From haka to hāngi: Check out these 5 traditional Māori cultural experiences in New Zealand

The haka — an ancient Māori war dance performed by the country’s All Blacks rugby team before matches — put New Zealand’s native people on the global map.

But there’s so much more to the culture of the Māori, who traveled by canoe from eastern Polynesia to New Zealand before 1300. They developed their own tribal society, language, mythology, arts and crafts before the first Europeans arrived more than 300 years later.

Now, Māori make up 15 percent of New Zealand’s population, with most living on the North Island. Their history and culture is part of the nation’s identity.

Here are five traditional Māori cultural experience not to miss:


One of the best places to experience Māori culture is at a marae, or tribal meeting grounds, which are the center of Māori communities. You’ll see them throughout New Zealand, but especially on the North Island.

Koriniti marae
Three meeting houses (wharenui) at the marae in Koriniti, New Zealand. (Photo by Sheryl Jean)

The complex of buildings and land belongs to a certain tribe (iwi), clan (hapū) or family (whānau) who only visit and stay there during important times, such has tribal meetings, celebrations, funerals and educational workshops. You can stop and look from the outside, usually behind a fence, but you cannot walk on to marae grounds without a formal invitation. You can visit a marae with a tour group in Rotorua on the North Island.

I visited a marae in Koriniti, a settlement near Whanganui on the west side of the North Island. (See photo above.) The marae was peaceful but vacant. I viewed the three meeting houses (wharenui), complete with carved figures on the roof and walls, from afar.

To see the inside of a wharenui, I headed to the Te Papa Tongarewa museum in Wellington. It’s home to Te Hau ki Turanga, New Zealand’s oldest meeting house with beautiful and intricately carved panels.


A visit to a marae may include a traditional hāngi involved wrapping food, such as fish, chicken and root vegetables, in leaves and cooking it in pit ovens in the ground. Today, hāngi also may include pork, lamb, potato, pumpkin and cabbage.

waka taua carving at Te Papa Tongarewa
Carving on a large waka taua, model war canoe, at Te Papa Tongarewa in Wellington. (Photo by Sheryl Jean)

You can arrange to attend a hāngi feast with traditional singing and dancing. Rotorua is best known for its Māori marae hāngi and performance. The South Island’s only Māori village experience — Ko Tane — can be found at the Willowbank Wildlife Reserve in Christchurch.


Māori are known for their wood and stone carvings and weaving skills typically using flax (harakeke). Styles vary from tribe to tribe, but many patterns are inspired by nature, including fern fronds (kore).

Watch students at Te Puia weaving and carving schools in Rotorua on the North Island. Carve your own greenstone at Bonz n’ Stonz Carving Studio & Gallery in Hokitika on the South Island.

The Auckland Museum and Te Papa Tongarewa are treasure troves of traditional Māori art and culture. For a more modern art, kayak or take a boat tour to see Matahi Whakataka-Brightwell’s 33-foot carving of an ancient Māori navigator on a cliff face at Lake Taupō.

Historical site

The Waitangi Treaty Grounds is one of New Zealand’s most historically significant places. It’s where New Zealand’s founding document between the Māori and the Europeans was signed in 1840.  The grounds, which overlook the stunning Bay of Islands, include the Treaty House, the carved Meeting House and the world’s largest ceremonial war canoe. You also can attend a hāngi or paddle a Māori canoe.


Haka traditionally was used on the battlefield, but it also was performed at peaceful gatherings. The dance is a display of a tribe’s pride, strength and unity. Loud chanting (describing ancestors and events in the tribe’s history) is accompanied by facial expressions like tongue protrusions, foot stomping and rhythmic body slapping. Today, haka is still used during Māori ceremonies and celebrations.

In addition to Rotorua, Waitangi and Christchurch, you can see haka performed at the top of the gondola in Queenstown.

All Black's haka
New Zealand’s All Blacks rugby team perform the haka, a traditional Māori war dance, before matches. (Creative Commons)

Walking in paradise: Check out these 5 day hikes in New Zealand

The suspension bridge hikers cross near the start of the Rob Roy Track near Wanaka on the South Island. (Sheryl Jean)

New Zealand is a walker’s paradise.

