The national holiday was first declared in 1974, and since then has grown in significance for all New Zealanders through the Māori renaissance that has fostered better understanding of the Treaty’s ramifications.
Official celebrations are held at the Waitangi Treaty Grounds in the Bay of Islands, Northland, but there are also many other events throughout the country.
Māori cultural performances, speeches from Māori and Pakeha (European) dignitaries, and a naval salute are all part of the annual activities at Waitangi.
The Ngatokimatawhaorua, one of the world’s largest Māori ceremonial waka (war canoe), sits on the grounds at Waitangi. The 70-year-old waka was refurbished and relaunched for the 170th celebrations in 2010.
Each February, Ngatokimatawhaorua must be prepared for its Waitangi Day outing prior to the big event. Made from massive trunks of New Zealand’s giant kauri trees, the gigantic waka - which weighs an incredible six tonne when dry - must first be moved by human force across the Treaty grounds and down to the sea. It is then moored in the water for up to two days allowing the wood to swell and become airtight, thus doubling the weight.
Carried out and blessed by members of the local iwi / Māori tribe, this is a tradition that happens only once a year to celebrate Waitangi Day. The enormous wooden vessel, with room for 80 paddlers and 55 passengers, is an impressive sight both on land and on the water.
Waitangi also hosts a festival on the special day that includes music, dance, food and traditional Māori customs.
New Zealand-wide celebrations
Waitangi Day celebrations happen all over New Zealand.
In Auckland - New Zealand’s largest city - the national day is celebrated near the city’s birthplace at Okahu Bay. It was at Orakei, in 1841, that Auckland Māori chiefs invited Governor Hobson to create the settlement that became the modern city. This family-focused event features live entertainment, kai / Māori food and kite flying with the spectacular coastal backdrop of the Waitemata Harbour and Rangitoto Island.
The celebrations don’t stop there, with family friendly events taking place across the city. Picnics, local food stalls, traditional kapa-haka, music and entertainment will all be in abundance on Waitangi Day in Auckland, and by night, the iconic Auckland Harbour Bridge lights up with 90,000 LEDs featuring stunning Māori imagery and sounds throughout the weekend to mark this occasion.
Wellington - the nation’s capital - holds an event that celebrates Waitangi Day with Te Rā o Waitangi - a family day of kai / food (including hāngi and food trucks), kapa haka performance and live music at Waitangi Park on the city's Ara Moana waterfront. This park was originally a large wetland used by Māori as a source of food, water and for launching waka / carved wooden canoes. The name acknowledges the site as a significant Wellington landmark for both Māori and Pakeha, and as a space for recreation and events.
Just north of Wellington, on the edges of the picturesque Porirua harbour, thousands of locals will turn out for a fun-filled day of activities with waka ama rides on the water and traditional arts and activities on land. There will be more than 50 food trucks and activity stalls, and live music on a main stage.
Elsewhere, Waitangi Day celebrations cover all sorts of occasions from major sporting events to rodeos, and even a folk music festival.
Paihia is just over 3 hours’ drive from Auckland, or an hour from Whangarei. National bus services run between Paihia and Auckland (about 4 hours), as well as surrounding towns; or hop aboard an Air New Zealand flight to Kerikeri, just 20 minutes’ drive away. The Waitangi Treaty Grounds are situated just 2km from the town – an easy 25-minute walk along the waterfront or 2-minute drive.