Winter holidays: 9 great New Zealand holidays for a short getaway

NZ Herald
By Anna King Shahab
Not for sale

Had enough of winter already? Head to one of New Zealand's 31 regions for a quick getaway, writes Anna King Shahab

1. Canterbury

Make Otautahi Christchurch basecamp for a Cantabrian minibreak. Family fun on a budget is within reach here. If you can drag your offspring away from the marvellous Margaret Mahy playground (not easy, ask anyone with young children!), take the gondola up into the Port Hills for a picnic, browse the Riverside Market, see penguins and huskies at the International Antarctic Centre, and visit Orana Wildlife Park, the country's only zoo with animals open-ranging.

The city is flat and cyclists are respected; start by exploring Hagley Park and the Botanic Gardens before cycling your way around the inner city. Head to the Port Hills if you're game to hit some slopes — there are great trails there. Dinner at Little High keeps everyone happy; grab a table and order food and drinks from whichever of the eight eateries takes your fancy.

Hagley Park in Christchurch. Photo / Christchurch NZ
Hagley Park in Christchurch. Photo / Christchurch NZ

Take the meandering drive out to Akaroa on Banks Peninsula. If you have three days to spare later in the year, consider the Akaroa Walk, which reopens for the season in October — Tuatara Tours offers a luxury way to enjoy this 46km journey carrying only a daypack.

For families, a two-hour Black Cat cruise on Akaroa Harbour takes in wildlife such as fur seals, penguins, and the rare and playful Hector's dolphin.

2. Aoraki

Hark back to a simpler way of life in Aoraki, a particularly peaceful part of South Canterbury that roughly marks halfway between Dunedin and Christchurch.

Caroline Bay in Timaru is a year-round family delight — with a playground, barbecues, volleyball courts, mini or disc golf, skate park and mini train ride. And that South Canterbury wallpaper of snow-capped mountains to boot. Keep an eye out for the resident rookery of penguins in the rocks at Caroline Bay, and you may well see fur seals basking on the foreshore. At 45 minutes return from city to clifftop, The Caroline Bay walk is a good way to work up an appetite for lunch in town.

Caroline Bay in Timaru is a year-round family delight. Photo / Getty Images
Caroline Bay in Timaru is a year-round family delight. Photo / Getty Images

Pleasant Point lives up to its name with aplomb. Thanks to a dedicated team of volunteers at Pleasant Point Museum and railway, you can ride a stretch of the old Fairlie Branch Line in a steam train or rare Model T Ford railcar — check the schedule for ride days. Peruse the curios at O'Rourke Taxidermist while enjoying a real fruit icecream.

Te Ana Ngāi Tahu Māori Rock Art Tours is your ticket to the oldest gallery in the land: Ngāi Tahu kaitiaki will guide you to limestone caves to view the original drawings and learn more about the history and culture the art is part of at their Timaru centre.

3. Mackenzie

The rugged, remote beauty of the Mackenzie district has inspired some of New Zealand's most renowned artists, creators, explorers and scientists — and it will inspire you too.

The Dark Sky Project in Tekapo may be set in one of quietest spots on this planet, but it boasts one of the busiest night skies to view. At Cowan's Private Observatory, nestled in a warm, dark crater, experts will guide you through the Southern Skies using powerful telescopes.

Tekapo in the Mackenzie region is one of the best places in the world for stargazing. Photo / Vaughan Brookfield
Tekapo in the Mackenzie region is one of the best places in the world for stargazing. Photo / Vaughan Brookfield

Let Tekapo Adventures takes you on a backcountry 4WD journey with exclusive access to remote high country stations.

A stay or visit to the Hermitage Hotel is a pleasure in itself, and it also boasts the Edmund Hillary museum, which is open daily, stargazing sessions and glacier tours, and a restaurant with floor-to-ceiling windows to the most stupendous view — pack a sketchbook and don't plan to have to rush off anywhere.

