8 Small Towns in New Zealand the Guidebooks Ignore
And Why You Should Go Anyway
By Jenn Miller on October 27th, 2016
To my way of thinking, New Zealand is one of the most perfect places on the planet. The weather’s temperate (especially on the North Island), the scenery is spectacular, the culture is fascinating, the wildlife is unique and the food is amazing.
In addition to all of that, it’s also an easy place to travel with great infrastructure, English’s spoken and a range of accommodation options, from camper-vanning to luxury resorts are easily accessible.
“Just remember that the seasons are reversed, by northern hemisphere standards, which means that June- September is winter in New Zealand.”
I highly recommend a July ski trip in the mountains!
Of course, all of these things make New Zealand a popular travel destination. That doesn’t mean that it’s completely overrun with tourists all the time. In fact, if you set aside the guidebook, hire a car and get off the beaten track a little you’ll find plenty of really wonderful little hideaways on both islands.
Tiny Towns Worth Visiting in North Island, New Zealand
The North Island’s famous for the bustling metropolis of Auckland, New Zealand’s biggest city, and Wellington, the nation’s capital. It’s the island where you’ll find the Hobbit houses from Lord of the rings (near Matamata) and the famous geothermal parks around Rotorua. But there’s so much more to the North Island than the well-traveled tourist trail. Rent a car and get out into the countryside and drive the narrow secondary roads between tiny towns.
1. Hawke’s Bay
Hawkes Bay encompasses the towns of Napier, Hastings, Havelock North & Wairoa. Of these, Napier is the biggest and it’s fun to visit for a look at its signature Art Deco architecture that was built in the 30s after a major earthquake.
“Each of these little towns is worth some time, and be sure that wherever you stay, it’s on the beach. Walk for miles and enjoy the pristine coastline.”
If you’re looking for an adventure, the National Aquarium is in Napier and it’s well worth a morning’s visit. Perhaps you read in the news about their octopus escape artist earlier this year.
Another unique wildlife excursion is Gannet Beach Adventures on Cape Kidnappers. Ride on a tractor-pulled trailer out into the Cape Sanctuary where predators are kept at bay to protect the gannet breeding ground. You’ll see these special birds up close and personal as well as learn more about their habits and conservation efforts.
If you want to get a feel for what actually living in small town New Zealand is like, Paraparaumu is a great place to do it. There’s a golf course and an educational farm center here as well as an antique car museum. You can take a glider flight from the local airport and this town is the jumping off point for visiting Kapiti island; book your trip through the Department of Conservation, in Wellington.
“Mostly, it’s a great town to just hang out in.”
The playground and skate park on the waterfront walk are almost always filled with local children. The town library is fantastic. The farmer’s market on Saturdays from 9-1 is always an adventure. We even encountered a Maori haka flashmob one morning.
Waitomo is known for one major thing: The glow worm caves. And yet, there are other caves and adventures to be had around this small town. Yes, the glowing worms spread out like constellations on the ceiling of a pitch black cave as you float serenely through in a boat is pretty darned cool. However, the photos you see online are not what it looks like in real life, be prepared for that.
“Besides, there are other places to see glow worms for free (national parks are a good start).”
There are other caves in the area worth visiting, some dry, some wet, some that you can rappel down into, others that you float through the dark on an inner tube. You might be lucky enough to see the world’s largest insect: the giant weta. Imagine a cricket the size of your hand and you’ve got the gist of it.
Marakopa Falls are nearby and worth a visit. Thirty-five meters in height, and in a spectacular natural location, they’re some of the most beautiful in the country.
On the northwest coast of the north island, Raglan feels like a postcard. A village of quaint buildings in bright colors with cute shops and artisan boutiques, it’s also a surfing mecca and Manu Beach was featured as The Point in Endless Summer.
“The long black sand beaches are home to one of the longest, most consistent, and accessible left-hand breaks in the world.”
In the summer people come here to surf. In the winter, it’s much quieter. Grab an order of fish and chips, walk the beach, pop in and out of shops, stay a night or two in a local B&B. This place is a perfect hideaway.
