits and art galleries. You could spend a week in here and still have things left to see. It’s a ‘must visit’ destination for culture when you’re in Wellington.
Take a ride on the historic cable car ride built in 1902 (and refurbished in the 70s, for your peace of mind), take a walk past the Beehive, the Old Government Building which purports to be the world’s oldest wooden building, visit the Otari Native Botanic Gardens or take it all in at once from atop nearby Mt Victoria.
Auckland is New Zealand’s largest urban area city sprawls for 50km between two large harbours, the Waitemata and the Manukau. Despite the urban sprawl and the 1.4 million people living there, the city boasts a great deal of scenic and cultural activites that some may well overlook.
The Auckland Museum has a brilliant display of Maori history, lifestyle and culture complete with a fully kitted out 25 metre long traditional war canoe. Admission to the Museum is free but donations of $10 are encouraged to keep the museum operational.
Another must-visit cultural attraction is the nearby One Tree Hill. This extinct volcano was once the site of the largest Maori settlement in New Zealand, known as a ‘pa’ in the traditional language. Not only can you see the historical remnants of the old Maori fortress from here, the old terracing and storage pits but also get a great view of the city. Alas the tree that once gave the hill its name was cut down in 2000 due to old age.
The restored suburb of Parnell has become a hip, young area full of cool restaurants, shops and galleries and is well worth checking out if you’re keen for a few beers, a good cup of coffee or wish to indulge in a little shopping.
Auckland also has a number of interesting and colourful markets; one in Victoria park and the other is the China Oriental Market which both open on the weekends and offer outdoor cafés and entertainment.
If you’re feeling brave you can even go to the top of the city’s standout landmark, the 328m tall Sky Tower and indulge in a little bungy jumping.