Twizel is an underrated gem and a smart place to base yourself. Lake Ruataniwha is on your doorstep plus another four alpine lakes within a short drive. From Twizel you can take off on a scenic flight, go skydiving, or embark on a fishing trip. Set yourself up for a sensational sleep with the day's scenery inspiring dreamtime after a soak in pure mountain water at Hot Tubs Ōmarama, under the starry southern sky.

4. Waitaki

Head into the Waitaki, the country's capital of rocks, a geologist's dream that has also given rise to a burgeoning wine scene; the vines love the unique, eons-in-the-making growing conditions.

In Moeraki, admire 65 million year-old boulders before snapping up potentially the best seafood supper of your life at Fleur's Place.

National icon: The Moeraki Boulders. Photo / Supplied
National icon: The Moeraki Boulders. Photo / Supplied

Head Kurow way for watersports and wineries: the Vintner's Drop is the mainstreet cellar door of Ostler Wines, and local favourite River T's will reopen in spring.

The Victorian precinct in Ōamaru, with its limestone buildings, is the striking backdrop for the city's renowned steampunk scene. Check out Steampunk HQ — an interactive museum/gallery and wander down Harbour St, popping into the converted warehouses — Grainstore Gallery is a particularly kooky find.

Get eye-to-eye with those rock-hopping aquatic birds at the Ōamaru Blue Penguin Colony, where you can book an evening viewing to see them waddling back to their nests after a day's fishing at sea.

5. Central Otago

Taste it all on a short break in Central: no other place in New Zealand, perhaps in all the world, offers quite the experience of tasting the land, the terroir, as you'll discover here.

Pinot noir may be the thing that has put Central on the world map, but the conditions that see the grape grow so well here also produce outstanding stonefruit, olives, herbs, vegetables, nuts, honey, game meat, saffron and merino lamb.

Plot your own way around the many artisan producers who have retail shops, orchard stalls, and cellar doors — this is an especially very fine mode of adventuring when done in a motorhome as you can literally fill your pantry and fridge as you go, and cook up the day's spoils for supper each evening. Or book into a tour — take your pick from those with a wide culinary focus or those that put the spotlight on wineries.

The 4 Barrells Walking Wine Trail will take you to a number of local producers in Central Otago, including Scott Base. Photo / Central Otago NZ
The 4 Barrells Walking Wine Trail will take you to a number of local producers in Central Otago, including Scott Base. Photo / Central Otago NZ

The 4 Barrells Walking Wine Trail is a nice way to spend an afternoon getting some fresh Central air; the 8km loop takes you to Misha's, Aurum, Scott Base and Wooing Tree cellar doors, as well as capturing orchard scenery and Lake Dunstan.

6. Dunedin

You may not make it Europe this year, but there's a city close by that's a bit like Belgium. Grab your soulmate and make for a Belgian-homage escape in Dunedin: there'll be beer, chocolate, seafood, beaches, bikes and beautiful buildings galore.

Consider a Headfirst Travel brewery tour: three or six hours depending on your capacity for the crafties. Book a slot for two in Emerson's Tiny Pub on Wheels, a wee hideaway popping up in quiet, scenic spots.

The Ocho Chocolate Walk begins with a primer on the city's history and architecture, followed by a tasting session at the craft chocolate factory — bring a few bars back home for those left behind.

Ocho Chocolates in Dunedin. Photo / Dunedin NZ
Ocho Chocolates in Dunedin. Photo / Dunedin NZ

The ever-expanding Otago Harbour cycleway offers a smooth ride around some of the city's best activities, sights including wildlife and local shops to browse. Stop off for lunch at one of the many eateries, or gather goodies for a picnic.

Drive out to Long Bay for a walk-and-talk along its birdlife-adorned shoreline, and call into Port Chalmers on the way back. Wrap up the day with a seafood feast at Harbourside Grill — the CBD waterfront restaurant has popped on a pair of new glasshouse dining rooms specially designed for two, complete with blankets and table service. Cosy in your glass cocoon, dig into a Belgian-esque shellfish pot: plump with local shellfish steamed in white wine and garlic.

