10 reasons to visit New Zealand now

These lesser known activities make for an unforgettable trip to Aotearoa, the Land of the Long White Cloud.

This article was sponsored by Tourism New Zealand.

While many of the millions who visit New Zealand each year spend their time in the Auckland, Christchurch, and Wellington areas, the country has plenty more to offer. Here are 10 off-the-beaten-path reasons to visit New Zealand.

Hike Mou Waho Island

Though only a 30-minute boat ride from the town of Wanaka, Mou Waho—tucked out of sight behind a mountain range—feels seriously remote. Managed by the Department of Conservation, the island is a predator-free haven for endangered species like the feisty, flightless buff weka; the Southern Alps gecko; and the mountain stone weta, a cricket-like insect.

The 1,551-foot (473-meter) climb to the island’s rocky summit takes about 40 minutes and offers stunning views of colorful Arethusa Pool, a little lake on Mou Waho with its own islet.

A campsite (toilet included) near the landing zone means visitors can pitch a tent for the night; for those without boat access, Eco-Wanaka runs guided tours.

See an Okarito Beach Sunset

There’s no better place to witness a dazzling west coast sunset than below the Southern Alps’ snowy peaks and glaciers on deserted, storm-blasted Okarito Beach.

Sit on a driftwood log and toast the blood-red sun as it sinks into the ocean. Then use the modest beachside camping ground as a base while exploring the beautiful Okarito Lagoon area, a refuge for thousands of native birds, including the only New Zealand breeding ground of the rare, sacred kotuku (white heron). The critically endangered rowi (Okarito brown kiwi) also lives in a nearby protected area.

Ski Soho Basin

In the winter, powerful snowcats plow their way up Soho Basin’s steep slopes, loaded with up to 24 skiers and snowboarders ready to spread out across the vast, pristine terrain.

Lifts and base facilities are a few years out: Soho Basin is formally joining the adjacent Cardrona field to create New Zealand’s largest alpine resort.

Until then, visitors relish the solitude of this unique backcountry—plus the added luxury of a gourmet lunch and Amisfield wines at a tiny day lodge tucked into the valley.

Roam Macetown's "Ghost Town"

Ghosts, ruins, and a few restored buildings are all that remain of the once thriving Macetown, settled in the early 1860s at the height of the Central Otago gold rush—and abandoned by the 1920s when the gold ran out.

The nine-mile (15-kilometer) track up the steep-sided Arrow River gorge is spectacular any time of the year, but especially in autumn, when the golden poplars set the hills ablaze. Stop to pick wild gooseberries and raspberries, and smell the pastel lupins that flower in the summer, then explore the restored huts and general store at the Chinese village in nearby Arrowtown. Finish off with a tour of the excellent local museum to learn more about the region’s colourful history.

Ride the TranzAlpine Train

There are few countries you can traverse in half a day without taking to the air. New Zealand is tall but slim: A stylish, leisurely train trip from the golden sands of the Pacific Ocean to the black sands of the Tasman Sea—or vice-versa—takes just five hours.

The breathtaking TranzAlpine, justifiably known as one of the world’s great train journeys, takes passengers across the lush, green Canterbury Plains; over vertiginous viaducts spanning the turquoise Waimakariri River; and through the snowy Southern Alps by way of Arthur’s Pass, where many disembark to explore local hiking and climbing trails.

After descending the five-mile (8.5-kilometer) Otira Tunnel, the train emerges on the west coast at Greymouth.

Encounter History at Poverty Bay

It was in Gisborne-Tairawhiti that, in 1769, British explorer Captain James Cook stepped ashore for the first time on Aotearoa (New Zealand).

Though Cook named it Poverty Bay, the area—famous for its exceptional wines, fruit, and vegetables—is more aptly known by its Maori name, Tairawhiti, “the coast upon which the sun shines across the water.”

Kaiti Hill-Titirangi Reserve is an ideal geographic and historic vantage point above the bay: The white cliffs of Te Kuri a Paoa are clearly visible from the summit; an obelisk at the hill’s foot marks Cook’s first step on land; and the first meeting between Maori and European took place at a rock which once stood in nearby Turanganui River.

Visit the Tairawhiti Museum to learn more about the region’s history.

Experience Tairawhiti's Maori Culture

There’s is no better place than Tairawhiti—where the population is 50 percent Maori—to immerse yourself in Maoritanga, or the culture, traditions, language, history, music, dance, and legends of the tangata whenua—the people of the land.

Two hours north of Gisborne lies Hikurangi, the sacred maunga, or mountain, of the Ngati Porou tribe. It’s also the first peak in the world to be touched by the rays of the rising sun, and the resting place of Maui-Tikitiki-a-Taranga, the famous Maori and Polynesian demi-god.

In 2000, a series of nine huge whakairo, or carved art works, were erected to celebrate the dawning of the new millennium. Visitors can arrange guided hikes plus overnight experiences to the mountain and the carvings, remembering to be sensitive at this sacred site.

Eat, Drink, and Be Merry in Gisborne

A much-loved event in Gisborne celebrates 21 years this October, as the small, beachside city shakes off winter at an annual spring Wine and Food Weekend.

The three-day celebration shines at an event where participants tour three vineyards to sip fine wines, savor gourmet cuisine, and enjoy live entertainment among the lush grape vines. Other highlights include a long lunch, rosé garden party, a street fiesta, madcap races, a wine and comedy gala, newly-released-wine tastings, and an evening after-party.

Relax at Anaura Bay

Anaura Bay campers are secretive about their favorite holiday spot, an idyllic, white-sand bay perfect for swimming, surfing, hiking, and socializing. They’re even more tight-lipped about the best spot to fish (somewhere near Motuoroi Island) but they’ll readily share their catch with strangers.

An excellent hiking trail nearby offers wonderful views of the bay where local Maori chiefs gave a warm welcome to Cook’s HMS Endeavour at his second landing on Aotearoa.

En route to Anaura, walk to the end of the historic Tolaga Bay wharf, New Zealand’s longest, where it stretches into the blue-green sea against a backdrop of sheer white cliffs.

Explore Piha

Piha Beach is known for its dramatic land- and seascapes: black-sand beaches shining like pewter under ferocious waves; wispy waterfalls hurtling over sheer cliffs; cool nikau palm forests spreading beneath the dark, misty Waitakere Ranges.

From a safe vantage point at Puaotetai Bay, watch the spectacular battle of the tides at The Gap, a narrow, low point between island and cliffs. Opposing waves collide with massive force in a wall of white foam; their overflow creates the Blue Pool, a sandy swimming hole. A dramatic Maori legend adds to the area’s attraction.

Justine Tyerman is an award-winning travel writer from Gisborne, New Zealand, the first city in the world to see the light of the new day. Follow her on Facebook, or on Instagram @travelling_tyerman.
This story has been corrected: The TranzAlpine passes the Waimakariri River, not the Waimakariki River.