"There is a Māori proverb 'He tāngata, he tāngata, he tāngata' which simply means, the people, the people, the people. That's what I think about when I'm asked what makes Aotearoa New Zealand so special," says Damaris Coulter.
Coulter, along with her sister Renee, co-founded Auckland's no-nonsense, no-reviews and always-in-demand Italian-inspired eatery, Coco's Cantina more than a decade ago. These days, her full-time focus (and hustle) is on her other established venture, The Realness, which connects consumers with independent owner-operated businesses globally.
It's clear to anyone who spends a second in her company that family and food run deep with Coulter. As does the desire to share, show and tell. Which is exactly what we asked her to do.
Below, Coulter gives us an insight into life as a local, opens up about how her childhood shaped her idea of hospitality and gives not one, but two options for what you should do if you ever find yourself with a spare 48 hours in New Zealand. Because you always need a Plan B.
WHAT MAKES NEW ZEALAND LEGENDARY, IN YOUR OPINION?
"We tangata whenua of Aotearoa New Zealand, like all First Nations or Indigenous peoples have very unique knowledge, practises and stories that continue from generation to generation. Our kai (food), sea, forests, mountains, lakes, cities, rural towns, gardens and community spaces hold sacred knowledge, ancient and modern, and we are lucky to be able to access and share this knowledge. Being so small and so far away from the rest of the world also gives us a uniqueness."
WHAT WAS LIFE LIKE GROWING UP?
"We lived in Kaitaia in the far north of Aotearoa New Zealand until I was 10 years old, and it was beautiful. Our home backed onto a river, which we swam in all year-round and we went to a little rural country school. My mother's parents lived on the east coast, in Karikari, so we were always at sea, fishing, swimming, eating oysters off the rocks and exploring. My dad's parents lived inland on a farm in Fairburn. This meant we were surrounded by animals, riding horses, picking blackberries, going eeling and hanging at the local hall with our nana. Our uncle and aunt had a restaurant in town called Beachcomber, which we were lucky to hang out in a lot. I believe that watching how it all worked from such a young age created my love for hospitality. There were a lot of shrimp cocktails and fish 'n' chips back then — which are still my favourites now."
WAS HOSPITALITY ALWAYS THE FIRST CHOICE?
"My sister and I worked in hospitality in our teens. We washed dishes, worked for caterers, bars, cafes, restaurants, organised weddings, made coffee — you name it, we worked it. We had always talked about having our own place, so when I moved home from living in Italy, we started ironing out the vision of what would become Coco's Cantina. Coco's was to be our living room, it was an extension of the sort of hospitality we would offer at home to our friends.
We wanted to create a space that served tasty, home-style, unpretentious food and booze, had fun and knowledgeable staff, used ethical suppliers and basically create a great work environment for a team that we would share most of our days with. Out of that restaurant journey came The Realness, an idea that I suppose seeded from experiencing first-hand the blessings and curses of being an owner-operator hospitality business that didn't want to mess with the planet or the people on it.
The Realness was my way of showcasing all of these amazing operators who shared the same values, but had completely different offerings. It was my way of cutting out the middle man and connecting hungry diners and shoppers with one-of-a-kind unique eateries, shops and artisans."
HOW PROUD ARE YOU OF NEW ZEALAND PRODUCE?
"I am proud of our people and our producers. They don't pretend to reinvent the wheel around food, produce and craft, however they are always mastering their area of expertise, the environment they do it in and the land they do it on and continue to aim for best practise. I love seeing kai (food) grown that is native to our land or has a harmonious alignment with our land, environment and the people who share it."
WHAT'S YOUR ADVICE TO SOMEONE WITH 48 HOURS IN NEW ZEALAND?
"Head further north! To Te Tai Tokerau to be exact. Stop at one of the local markets and fill your chilly bin up. That way you will get a real taste of Aotearoa New Zealand produce and its dedicated producers. Then hit the road north. Aim to end up at the top, Cape Reinga. Here are two scenic ways to get there:
Option 1: Drive up the west coast and stop at Kai Iwi lakes for a swim and picnic, or do the Tāne Mahuta walk in Waipoua Forest. Then have fish 'n' chips on the water in Opononi and spend the night in the Hokianga. Breakfast at the No.1 Parnell. Rawene gallery cafe while you wait for the ferry across to Kohukohu, drive through the beautiful backroads of Northland and take in the landscape all the way to the Cape. There are lots of walks, both short and long, once you get to the top. After your day of exploring, head to the Pukenui Pacific for dinner. Pukenui Holiday Park has some cabins and there are plenty of bed and breakfasts around the area, too.
Option 2: Drive the east coast way and head to the Waitangi grounds in the Bay of Islands. Discover the contemporary museums, Māori cultural performances and the world's largest ceremonial war canoe. Then, head to Doubtless Bay for the night. Mangonui, Cable Bay and Tapia have some independent hotels and accommodation with eateries and food spots dotted around. Grab your morning coffee from BeachBox in Coopers Beach, pack your picnic and head to the Cape for the day. You can either drive yourself or book one of the bus day tours that leave from Kaitaia, which include the sand dunes and Ninety Mile Beach.
HOW IMPORTANT IS HOSPITALITY TO THE MĀORI CULTURE?
"When you translate Manaakitanga into the English language, it means hospitality, kindness and generosity, but for Māori, manaakitangi is something that is much more than these words. It is offering the sort of hospitality that you can't buy, a genuine and natural hospitality that when you are lucky enough to receive it, you feel nothing but goodness."
ANY FINAL WORDS?
"Now more than ever, we need to choose who to support and spend our time and money with. If we want to have interesting, artisan, sustainable and local eateries, shops and businesses in our world — the sort of places that build our communities, create history and tell stories once people have gone — we have to support them, encourage them, love them and spend our money with them. And, of course, if you haven't visited Aotearoa New Zealand yet, this is an invitation to experience a land, culture and people that are beautifully unique."