Tag Archives: Rotorua

A Hangi and more at Mitai

When it comes to Rotorua culinary experiences (or Aotearoa New Zealand culinary experiences, in fact) the Hangi is de rigeur. Steamed underground on a bed of hot stones, hangi cuisine is melt in the mouth tender, with a taste all of its own.


Faced with a dozen different hangi options, including concert and cultural experience, I found it difficult to make a choice, so I called an expert on all things Maori, hangi cuisine included,  Ceillhe Sperath of Time Unlimited Tours.

“Mitai!” she replied without hesitation “Best Hangi, best concert, best evening all round”.

She wasn’t wrong.

Our Mitai experience begins when their signature van picks us up at our hotel, sometime between 5.45 and 6.10, and whisks us away to a spot in the lee of Mount Ngongotaha, on the northern side of the city. It’s clear, from the car-park full of vans and coaches, that this is a big and popular event.

Music, a mix of old Maori and pakeha favourites, floats from the doorway of an enormous marquee. After check-in at reception and a stop at the bar, we make our way through a sea of tables to our place, at the front, near the singer. I’m transported back to the 60son the nostalgic strains of Pearly Shells and E Pari Ra. My reverie is interrupted, though, by our M.C, who begins greetings and introductions, all in their own languages, to the 13 nations represented in the crowd.

Introductions over, we’re off to witness the lifting of the Hangi. The lifting of any Hangi is always attended by a certain a degree of anticipation, excitement and ceremony. Mitai adds suspense, drama and mystery to the event. When we arrive at the Hangi pit it has, in fact, already been lifted. Neat rows of heihei (chicken) reme (lamb) riwai (potatoes) paukena (pumpkin) and kumara (sweet potatoes) sit, steaming fragrantly in a wire basket on a raised bench, rather like an altar. We all stare and drool in reverent silence. But not for long! The Mitai experience is an active and involving one.

Soon we’re on the move again, down a bush path lit by flaming torches, to the river. We line up on the bank. There’s distant call, a karanga, a long booming blast on a conch shell, the sound of chanting and the rhythmic splash of paddles. It grows louder and louder and a waka full of tattooed warriors, in full traditional dress glides into view and paddles on by. We shuffle back up the bush path and follow the sound of the karanga into another marquee.

Before us, in the dim light, is an ancient village where dark shapes huddle around fires in front of rough nikau whares, or huts. We are back in the time before the Pakeha, mai rano, long ago. When we’ve taken our seats, the villagers rise and the Powhiri, or welcome ceremony begins. There are whaikorero (traditional speeches of welcome) and waiata (songs) to support them. Demonstrations of taiaha (weaponry) poi, waiata-a-ringa (action songs) and explanations of ta moko (tattoos) and traditional dress as well as legends and stories follow. Who knows how long we sit spellbound steeped in the lore and the life of the Maori.

But we quickly return to real time at the news that our hangi is served in the first marquee. We find it flanked by all sorts of salads and side dishes including kai moana (seafood) on a table almost audibly groaning under the strain. The singer is back at his station to sweeten our dining experience. But really, it needs no sweetening – the Mitai kai (food) is delicious and the Hangi is simply sensational. Short work is soon made of it all. Another table is unveiled, laden with all manner of desserts, as well those Kiwi “originals” the Pavlova and the trifle.

One might imagine that the evening would end there, that we would all roll off our chairs and out to our coaches or vans, to return “tired but happy and full” to our hotels. Perhaps elsewhere it might, but not at Mitai. The Mitai evening gives new meaning to the term interactive experience.

After dinner we are issued with torches and we join our guide Te Po for a bush tour. It begins with a talk on trees. We learn the difference between nikau, wheke, ponga and the Kiwi emblem the silver fern. We see model whare thatched with nikau. We see how silver fern can be used to light the way in the dark. We plunge deeper into the bush and assemble beside a small round pool. We turn our torches off and the night is lit with thousands of tiny spots of light – glow-worms! The magic of the glow-worms is only surpassed by the magic of the pool or puna. It is Mitai’s sacred spring. Warriors bathed here to heal their wounds after battle. The tohunga, or tribal medicine men from the district used its waters for rituals and to cure the sick. Its water is of such purity and clarity, that although it is two meters deep, it seems only centimetres. The bubbles from the spring underneath rise like a stream of little glass balls and the colour and texture every grain of sand at the bottom is clearly and sharply defined.

