Unassumingly nestled in the beauty of the Bay of Islands, are the Waitangi Treaty Grounds where New Zealand’s founding document, the Treaty of Waitangi, was signed in 1840. A document that provided the foundations for a partnership between the British colonisers and the Maori people, the Treaty of Waitangi has its own story to tell, and what better place to learn about and relive history, than the Waitangi Treaty Grounds.
With just a 25 minute walk, or three minute drive from the closest town centre of Paihia, Waitangi is easily accessible to travellers. At the entrance to the Treaty Grounds you are met with friendly staff that stand below a giant copy of the Maori translation of the treaty, representing the version signed on site in 1840. Your journey starts here.
A variety of options are available to make the most of your visit, ranging from basic Admission, which allows you to take a self-guided approach to wandering the expansive grounds at your leisure, to a comprehensive 50 minute Guided Tour, a riveting 30 minute Cultural Performance or a fun-filled evening Hangi and Concert.
The best way to experience the Waitangi Treaty Grounds is undoubtedly to immerse yourself in the activities on offer, starting with a Guided Tour. The enthusiastic guide meets you at the entrance to the John Scott Visitor Centre where you begin your journey back in time. Interpretive panels through the centre and stories woven by the guide who has ancestral connections to the signatories of the Treaty paint an historic picture, before you head outside into a lush native bush setting. Birdsong fills the air while an idyllic ocean vista provides the backdrop for the impressive sight of the world’s largest ceremonial war canoe. The story of the journey of Maori ancestors to New Zealand is revealed before you continue along a gently sloping track. The sight that is presented to you at the top of the track is one of magnificent beauty. To your right, beyond the flagstaff which signals the very spot the Treaty was signed, lie panoramic views of the Bay of Islands opening up into the expanse of the Pacific Ocean. To your left the colonial Treaty House sits among historic gardens and is comfortably flanked by an impressive carved meeting house. Your Guided Tour ends here with breath taking views and a new appreciation for New Zealand’s story.
If you, like me, love a visual display and good music, then the Cultural Performance is a must to follow on from your Guided Tour. All visitors gather outside the majestic carved meeting house where a challenge ensues - traditionally performed to determine whether visitors are coming in peace or otherwise. Arriving in peace, you are welcomed within the embrace of the meeting house. Seated in stunning carved surroundings
that depict history and genealogy, the scene is set for a passionate performance by the local group Te Pitowhenua. A high-energy delivery including poi twirling, stick throwing, heavenly harmonies and a traditional haka will leave you spellbound. Filing out of the meeting house with smiles still plastered on faces young and old, one of the day’s highlights is meeting the performers and taking photos with them.
Long summer evenings in the Bay of Islands lend themselves perfectly to a Hangi and Concert at the Waitangi Treaty Grounds. The three hour Hangi and Concert combines the best of the daytime experiences - a condensed Guided Tour and 45 minute aweinspiring Cultural Performance; with a traditionally prepared and cooked dinner buffet. Your night begins at the fully licensed Whare Waka Café within the Treaty Grounds, providing a casually charming setting to mix and mingle with a drink while your guide introduces your evening itinerary. Making the most of the evening light you then gather around the modern earth oven (hangi) to witness the unveiling of food. Leaving the Hangi Chefs to complete meal preparations, you head off on your Guided Tour of the grounds and Cultural Performance in the carved meeting house, before returning to devour the hangi buffet. Topping the evening off with a substantial meal of salads, vegetables, meats, stuffing, traditional breads and steamed pudding for desert, you will leave satisfied after your fun-filled taste (figuratively and quite literally), of the Maori culture.
Whether you choose to see the grounds your way or join an organised activity, it is hard to put into words the feeling of historic importance, kinship, identity, culture, beauty and pride that permeates the expansive grounds at Waitangi. All I can say is that from the iconic buildings and unique stories, to the breath taking scenery - all New Zealand journeys should begin here, at the Waitangi Treaty Grounds.