Best things to do in New Zealand, travel guide: The must-see attractions that most visitors miss

When Jacinda Ardern was elected New Zealand's 40th prime minister in October 2017 – and the world's youngest female leader at just 37 – she attracted Australia and the world's attention with her youthful, progressive optimism and trademark Kiwi  sense of humour. Whether she signals a new era remains to be seen, but one thing is certain: there seems to be a fresh new enthusiasm in NZ that invites us to reconsider and discover this seemingly familiar neighbour.

If looking beyond the expected has jolted NZ politics, so travelling down its unexpected byroads should excite anyone who has visited before and thinks they know this country well. While some of NZ's stereotypes have been a positive when it comes to attracting visitors – it really is one of the world's friendliest, most beautiful countries – others blind us to its varied attractions. NZ isn't only about sheep, rugby, outrageous adrenaline sports and hobbits. Queenstown isn't just for skiing, and Rotorua has more than sulphur-stinking landscapes. NZ's cities, once considered a little dull, have flourished and display a surprisingly avant-garde edge.

Nor are Australia and NZ as similar as we might assume, either. Landscapes are vastly different, of course, but so is our history. NZ has a less ancient but much more visible indigenous culture, and its European history has been more influenced by god-fearing, middle-class and often Scottish settlers. Certainly we share a lot with NZ, but we sometimes forget it's a foreign country with its own story and distinctive flavour. Here are some ways to see NZ with fresh eyes.

QUEENSTOWN

WHAT THEY SAY YOU SHOULD DO NZ's adventure capital is for high-adrenaline fun such as bungy-jumping, jetboating and mountain biking, and for admiring alpine scenery surrounding Lake Wakatipu. In winter, ski nearby Coronet Peak and The Remarkables (nzski.com) plus family-friendly Cardrona (cardrona.com).

WHAT YOU REALLY SHOULD DO Head beyond town for top cellar doors in Central Otago wine region. Stop at rustic-looking but multi-million-dollar Amisfield Estate (amisfield.co.nz) and sleek Peregrine Wines (peregrinewines.co.nz), whose tasting counter resembles a suave city bar. Queenstown itself has a reputation for bars but is underestimated for restaurants. The food scene is excellent. Try innovative NZ food at The Bunker (thebunker.co.nz), top-notch carnivorous fare at Botswana Butchery (botswanabutchery.co.nz) and a wine-pairing degustation menu at True South Dining Room (therees.co.nz).

DON'T MISS Visit caves full of oak wine barrels at Gibbston Valley Winery (gibbstonvalley.com) and learn about production of its pinot noir, a NZ classic. Then enjoy a glass of wine and antipasto plate in the winery's sun-soaked courtyard.

MORE queenstownnz.co.nz

AUCKLAND

WHAT THEY SAY YOU SHOULD DO Among the urban attractions are Auckland Art Gallery (aucklandartgallery.com), Auckland Museum (aucklandmuseum.com), Sky Tower (skycityauckland.co.nz) and Sea Life Aquarium (kellytarltons.co.nz), plus seaside suburb Devonport, reached on a ferry ride. Hit inner-city Ponsonby and Karangahape roads for dining and nightlife.

WHAT YOU REALLY SHOULD DO Auckland's stunning natural setting is overlooked as Australians rush elsewhere to see NZ's gorgeous landscapes. Yet within Auckland's official boundaries you'll find the Pohutukawa Coast (pohutukawacoast.co.nz), backed by vineyards and forested hillsides terrific for hiking, mountain biking and bird watching, plus the lovely Matakana Coast (matakanacoast.co.nz) for animal sanctuaries, beaches, markets and more cellar doors. The less genteel west coast has wild scenery including surf-worthy Piha Beach and magnificent Karekare Beach, made famous in the movie The Piano.

Advertisement

DON'T MISS The easiest escape is on the half-hour ferry ride across the harbour to Waiheke Island (tourismwaiheke.co.nz), where you'll find vineyards, cafes and arts-and-crafts stores embedded in an almost Mediterranean-like landscape.

