The South Island is better known for its mountain vistas and pristine fiords, but there are some amazing cultural experiences you can have - if you know where to look. We've sussed out a few worthwhile experiences on your journey.
Starting in Christchurch, the first place to head to is Willowbank Wildlife Reserve. Initially founded by the Willis family forty odd years ago, Willowbank is now one of New Zealand’s most comprehensive wildlife parks, working on conservation of New Zealand’s precious wildlife, as well as being an advocate for wildlife. You can wander the reserve, seeing animals in relatively natural environments, even the kiwi in a glass free enclosure, as well as getting the opportunity to feed some of the animals and learn from the keepers amazing and tragic facts about these wonderful creatures.
However Willowbank is also the home of Ko Tane. Ko Tane is an interactive Maori cultural experience that welcomes visitors with a traditional powhiri that includes a wero - or warrior challenge - as well as the hongi - or pressing of noses - with the chief. Then in the comfort of their interactive village, you will dine on a hangi meal as well as being shown tools and skills of Maori hunters as well as traditional Maori games before enjoying a kapa haka performance with poi dances, action songs and a spine tingling haka. (You will even get a chance to cut some shapes on the stage and learn a poi dance - or two.)
Moving northwards up the South Island, your next stop on this cultural tour of a land of mountains and coastlines, is Kaikoura. Take a Maori Tours Kaikoura guided trip to visit places of importance to Kaikoura Maori and hear the stories and history of the area and the people. Stories that have been handed down from generation to generation for over 800 years. Wander down tracks trodden by local Iwi for centuries and your hosts will teach you traditional greetings, understanding of plant based medicines and weaving with native flax (harakeke), to name just a few things. And in this way you will get a real insight into local culture and the people of Kaikoura.
Crossing the country will take you past the Hanmer and Maruia Springs, to the West Coast and through Reefton, then down past Greymouth to Hokitika - the greenstone/jade capital of New Zealand. And whilst there pop in and meet Steve at Bonz and Stonz. Whilst Steve is from the Solomon Islands, his heart is here in New Zealand and his passion is carving the raw jade, bone and shell into pounamu. Steve teaches carving, the meaning behind different designs and helps even the most fundamental beginner design, carve and craft their own works.
Once you have created your own physical memory, leap back in your car for the final leg of our cultural road trip, headed to Queenstown. Queenstown is pretty much a gorgeous time for all who visit. From adrenalin junkies to those looking for quiet walks with majestic views, Queenstown is the place to be. Your trip will be studded with great eateries and delicious wines. There are a healthy smattering of galleries showcasing some of the best of New Zealand’s artists, and you can be assured that from pretty much anywhere in the town and it’s surrounds you will be greeted with an outlook of a landscape that is world famous.
And Queenstown offers a wonderful cultural evening from literally the top of town. The Kiwi Haka experience is led by one of Queenstown’s leading kapa haka groups. The live show celebrates Maori customs and history through song, dance, a poi display and culminates in a powerful haka. The performance is set in a theatre surrounded by traditional decorations and carvings of the legends of Wakatipu. Tickets include a gondola ride to the Skyline complex so not only will you be buzzing from the power of the haka and dance experience but you’ll be able to see the glory of Wakatipu and it’s necklace of mountains from on high.