Mountains and fjords: tick. Geysers and mud pools: tick. Bungee jumping: tick. It’s easy to think you’ve been and done the Land of the Long White Cloud, but New Zealand is full of amazing things that tourists often miss.
From the top to the bottom of the country, here are 20 places and things and experiences that really say “New Zealand” – and that your Kiwi mates might show you if they weren’t so keen on keeping them to themselves.
THE KAURI COAST
On the well-beaten track to the Bay of Islands turn left on to State Highway 12 at Brynderwyn and drive into Northland’s best-kept secret. In this quiet corner of the country you’ll find the biggest harbour in the southern hemisphere, and big, big skies.
The Kauri Museum in Matakohe reveals the region’s rich 19th-century history. Enjoy a kumara, because this is the sweet potato capital of the world. West of the township of Dargaville is the desolate beauty of 100km-long Ripiro Beach. North past gin-clear swimming lakes at Kai Iwi is the Waipoua Forest, home of giant kauri trees that give the region its name.
If your Auckland friends really like you they will take you to Waiheke Island – because they really, really love going there. Thirty minutes northeast of the city by high-speed catamaran, this lush green, 92sq km jewel of a destination has it all: headlands lined with sculpture trails, wonderful Pacific scenery and restaurants and wineries galore.
Once a Byron Bay-type haven for alternative lifestylers, the island has become favoured by the rich who like commuting by high-speed ferry. Plentiful artists’ galleries and studios give it an arty vibe. It’s a vibrant/laid-back/high-powered slice of heaven.
STATUE OF RIFF RAFF
Because New Zealand is a small place at the end of the world it is sometimes a little weird. The city of Hamilton, for instance, just a jump to the south of Auckland, is the birthplace of the
Rocky Horror Picture Show
At 206 Victoria St, a cast-bronze sculpture portrays hometown boy and
creator, Richard O’Brien, as the character Riff Raff. It stands on the site of the old Embassy Theatre, Hamilton’s “Late Night Double Feature Picture Show”. Everybody mocks Hamilton for being dull, but this proves that it isn’t.
If Raglan (pop. 3400) didn’t exist, someone would have to invent it. Without trying at all hard, it stands out from hundreds of other New Zealand beach towns with its unique Kiwi ambience.
Voted “NZ’s best-looking town” by Lonely Planet (and they aren’t just referring to the hot surfer dudes), Raglan has a large artistic community and a bohemian vibe. From gallery-browsing to shooting the world-famous surf breaks to horse trekking or simply taking the kids fishing on the harbour wharf, there’s plenty to do.
Yes, this is a giant carrot. Ohakune, North Island. Picture: Alamy Source: Alamy
BIG CARROT OF OHAKUNE
They’ve got big ones in Ohakune – carrots, that is. In 1982, to the consternation of many locals, the Ohakune Growers Association decided to erect a 7.5m carrot at the entrance to the town. Eventually installed in a park on the fringe of the Carrot Capital, the big orange symbol has since been photographed by thousands of tourists.
In 2011, it was painted black to support the All Blacks’ bid for the Rugby World Cup. It could be worse: in Cromwell, Central Otago, they have giant fruit.
FUN HO! TOYS
You don’t expect to find the maker of an iconic range of handmade cast-aluminium toys in a quiet corner of the North Island’s west coast, but Inglewood, Taranaki is the place.
From racing cars and tractors to tip trucks, fire engines, aircraft and more, these staples of Kiwi childhoods have been produced since 1935 and are still made on-site. Warning: Fun Ho! toys are addictively collectable.
FORGOTTEN WORLD ADVENTURES
Kiwis have a big melancholy streak and their soggy green landscapes certainly encourage it. Thumb your nose at it all by riding a RailBike through it.
Forgotten World Adventures operates seasonal semi-guided tours along a mothballed 140km stretch of railway between Okahukura in the Central North Island and Stratford in Taranaki.
The six-hour RailBike adventure traverses the unspoilt wilderness of the Tangarakau Scenic Reserve on comfy two-seater, pedal-your-own machines. This beautiful remote area has defied all efforts to “break it in” but you travel through it with a yee-ha!
The sign on the airport terminal reads: “Gisborne – at the world’s edge”, and as you’ll find, the first city in the world to greet the sun each day is a bit quirky.
It also has everything you want for a memorable Kiwi holiday including great surfing, safe swimming, heritage and adventure tourism, fishing and diving. The seafood (especially the lobster) is magnificent and Gisborne is smack in the middle of a great wine region: Lindauer, the nation’s signature bubbly, is made here and the chardonnays are the nation’s best.
ESCAPE: NEW ZEALAND .. John Corbett story .. Hiking track on the Tongariro Crossing, New Zealand. Picture: iStockSource: Supplied
THE TONGARIRO CROSSING
New Zealanders have a national obsession with hiking (they call it tramping) and there are treks and trails everywhere. One of the best is the 19.4km Tongariro Crossing, rated as one of the top 10 single-day treks in the world.
Volcanic activity permitting, it takes you through the unearthly landscapes of the three great volcanoes at the centre of the North Island. If they look familiar it’s because the footage for the land of Mordor in The Lord of the Rings was filmed there.
