This June and July, a nationwide festival of special events is set to give visitors and locals a roaring good time.
To say that New Zealand is ready for the DHL NZ Lions Series 2017 tour this year is a world-class understatement. Honouring the fact that a hand-picked British & Irish Lions touring side takes on New Zealand's top five Super Rugby teams as well as the mighty All Blacks only once every 12 years, the rugby-obsessed nation has pulled out all the stops.
Alongside the 10 matches, including three tests, that will be played between 3 June and 8 July, visitors can look forward to a specially curated programme of off-field activities and special events that celebrate the game and showcase unique and authentic features of Kiwi culture.
Complete with well-appointed official fanzones, fan trails, an app and an informative website at rugby2017festival.com, the programme extends well beyond the seven host cities of the tour. Regions and communities from the far north to the deep south are also reaching out with compelling reasons for visitors to get out and enjoy the country between the match dates.
Rub shoulders with Kiwi rugby legends
Amongst the festivities surrounding the British & Irish Lions and New Zealand Provisional Barbarians match in Whangarei, north of Auckland, on 3 June is a Legends at the Local event at the Kamo Rugby Club. The first of several Legends events to be held throughout the country, it offers visitors the chance to rub shoulders with some of the region's greatest national and provincial players and enjoy a few beers, sing-alongs and generous helpings of authentic Kiwi food.
Whangarei also hosts the first "Crafternoon" celebration of New Zealand craft beers that will be held in several regions, with local speciality brews to the fore. The match day fan trail from the city's picturesque Town Basin also promises to be a lively affair with local cafés, restaurants and live entertainment adding to the fun.
Follow the fan trail to the All Blacks’ fortress
As the setting for three tour games including two British & Irish Lions vs All Blacks test matches, Auckland's 4.2km fan trail from Queens Wharf on the downtown waterfront to Eden Park stadium will be busy with walkers, entertainment and fun activities. Complete with a Hall of Legends display of over 2000 items of New Zealand sporting memorabilia, 50,000-seat Eden Park is the All Blacks' ‘fortress’ where they almost never lose.
The Auckland Fanzone at Queens Wharf will offer live big-screen match coverage for the test match period, free entertainment and family-friendly activities, rugby exhibitions and food and drink for sale. Crafternoon events will be held at the adjacent Cloud hospitality complex.
If you're in town for the 7 June Lions vs Blues match or staying for the 24 June and 8 July tests, Auckland offers a sophisticated dining culture, great shopping and hinterland of lush temperate rainforests and offshore islands dotted with top-class vineyards and cellar doors.
Celebrate Matariki, the Māori New Year
The name Matariki in Māori means "tiny eyes", or "eyes of God", a reference to the Pleiades star cluster that rises in the early winter sky. For Māori it marks the beginning of a new year and is a time of feasting and thankfulness for the year’s harvest. Now a significant mainstream festival, Matariki is celebrated with dozens of events throughout the country
Some of the highlights of the 2017 Matariki Festival (10 June to 2 July) include the Matariki "All Stars" Parade in Rotorua with lanterns and a fireworks display, the Matariki Whanau Festival in Whangarei (17 June) with cultural performances and art, craft and food stalls, and the Te Whānau Marama: The Heavenly Bodies exhibition at Waikato Museum in Hamilton (until 13 July 2018) which shines the spotlight on Māori astronomy.
Christchurch takes an innovative approach
Creativity, innovation and energy are the hallmarks of the special events in Christchurch around the 10 June clash between the Crusaders Super Rugby side and the touring Lions at AMI Stadium. In the spirit of the temporary installations and amenities that have brought life back into the rebuilding city are the Dance-O-Mat, a coin-operated dance floor complete with a disco ball; Super Street Arcade, a giant 80s-style outdoor arcade game, and SCAPE, a public art walkway whose installations change with the seasons.
The Christchurch Fanzone in the vibrant cafés, restaurants and laneways of the new central-city Innovation Precinct around Poplar Street will offer live big-screen coverage on match day as well as all three Lions vs All Black tests. Crafternoon events will also be hosted here (180 different beers... enough said!).
For visitors too, the near hinterland of Christchurch city offers a raft of attractions including superb skiing at Mount Hutt, natural thermal springs and day spas at Hanmer Springs, the world-class vineyards and cellar doors of the Waipara Valley and further afield, the famed eco-marine experiences of Kaikoura.