After the bush walk, we did go back to our coaches and vans and we did return, tired but happy to our hotels.

Now, I can say, without hesitation, that Mitai has the best hangi, the best concert, the best cultural experience, the best insight into Maori traditions and the best evening all round in Rotorua.

Mitai; 196 Fairy Springs Road, Rotorua

Rotorua markets

When Captain Cook discovered the lush pocket of country that stretches back from the coast and wraps around Rotorua, he named it the Bay of Plenty. The name was apt. Everything grows and flourishes here; birds, animals, fish, seafood, forests, gardens and orchards.

Kai Maori at Kuirau Park
Kai Maori at Kuirau Park

For a taste of the rich variety of fare that the region produces today, you don’t have to go far, or wait long.

Stroll down Tutanekai Street on a Thursday evening and you’ll catch the Rotorua night market. Here you’ll find fresh produce, much of it organic, along with wines, juices oils and preserves. Local Chinese, Indian, Italian, French and, of course, Kiwi, chefs take their kitchen to the street, so you can dine or graze according to your fancy. There is food for the outer as well as the inner body, like soaps, scrubs and creams, including those miraculous Rotorua mud-packs and manuka honey moisturisers. Quality crafts and arts are also on sale, so the night market makes for very good souvenir shopping too.

Out behind the bubbling mudpools and steam holes of Kuirau Park, the Rotorua Farmers Market takes place every Saturday morning. It’s a colourful, crowded, vibrant affair, with a carnival feel. Music pounds from a tent selling CDs. Bright coloured kids clothes and souvenir t shirts swing from poles. All kinds of plants and vegetables, including puha, watercress and a great range of Asian greens are lined up and laid out in neat rows. Delicious and irresistible smells fill the air; curry, fried rice, kebabs, crepes, coffee, rewena (bread) and paraoa parai (fried bread) with golden syrup or jam. Local fund raisers hold stalls here too, so you can contribute to a school playground, a community hall or a trip for the modest price of a home-made muffin or beanie.

Both markets offer a chance to taste foods that you won’t necessarily find elsewhere in Rotorua or anywhere for that matter. They also offer a chance to see the abundance of wonderful produce that the beautiful Bay of Plenty yields today. If you’re foodie, don’t miss either of them.

Whakarewarewa, Rotorua magic

Whakarewarewa geyser and mudpools
Whakarewarewa geyser and mudpools

After the Tarawera eruption had swept way the homes and livelihood of the local Tuhourangi tribe, the Nagti Wahiao people of Rotorua gifted the survivors a part of their traditional lands at Whakarewarewa, on the southern side of Rotorua.

Whakarewarewatanga o te ope taua o Wahiao (the gathering place of the army of Wahiao) was a landscape of shooting geysers, scalding thermal springs and boiling mud pools – a seemingly inhospitable wasteland. Yet Tuhourangi quickly turned it to their advantage. They built their houses astride steaming crevasses and profited from natural (if somewhat dangerous) central heating. The hot pools served as instant hangis, or earth ovens for cooking. Thermal water from some pools was channelled into baths both for hygienic and therapeutic purposes. Others were used as laundries. Before long, the famous Tuhourangi Guides were showing tourists around their new home, posing for photographs with them and entertaining them with traditional Maori concerts. Whakarewarewa, as we know it today, with its unique way of life, its many incredible attractions and its wealth of fascinating stories was born.

Whakarewarewa is a great place to linger, potter and explore, so set aside a generous amount of time. Be sure, however, to stick to the beaten track. Treading uncharted paths here is a risky business. Remember too, that these quaint little whare and tiny squares of lawn are people’s homes and backyards, so don’t intrude. But, at the same time keep your eyes peeled for amazing sights; like the angrily bubbling pools with names like “murderous ripples” and “grumpy man”, the wharepuni, or sleeping quarters, half sunk in the steaming earth, the baths, the steam box hangi, the minute churches (Anglican and Catholic) the urupa, or cemetery, with its raised stone graves, the carved houses, the carver’s workshop and the ancestral meeting house, Wahiao. Don’t miss the cultural performance or the village kids who dive for coins in the warm waters of the Te Puarenga stream, and do, definitely, sample a Hangi pie at Ned’s cafe.