With more than 12,000 miles of public trails crosscrossing the country’s two islands, there’s no shortage of options.  Hikes to volcanoes, glaciers, waterfalls, alpine lakes, mud pools, geysers and other natural features range from less than an hour to multiple days.

I recently wrote about five day hikes I liked on my fall 2016 trip to New Zealand for The Dallas Morning News. You can read the full article, but these are the hikes with a map below:

(Sheryl Jean, with Google Maps)

Free showers: New Zealand airport perk is a fresh idea

Say you’re flying to New Zealand for a business meeting and, due to a delay, you don’t have time to first stop by your hotel after nearly 30 hours of travel.

Wouldn’t it be nice to at least take a shower before making your big sales pitch?

You can — if you happen to be at the Auckland or Christchurch airports in New Zealand. The best part is — the showers are free.

As someone who has paid to shower at a truck stop before taking a flight after a week of hiking and camping, I embrace the idea. I’m sure my fellow airline travelers would, too.

Showers are another way airports worldwide are, well, showering travelers with more amenities to keep them occupied and entertained while waiting up to several hours on their property. Nowadays, many airports have top-notch restaurants, yoga rooms, play areas, spas and more.

While some services generate revenue for airports, others such as free gardens, art and showers are more about making weary travelers feel comfortable than making money.

“Auckland Airport is essentially the country’s international gateway, therefore many of our guests will either have traveled from or be headed to other parts of New Zealand,” airport spokesman Gez Johns said in an email. “We therefore think it’s important to provide them with an opportunity to freshen up along their journey.”

Auckland Airport on the North Island provides seven free showers in or near bathrooms in the international terminal — five in the departures area and two in arrivals outside the secure zone. All of them are unisex and two are wheelchair accessible. In addition, the airport’s Emperor Lounge, its guest lounge, rents towels for the departures area showers for $5 plus a $5 deposit.

The Airport is adding three more showers as part of an upgrade to its international departures terminal, which will be finished in 2018, Johns said. It’s New Zealand’s largest and busiest airport, with over 17 million passengers a year.

Smaller Christchurch Airport (over 6 million passengers a year) on the South Island has eight free showers in each of its accessible bathrooms — two in the secure departures area and six in the land-side, non-secure area. (See photo at top.)

Although the showers are “not intended for able-bodied visitors’ use” some long-distance travelers use them, Yvonne Densem, spokeswoman for the Christchurch Airport, said in an email. The airport is in process of updating its public restrooms, she said.

Both airports’ online maps use shower symbols to designate where they are, but the maps are not up to date and do not show all of the locations. Go to an information booth at each airport or explore if you have time.

Travel yields home must-haves

The control for an electric mattress pad.(Sheryl Jean)

Staying at several Airbnb accommodations on a recent visit to New Zealand let me peek inside people’s homes. And I liked what I saw.

I visited in what was one of the country’s wettest springs on record. That meant lots of cold, damp weather. New Zealanders are like thrifty New Englanders and use heat sparingly.

I couldn’t help but notice some items of coziness and convenience — some may say necessity — and design features that would work well in U.S. homes. Here are five of my favorites:

All I want for Christmas is a heated towel rack. (Sheryl Jean)

Electric mattress pad: It’s like being immersed in a warm bath while sleeping. New Zealanders call it an electric blanket, but it’s a mattress pad. I don’t care what you call it; it’s just about the greatest home product ever. The heating filaments woven into the fabric kept me quite warm on the stormiest of nights. Nearly every New Zealand lodging had one. The Internet tells me you can buy it here.

Heated towel rack: Heated towel racks have been around forever, so I don’t understood why they aren’t more popular in the United States. Can one say not say enough about wrapping yourself in a warm cocoon as you step out of the shower onto a cold tile floor?

