You may think you know all the best spots but a bit further on, or in the other direction, are often-overlooked delights, writes Alexia Santamaria
New Zealand is definitely not short on blow-you-away holiday spots and when overseas travel is temporarily off the cards, many Kiwis are counting their blessings to have so many outstanding options right on their doorstep. When deciding where to take your next holiday, it's easy to think you have to go somewhere new, but it's also good to remember that many of the places you think you know - and have visited before - also contain wonderful surprises. New Zealand is full of hidden gems and even our most heavily visited tourist spots have plenty of delights you may not be aware of. Here are some of our favourites.
1. Although Ninety Mile beach and the giant sand dunes at Te Paki are very well known, many Kiwis don't know as much about the beautiful beaches of the east coast of Northland. Rarawa's white sands need to be seen to be believed, and the waters of Mataī and Matauri Bay will make you think you're in the Pacific Islands, not an hour out of Kerikeri.
2. Did you know you can tour an oyster farm and consume its delicious bounty right at the source? If you're a seafood lover, the "Shuckleferry" in Mahurangi is your dream come true. Board at Scott's Landing and cruise to the farm where you'll learn how oysters are grown, collected and harvested, before feasting your little heart out. You can even bring your own bubbles (or beer if that's more your thing) to complement it. Cheers!
3. Tāwharanui is a well-known hot spot for Aucklanders looking for beach action on a stunning day - those white sands and turquoise waves are pretty hard to beat - but did you know you can go on tours at night to look for kiwi in the regional park? Spotting these fuzzy friends after dark in the wild is a uniquely New Zealand adventure.
4. About half an hour from well-known Waitomo Caves, are a couple of surprises you shouldn't miss. Mangapohue Natural Bridge is a 17m-high limestone arch full of stalactite-like formations (also home to some million-year-old fossilised oysters). It's breathtaking and catches you off guard as you round the corner not knowing quite what to expect. Just five minutes on, are the stunning Marokopa Falls, some of the most impressive in the North Island.
5. Did you know there are natural hot springs on the other side of Lake Rotoiti accessible only by water? Paddle across with a guide at sunset, soak in the relaxing Manupirua hot pools (which are right on the lake), have a barbecue and come back via a tiny glow-worm cave as you learn about the fascinating Māori history of the area.
6. Most people associate Hawke's Bay with food and wine shenanigans - but there is actually a great white-water rafting opportunity on State Highway 5 - just 40 minutes out of Napier. The team at Mōhaka Rafting will guide you down the breathtaking Mōhaka river in whatever fashion suits your level of adventure. From a half-day grade two trip - perfect for families with young kids - to multi-day excursions, these guys know this beautiful body of water well - and will knowledgeably let you in on all its beautiful secrets.
7. Ever drive past alpacas and just wish you could cuddle their gorgeous woolly heads? Let's face it, they are basically giant living soft toys. Nevalea Alpaca Farm, just north of Taumarunui, is the largest alpaca farm in New Zealand with endless feeding and cuddling opportunities. You may never want to leave.
8. Every New Zealander should visit the Tāwhiti Museum in Hāwera at least once in their life. A personal labour of love started by Nigel Ogle in 1975, it's filled with thousands of life-size models and teeny tiny scale figures that tell Taranaki's history. Even if you're not interested in New Zealand's past, you can't help but be wowed by the intricate detail of each scene and the thought that every little tree, figure, animal and building was crafted by hand. There's also a ride called Traders and Whalers curated by Ogle in partnership with Weta Workshop, which takes you through Māori life and interactions with settlers in the mid to early 1800s.
9. In northern Manawatū, just north of Āpiti, on Table Flat Road you'll find a 600m track that will wind you through caves, spectacular gorges and across a running stream. Eight metres from the bottom of the hill is the main event - a cave covered in hundreds of glow-worms (best viewed at dusk). Magical.
10. If you haven't made it to the capital in a few years you may not know about Hannah's Laneway, where you can eat and drink your way through some of Wellington's favourite treats - chocolate, craft beer, pizzas, brownies, salted-caramel cookies and toast from the cutest peanut butter window ever.
11. Ōmarama's Clay Cliffs will certainly be a surprise. Tall pinnacles separated by narrow ravines, these formations look like something that would be totally at home on another planet. They were formed by ancient glaciers and are a jaw-dropping sight.
12. Everyone knows about Marlborough's wine industry but did you know Havelock is the green-lipped mussel capital of the world? Marlborough is definitely the place to consume fresh, fat juicy New Zealand mussels washed down - of course - by a glass of something white, crisp and local.
13. You may have heard of Akaroa with its French influence and famous Hector dolphins but if you don't know the area well, you may not be aware of The Giant's House - a festival of mosaic colour that will delight visitors of any age. It's a playful, extraordinary, vibrant wonderland, with huge Gaudi-esque tiled sculptures throughout its beautiful gardens.
14. If it's too crowded lakeside in Queenstown or Wānaka, head to Lake Hāwea for quieter reflection in a place of vivid beauty, mountainous extremes and every possible calming shade of clear blue water.
15. Not everyone holidaying in Christchurch realises the amazing choice of vineyards just an hour north of the city. Head to North Canterbury Wine region region where there are more than 90 wineries (in the whole region) with varying styles due to the wildly differing geographical terrain. Don't miss a stop in quirky Amberley where (on market day) you'll find excellent local artisan produce and a collection of eclectic gift and homeware shops that can suck you in for much longer than you planned.
16. After they've toured the delights of Dunedin's street art, cool shops, great cafes and breweries, many people head out to the Otago Peninsula towards Larnach Castle and the albatross colony. It's also well worth taking a drive in the opposite direction towards the Karitāne Peninsula. The coast - especially Doctors Point - is breathtaking and there's some fascinating history at the site of where the infamous Seacliff Asylum (of Janet Frame fame) once stood.
17. Last year Stewart Island became the southernmost Dark Sky Sanctuary in the world, and you don't need to be an astronomy geek to be mesmerised by this unobstructed view of the Milky Way, and its billions of twinkling components. The island, in general, is well worth a visit for its remote location and ruggedly beautiful landscapes and a chance to experience a slower pace of life more in tune with nature's rhythms.
For more New Zealand travel ideas and inspiration, go to newzealand.com
This story was first published in the New Zealand Herald Travel on 28 October