7. Clutha

Want to feel alive and in awe of nature? Go with the flow in Clutha. Do go chasing waterfalls in the Catlins: there are six waiting to be admired. The triple-tiered cascade at Purakaunui is postcard material, while the double-effect of upper and lower falls at McLean makes it the highest in the southern region. The smaller falls, too, have their charms, like the lush rainforest that frames delicate Koropuku falls.

Purakaunui Falls is one of the beautiful waterfalls in the Clutha region. Photo / Supplied
Purakaunui Falls is one of the beautiful waterfalls in the Clutha region. Photo / Supplied

There's plenty to do in the wider Clutha region. Pedal the Clutha Gold Cycle Trail — one the Great Rides of New Zealand, which takes you along the Clutha River and through rolling hills. Let the mighty flow of the Clutha River transport you (and your car or campervan, even) aboard The Punt at Tuapeka Mouth. This free ferry runs morning and afternoon connecting the towns of Balclutha and Lawrence across the water, and is the only one of its kind left in the Southern Hemisphere.

Make time for Lawrence, one of the most important towns of the gold rush and today home to historic buildings, shops and cafes and, come spring, 10ha of daffodils filling the grounds of the old Weatherstons Brewery. And to tie in that watery theme once more, take a stroll through the tranquil Bellview Wetlands, which is open at weekends.

8. Fiordland

You've got to see those fiords at least once in your lifetime. Book a cruise with Real Journeys in Doubtful Sound, or Milford Sound with Cruise Milford, which focuses on small-group journeys.

If you'd like to maximise on the sense of being one small speck of life in a sublime and ancient environment, try kayaking with Rosco's Milford Kayaks, or more adventurous yet, scuba diving with Descend Dive.

The regions Great Walks are closed during the winter season, so consider a guided tour with Trips & Tramps, who have a winter special on their Milford Sound Coach, Cruise and Walk day trip, and will increase their offering as we get into spring. Or you might like to design a bespoke experience with Fiordland Outdoors, to make sure you see the things you really want to.

Cycle from Te Anau to Lake Manapōuri, feed takahē at Te Anai bird sanctuary, or shelter awhile at Fiordland Cinema, catch an exclusive screening of Ata Whenua — Shadowlands: the beauty of the place you're in, filmed from a helicopter. This might be the one and only time you're in this magical part of the world; enjoy it on the edge of Lake Te Anau at Fiordland Lodge, with vast views to Mt Luxmore and the Murchison Mountains, and architecture that echoes it.

9. Southland

The aforementioned Caitlins and Fiordland are two of the many jewels on Southland's shining crown. They are not to be missed, but take a wider look at some of the lesser-known attractions at the bottom of the South Island.

Stewart Island's flora and fauna. Photo / Matt Crawford
Stewart Island's flora and fauna. Photo / Matt Crawford

Plan a break to truly unwind and appreciate native flora and fauna on Stewart Island, which is almost entirely national park. The Rakiura track is one of New Zealand's newest Great Walks and a good one to tackle with kids in tow — or there are plenty of shorter tramps to be enjoyed. The predator-free sanctuary Ulva Island is the only place in the country you're likely to see Brown Kiwi in their natural habitat, plus blue and rare yellow-eyed penguins, kākā, and more.

Invercargill is our heartland of classic motoring and home to impressive collections to visit; spend a day biking or walking through 80ha Queens Park or take a short drive to Sandy Point to go walking, running, mountain biking, horse riding, or check the calendar to watch some motorsports or dog-sledding.

Our country music capital, Gore, has a number of museums and galleries worth visiting. Spring is around the corner and a good time to visit some of Southland's many gardens — a dedicated site makes it easy to plot a journey.

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