To kick off your two days in Wellington in search of Maori culture, art and colour we’d like to share an important snippet with you. There’s a good chance you’ll hear people in Wellington talking about ‘going down’ to Auckland. Yes, you’ve heard right and no, they’re not all holding their maps upside down – this is all to do with the Maori legend of how New Zealand came into being. The North Island is the giant fish caught by the demi-god Maui as he cast a line from his waka (canoe). Wellington represents the fish’ head – the ‘top’. So now you know!
Your first stop will always be at the national treasure known as ‘Te Papa Tongarewa’ – a six-story museum which houses all kinds of must-sees for the Maori culture-curious. Expect artefacts by the score along with many exquisite examples of traditional arts and crafts and even an intricately carved marae (meeting house) in its entirety; all of which adds up to a highly detailed and fascinatingly exhibitive history of the Maori people.
Classic Maori carving on display at Te Papa – one of the best free museums in the world
Te Papa is so vast it actually has more than enough to keep you engaged for all of your time in Wellington but there’s plenty more to be explored elsewhere too so tear yourself away and take a stroll along the waterfront to the modern building known as Te Wharewaka o Poneke or Te Raukura, built on the site of a former Maori settlement or ‘pa’. You’ll need to check viewing times, which vary, but here is your opportunity to drink in the sight of two magnificently carved 14 metre long ceremonial waka.
If you happen to be getting a little peckish you can grab a bite here at the Karaka cafe without breaking away from the Maori theme at all. The twist is modern but the fare is based on traditional foods and your options here include breakfast, lunch or anytime platters and snacks which can be enjoyed indoor or outside if the sun is shining, overlooking the lagoon.
Te Raukura also run Maori themed walking and waka tours around the harbour which feature a traditional Maori welcome followed by a couple of hours of interactive stories, legends and history. Perhaps while you’re here you can make your booking for this afternoon or tomorrow.
Rumbling stomachs now fed you can wander a little further up the waterfront to Frank Kitts Park where you’ll find the Maori Arts Gallery, crammed full of locally produced and sourced traditional arts and crafts. You can simply marvel at the array or choose some gifts for the folk back home; displays include jewellery, carvings, framed art and more – made from all kinds of materials such as feathers, greenstone, bone and wood.
Don’t leave the waterfront until you’ve said hello to the great Maori chief and hero Kupe, well, his statue anyway. Kupe was also incidentally the man who ‘discovered’ Wellington Harbour in 925 AD.
For a slightly off-beat Maori art viewing take yourself along to Underground Arts on Vivian Street. You may or may not be interested in getting inked up at the tattoo studio here but you’ll certainly want to poke your head inside the free-entry Moko Museum/National Tattoo Museum. Traditional Maori tattoing wasn’t just a highly skilled and intricate art form but a highly visual adornment which implied status and rank and had spiritual significance.
For those who prefer their art on wood or canvas rather than the human body you might want to make your way to Allen Street’s Kura Gallery – a fine arts set-up showcasing New Zealand artists. Among the treasures are carvings, paintings, photography and sculpture.
If you haven’t already signed up for a tour, day two of your Maori discovery would be a good time to do so. Specialist guided tours will help you uncover all kinds of Maori-themed fascinating facts and locations you’d be unlikely to unearth on your own. Alternatively you could hop on a train and check out one of the slightly more out of town attractions – the Pataka Museum of Arts and Cultures, Porirua – an art gallery and museum just north of Wellington centre. Here you can enjoy art exhibitions along with social and heritage displays celebrating not just Maori and Pacific Island heritage but also that of New Zealand and a wider international contemporary scene in general.
If you’ve still got time left when you head back to Wellington centre you might like to at least pop your head into the Museum of Wellington City and Sea where among all kinds of other gems you can watch the Maori creation legends told through the medium of holographic images.
As you head back to the Bristol Hotel on Cuba Street you can mull over all that you have feasted your eyes on in the last 48 hours. And, should you be going ‘down’ to Auckland, Rotorua or elsewhere on the North Island next, there’ll be plenty of opportunity to continue your Maori culture tour if you haven’t yet had your fill.
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