The big players on the South Island need no introduction: Christchurch, Dunedin, the Milford Track, Milford Sound and the glaciers of the northwest side of the island. The South Island is famous for spectacular scenery, a quieter culture and outdoor adventure. That’s all there for the taking, but the real gems are the places that get two sentences or less in your guidebook.
The scenic drive along the coast out from Christchurch to Akaroa is breathtaking. It’s also nausea-inducing if you’re at all prone to carsickness, so factor that in. If you can camp out here, definitely do it. If not, then book into one of the many B&B or farm-stay-type places and slow the pace awhile.
“The village of Akaroa is idyllic.”
Walk the wharf and have a meal overlooking the bay. Wander in and out of the shops. This is a great place to buy something made from the famous New Zealand wool. If you’re feeling really adventurous, hike up to the top of Purple Peak. It’s so worth it to get an almost 360-degree view of the bay and the village far below. My family liked Akaroa so much we went back three times in the six months we were in New Zealand.
I’ll be shocked if Oamaru gets any press whatsoever in your tour book. And yet, it’s one of my favorite towns on the South Island. Why? Because it’s quirky. If you’re looking for local intel, I highly recommend getting a hair cut at the hole-in-the-wall shop on the main street. The ladies there are excellent local guides in addition to doing a decent job on an overgrown head of hair.
There’s also a fascinating distillery and cheese-making on the main drag.
“New Zealand is the only country in the world where distilling your own alcohol is legal, did you know that?”
I bought cheese-making supplies instead.
Don’t miss the Steampunk Headquarters. It’s nothing short of awesome. You can’t miss it, it’s on the left-hand side at the bottom of the hill as you’re headed out of town, you’ll know it because there’s a giant train out front done up in steampunk style. You’ve gotta stop.
Don’t buy into the expensive blue penguin experience advertised in town. Ask a local where the “local blue penguin beach” is. It’s a conservation site (as opposed to a tourist attraction) with blinds to stand out of the rain in while you watch the smallest penguins in the world surf ashore on their bellies. We saw little blues and also yellow-eyed penguins, both of which were a bucket-list item for our youngest traveler.
If you’ve seen The World’s Fastest Indian then you know the true story of Burt Munro, Invercargill’s most famous resident, who broke the land speed record for an Indian motorcycle on the Bonneville Salt Flats. The Southland Museum is now home to the memorabilia, but the museum is so much more than that. If you make it all the way to the southern end of the world, stop in and learn about the very rare Tuatara lizard, local culture and Maori history – it’s worth a few hours of your time.
“For another dose of local color stop into Stu’s World Famous Fishing Shop. Take your camera. Trust me.”
One of the major industries in this area is paua, or abalone. The animal inside the mono-valve shell is eaten (they’re tasty, try them!) and then the shells themselves are ground and polished for their amazing rainbow of blue-green color. Most of the shells are now shipped off to China for processing, but it’s still possible to stop into one of these local “factories,” which are most often mom-and-pop or very local organized shops, and watch the process of transformation and purchase a little locally sourced paua. We stopped at Tthis place, in Riverton, where the owner was very happy to share his knowledge. We even made a little video of our visit.
Perhaps best known as the jumping off point for hikers headed out on the Milford Track, a several-day hike to Milford Sound, there’s more to Te Anau. Located on the shore of Lake Te Anau, you’ll likely see a yellow float plane tied up at the town docks. This is a beautiful place to take a scenic flight or a jet boat tour on the lake.
“One of the real treasures of this area is the fish.”
If you’re interested in fishing for brown trout, this is your spot. Numerous fishing companies will take you for a day on the Waiau River, but my personal recommendation’s FishJet; Mark and Christine will take you around on a small jet boat that easily maneuvers into places regular boats have trouble with on the moving river water.
Because of Milford Sound, there’s a hostel in town, as well as a number of inexpensive hotels, serving the trekkers that you can take advantage of for reasonably priced accommodations. Walk the waterfront area in the evening if you can. Definitely, without question, order the fish and chips from the food truck.
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