Coolest hidden gems in New Zealand
New Zealand is one of our favourite holiday destinations. It’s got breathtaking scenery, funky towns, friendly locals and plenty of sheep! It’s convenient, too – just a few hours’ flight away.
There’s more to this little country than just bungy jumping and beaches though, and it’s well worth looking a bit further off the standard tourist route if you want to find some hidden gems. Many of New Zealand’s best spots are easiest to access by driving a rental car, which you can get easily with an Australian driver’s licence. Even though they’re similar to here, check up on the local road rules before venturing out. You’ll need to obey them to be covered – not to mention for your own safety!
We’ve found some great little towns in New Zealand that you’ve (probably) never heard of, so choose your ideal hideaway and get packing.
New Zealand’s North Island has around three quarters of the total population, so it’s fair to say there’s always something going on. Famous for its beautiful beaches on the Coromandel and the Bay of Islands, it’s also host to Wellington (the ‘coolest little capital’) and Auckland (the ‘city of sails’ and the largest city in the country). But beyond the famous hotspots, you’ll find plenty of little towns with something special to offer.
1. Matakana – foodie’s paradise
Matakana is a foodie’s heaven less than an hour’s drive north of Auckland. This town is host to a bustling farmers market every Saturday morning, where you’ll find local produce, baked goods, organic meats, craft stalls and great live music.
Browse the stalls and meet the creators of the products – whether it’s locally brewed beer, organic olive oil, hand baked bread or even solid handmade butcher’s knives. Then visit one of the local cafes for a sumptuous lunch, or check out the cute movie theatre for a touch of romance.
Once you’ve had your fill, there are plenty of wineries nearby to quench your thirst and please your palette amidst beautiful vistas. If you want to check out a few wineries in the area, a great idea is to hop on one of the many winery tours available out of Auckland or nearby Warkworth. That way, you’ll be shown the best spots without having to worry about navigating the occasionally narrow roads or driving after a drink or two! A taxi is another good option if you’re staying in Matakana, as drink driving in New Zealand is against the law.
You could even cool off at nearby Omaha Beach or Tawharanui Regional Park before retiring back to a beautiful local bed and breakfast for a night of peace. The beaches near Matakana are all on the east coast, so they’re typically sheltered and calm enough for swimming. Just make sure you swim between the flags wherever possible and keep an eye on the kids if they’re playing in the water.
2. Raglan – peaceful surf mecca
Raglan is known for its rugged surf beaches and relaxed township, featuring chilled out bars, artisan shops and oh-so-Kiwi fish n’ chip shops. It’s convenient, too; only a two-hour drive from Auckland, or 45 minutes from nearby Hamilton.
Surfers are truly spoilt for choice here, with at least five west coast beaches at their doorstep. For those keen to learn something new, there are many surf schools in the area, as well as kayaking and paddle boarding. The main beach in Raglan is very sheltered and is family friendly for little swimmers and sandcastle builders. Always remember to swim between the flags and if you’re learning to surf or paddle board, check with your instructors about the level of swimming ability required before you set out.
If you prefer to stay on land, there are plenty of walking tracks and caves to explore, plus some peaceful yoga retreats, such as Solscape. If you’re keen to head out hiking, always check the conditions and the weather forecast first, and make sure you tell someone you trust where you’re going and how long you expect to be. Phone reception in the area can be patchy, so a locator beacon can also be helpful.
With accommodation options to suit all needs, take your time and enjoy Raglan’s relaxed pace – it’s a perfect little hideaway.
3. Feilding – beautiful market town
This small town in the lower North Island is nicknamed ‘friendly Feilding’ and for good reason. It’s the 16-time winner of New Zealand’s most beautiful town, with a manicured town square and public gardens housing an aviary and duck pond, not to mention the abundance of quaint rural museums and galleries. Feilding is just a short 20-minute drive from nearby Palmerston North, or a two-hour drive from Wellington.
For foodies, the farmers market on Friday mornings is a great opportunity to see a real rural farmers market, where fresh honey is sold by beekeepers, produce from nearby farms is freshly harvested and locally baked goods are still warm from the oven. This market has won the award for NZ’s best farmers market many times in recent years; and with the friendly local stallholders and incredibly fresh goods on sale, it’s easy to see why.
