With only 4 million people inhabiting an area the size of Great Britain, and blessed with arguably the most striking scenery on the planet, the Pacific outpost of New Zealand has long been a traveler’s dream destination. The perfect country for camper van touring, a well-worn circuit has been established for visitors jetting from one coastal, adventure, or cultural destination to the next.
Already sporting enough “must-see” destinations to keep travelers occupied for months on end, there are myriad off-the-beaten-track locations which lay scattered across both islands. While New Zealand hot spots such as Milford Sound, Queenstown, the Bay of Islands, or Lake Taupo are still well worth the visit, here’s a list of ten New Zealand off-the-radar spots yet to be experienced by the majority of travelers.
Most visitors to the wild, wet, west coast of the South Island sculpt an itinerary around either Fox or Franz Josef Glacier, followed by quickly getting out of town. While the glaciers are undoubtedly the main tourist draws for the west coast, myriad laidback hamlets exist along the Tasman shoreline closer to the pulse of everyday west coast life.
One such outpost is Jackson Bay, an authentic whitebait fishing village where there are reportedly more resident fur seals and penguins than actual residents. First settled by Westerner migrants in 1875, the remoteness and extreme isolation of Jackson Bay proved to be too great and was largely abandoned soon thereafter. Though now reachable via a 50km road from Haast, the handful of visitors who decide to make the journey are still treated to views of the snowcapped Southern Alps painted pink as the sun disappears over the Tasman Sea.
If the idea of throwing on a flannel shirt, grabbing a hot espresso, smelling the ocean on the breeze, and taking a walk down an empty beach sounds like your kind of village, then take a moment to tap out in Jackson Bay on your next meander down the coast.
It’s hard to pronounce, it’s humbling, and it will make you feel small. Wharariki is located due south of Farewell Spit—the northernmost tip of the South Island—and its towering stone archways and wind-sculpted dunes create an atmosphere of refreshing solitude. Sparsely visited by surfers and a handful of eco-tour operators, a 30 minute walk across pastoral farmland brings you face to face with the massive expanse of Wharariki. Windswept and wooly, the best time to visit Wharariki is on a day with light winds and during low-tide. If the conditions are right, it’s possible to stroll the beach in near solitude and bear witness to nature’s grandiose show, a performance which occurs daily even if no one’s around.
An entire district rather than a specific destination, the Hurunui region is one of the most unheralded areas of the South Island. Aside from its sweeping rural beauty and mild weather, the Hurunui has virtually every activity that more heavily trafficked areas of the country do, but without the throngs of visitors.
Just 45 minutes north of Christchurch, Waipara Valley wine trail tours take visitors through one of New Zealand’s fastest growing wine regions and far more laidback than better known Marlborough to the north. The alpine resort town of Hanmer Springs boasts bungy jumping, jet-boating, mountain biking, and the kid-friendly Hanmer Springs thermal pools, though for a more relaxing experience the Japanese-fused Maruia Springs provide thermal baths in a forested setting away from all the crowds. Or if you want to work up a sweat on the trail, the 66km St. James Walkway provides a 4-5 day backcountry tramp with scenery to rival any of the insanely populated “Great Walks” for which New Zealand is so famous.
Tucked in the southwestern reaches of Marlborough Sounds, and only 30 minutes from the fabled vineyards of the Marlborough wine region, White’s Bay is a popular spot for locals but is relatively off-the-beaten-track for foreign visitors. Named for former American slave “Black Jack White” who famously deserted his whaling ship in 1828 and embedded himself with local Maori, White’s Beach has everything from a wide, sandy bay to multiple walking tracks that lead back into the lush coastal forest. Go for a short hike at night in search of glow worms, or spend the long summer days exploring the surrounding coves and beaches, most of which are accessible solely via gravel road.
