Filled with movie-worthy natural scenery, threaded with long-distance bike trails, lined with beaches and dotted with sophisticated cities, this country has it all – so much, in fact, that figuring out what to pack into an itinerary can feel overwhelming.
Which is why we asked a trio of our most knowledgeable New Zealand–connected correspondents for recommendations about where they vacation in their country. If you’re planning an under-the-radar tour of New Zealand, start here.
Crystal-clear waters and alternative vibes: Golden Bay
Naomi Arnold is a journalist and author who lives in Nelson.
Golden Bay’s geography truly defines its character. A wide C-shape at the northwestern corner of New Zealand’s South Island, it’s a blessed world of bush, paddocks, small towns, rivers and beaches, all encircled by two national parks, the Ramsar bird haven of Farewell Spit, and the sea.
With only one road in and a population density similar to Mongolia, Golden Bay has an alternative vibe and a last-place-on-Earth quality. In the 1970s, hippies flocked to the area, particularly Tākaka, which still maintains a laid-back atmosphere with meditation retreats, hippie communes, and a renowned trance music festival. Travelers often skip it in their rental-car race around New Zealand – but with its joys strung along the coast from the calm golden Tata Beach to the wild western Wharariki Beach, it’s worth well more than a day trip from the regional hub of Nelson.
In the main town of Tākaka, Wholemeal Café has been serving tasty, robust fare for nearly half a century. Nearby is Pohara Beach Top 10 Holiday Park, a favorite for families and budget travelers. The beachfront Adrift in Golden Bay is the area’s only five-star accommodation, for those looking to splurge. And don’t miss marveling at some of the clearest water ever measured at Te Waikoropupū Springs.
From Nelson, the bay is a two-hour drive over Tākaka Hill, climbing to 791m (2595ft). Go slow: the road has 257 corners, as my friend Adam once counted, with some of the hairpins almost 320 degrees. That hill is enough of a barrier to protect Golden Bay from too much interference by the rest of the world.
Just the way the locals like it.
A rugged and truly local Kiwi getaway: Ngawi
Travel travel blogger and entrepreneur Anita Hendrieka grew up in New Zealand and is currently based in the Albanian Riviera.
You couldn’t find a more Kiwi beach if you tried.
Ngawi, located at the southernmost point of the North Island (about an hour and a half from Wellington) in the Wairarapa region, is a local favorite for its unique black-sand beaches and rugged coastline. It’s a peaceful and wild place, with a resident population of just 40 people. It’s where to go when you need to gather your thoughts and unplug.
This isolated beach town is an important fishing spot, so you’ll see many old boats and their rusty tractors parked on the sand during the day waiting to harvest the day’s catch. On the way to the lighthouse, you’ll see the Cape Palliser seal colony, where the animals are everywhere: darting between bushes, rolling on the sand, relaxing on rocks and even hiding in the car park by the beach.
I recommend visiting Ngawi on the weekend, when you can grab some classic fish and chips fresh from the Captain’s Table food truck. If you plan on making it more than just a day trip, stay just outside of the town at Waimeha Camping Village. This beachfront property with views of the ocean and Kaikōura Ranges has a barbecue area and bar for guests and is the best base for exploring the local area (there are no official hotels or motels in Ngawi itself).
To the south of Ngawi is Cape Palliser Lighthouse: after climbing its 258 steps, you can take in views of the untamed landscape and the Pacific Ocean. On a good day, you can even catch a glimpse of the South Island.
On the northern side lie the Putangirua Pinnacles, ancient towering rock formations that were used as a filming location for the Lord of the Rings series (the Paths of the Dead in the movie Return of the King). When you visit the Pinnacles’ forested walking trails, you’ll see why Peter Jackson picked this particular location to film.
It’s truly out of this world.
Dolphins, a fossil forest and the other “Niagara Falls”: the Catlins
Craig McLachlan is a longtime Lonely Planet guidebook author who lives in Queenstown.
Living in the busy alpine resort of Queenstown, surrounded by mountains and lakes, we love to get away and go see the sea. Tucked away in the southeastern corner of the South Island, totally bypassed by State Hwy 1 – and well off the radar of most international visitors – is the enchanting Catlins coast.
At Curio Bay at low tide, you can wander out on a fascinating fossil forest of petrified trees that are some 180 million years old. Turn up at dusk and you may spot a hoiho (yellow-eyed penguin) coming home from a day’s fishing. Dolphins regularly visit Curio Bay and can be seen from the beach. Further east, at Surat Bay, massive sea lions laze on the sand; keep well back if they open an eye to check you out. An encounter would not end well.
The Catlins, or Te Akau Tai Toka, is beautifully quirky. All of 60cm (2ft) high, Niagara Falls was named by a surveyor with a sense of humor (and who had visited the real thing). Drop into Niagara Falls Café in the old schoolhouse for some of the best chowder going. Lost Gypsy Gallery in Papatowai is packed with intriguing creations and curiosities. For a real Kiwi experience, stay at a local pub, the Catlins Inn in Owaka, and have a beer at the bar.
On the short walk out to the lighthouse at Nugget Point, view rugged cliffs and toothy islets known as the Nuggets, while seals and sea lions sleep on the rocks below and crying seabirds soar overhead.
The Catlins is a breath of fresh air.