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.