Maori people performing in the Tamaki Maori Village // © 2017 Creative Commons user ravigogna
Feature image (above): Tahiti may be famous for its overwater bungalows, but it's worth getting to know the local culture, too. // © 2017 Mayumi Ishikawa
A client’s romanticized idea of a South Pacific vacation usually involves one of two things: getting spoiled in an ultra-luxurious overwater bungalow with spectacular island views and direct access to the clear, blue waters, or — for the more adventurous — participating in a high-intensity water adventure such as swimming with sharks, surfing or wreck diving.
Unbeknownst to most travelers, however, are the area’s rich cultural offerings. And thanks in part to the popularity of Disney’s recent animated film “Moana,” more vacationers are gaining an appetite for experiencing the local cultures of the South Pacific. From visits to cultural centers and annual festivals to watching ancient rituals and more, here are some of the best ways travelers to the destination can immerse themselves in Polynesian culture.
Participate in the Annual Canoe Festival (Yap, Federated States of Micronesia)
The event, held every December at the Yap Living History Museum, revels in Yap’s grand navigational heritage. It boasts a magnificent parade of traditional Yapese sailing canoes in addition to canoe racing, dancing, bamboo raft-making competitions, coconut-husk rope weaving and more.
Learn Local Traditions at The Arts Village in Pacific Harbour (Deuba, Fiji)
Fijian culture is just as fascinating as its awe-inspiring islands, pristine beaches and crystal-clear lagoons. And an exploration of it is certainly called for, whether by boat or on foot. Drop by The Arts Village and interact with locals for a meaningful lesson in their traditions, practices and arts. Here, you’ll also witness Beqa fire-walking shows, storytelling of local legends and, of course, dancing.
Celebrate Heiva I Tahiti (Tahiti, French Polynesia)
Summertime is a gloriously lively time in the French Polynesian islands, and Heiva I Tahiti takes place each year in Papeete. This wildly ebullient cultural festival is attended by thousands of Polynesians and has always been an integral part of the Tahitians’ ancient religious and political ceremonies. Today, it celebrates their music, dance and sports and is an excellent way to experience forgotten Polynesian traditions.
Explore Highlands Paradise Cultural Centre (Rarotonga, Cook Islands)
Visit the ancient village of high chief Tinomana and learn about his people’s old culture and legends. Or, join a traditional “umu” (underground oven) feast while watching a cultural show showcasing the heritage. Whatever clients decide, they’re in for an unforgettable experience at this 600-year-old site. Most important, everything here is authentic; after being abandoned in the 1800s, the area is now maintained by descendants of the Tinomana tribe.
Attend a Nekowiar Ceremony (Tanna, Vanuatu)
Ask anyone familiar with the South Pacific islands, and they’ll tell you that the island state of Vanuatu is your best bet for immersing in local Polynesian culture. Head to the island of Tanna, where local culture and traditions are beautifully preserved. Visit a small village, or attend the cultural ceremony Nekowiar (or Toka) — held every three to four years — to celebrate the local communities gift-giving, dancing and feasting practices.
Visit a Maori Village in Rotorua (North Island, New Zealand)
The ancient Maori culture is still alive and thriving in New Zealand, and there are many sites to experience it firsthand. Perhaps the best place is Rotorua on the North Island in New Zealand’s geothermic region. Visit a Maori village there (such as Whakarewarewa), set foot on a “marae” (tribal meeting ground) or watch a Maori performance. Don’t leave until you’ve taken part in a traditional “hangi” feast.
Tour Te Vara Nui Village (Rarotonga, Cook Islands)
Set on the largest of the Cook Islands, Te Vara Nui Village is an interactive place to learn about Maori culture. Peek into the History Hut to learn about traditional navigation techniques and cannibalism practices, or discover ancient methods in medicine, carving, weaving and fishing. Better yet, watch a thrilling overwater night show about a local legend while enjoying a delicious Maori feast.