A mere 20 minutes south of the popular lakeside town of Te Anau, the reality is that most South Island road trippers fuel up in Te Anau en route to Milford Sound, ultimately choosing to bypass Manapouri altogether. With only a few hundred year-round residents, Manpouri sits right on the shores of Lake Manapouri and is the jumping off point for all-day boat trips to isolated Doubtful Sound. Though many Fiordland visitors may pass through Manapouri while in transit to somewhere else, those who choose to poke their head around will realize that Manapouri is a destination all to itself.
While the Kepler Track on the far side of the lake can see hundreds of walkers daily, a 10-minute rowboat ride from Manapouri lays the trailhead for the Manapouri Circle Track, a well-formed network of trail which passes through dense beech forest and offers sweeping views of the Fiordland wilderness. Or if all of the trekking has tuckered you out, relax in the sun on Fraser’s Beach, arguably the nicest lakeside beach on the entire South Island.
The signature hike of the rugged Coromandel peninsula, the well formed trail to the The Pinnacles lookout passes through old logging camps and dense forest where kauri bushmen harvested towering kauri trees throughout the early 20th century. Reachable via a three-hour walk (one-way) or by spending a night at the Department of Conservation’s Pinnacles Hut, the view from the 2,500 ft. summit stretches from the outskirts of Auckland to the waters of the Bay of Plenty. Sparsely visited and not for the faint of heart, it’s still possible to be the lone person standing atop the summit, the sound of the whipping wind the lone accompaniment to silence.
A favorite weekend getaway for the well-heeled Auckland crowd, there’s much more to Waiheke than designer jeans and private yachts. Day visitors to the island can hire a bike and pedal from one sandy cove to the next, or for the perfect afternoon, walk the two-hour coastal trail from Rocky Bay to Te Whau Winery, punctuated by a three-flight tasting of award winning Waiheke syrah. Those with their own transportation (a car ferry runs from the Half Moon Bay dock on the mainland) can explore the sparsely developed eastern side of the island, being sure to take in such sights as sandy Man O’ War Bay and historic Stony Batter, the heavily armed WWII fortification constructed to defend Auckland Harbor from Japanese invasion.
Named after the Maori chief “King Tawhiao”, who after failing in the mid-1860s to ebb the flow of Europeans into Aotearoa retreated with his followers into the seldom visited hinterlands of the western reaches of the North Island. For a period of time a visit to “King’s Country” was taken at one’s own risk, though the region was gradually assimilated into the greater political landscape of New Zealand.
Still sparsely populated and largely covered by bush, the most well-known destinations in King’s Country are the glow worm caves at Waitomo and the world-class waves at Raglan. For those who take the time to explore, however, sights such as the impossibly perfect Bridal Veil Falls spring from all corners of the bush. At Aotea Harbor, a protected inlet which leads to the Tasman Sea, orcas occasionally visit the calm waters and there have been sightings of the critically endangered Maui’s dolphin, the world’s smallest dolphin of whom fewer than 150 are thought to remain.
A scenic sandy cove on the little visited East Cape, Waihau Bay is a tranquil fishing outpost where North Island Kiwis come to unplug for a while. One general store and a handful of accommodation options compliment the beachfront campground, and it’s the perfect base for exploring the rural Pacific Coast Highway that wraps around the cape. Just up the road at Whangaparaoa is the site of what’s believed to be the first landing site by Maori traveling from eastern Polynesia around 1150 AD, and visitors can also take part in a variety of Maori cultural tours and guided cultural walks.
Set in the sub-tropical climate of Northland, the lonely strip of land that plunges north from the bright lights of Auckland, most visitors to Northland opt to explore the Bay of Islands or traipse across the sand dunes to Cape Reinga, officially New Zealand’s northernmost point. In between the two heavily visited hotspots lies the community of Doubtless Bay. One of the first parts of the country to be populated by early whalers, it now offers visitors miles of white sand beaches and outdoor opportunities which range from diving to surfing, fishing to sailing, and lazy days full of nothing but time.
– Kyle Ellison