Enough with playing tourist, it's time to flock to where the locals are
It's easy to fall in love with New Zealand. Apart from pristine beaches, glaciated mountains, ecological playgrounds, there's also a thriving wine and dine scene featuring idyllic vineyards and fresh-off-the-boat produce. But wait, you probably already knew that. After all, most of us hop on a plane to the land of Kiwis for the usual popular haunts — that picturesque sky tower in Auckland, hot springs in Taupo, or even the charming waterfront in the city of Wellington.
While all that warrants a pretty sight, it's about time you skip the usual, overcrowded suspects and set your sights on where the Kiwis hang instead. Thanks to the resourceful folk at Tourism New Zealand, here's a sneaky insider track on NZ's hidden gems.
Waitaki, South Island
From huge Paleolithic boulders strewn across the beach to iridescent blue lakes and limestone cliffs, the Waitaki region has more than its share of natural wonders. The best way to explore the area? By bike or on foot through some of the many trails — the Alps to Ocean cycleway conveniently carves a path from Aoraki/Mt Cook to Oamaru. Be sure not to overlook the area's man-made attractions, including Victorian-era buildings carved out of local white stone in Oamaru, and the impressive Benmore Dam — one of the largest earth dams in the Southern Hemisphere.
With its white-sand beaches and perennial good looks, New Zealand's east coast can sometimes overshadow its west. What most people don't know is that some of the best attractions lie in the west. Take Hokianga, one of the most remote and undeveloped parts of the North Island. With its expansive harbour, 150m-high sand dunes and a pristine forest that is home of Tāne Mahuta, New Zealand's largest kauri tree, Hokianga is beguiling. Visit the 51m tree known as the Lord of the Forest on a twilight tour of the Waipoua Forest. With a predominantly Māori community, who have a century-old connection to the land, Hokianga is a perfect place to discover the history of New Zealand.
Golden Bay, Nelson
If there was ever a place that lived up to its name, it would be Golden Bay, perched at the tip of the South Island. A long stretch of coast with fine golden sand and a flourishing artistic community, this is a place to truly get off the grid. The adjacent Abel Tasman National Park has one of the best coastal hiking trails in New Zealand, weaving through virgin bush and skirting picture-perfect beaches. Wend your way through native forest to reach Te Waikoropupū springs, New Zealand's largest freshwater springs, where you'll be amazed by some of the clearest waters in the world. Alternatively, you can take a guided tour of Farewell Spit, New Zealand's longest sand spit, and visit a remarkable bird sanctuary where thousands of wading birds from the Northern Hemisphere arrive each spring.
Whakatāne, Bay of Plenty
Most visitors to New Zealand have heard of the geo-thermal and cultural wonders of Rotorua but not many tourists actually visit Whakatāne, which is just over an hour's drive away in the Eastern Bay of Plenty. One of New Zealand's sunniest cities, Whakatāne is situated on a natural harbour at the mouth of a river and has a few beautiful beaches and a rich cultural history under its belt. Book a tour of Mataatua and discover the story behind the Māori meeting place, which travelled around the world before being rebuilt here and named The House That Came Home. The best part? Whakatāne offers easy access to White Island (Whakaari), a spectacular marine volcano just 50km off the coast. On a guided walking tour, you'll see steam rising from vents and visit an abandoned sulphur-mining factory.
The Catlins, Southland
The Catlins, well off the main highway in the south-eastern corner of the South Island, is one of the country's best-kept secrets. It's no wonder then, that it's possible to find verdant forest and pristine waterfalls as well as abundant wildlife here. At Nugget Point you'll spot fur seals, Hooker's sea lions and yellow-eyed little blue penguins, as well as playful Hector's dolphins. Departing from Dunedin, a tour with Back to Nature takes in all of this, plus a 180-million-year-old petrified forest that appears at low tide.