To get the really good oil on Whakarewarewa, join a tour. Your guide will almost certainly be a descendant of one those great ladies who rowed tourists across Lake Tarawera to the Pink and White Terraces.

Digging up Te Wairoa

After the Tarawera eruption, Te Wairoa and the surrounding countryside lay buried under metres of mud and abandoned by those who had survived the horrors of that fateful night. Only the curious and the ghoulish rode out from Rotorua to view the devastation.

Te Wairoa Waterfall
Te Wairoa Waterfall

In time, the grass, scrub and bush grew back and covered the scarred landscape. Tarawera, with its lake, bush walks, streams and waterfall, became a favourite spot for day-trippers and picnickers. In the 1990s, Cecil Way, the grand-son of the missionary Seymour Spencer, one of earliest Pakeha settlers in the area, opened the Te Wairoa tea rooms on the site of the original village. They enjoyed great popularity for a time but when Cecil Way retired and moved away, there were no takers for the business. .

In 1931 Reg. Smith a Rotorua accountant, and his wife Violet, bought the site. With sons Dudley and Basil, they cleared the land of gorse and blackberry and developed a small farm. While Reg. cycled off to town each day, his wife Violet ran the re-opened the tearooms.

A round-trip coach tour of the Waimangu Valley thermal valley and the lakes brought the tourists back to Te Wairoa and into Violet Smith’s tearooms. When the visitors showed an interest in seeing the remains of the old settlement, the Buried Village experience began.

Although the Smiths had uncovered some of Te Wairoa’s buried buildings as they made way for their farm, formal excavations did not begin until after Dudley Smith returned from the Second World War. Professional archaeologists were employed and the village and all its treasures were brought to light. The tearooms were re-built as a replica of the old Rotomahana Hotel, with a gift-shop and a small museum of photos and artefacts.

The next generation of Smiths developed the site to include reconstructions of village buildings and a new, modern, multi-media museum.

A visit to the Buried Village makes a great day out. The village itself provides, not only an insight into the devastation caused by a volcanic eruption but also a glimpse of life in a 19th century colonial village. The surrounding bush is simply beautiful and the views across the hills to the lake are absolutely stunning. You can watch fat trout swimming lazily in the crystal clear waters of the Te Wairoa stream then follow it down through the trees as it crashes in a long cascade down the cliff face. And, of course, you really must finish your day with a Devonshire Tea.

The Pink and White Terraces, the 8th wonder of the world

Hailed as the eighth wonder of the world, the Pink and White Terraces on the shores of Lake Rotomahana near Tarawera, Rotorua, were, for a time, the country’s premier tourist attraction.

A view of Tarawera today
A view of Tarawera today

For over a thousand years water had been spilling from geysers above Lake Rotomahana. The water left thick pink and white silica deposits that formed terraces, enclosing pools of silky clear water that left the skin feeling soft and refreshed.

The White Terraces, known to the Maori people as Te Tarata or the tattooed rock, faced north at the end of the lake.Their white appearance was attributed to bleaching effects of the sun. With a drop of forty metres, they covered an area of 3 hectares and descended over approximately 50 layers.

Prettiest and most popular, the Pink Terraces or Otukapuarangi, the fountain of the clouded sky, were about two thirds of the way down the lake, on the western shore, facing south east.Their pink colour was said be caused by the presence of algae and by the absence of sun. The Pink and white terraces were 30 metres high. At the top the terraces covered an area of  75–100 metres, while the lowest were about 27 metres wide.

Reaching the terraces involved quite a journey. In Auckland, the travellers boarded a steamer and sailed to the port of Tauranga.  From there they took a 70 kilometre coach over the rugged hills to Rotorua. After a night’s rest they took the coach again to Te Wairoa, 17 kilometres to the south. Here they rested again. The following morning a local Maori guide led them down through the bush to Lake Tarawera where they were ferried by canoe to a narrow isthmus on the other side. The travellers crossed the isthmus on foot while the specially constructed canoe was dismantled and carried across. On the shores of Lake Rotomahana it was reassembled and its passengers re-embarked for the breathtaking trip up to the terraces. There they soaked in the pools or trudged up the hillsides for picture and even photo opportunities.

The terraces were a gold mine for the people of Te Wairoa. Pakeha businesses, particularly the hotels, boomed. The tangata whenua, the Tuhourangi people, flourished from the tourist trade, providing cultural entertainment, transport and guiding services as well as photo opportunities. Such was their prosperity, that the paua shell eyes in the carvings of the ancestral figures in their meeting house, Hinemihi, were replaced with gold sovereigns.