WORLD OF WEARABLE ART
What started as a promotion for a small rural gallery in Nelson in 1987 has ballooned into a globally-significant fashion/art/theatre event. Nelson lost the event to Wellington a few years ago so if you can’t make the annual three-week show each September, the WOW & Classic Cars Museum in Nelson displays 60-plus jaw-dropping garments.
THE CAKE TIN
Since rugby is the national religion, Kiwi friends may invite you to watch a game. They like to give stadiums nicknames, so the Westpac Stadium in Wellington is called the Cake Tin (because it’s big and round and silver), and Carisbrook in Dunedin is the House of Pain (because visiting teams often have a tough time there).
The prized Ranfurly Shield is known as the Log o’ Wood, and so on. Feign polite interest.
ABEL TASMAN SEA SHUTTLE
While your companions huff and puff along the walking trails of the Abel Tasman National Park at the top of the South Island, you on the other hand can take in the magnificent marine scenery on the sea shuttle service from Kaiteriteri to Awaroa Bay.
Hop off and have a leisurely lunch at Peppers Awaroa Lodge because there are several shuttles a day.
Abel Tasman holds a special place in New Zealanders’ hearts.
The environment is pristine, the beaches are golden, and the warm, sheltered waters are like a giant swimming pool. It’s a distillation of Kiwi summer.
Once a rehabilitation centre for war veterans and addicts, the alpine village of Hanmer Springs, 90 minutes northwest of Christchurch, has blossomed into a picturesque tourist town. The chief attraction, then as now, is natural hot pools whose therapeutic properties are boosted by all manner of indulgent treatments.
Hanmer’s tree-lined streets and peaked roofs may remind you of a European spa town but the tramping, mountain-biking, golfing, fishing and jetboating in the surrounding wilderness are 100 per cent New Zealand. When you’re thoroughly de-stressed, head for the wineries and food trails of the Waipara Valley an hour away.
CANTERBURY A&P SHOW
If you visit New Zealand during the warmer months you’ll likely encounter an A&P (agricultural and pastoral) Show. A legacy of earlier times, they’re a unique combination of agriculture and entertainment that can include floral art competitions.
The largest A&P Show is held in Christchurch each November and draws more than 100,000 people to see more than 1000 livestock and equestrian displays.
HOKITIKA WILD FOODS FESTIVAL
Fancy a huhu grub? (It’s sort of like a witchetty grub). There are lots of food festivals in New Zealand but this one is about exposing your palate to something new. Held annually in the town of Hokitika on the South Island’s West Coast (the next event is March 12, 2016), it’s a chance to tuck in to local offerings such as marinated tuna, whitebait patties, smoked high-country salmon and game meats. Oh, and don’t miss the Feral Fashion Competition.
TE ANA MAORI ROCKART CENTRE
There’s possibly no more meaningful and authentic experience of New Zealand Maori culture than a visit to Te Ana in Timaru, home of the largest collection of Maori rock drawings in the world. Take in the impressive interactive displays and a tour to a local rock-art site where the abundant limestone of the surrounding Aoraki region provided an ideal canvas for
One of a string of stunning, glacier-blue lakes along the eastern foot of the Southern Alps, Lake Tekapo is a year-round destination for sightseeing and active pursuits. A popular stop is the Church of the Good Shepherd which has the best view around.
The real action arguably takes place at night in the Mt John observatory high above the town. The observatory is part of the UNESCO Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve, the first in the southern hemisphere and the world’s largest. Pollution and light-free skies make the area a stargazer’s dream.
Victorian architecture survives in Oamaru on the South Island. Picture: Alamy Source: Alamy
OAMARU VICTORIAN PRECINCT
Through a miracle of conservation, the original 19th-century part of this southern coastal town is still in action with boutiques and galleries selling secondhand books, jewellery, clothing and traditional crafts.
The exquisitely beautiful buildings are made from the local white limestone and because this is New Zealand there’s also Steampunk HQ, a quirky science-fiction take on 19th century technology featuring retro-futuristic art and immersive light and sound experiences.
MANAPOURI POWER STATION
Australia may have the Snowy Mountains Scheme, but it ain’t got nuthin’ like Manapouri. Considered to be New Zealand’s greatest engineering feat, Manapouri is the country’s largest hydro-electric power station and is built almost entirely underground.
Seasonal tours (November to April) take visitors across Lake Manapouri (part of the Fiordland World Heritage Area and awe-inspiring in itself) to a visitor centre.
From there, a coach heads down a 2km spiral tunnel to the power station’s vast machine hall. It’s like a mad collaboration between Dr Evil from the
movies and the MONA dude in Hobart, 200m inside a granite mountain.
The Catlins are as close as you can get to the subantarctic without leaving mainland New Zealand. Forty-five kilometres east of Invercargill, this southernmost tip of the South Island is a thrilling environment of rugged coastlines and temperate rainforests still largely untouched by the modern world.
Home to some of the world’s rarest marine mammals and iconic native birds, the Catlins also breeds resourceful people who conjure warm hospitality out of austere surroundings. It’s a place that stays in your memory.