Electric kettle: It’s not a new product, nor was it new to me. I saw my first electric kettle about 20 years ago in England. I have an electric kettle in my own kitchen, but I swear the New Zealand ones not only heated water faster, but to a higher temperature. I’m sure it’s because the country supplies electricity at twice our voltage.

These two window shades can be moved separately.(Sheryl Jean)

Stainless-steel sink and counter top: I really liked a one-piece, seamless stainless-steel sink and counter that was in the kitchen of a small cabin. It looks nice, lasts a long time and is easy to clean: You just swipe everything into the sink. After a bit of research, I found that you can get this here.

Double window shades: This is one of those simple inventions that make a big difference. Each window has two shades — a light-filtering shade and a black-out one — that can be raised and lowered separately.

Who is that cardboard man at New Zealand’s two biggest glaciers? Ask mom.

My new hat made by Nolly Martini. (Martin Melendy)

At New Zealand’s Franz Josef Glacier, a park ranger provides an update on daily conditions and safety tips.

The life-size image is a cardboard cut-out, but the ranger is real. His mother told me so.

I met Nolly Martini when I visited her Willows Crafts shop in Harihari, a tiny hamlet about 40 miles north of Franz Josef on New Zealand’s South Island.

I was attracted to the hand-knitted hats and scarves, and she told me that she makes many of them from wool and Samoyed dog hair. She also sells crafts made by other local residents.

As I paid for a colorful hat made by Martini, she told me that her son posed for the cardboard cut-out when he worked for the New Zealand Department of Conservation. The proud mother pulled out photographs of Mark Martini standing next to his cardboard double. (The DOC confirmed it.)

A visitor walks through a lush rainforest on the Te Ara a Waiau trail. (Sheryl Jean)

Sure enough, Mark Martini’s image greets me when I arrive at Franz Josef Glacier later that day. (See photo at top.) The DOC told me that his image also graces the nearby Fox Glacier.

Tourism is one of New Zealand’s main economic engines. The Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers are among the country’s biggest tourist attractions, with about 1 million visitors a year.

Continue reading Who is that cardboard man at New Zealand’s two biggest glaciers? Ask mom.

Is it crayfish or lobster in Kaikoura, New Zealand?

Crayfish and whitebait fritters, and a half crayfish at Kaikoura Seafood BBQ. Fritters are served as a sandwich or on top of rice with salad. (Sheryl Jean)

This post is a homage to the people of Kaikoura, which suffered a 7.5-magnitude earthquake about two weeks after my visit. I was writing this blog post in the wee hours of the morning  the earthquake and tsunami occurred.

The little beach town of Kaikoura is known for whale watching, swimming with dolphins and fur seals, but it’s also the crayfish capital of New Zealand.

Kaikoura means “eat crayfish” in the native Maori language. However, these crayfish aren’t the small critters you find in New Orleans, but what Americans call lobster.

New Zealand salt-water crayfish is a spiny rock lobster. It has a sweeter, more subtle flavor.

Drive or walk down Kaikoura’s Beach Road to nearly the end and you’ll see a road-side trailer called Kaikoura Seafood BBQ. Stop!

The snow-capped mountains descend straight to the South Pacific Ocean in Kaikoura.

You’ll find crayfish sizzling on the grill as well as fritters (like pancakes) filled with crayfish, whitebait (another local delicacy) or other ingredients. It cost $15US for a half crayfish to $27US for a whole one, but prices elsewhere can be twice as much.

Sit to eat at a table facing spectacular powdered sugar-coated mountains descending straight to the South Pacific Ocean.

Another road-side trailer option is Nins Bin, about 12 miles north of Kaikoura on State Highway 1.

Killer views from New Zealand’s Bealey Spur Track are worth the climb

Today’s rain did not keep me from hiking the fantastic Bealey Spur Track near Arthur’s Pass on the New Zealand’s South Island.

It was pouring rain five hours ago, when I blogged about finding a silver lining in rain while traveling, and it’s raining again. But in between, I made the most of a few mostly rain-free, sunny hours.