But the golden days of Te Wairoa were not to last.

Te Puia’s Wanaga Whakairo, dedicated to the art of carving

Carving, or whakairo, is one of the most beautiful Maori art forms.  Te Wanaga Whakairo, the carving school at Te Puia, is dedicated to passing on the art of whakairo and keeping it alive.

Carvers at work in Te Wananga Whakairo
Carvers at work in Te Wananga Whakairo

One of the most important tools that the Maori brought from their homeland in Hawaiki was the toki, or stone axe. They found, in Aotearoa, a land rich in timber and with the toki, they shaped it into houses, canoes as well as a thousand implements and weapons for use in daily life. Also with the toki, they decorated almost everything with intricate carvings or whakairo.

Over the years, other carving tools evolved and so did the art of whakairo or carving. New Materials were used, like the pounamu, or greenstone found in the South Island But its hard brittle texture proved a challenge and greenstone taonga (treasures) were rare and priceless. Then, with the arrival of the Pakeha settlers in the 19th century, a steel tools were introduced and with them a whole new range of possibilities. But still, the faithful toki played an important part in the art of whakairo or carving.

At Te Wananga Whakairo, Te Puia’s Carving School, the toki is still used as a method of blocking out heavy work.

Te Wananga Whakairo, or carving school at Te Puia was established in 1967 under the leadership of Master Carver John Taiapa. Since then, each year, the school takes in a fresh group of young apprentices for training in the prestigious art of whakairo. And although they are  trained in a variety of techniques and tools, the toki is still used as a method of blocking out heavy work.

Visitors to Te Puia can watch the carvers and photograph them as they work.

Some of the the work produced in Te Wananga Whakairo are on display and on sale in Te Puia’sTaonga Gallery and shop.


Te Rito, dedicated to the art of weaving

At Te Rito, Te Puia’s weaving school, you can watch craftspeople at work and see the skill and artistry that goes into producing traditional Maori clothing.

A waever at work at Te Puia
A weaver at work at Te Puia

When the first Maoris arrived in Aotearoa, they found a place much harsher and colder than mild, warm Hawaiki. In their homeland clothes had been mainly a matter of personal adornment. Now they were a necessity.

Materials for clothing came from the forest and the land. Cloaks were fashioned from the skins of native dogs and from the feathers of birds, particularly kiwi. The hardy and abundant flax plant was an especially important resource. The fibres were separated from the leaves and the fine thread woven into warm and supple garments and into bags, nets, blankets and wall coverings. Patterns and designs of great beauty and significance evolved.

Although, with the arrival of the Pakeha, Maori embraced a range of new materials like cotton and wool, they retained traditional designs and methods of weaving.

Te Rito, the weaving school at Te Puia opened in 1969. Its first Director was Emily Schuster, daughter of a master carver and niece Rotorua’s legendary Guide Rangi. She worked at the school, teaching and promoting women’s crafts until her death in 1997.

Te Rito trains students in traditional methods of weaving, including, taniko (macramé), tukutuku (reed panels), harakeke (flax weaving) piupiu . It offers day and night courses as well as training sessions and workshops on Marae around the country.

Visitors to Te Rito can observe and photograph students as they learn and practise the ancient traditions of weaving.

Some of the works produced in Te Rito can be bought at the Taonga Gallery and Gift Shop.

Rotorua, the Florence of Aotearoa

Rotorua is to Aotearoa New Zealand as Florence is to Italy – a centre and show case of art and culture.

Rotorua Government Gardens, The Prince's Gate
Rotorua Government Gardens, The Prince’s Gate

Generations of Rotorua crafts people have kept the traditional arts of carving and weaving alive and brought them to the high art that they are today. A long-established and robust tourist industry has created an environment where they can flourish.

At Rotorua’s Whakarewarewa and Ohinemutu traditional Maori architecture, design and decoration are at their most beautiful and authentic. But around the city too, inside and outside buildings, on gateposts on shop fronts and churches there are beautiful, unexpected and easily overlooked examples of whakairo (carving) kowhaiwhai (scroll-pattern painting) and tukutuku (reed weaving)

To see carvers and weavers at work, be sure to visit Te Rito, the weaving school and Te Wananga Whakairo at Te Puia.


