We have the intrepid tangata whenua – indigenous people, or people of the land – to thank for the birth of New Zealand’s culture. More than a thousand years ago, led by expert guide and explorer Kupe, the first canoes from Hawaiki in Polynesia approached New Zealand’s shores. No wonder the newcomers decided to stay put in this rich and fertile land.
Māori traditions; movie-star scenery; graffiti-graced cities; wine and seafood worth a long-haul flight – New Zealand’s culture is as diverse and impressive as its landscapes
New Zealand wouldn’t be New Zealand if they’d gone elsewhere: ever since Kupe, Māori culture has shaped New Zealand’s identity, colouring its past, present and future. New Zealanders also have Māori to thank for kūmara (sweet potato), which they brought over from Polynesia – enjoy it today with native pāua: abalone.
Māori culture isn’t frozen in time, rock carvings or history books. It’s a living, breathing, evolving thing. To experience it for yourself, tour a marae (tribal meeting grounds) in Northland, Auckland, Rotorua or Canterbury. You’ll be treated to a traditional welcome (nose-to-nose), speeches and songs, plus a hangi feast.
Food has always been important in New Zealand. Nature set things up admirably: the country’s waters and plains are responsible for some of the world’s best seafood, dairy, meat and produce. (Admire each region’s bounty at one of the local farmers’ markets.) Māori flavours are becoming increasingly fashionable – green-lipped mussels cooked with horopito, karakawa, chilli and lime, for example.
New Zealand’s cuisine has been shaped by other influences, too – largely thanks to the birth of affordable air travel in the 1980s, flavours have filtered down from Europe, China, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, America and beyond. If you like fish and seafood, don’t miss Kaikoura’s seafood-serving caravans on the coast; active types might prefer to fish for their own supper. In the cities, the food and drink scene is as colourful as the local street art (on that topic, don’t miss the annual Spectrum festival held in Christchurch in April), thanks to pop-ups and progressive dining.
In Auckland, chefs are showing off diverse tricks and flavours: hop from American barbecue at the Culpeper to Vietnamese tapas at Cafe Hanoi to oysters – served raw, cooked, in a shot, or chowder – at Oyster & Chop, which opened in October 2015. Save room for dessert at Soul (sit out in the seaside garden) and extend the night with cocktails or clubbing. Wellington can compete with all of that: try brunch at Loretta, lunch at Egmont Street Eatery, dinner at Park Kitchen at the Miramar (fancy) or Tahi (casual), and post-prandials at the Hanging Ditch. If you’re a craft beer fan, note down these New Zealand beer brands: Brother’s Beer, Hallertau and Deep Creek Brewing Co.
Talking of booze, let’s not forget wine. Despite being a very young country in terms of winemaking, New Zealand punches above its weight. Items for your bucket/bottle-list include: Marlborough sauvignon blanc, Gisborne chardonnay and Central Otago pinot noir (especially good teamed with toothsome lamb). Wherever you fly into in New Zealand, you’ll be a short hop from amazing wineries. Don’t worry if you can’t make it to a winery – you’ll get to try some of the country’s most intoxicating grapes on your flight.
Perhaps you’re more of a film-buff than a foodie. If so, chances are you’ll remember New Zealand’s starring role in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films. Don’t miss the chance to hunt for hobbits, wizards and warlords – and tour the Shire – at Hobbiton Movie Set near Matamata on the North Island, or learn movie-making tricks in Wellington (‘the Middle of Middle-earth’) with a trip to Weta Cave and Workshop.
Come hungry, come thirsty, come curious: we promise you won’t leave disappointed.