Paint your face in Dunedin
Reflecting Dunedin's status as a leading New Zealand centre for learning, heritage, arts and culture, there's an artsy vibe to Lions Tour special events with an exhibition of New Zealand fashion from the 1960s to the 1990s and a celebration of the city's unique musical heritage known as the Dunedin Sound. The Southern Skies Stargazing experience at the Otago Museum Planetarium offers a trip on a London double-decker bus to the edge of the Pacific Ocean to go stargazing. Ecotourism experiences are also a must-do in Dunedin, as is a visit to Larnach's Castle, New Zealand's one-and-only Scottish Baronial-style castle and its Garden of International Significance.
On 13 June, when the Lions play the Highlanders at Forsyth Barr Stadium, the traditional Dunedin fan walk from the Octagon in the centre of the city will become a fiesta complete with food trucks, live music and entertainment. As at other matches, members of the crowd will paint their faces in team colours.
Take part in the world's biggest haka
The local name for the Rotorua International Stadium is “The Hangi Pit” (earth oven), and in their 17 June encounter with the Māori All Blacks, the British & Irish Lions will be on the menu. The game aside, none of the special events in Rotorua's festival week is likely to be as momentous as the Giant Haka to be held from 10.30am on 17 June at Rotorua's Lakefront Village Green.
An attempt to break the Guinness World Record for the Largest Haka currently held by the French, the Haka will need more than 6,200 people (there's plenty of room on the Green) to dance and chant the All Blacks' famous Ka Mate haka. Admission is free and make sure you practise your moves, especially pukana (bulging eyes and poking out your tongue).
With tickets to the Hangi Pit predicted to sell out, the Rotorua Fanzone at the Rotorua Energy Events Centre will be open on 17 June with live coverage of the game. Admission to this family-friendly, alcohol-free event is free.
The heartland of Māori culture, Rotorua is one of the best places to learn about what makes New Zealand special. And, in addition to its world-famous geothermal activity, it is the North Island's adventure capital with some of the best mountain biking in the southern hemisphere.
Fields, farms and hobbits
Ninety minutes south of Auckland in the prosperous Waikato farming region, the city of Hamilton offers a genuine experience of the New Zealand heartland. By happy coincidence, the 20 June Chiefs vs Lions game at Hamilton's FMG Stadium takes place on the last day of Fieldays, the largest agricultural event in the southern hemisphere. If you’re keen to see the innovations and practices that make New Zealand a major agricultural supplier to the world, Fieldays is a must-see. A DHL NZ Lions Series 2017-themed installation will be at the event with the chance to meet some of the Chiefs players. Also not to be missed nearby is Hobbiton, the 12-acre movie set from the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit movie trilogies that put New Zealand film making on the world map.
An hour south of Hamilton, the central North Island town of Te Kuiti is temporarily changing its name to Meadsville in honour of one of New Zealand's most iconic 20th century rugby players. On 19 June a larger-than-life bronze statue of Sir Colin Meads will be unveiled in the town's main street. It accompanies an interactive exhibition devoted to Meads and his brother Stan that will run until May 2018.
Wellington: take a walk on the tech side
The creative techno-wizardry that makes Wellington one of the world's go-to places for international moviemakers will be on display during the Lions' two matches in the city between 27 June and 1 July when the city's waterfront is transformed into the ultimate fanzone. The fan trail from the official fanzone at Odlins Plaza to Wellington Regional Stadium (popularly known as The Cake Tin) will be lit with digital light shows and projection mapping including Māori and Pasifika symbology to celebrate Matariki.
A must-attend event is Pint-Sized Beervana, a celebration of New Zealand and Wellington’s craft beer industry on 29 June. This mini-festival will showcase unique beers from 10 craft breweries, matched with dishes prepared by five top local chefs. Speaking of beverages, the nearby Wairarapa wine region is providing special trains to local events such as Reds, Whites and Brews Martinborough (27 June to 4 July), a programme of tasting menus at local restaurants and cafés matched with local wines and beers. You can even attend practices at the Martinborough rugby club and enjoy a glass with the locals at the rugby club bar.
And what better way to celebrate a memorable tour of New Zealand than with an evening of patriotic revelry and participation? Lands of Hope and Glory at the Michael Fowler Centre on 30 June will feature many English, Irish and Kiwi musical favourites. Bring your flag to wave because it will of course include Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No.1!