Last year, I spent three months exploring the deepest nooks and crannies of New Zealand, all the way from Stewart Island to the very tip-top of Northland. That, in itself, is not particularly remarkable — but many people I met along the way were surprised that I was doing it alone.
For some solo travellers, vacationing alone is a product of circumstance and they're keen to connect with those in their destination. For others, alone time is a sought-after opportunity, allowing for solitude and reflection. In my case, both things were true.
What I learned through the process is that regardless of your motive for going it alone, New Zealand is one of the best countries in the world to do it.
I've hand-selected four of my favourite solo itineraries and how to make every moment count, from sunrise until well after sunset.
Have a city break in Wellington
With dozens of galleries and museums, boutiques and chain stores and restaurants to suit a range of budgets and taste buds, Wellington will make sure you never get bored (or hungry). Best of all, its compact city core is easy to navigate on foot or scooter, making this a destination designed for the car-less and carefree.
Day: Wellington's shopping is some of the best in the country, with vintage clothing shops, second-hand bookstores and quirky gift shops lining Cuba St. After you've promptly emptied your wallet — or, if we're being honest, bought a new wallet — it's probably in your best interests to take advantage of some of Wellington's free activities.
On a self-guided gallery crawl you can hit up the City Gallery Wellington in Te Ngākau Civic Square to browse the contemporary art exhibitions before exploring the dealer galleries in the Cuba Precinct, including Bartley & Co, McLeavey Gallery and Bowen Galleries.
Finally, cap off the day with a guided Twilight Tour at Te Papa. Hosted daily at 5pm, this is when you'll be able to take advantage of the quieter galleries to get up close to the rare taonga on display.
Dinner: There's no way you'll feel alone — or bored — at 1154 Pastaria. The Italian restaurant offers affordable fresh handmade pasta dishes (most are priced between $19 and $22) that are best enjoyed at the shared tables. You might find yourself striking up a conversation with your tablemates but, if you'd rather play it solo, get a spot at one of the windows looking out on to Cuba St, which offer some of the best people-watching in Wellington.
Evening: After a Twilight Tour at Zealandia — a torchlight-guided experience where you may even be lucky enough to spot a rare little spotted kiwi — head out on the town to spot wildlife of another kind. Our pick? The 1920s Speakeasy-themed Hawthorn Lounge, which is hidden on Tory St, behind unmarked doors. Order modern twists on classic cocktails, like Hawthorn's own negroni, and sit back at the bar to watch the animals at play.
Take a solo road trip through the Catlins
On a solo road trip, you're the captain of your own ship, with nothing but your own thoughts and open road in front of you. If that sounds like an ideal way to spend a day or three, add the Catlins to your list. What makes this region suited specifically to solo travellers is that the roads are less trafficked, the scenery is epic and the locals are always happy to have a chat. Best of all, with only one major road running through the region (the Southern Scenic Route), you're unlikely to need a navigator.
Day: It only takes about two hours to drive the 165km route from Balclutha to Invercargill but without any stops it would be a wasted trip. Not to be missed are the Kaka Point lighthouse, the petrified forest at Curio Bay, McLean Falls and the Cathedral Caves. However, there are plenty of other gems along the way, like Ōwaka's Teapot Land (bring a gold coin to donate) and artist Blair Somerville's automata gallery at the Lost Gypsy. (If you arrive in the off-season, it's still worth pulling over to play with his giant moving "toys" outside his workshop.) Not keen to self-drive or looking for a bit of company? Choose from one of Catlins Scenic & Wildlife Tours five personalised guided itineraries.
Dinner: In both the winter and summer months, dining options are sparse. This is a region that best suits the self-catering. If you've neglected to pack a picnic, opt for an early nosh at the Niagara Falls Cafe. The family-owned local institution focuses on fresh and filling, with homemade meals such as seafood chowder and vegetarian lasagne. Otherwise, you might have to hold out until you hit Invercargill.
