So you think you know New Zealand, huh? Sure, you know the backpacker’s mecca of Queenstown, that Milford Sound is a ‘must-do’, where to find the volcano that became Peter Jackson’s Mount Doom (Mount Ngauruhoe, for your next pub quiz), and the most recommended spots for bungy jumps and sky dives. New Zealand is the kind of place you can visit and get a full house on your tourist bingo card without too much trouble.
But the fact that you’re reading this means you want a little more than these classic Kiwi experiences. We’ve pulled together some of New Zealand’s finest hidden gems that will make your trip stand out from the crowd.
The Lesser-Known Highlights of NZ
Forgotten World Highway 43
Definitely one of the best road trip routes in the world, the Forgotten World Highway takes you deep into rural New Zealand. The views are as epic as the phone signal is bad. Stop at Nevins Lookout for a panorama that takes in King Country landscape all the way to the mountains of Ruapehu, Ngauruhoe and Tongariro.
A night at the Whangamomona Hotel (located in the only town along Highway 43) is a must-do for yarns with the rustic locals and unbeatable Kiwi hospitality.
Hidden hot springs
You could pay a few dollars to enjoy the well-known hot springs around Taupo and Rotorua. Or you can find a completely natural, undeveloped spring and have exactly the same experience for free. Ask around for tips on where to find the best spots as recommended by locals. If you’re lucky, you’ll have the geothermal hot tub to yourself.
This untouched nature reserve can be found off the coast of the Kapiti and Wellington regions. You must join an approved tour to access the island, and if you camp overnight you will be rewarded with one of the best chances of seeing a little spotted kiwi bird in the wild.
Mount Kaukau, Wellington
The highest peak in a capital city surrounded by hills offers a quiet and scenic 20-minute hike to the summit. Expect to hear native tui calling from the trees and a peaceful silence as you take in the view from the top. On a good day the South Island is visible.
Te Mata Peak
Hawke’s Bay is the place to experience some of the best food and wine New Zealand has to offer. The climate is temperate year-round and vineyards are famous for their sumptuous Chardonnays.
To really take in the beauty of the region, a trip up Te Mata Peak is a must. You can hike, cycle or drive to the summit. The peak has importance in Maori legend and is said to be formed of the body of the giant Te Mata who perished trying to prove his love for the beautiful Hinerakau. He choked to death while attempting to bite a way through the hills to the coast. The things you do for love.
Take a ferry from Wellington to the small but fascinating Somes Island. The perfect day trip location, this island offers stellar views back to the city. Wildlife flourishes on this isolated outcrop; expect to see many native birds and tuatara if you know where to look. It’s also home to a large breeding colony of blue penguins.
The island has a dark history as both an animal and human quarantine sight – if you decide to camp out overnight you’re in for a spooky evening.
New Plymouth Coastal Track
The 10km of coastal track is perfect for cycling, walking or running. The route takes in local surfing spots, New Plymouth’s famous Wind Wand kinetic sculpture, black sand beaches and views of looming Mount Taranaki across the Te Rewa Rewa bridge.
Take a short detour from the path to scramble up Paritutu Rock, a two million year old remnant of an active volcano, which offers magnificent views over New Plymouth, the Sugar Loaf Islands and backdrop of imposing Mount Taranaki (cloud cover permitting).
These caves found in the Northlands are possibly the best spot in all of New Zealand for glowworms. Enter at your own risk, as the caves are completely undeveloped and unguarded. Make sure you are appropriately attired for a spot of cave exploring and have a decent torch with you. Then switch the torch off to appreciate the full beauty of the luminescent glowworms.
This unbelievably picturesque town has all the best bits of New Zealand with none of the crowds: green, rolling-hilled landscapes, stunning coastline, friendly locals and a little bit of Kiwi weirdness – a hot water beach.
Tiritiri Matangi Reserve
This small island located in the Hauraki Gulf off the coast of Auckland is a bird-watchers dream come true. Tiritiri Matangi has been mammal free for years, meaning the population of rare birds has blossomed. Brown spotted kiwi and takahe are among the endemic endangered species to be found on the tiny landmass.
There is also a bunkhouse on the island that can be booked for overnight stays, so you can get in a bit of nocturnal bird-watching too.
Paparoa National Park
Located next to the small town of Punakaiki, home of the geologically-weird pancake rocks, Paparoa is 30,000 hectares of densely forested limestine scenery – and it’s stunning. There are a number of trails through the park, but the 11km Punakaiki – Pororari Loop track encompasses the best of Paparoa’s natural beauty. You can also detour via the pancake rocks and blowholes at the end of the walk.
Waipapa Point, The Catlins
I almost don’t want to include this spot because it’s so special to me. Deep in the Catlins you’ll find the coastal heaven that is Waipapa Point. Not only does it boast a pretty beach with sunset views and a cute historical lighthouse, but here you have the chance to spy one of the rarest species of seal in the world: the critically endangered New Zealand sea lion.
The Lost Gypsy Gallery, Papatowai
Tucked away in a corner of tiny Papatowai in the Catlins, this gallery is full to the brim of homemade contraptions, games and mechanical toys. All designed and made by the quirky owner, you have the option of paying $5 to view even more wacky inventions in an outdoor sculpture garden.
Well worth a look if you want to indulge your inner child.
Surat Bay, The Catlins
This bay is, for me, a classic New Zealand coastal spot. It’s picturesque, quiet, easily accessible and home to an array of wildlife – including a seal colony. You wouldn’t have to be too lucky to get the beach all to yourself.
Tunnel Beach, Dunedin
A steep one-hour return walk takes you through a tunnel hand-carved in the 1870s through a rock promontory. The route includes many interesting erosional and geological features in the sandstone coastal rocks.
Once through the tunnel you arrive at a secluded beach – it’s best to plan your walk to coincide with the low tide.
Castle Hill boulders
The Dalai Lama named the boulders at Castle Hill ‘the spiritual centre of the universe’ – so they might be worth a visit, I suppose. Drive along the Great Alpine Highway for epic views of the Southern Alps and stop off at the boulders along the way. Known by the Maori name Kura Tawhiti, they were used by tribes for shelter whilst food-gathering. These limestone rocks are just magnificent.
Nelson Lakes National Park
I have it on good authority from a prolific tramper that Nelson Lakes provides the best walking routes in the whole country. The spectacular glaciated region offers two beautiful alpine lakes to explore, Rotoroa and Rotoiti. There are also mountains to conquer and beech forests full of native birds to wander through. Simply put, the best of New Zealand can be found in a walk through Nelson Lakes National Park.
Arrowtown and Lake Hayes
Queenstown might get all the hype but neighbouring Arrowtown has all the charm with far fewer tourists. This historically rich former gold rush town is surrounded by wineries, ski fields and a plethora of walking tracks. The ice cream at Patagonia Chocolates in the town centre is a must-try.
Nearby Lake Hayes provides an easy but stunning two hour walk around the shoreline. Look out for Australasian Crested Grebe in the wetlands zone.
Dunedin rugby football club
For as little as $9 you can watch a match of New Zealand’s favourite sport at Dunedin’s oldest rugby grounds. Formed in 1871, the DRC plays an important role in Otago rugby and is now a Marist and Celtic affiliated club.
Watching a live rugby match is a must-do for any trip to New Zealand, where the sport is akin to religion.
Situated 27km north of Kaikoura, a short 10 minute walk up the Ohau stream brings you to a waterfall plunge pool with a sweet surprise: it’s home to a colony of New Zealand fur seal pups. During the winter months the youngsters swim up from the ocean to play in the pool; it’s basically a seal crèche. Keep your camera handy and get ready to say ‘aww’!