When walking Te Puia’s thermal wonderland, follow the guide

Although you can browse in Te Puia’s information galleries and wander perfectly safe pathways through the thermal park, it’s really worthwhile joining one of the free guided tours.

A Te Puia mudpool
A Te Puia mudpool

Guiding people around this treacherous thermal region has been a tradition among the Tuhourangi Iwi (tribe) of Whakarewarewa since the first tourists began to trickle into the country in 1880s.  Many great tales lie behind the explanations and theories about the origins of the Te Arawa Iwi and the Tuhourangi people and about how, when and why they arrived in this spot, and how they have lived ever since.  Although they’re brilliantly outlined on the galleries’ story boards, Te Puia’s guides have much colourful detail to add.

Similary, Te Puia’s thermal attractions are well signposted and their stories summarised on maps. But as you grope your way along, with mud-pools belching rudely on one side, a boiling geyser shooting skywards on another and your fellow travellers lost in a cloud of steam ahead, you might just be glad of the reassuring, if disembodied, voice of your guide. Again, here too, the guides have some entertaining anecdotes and some useful information about the beauty benefits of Te Puia’s thermal water and mud.

The Te Puia’s guided tour ends at the Kiwi house. The kiwi, Aotearoa’s iconic bird, is not only flightless but nocturnal, timid and endangered. So to see them means a plunge into darkness and silence. When your eyes adjust, you find yourself peering through a window into the night-time bush. If you’re lucky you’ll spot a couple of these long-beaked, hunch-backed birds, pottering about, hunting grubs or sleeping, curled up like little balls of feathers. Fascinating!

Cultural immersion at Te Puia

Te Puia, The New Zealand Institute of Maori Arts and Crafts, at Whakarewarewa, is one of Rotorua’s most visited tourist attractions. With its thermal park, Marae, (community meeting place) whare whakairo (carved meeting house), huge carved waka (canoe) stunning modern information centre, weaving school, carving school, kiwi house, Maori concerts, as well as its shop full of exquisite art, artefacts and souvenirs, there is a great deal to experience.

Maori Concert at Te Puia
Maori Concert at Te Puia

Our Te Puia experience began with a Kapa Haka (cultural performance) in the Whare Whakairo.

We joined the throng at the Marae gate and waited for the karanga, or call to the visitors, that opens any traditional powhiri, or welcome to a Marae. Under normal circumstances, we would then walk slowly through the gate, across the courtyard to the Meeting house and take our seats outside for the whaikorero (speeches of welcome) and waiata (songs) from the tangata whenua (people of the Marae) followed by the speeches and songs of response from the manuhiri (visitors) But, unfortunately, on this occasion it was raining so heavily that, after we had removed our shoes on the verandah,  our hosts took us directly into the whare whakairo.

The whare whakairo at Te Puia is a monument to the work of all the very best of Whakarewarewa’s carvers, weavers and artists. Carved figures stand along each side, interspersed with panels of tukutuku (reed weaving) Scroll-patterned and carved beams reach up from either wall to the ridgepole which runs the length of the ceiling thus joining the ancestors of one side of the house to the other. A large central beam, forms the pou tokomanawa or heart of the house. There is a distinctive smell of wood and reed and flax in every whare whakairo (carved house) that is warm, rich and absolutely unforgettable. There was, I swear, when we entered, an audible collective gasp.

Despite the break with protocol, the welcome we received inside the whare was warm and informative.

The concert at Te Puia is always excellent. The tangata whenua of Whakarewarewa are polished and experienced performers. They know their culture well and are proud to share it. They explained and then demonstrated waiata-a-ringa (action-songs) haka (posture dances) taiaha (weaponry, ti-rakau (stick-games) poi (song and dances accompanied by twirling flax balls on strings) and love songs. The explanations were accompanied by local stories, legends and anecdotes. Quite uncharacteristically, photos were permitted during the show and afterwards, the performers posed graciously for endless snaps.

Unfortunately, it was all over too soon but we lingered as long as we could with the echo of the stamp of the haka, the soft tap of the poi, the click of the piupiu and sweet smell of wood and flax.

Te Puia offers three daytime cultural performances at 10.15, 12.15 and 3.15.

Te Puia is located at Hemo Road Tihiotonga, Rotorua, New Zealand, Phone (07) 348 9047