The nearly 4-mile (four to six hours round trip) trail, which is mostly uphill, traverses mossy beech forests, tussocks and lots of mud today. (See photo below.) You can climb a nearly 5,100-foot hill for another 1.5 hours, but I didn’t have time for that given my afternoon start.

Once you climb out of the forest, the ridge line and top of the ridge provide jaw-dropping, panoramic views of Mount Bealey, Avalanche Peak, Mount Rolleston, Mount Aicken and other peaks, which range from over 6,000 feet to  nearly 7,500 feet, as well as the Waimakariri Valley. (See photo at top.)

Mud on the Bealey Spur Track on Nov. 3, 2016.

As a bonus I got to peek at the baches (a cabin in New Zealand) lining the private road where the hike starts. Some were rustic shacks, while others had been renovated into modern ski chalets.

Opportunity allowed me to jump ahead on my New Zealand blog posts to the South Island, but I’m not done with the North Island yet. Stay tuned!

Rain, rain go away … I’m traveling

Not too many people like rainy days on vacation — even in places known for rain.

I’m one of them.

Today, steady rain since early morning (see photo above) has scrapped my plans for a six to eight hour hike up to Avalanche Peak today in Arthur’s Pass, the highest village in New Zealand at about 3,000 feet. Arthur’s Pass is the highest and most spectacular pass  through the Southern Alps on New Zealand’s South Island. I snowed on the highest craggy peaks overnight! (It’s spring here.)

Here’s the silver lining: I can catch up on my journal writing, and with wifi, my blog posting.

This afernoon I vow to hike rain or shine!

New Zealand’s Tongariro Alpine Crossing rewards the hearty hiker

Fog surrounded us like gray cotton candy.

Active volcanoes lurked in the murkiness like hulking giants, but my hiking partner and I  couldn’t see them — at least not at first.

At any moment, the ground could shake and fiery lava would paint the sky in orange streaks. The shroud of fog seemed to lessen the risk on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, which is called New Zealand’s best day hike.

On our first trip to New Zealand, we vowed to spend as little time as possible in cities and focus on what the country is best known for: the great outdoors. Tongariro topped the list.

The writer enshrouded in fog at one point in the hike. (Sheryl Jean)

The crossing has it all: volcanoes, lava fields, alpine lakes, fumaroles, waterfalls and breath-taking views. It’s in Tongariro National Park, New Zealand’s oldest park.

The track traverses the length of Mount Tongariro and skirts the saddle of Mount Ngauruhoe (see photo at top) — two of New Zealand’s three active volcanoes. Ngauruhoe posed as Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings film. (You can hike up Ngauruhoe, but now it’s still covered in ice and snow and requires technical skills and crampons.)

One of the Emerald Lakes on the the crossing. (Sheryl Jean)

The 12 miles takes about six to nine hours, depending on weather conditions, your fitness level and how often you stop. (We finished the trek in seven hours, including a lunch stop, several rest breaks and lots of photographing.)

We arranged a shuttle to take us to the start of the hike and pick us up at the end. Twelve others from the United States, Ireland and the Netherlands joined us.

We were prepared for any kind of weather, since the crossing is known for unpredictable and fast-changing weather — even in the middle of summer.

Continue reading New Zealand’s Tongariro Alpine Crossing rewards the hearty hiker

What are the safest countries?

With so much violence and civil unrest in the world, it’s a small comfort that I’ll soon be visiting one of the safest and most serene places on Earth, according to the latest 2016 Global Peace Index.

Google Maps

New Zealand, which may have more sheep than people, is No. 4 out of 163 countries. It gets high marks for its lack of militarization and internal and external conflicts.

The index, which is created by Vision of Humanity, ranks countries on their safety based on factors such as the number of police officers, the murder rate and the level of political instability and terror. Here are the 10 safest countries:

  1. Iceland
  2. Denmark
  3. Austria
  4. New Zealand
  5. Portugal
  6. Czech Republic
  7. Switzerland
  8. Canada
  9. Japan
  10. Slovenia

The five unsafest countries are Syria, South Sudan, Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia.

Vision of Humanity is part of the Institute for Economics & Peace.