Friendly locals, pristine landscapes and easy exploring makes New Zealand one of my favourite destinations on the planet.
This small country is particularly ideal to visit if you love the nature and exploring the outdoors. After travelling the length and breadth of New Zealand over nine months, here are my top picks for places away from the tourist trail.
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The Catlins, South Island
The most southern and sparsely populated part of New Zealand’s South Island is often skipped over when travelling between the steep-street city of Dunedin and the adrenaline-fueled Queenstown.
Turning off Highway 1 at Balclutha, the Southern Scenic Route will take you through the rugged landscape. You are very likely to have the many beautiful bays all to yourself. Well, you might be the only human around anyway; there are plenty of resident seals on the windswept beaches (I found lots at Surat Bay).
Must see places in the Catlins region
Yellow eyed penguins are seen often near Nugget Point lighthouse and at Curio Bay. The latter is also home to a 160 million-year-old (!!) fossilised forest, which the penguins clamber across in the evening, after a day out at sea.
Neighbouring Porpoise Bay has a stunning sandy beach where it’s possible to spot tiny Hector’s dolphins out in the surf. Before you get to Curio Bay, stop at Cathedral Caves (30 metres high!) on Waipati Beach.
Purakaunui Falls is also worth some time. Both are accessible via short walks, though your visit to Cathedral Caves must be timed right with low tide.
Another place accessible via a short walk is Slope Point, New Zealand’s most southernmost point. Signified by a small signpost, there’s not much between here and the Antarctic.
Looking to somewhere to stay in the Catlins?
Lazy Dolphin Lodge – Great location
Waikava Harbour View – Great value
Hethersett Farm B&B – Highly rated on Booking.com
Northern Coromandel coast, North Island
I may be biased since I lived on the Coromandel Peninsula, North Island, but it was hard to narrow my pick down to just one area of this paradise. I could write whole articles just on the Peninsula, but for this one, I selected the northern coast due to its isolation, rugged scenery and beautiful coastline.
Even from the main road, there are outstanding panoramic views of the hilly Peninsula, surrounding islands and, on a clear day, Auckland.
Must see places on the Coromandel Peninsula
Visit in summer to see the bright red pōhutukawa trees framing the lush greenery and ocean views. Hike the Coromandel Walkway (10km return) for a closer look.
Although the Peninsula is extremely popular as a getaway for Aucklanders, there are still a wealth of beautiful (and often deserted) beaches to explore between Whitianga and Coromandel town, such as Opito, Otama and the hike-in only New Chums.
Even Matarangi, which is backed up by a substantial amount of holiday homes, can be considered quiet on summer days due to its generous size. I used to spend whole days just beach hopping around the Coromandel and my favourites are definitely in the north. Of course, the unusual Hot Water Beach is an essential stop on any road trip.
Looking to book a stay on the Coromandel?
Te Mata Bay Seaviews – Fabulous location
Paku Lodge Resort – Great value
Flaxmill Cove B&B – Highly rated on Booking.com
Any of the Marlborough Sounds, South Island
Most visitors to New Zealand travel through the Marlborough Sounds at some point or another via the Interislander ferry. It is most definitely underrated as a destination in itself.
The Sounds are a network of sea-drowned valleys at the top of the South Island. The area has such extensive coastline that it makes up a fifth of New Zealand’s total.
Must see places in the Marlborough Sounds
The inlets stretch for miles, providing clear, calm waters and picturesque bays, perfect for boating.
There are excellent hikes too, the most popular being the Queen Charlotte Track (70 kilometres). One of my favourite hostels in New Zealand, Hopewell Lodge, can be found on Kenepuru Sound, either a long three-hour drive – on mostly gravel track – from Picton or a shorter drive and 10-minute water taxi ride across the Sound.
With beautiful views as well as kayaking, hiking, fishing, golf, mountain biking and glow worm viewing all nearby, this Lodge sums up everything that is fantastic about the Marlborough Sounds in one place.
Looking for a place to stay in the Marlborough Sounds?
Hopewell Lodge – Highly rated by Booking.com (and me)
Bay of Many Coves – Amazing location
Lochmara Lodge – Good value
Whakatane and Opotiki, North Island
As much as I love the stunning views and surf town feel of Mount Maunganui in the west, I am more drawn to the eastern side of the Bay of Plenty on the North Island.
Away from the fast-growing town of Tauranga, this area of the Bay is considerably more low-key. There is plenty of beach space for everyone with panoramic views of New Zealand’s most active volcano, White Island (Whakaari).
Must see places in Whakatane and Opotiki
Accessible by both boat and helicopter, White Island is a one-of-a-kind experience and was definitely one of the highlights of my trip to New Zealand.
The moonscape is covered in white and yellow sulfur crystals. Steam continuously vents up from the volcano. This is a true active volcano experience – there are no handrails or fences here.
Further east and away from White Island, the little town of Opotiki is the gateway to remote Eastland.
This is a laid-back area of the country with rich Maori culture and heritage. There are yet more deserted beaches here, with plenty of fishing, hiking and horse riding opportunities.
Looking for a place to stay in Whakatane or Opotiki?
One88 on Commerce, Whakatane – Great value
37 The Landing Motel, Whakatane – Highly rated on Booking.com
Orange Tree Cottage, outside of Opotiki – Awesome location
Golden Bay, South Island
While close to the popular Abel Tasman National Park, not as many travellers make the journey over Takaka Hill to Golden Bay.
The name gives it away. Golden Bay, at the Northwest end of the South Island, is home a whole host of gorgeous beaches, sheltered in part by the Farewell (sand) Spit. Not just about the sandy beaches, Golden Bay enjoys wonderfully good weather too.
What to do in and around Golden Bay, South Island
While I don’t usually rave about NZ towns, I loved Golden Bay’s Collingwood and Takaka; the former is particularly great for a wander, with lots of unique shops and a lovely local cinema.
Just outside of Takaka, are Te Waikoropupu Springs, some of the clearest in the world. The ‘Pupu’ spring’s underwater colours are unbelievably vivid, and it is reportedly possible to see as far as 63m deep.
More intense colours can be found at Totaranui beach, which is known for being the most golden of beaches in the area. The drive is a little rough (narrow and rough 12km road) but worth it, especially as there is a DoC campsite here.