While previously over-touristed destinations have become more attractive and accessible to the average Kiwi with international borders closed, that doesn't mean we won't be competing for space come the busy summer months. Everyone's got the same agenda, which means this is also the time to consider alternatives. Sure, there are some experiences — such as traversing the Tongariro Crossing's volcanic landscape, or drinking a cold brew at Hobbiton's Green Dragon Inn — that simply can't be replicated.
But others can. If you do a little research, you'll find that many popular New Zealand attractions have a less-famous and often less-expensive counterpart. Here are six close cousins to some of the country's must-do activities.
Dig your own personal spa in the sand
One-hour south of Raglan, Kawhia is a quiet seaside village with a harbour full of pipis, oysters, and mussels. It's also where you'll find one of the lesser-known hot water beaches. (Yes, there's more than one.)
The drill is exactly the same as in the Coromandel. Around low tide, drive to the end of Ocean Beach Rd, where you'll find a black-sand beach with nary a soul on it. You'll need to bring your own spade. Look for the tell-tale signs of steam bubbling up through the sand and start to dig. Once you hit the hot waters of Te Puia Springs, soak in the knowledge that somewhere across the island, crowds are clamouring for the same.
Try one of the world's best burgers
Oh, Fergburger. Even if you haven't seen the line-up for this Queenstown institution, you've probably read a blog post or article waxing poetic about its burgers: about just how juicy the meat is, how soft the buns are and how it's incredible that it's open for nearly 21 hours a day.
What they don't romanticise, however, is just how long you'll have to wait in line. If you're too hangry to queue, all you need to do is head around the corner to Devil Burger. Offering a similar product, at a similar price, it's where the locals go.
Spot a kiwi in the wild
Thanks to its remote location and a rough sea crossing to get there, Rakiura (Stewart Island) remains relatively unblemished compared to other popular tourist destinations. Yet, it still struggles under the weight of the visitors it does attract; pre-pandemic, around 44,000 people visited per year. That's about 111 tourists for every resident.
The island's main attraction is the rare chance to see kiwis in the wild. It's home to around 13,000 of New Zealand's 68,000 kiwis, and the subspecies that lives here can sometimes even be seen in the daytime foraging beachside for bugs.
The catch? If spotting a kiwi is your sole objective, it's a long way to travel with no guarantees that you'll see one.
As an alternative, there are a number of fenced predator-free sanctuaries on both the North and South Island that offer night-time kiwi tours, including Wellington's Zealandia and Waikato's Sanctuary Mountain Maungatautari. But a two-hour tour presents a very limited time window for seeing the elusive birds, which is why it's worth it to spend the night on Kāpiti Island.
The predator-free island is home to an estimated 1400 little spotted kiwi, presenting one of the most reliable opportunities to spot them. From $395 per adult ($230 per child), Kāpiti Island Nature Tours' kiwi-spotting packages include transportation, accommodation in a glamping tent or cabin and a guided night-time tour.
Hike one of New Zealand's iconic great walks
When Lonely Planet released its Ultimate Travel List earlier this month, 13 Kiwi destinations made the cut, with the Fiordland National Park being the most highly ranked at spot 29. Most visitors opt to do a boat tour through Milford Sound, but the area's pre-eminent outdoor experience is indisputably the Milford Track. One of New Zealand's 10 Great Walks, it has been called the "finest walk in the world," carrying trampers through valleys carved by glaciers, through ancient rainforests, and past cascading waterfalls.
However, its reputation means that it's both expensive (huts alone cost $70 per person per night) and notoriously difficult to book. Earlier this year, spots on the track for the 2020-2021 season nearly sold out within 10 minutes of the booking system opening.
But, even if there are only 10 "Great Walks" in New Zealand, there are dozens of "great walks".
The closest relation to the Milford Track is arguably the Gillespie Pass Circuit, a 58km loop best suited to experienced hikers with river crossing skills. Located in nearby Mt Aspiring National Park, it also takes four days, reaches heights of 1600 metres, and has serviced huts along the way. And as of publication, bookings are still available for the huts (only $20) over the holiday period.
Experience the magic of a glow worm gathering
Waitomo is far from the only place that glow worms gather in high numbers. For a cheap and cheerful version of the same, you can head to the DOC-managed Waipū Caves in Northland, which are entirely free to access.
If you don't want to stray far from Waitomo and are in it for the glow worms (rather than the caves) sign-up for Lake District Adventures' night-time kayak tour ($109). On the four-hour sunset excursion, you'll paddle along edges of Lake Karapiro. As dark falls, you'll drift silently down the Pokaiwhenua Stream, your way lit only by glow worms. The effect is absolutely ethereal, and with far fewer people, your paddle hitting the water is the only sound you'll hear.
Stargaze in a Dark Sky Preserve
The Aoraki Mackenzie Dark Sky Reserve is an area renowned for its low-levels of light pollution and a high number of nights with clear stars. Right now, it might be the only one of its kind in the southern hemisphere — but that won't be true for long. The Wairarapa is currently preparing to become the largest Dark Sky Reserve in the world, a designation expected to come later this year.
Already, it's where you can experience some of the most unique and personalised astronomy tours in the country. For example, local Becky Bateman of Under the Stars will bring her telescope right to your accommodation. And then there's Stonehenge Aotearoa, a full-scale adaptation of Stonehenge. If you turn up on a Friday or Saturday at 8:30pm, you'll have a chance to gaze through telescopes and learn how the structure works. General admission is $15.
For more New Zealand travel ideas and inspiration, go to newzealand.com