Evening: One of the qualities that makes the Catlins incredibly special is that it's a habitat for rare yellow-eyed penguins, or hoiho. There are only a couple hundred breeding pairs left on the mainland and this is your best spot to see them. Much like other penguins, dusk - when they come in from fishing - is the best time of day to see them, with hides available at Totāra Scenic Reserve (just before Nugget Point) and Curio Bay. You'll need to be quiet not to disrupt them, which is just another reason why it pays to be travelling alone.
Get back to nature in Ōhakune
Countless studies have demonstrated how important spending time in nature is to our emotional, mental, physical and spiritual health. It's known to relieve stress, help concentration and creativity. But did you know that you're likely to reap the most benefits of this if you're alone? There's a reason why programmed wilderness programmes — like Outward Bound — have a solitary component. Solitude helps people to make sense of their place in the world, including in relation to nature.
On the North Island, Mt Ruapehu is one of the best spots to do this, with Tongariro National Park offering up the wilderness and Ōhakune rounding out the experience with any amenities you might need.
Day: Before you head out for the day, find some food to fuel up for your adventure. The Blind Finch's pies are delicious but not that backpack-friendly, so we recommend getting a loaf of sourdough (they'll cut it in half on request) and sandwich supplies at the grocery store.
Then, head to TCB on Ayr St, who will kit you out with a mountain bike or e-bike, along with transportation to Old Coach Road. The trail will take you half a day to ride, starting from Horopito crossing viaducts and old cobblestone roads along the way, before arriving back in Ōhakune. Don't forget to soak up the nature as you go.
Dinner: One of the worst things about travelling alone? The restaurant industry's current enthusiasm for shared plates. It doesn't exactly translate when you've only got enough room for one. That's why Ōhakune's popular Cypress Tree Restaurant is a pleasant surprise. Yes, it specialises in shared plates but none are so big or overpriced that you'll feel gluttonous if you order three (like I did).
Evening: Spend sunset watching water pour over the Taranaki Falls, with a glass of champagne in hand. You'll have to walk for about an hour to get there but, if you sign up with a two-hour guided tour with Adrift, they'll supply the bubbles — and the company.
If you're not content to settle beside the fire at your accommodation after dinner and want to have a livelier evening out, head down to Ōhakune's Junction end of town. Once the stopping point for the North Island's railway, it's now the destination for those looking to live it up.
Learn a new skill in the Coromandel
If you're the type who's not content to sit around the pool and read a book but still want to soak up the sunshine, let me introduce you to the Coromandel. While the pace of life here is just a bit slower, there's no lack of activities to experience. A hub of creativity, it's long attracted some of the country's most creative makers and doers. Now, these skilled makers and artisans are sharing their skills with traveller-friendly workshops.
Day: After arriving in Coromandel Town, head straight to Driving Creek Railway. This is one of the most historic spots to learn how to throw clay, use a pottery wheel or fire up a kiln. (Potter Barry Brickell first purchased the 22ha property in 1961.) If you've got some time to kill after you're done your pottery class, take a short detour drive down the 309 Road towards Whitianga until you see Stu's pig farm. The semi-wild roaming pigs will be easy to spot, and if you're lucky, Stu might even let you name a pig. (Fair warning, though: unless you're a confident driver, don't take the 309 all the way to Whitianga. It's a little hairy in parts.)
Dinner: Make your way to Luke's Kitchen in Kūaotunu near Whitianga. It's a scientific fact that there's no shame in eating an entire pizza, regardless of whether you have company or whether you're eating alone — and that's even more so the case when you're at Luke's. With regular live musicians and DJs playing on-site, your entertainment for the night is also sorted.
Evening: Spend the night nestled under the trees in the Falls Retreat's cottages in the Karangahake Gorge. That way you'll be well placed to take part in the next day's masterclass in bread-making; pickling and fermenting; or cooking, curing and smoking fish. Each cooking workshop — taught by owner and chef Brad King — is not just a chance to gain some new skills but to make some new friends in the process.
Check alert level restrictions and Ministry of Health advice before travel. covid19.govt.nz
This piece originally appeared in New Zealand Herald Travel here.