Noses press gently together; breath is exchanged.

An intimate, and ultimately formal, greeting that visitors to New Zealand can expect from Maori hosts, the hongi signifies the joining together of guest and tangata whenua (hosts).

Built on the shores of Lake Rotorua, the city of Rotorua is an amalgam of ancient culture and modern amenities, surrounded by natural beauty. It is most famous, however, for the geothermal activity evident from your first few minutes in the city; few visitors allow the first whiff of sulphur in the air to pass unremarked.

Boiling mud pools, erupting geysers and hissing steam vents create dramatic landscapes that can be easily viewed in safety. One of the best places to do this is in the steaming geothermal Te Whakarewarewa Valley, home to Te Puia, where visitors have the opportunity to experience Maori customs, traditions and their honourable way of life where family comes first.

As I walk through the entrance to this natural wonder, framed by 12 tall carvings that I later learn represent celestial guardians, it’s clear that this will be an engaging and fascinating experience.

Soon I am taking off my shoes to enter one of two intricately carved meeting houses that form part of the Rotowhio Marae. The larger, Te Aronui a Rua, was built by students and graduates of Te Puia’s carving school between 1967 and 1981. For fascinating insight into Maori ancestral history and living culture, Te Puia offers guided tours.

Te Puia is home to the New Zealand Maori Arts and Crafts Institute, where you can watch students learning the arts of weaving, wood, stone, bone and pounamu (New Zealand jade) carving, and waka (canoe) building. There is also a nocturnal kiwi bird enclosure where you can meet Kenny and Nohi, the resident birds.

But the highlight of a visit is the boiling mud pools and the regular eruptions of Pohutu Geyser, which explodes up to 30m high, and is just one of more than 500 geothermal wonders.

Legend tells the love story of Tutanekai, who played his flute to guide Hinemoa, the beautiful daughter of a chief, to Mokoia Island.

Lake Rotorua is the largest of the 16 lakes in the region, and the tiny Mokoia Island in its centre is close to the hearts of local Maori. Legend tells the love story of Tutanekai, who played his flute to guide Hinemoa, the beautiful daughter of a chief, to Mokoia Island almost 300 years ago.

Banned from seeing Tutanekai, Hinemoa swam the 4km to the island and they were never parted, bringing peace to their two tribes. Their story has been immortalised in the Maori ballad ‘Pokarekare Ana’, which you are sure to hear sung during a visit to New Zealand.

Hinemoa and Tutanekai’s descendants later became the first Maori guides in the city, a tradition that continues. Some of today’s guides can trace their genealogy back 25 generations, and will share stories of how their ancestors survived in this land, as well as their ancient beliefs and creation stories.

Another evocative Maori legend tells that Te Whakarewarewa Thermal Valley was formed when two sisters, Te Pupu and Te Hoata (the goddesses of fire), travelled beneath the earth while searching for their brother Ngātoroirangi.

As they got closer to him, the sisters lifted their heads above the surface, creating geysers and other geothermal hotspots.

In the Whakarewarewa Valley, silica terraces, bubbling mud pools and two spectacular geysers – Pohutu and Te Tohu (also called the Prince of Wales Feathers) – can keep you fascinated for hours. Te Puia has walkways between the major thermal attractions, making it easy to walk between them and not miss anything.

At Te Puia’s Pikirangi Village, named after an ancestor who fought to defend his lands, guides will show how Maori traditionally used the hot pools for cooking, washing, bathing and heating. The model village is based on a traditional settlement, with houses made from punga trees, food storage houses, and cooking tools, including a hangi pit (earth oven).

After a visit to Rotorua, it is easy to feel that you’ve truly been embraced by the Maori tradition of manaakitanga, which means ‘feel the spirit’, a warm and individual welcome to visitors.

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The haka: need-to-know before you go

Outside New Zealand, the Maori war dance or haka is most often associated as a game-opener for New Zealand’s national rugby team, the All Blacks. The haka acts as a way to build unity in the performers, or as a warning or challenge to opponents.

It can also be a message of celebration when performed for friends, for example at a wedding. There are many forms of haka, performed for different occasions.

More Maori experiences

Taiamai Tours Heritage Journeys

The Ngapuhi, New Zealand’s largest tribal Maori group, run interactive waka experiences in the Bay of Islands offering visitors insight into ancient customs, rituals and traditions.

Time Unlimited Tours

Full-day tours of Auckland, including Maungawhau (Mt Eden), the city’s highest volcano, giving a Maori perspective on New Zealand’s largest city.

Potiki Adventures

Focusing on contemporary Maori culture, these Auckland day trips include flax weaving lessons and a traditional Maori fortified village.

Tamaki Maori Village

Experience a tribal challenge, then a powhiri (formal welcome) at this recreated traditional fortified village in Rotorua. Inside the village, there are demonstrations of games, poi dancing and weaponry. Dinner is a traditional hangi.

Te Papa Tongarewa

New Zealand’s national museum, Te Papa Tongarewa in Wellington, is home to 16,000 treasures, the largest Maori collection in New Zealand. A Maori Highlights tour is run daily and the permanent ‘Mana Whenua’ exhibition explores the relationships Maori have with the land. Don’t miss the stunning contemporary Te Marae (meeting place).

Maori Tours Kaikoura

Learn the true meaning of manaakitanga (Maori warmth and hospitality) on these surprising, enriching and extremely personal tours run by Kaikoura couple Maurice and Heather Manawatu. Guests are encouraged to participate in a genuine cultural experience.

Mine Bay rock carvings

Hop on a boat trip around the Western Bays of Lake Taupo and see intricate Maori rock carvings created in the late 1970s, one of which is more than 10m high and took four summers to complete.

Words by Lee Mylne

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