Nowhere is New Zealand's handle as the "land of volcanoes" more visible than in Rotorua, a town built on bubbling mud pools and naturally sweltering springs. Just under three hours from Auckland, Rotorua has some of the most animated geothermal activity in the world and has attracted visitors since the 1800s, making it one of the very first international spa destinations. The heady Sulphur City continues to reign in millions of visitors annually - though the voyage no longer takes several months across the seas - who come for the crater lakes and inevitably stay for an unforgettable Maori experience.
Rotorua literally bubbles over with opportunities to embrace the enigmatic Maori culture. Last month I was lucky enough to visit Te Puia, one of New Zealand's premier Maori cultural centres and arts and crafts institutes, where I witnessed intricate wood carving, had my first kiwi encounter and was treated to a decadent morning tea while the Pohutu geyser sprayed the horizon white with steam. Set in the Whakarewarewa valley, Te Puia is laden with steaming vents and wild waters; a place of unbridled natural energy and beauty that the Maori have called home for almost seven centuries.
With our warm and welcoming guide Mel at the helm, our group donned Te Puia ponchos and braved the elements to broaden our cultural horizons. After making harakeke (flax) weaving look easier than it clearly is, we were treated to a surprise: a visit to the Kiwi House to see an ACTUAL kiwi. Our eyes adjusted to the darkness as the monogamous bird couple, Kenny and Nohi, waddled around their enclosure, oblivious to the fact they had a captive audience. Before we knew it the birds were putting on a show of quite a different nature to the excitement of our guides. "That's what we pay for," they remarked.
While the volcanic landscape and the kiwi encounter are undoubtedly the biggest selling points of Te Puia, one of the greatest features is its unwavering effort to sustain Maori culture. Hundreds of young artisans sharpen their skills in the traditional arts, from carving to weaving and even kappa haka, the performing arts, learning these customs to pass on to generations and keeping the Maori identity alive. The first intake of students was more than 40 years ago; today visitors are welcomed into the National Schools of Carving (Te Wananga Whakairo) and Weaving (Te Rito) to watch, learn and even try it for themselves as part of a guided tour.
Whether you choose to visit Te Puia for a 45-minute daytime performance or an extended evening celebration with a hangi feast and waka (canoe) journey into the valley, this Rotorua attraction has the ability to add a new depth to your holiday in Aotearoa, New Zealand, and might just turn out to be the cultural highlight of your journey.