For racing enthusiasts, Manfeild race track is right near the centre of town and hosts regular motorsport meets, as well as horse racing and equestrian events. If you’re a petrol head, the Manfeild complex is a great spot to take in car and motorbike racing. This historic track has hosted many iconic races and racing celebrities over the years. For animal lovers, equestrian events range from dressage to the National Miniature Horse show and everything in between.
New Zealand’s South Island is large and mountainous and contains only a quarter of the population. But with beautiful cities like Queenstown and Dunedin, it’s no wonder the South Island hosts a huge number of tourists every year. There’s more to it than just the tourist hotspots though, so check out these little towns to get off the beaten track and find something special.
1. Hanmer Springs – alpine escape
This picturesque alpine village is a perfect ski location in winter and a bustling hub for outdoor activities in summer. Home to a park of beautiful natural hot springs and an award winning wellness spa, this town features fantastic restaurants and bars, and comfortable hotels - perfect for relaxation. Part of its rural charm lies in the journey there, which travels through stunning landscapes on the two-hour drive from Christchurch, or five-hour drive from the Picton ferry landing.
Ski at the Hanmer Springs ski field during the day, where beginners and advanced ski bunnies can enjoy the snow away from the crowds of the larger fields further south. The roads to many of New Zealand’s ski fields can also be narrow and treacherous, so if you’re driving be patient and obey the speed limits. In summer, walking tracks, jet boat rides and mountain bike trails will keep even seasoned explorers busy, while boutique shops and cafes offer more laid back entertainment.
For families, there’s even an animal park to visit, which is host to plenty of local farm animals that children can interact with. They even have some wallabies for a taste of home.
For adults who want to take in the stunning views in ultimate luxury, head to local winery Marble Point and treat your palette, as well as your eyes. Enjoy a wine tasting or a sumptuous cheese platter in a gorgeous setting. If you’re planning to taste a few wines, there’s a local taxi service that can get you safely back to your accommodation.
2. St Arnaud – untouched adventure paradise
This small town is located in the untouched Nelson Lakes National Park, on the banks of the stunning Lake Rotoiti, and just an hour and a half drive from Nelson. Although the drive to get there is incredibly scenic and part of St Arnaud’s charm, the roads of the South Island are notoriously difficult for tourists to navigate. If you’re driving a rental car, keep an eye out for other tourists not keeping to the left hand side of the road and exercise patience when behind the wheel. Shuttles are also available from Nelson if you prefer not to drive.
In winter St Arnaud is a busy ski town, with nearby Rainbow Ski Field offering great terrain for all abilities without the queues of the bigger fields down south. There’s even an ice skating pond just a short walk from the town.
In summer it’s a trout fishing haven, known as one of the best in New Zealand. Just make sure you wear your lifejacket if you’re heading out on a fishing charter and always obey all rules set out by your guide. There are plenty of popular hikes around the Nelson Lakes national park too, making it the perfect retreat for outdoor adventurers.
If you’re a keen hiker or tramper, there are many multi-day hikes you can access from St Arnaud, with plenty of established Department of Conservation (DOC) huts and shelters dotted around the trails. This area can have extreme weather, so always check the forecast before you head off and make sure someone you trust knows where you’re going.
3. Oamaru – historic hub
For history buffs, this quirky town on the east coast of the South Island is a must-see. It’s easy to get to, just an hour and a half drive from Dunedin or three hours from Christchurch. Oamaru is famous for its history and has an entire suburb, known as the Victorian precinct, dedicated to Victorian-era galleries, museums, teahouses and preserved buildings.
Visit Clark’s Mill, a preserved water-powered flour mill from 1866, or take a trip on a preserved steam train with Steam and Rail. While you’re at it, head to one of many Victorian clothing stores to get kitted out in period costume and really soak up the atmosphere.
If you want to truly step back in time, you could plan your visit around the annual Victorian Fair, which celebrates with music, games, performance and food stalls. No trip to Oamaru is complete without a visit to the famous Steampunk HQ for a unique sci-fi experience that must be seen to be believed!
When you’ve had your fill of history and period costume, visit the Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony to see the world’s smallest penguins in the wild, in an area dedicated to their conservation. It’s best to visit during the evening when they’re heading back in from a busy day hunting in the sea. You could also take a horse trek along the coast with one of the local registered operators, or simply relax and enjoy the great local café scene. In Oamaru, the options are endless.
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