MORE aucklandnz.com

ROTORUA

WHAT THEY SAY YOU SHOULD DO Spectacular erupting geysers, bubbling mud pools and steaming springs provide the classic Rotorua landscape. Pohutu Geyser (tepuia.com) shoots boiling water 30 metres into the air. At Wai-O-Tapu (waiotapu.co.nz), colourful volcanic pools hiss and burp. Maori culture is highlighted at Living Maori Village (whakarewarewa.com).

WHAT YOU REALLY SHOULD DO Native bushland and managed forest around Rotorua is terrific for hiking, zip-lining and mountain biking, with 70 trails to suit all levels of expertise meandering for 145 kilometres. Whakarewarewa Forest (redwoods.co.nz) is remarkable for magnificent giant redwoods, introduced in 1901, as well as other exotics such as Japanese larch and Mexican pine. Tarawera Trail along Lake Tarawera has lovely views and finishes at a beach where thermal springs reward you with warm waters to swim in.

DON'T MISS A stay at Treetops Lodge (treetops.co.nz), a retreat hidden in a forested valley of giant ferns and roaming deer herds on a 1012 hectare estate with a huge network of hiking and biking trails.

MORE rotoruanz.com

NORTHLAND

WHAT THEY SAY YOU SHOULD DO This northernmost region is synonymous with coastal beauty – particularly Bay of Islands – thanks to sweeping bays, splendid if rather chilly beaches, rolling farmland and lush inland forest. Swim, snorkel, walk, laze about and take scenic drives to Ninety Mile Beach and Cape Reinga.

WHAT YOU REALLY SHOULD DO If you're hazy about our favourite neighbour's history then Northland is a revelation. It has abundant Maori culture and history (one fifth of the population is Maori) and was the first part of NZ settled by Europeans. The nation's early capital Russell (russellnz.co.nz) is an appealing weatherboard town crammed with historic buildings such as NZ's first licensed hotel (theduke.co.nz). Kerikeri Mission Station (heritage.org.nz), established in 1819, has heritage buildings and a lovely cafe (thepeartree.co.nz).

DON'T MISS Treaty of Waitangi Grounds (waitangi.org.nz) where Maori and British signed NZ's founding treaty. The museum runs through their tumultuous co-existence, showcases a ceremonial war canoe, and hosts concerts and hangi.

MORE northlandnz.com

NAPIER

WHAT THEY SAY YOU SHOULD DO Napier is promoted for its art deco heritage. The town, rebuilt after a 1930s earthquake, has more than 140 art deco buildings notable for their uniformity and occasional Maori-influenced motifs. February's Art Deco Festival (artdeconapier.com) features jazz music, vintage cars and locals in flapper attire.

WHAT YOU REALLY SHOULD DO Get out into sunny Hawke's Bay region on the North Island's east coast surrounding Napier, which is draped in fertile farmland, vineyards and beaches and cut through with river-gurgled valleys. Start with a hike up Te Mata for spectacular views and move onto conservation parks such as Kaweka and Ruahine. Rugged, windblown and beautiful Cape Kidnappers is home to one of the world's largest gannet colonies, a remarkable sight as the wide-winged birds swoop and screech.

DON'T MISS If you're up for it, the three- or four-day Lake Waikaremoana Track is one of NZ's great walks through pristine lakeshore rainforest tumbled with waterfalls and opening onto spectacular views.

MORE hawkesbaynz.com

WELLINGTON

WHAT THEY SAY YOU SHOULD DO Take the red cable car (wellingtoncablecar.co.nz) to admire harbour views, then visit the Botanic Gardens. The city's highlight is the superlative Te Papa Museum (tepapa.govt.nz), whose interactive, high-tech exhibits trace NZ geology, history and wildlife. Surrounding excursions take you to wineries and Lord of the Rings movie locations.

WHAT YOU REALLY SHOULD DO This arty city should be better known for its great events, especially the multidisciplinary biennial NZ Festival (festival.co.nz), August food extravaganza Wellington on a Plate (visawoap.com) and March music jamboree Home-grown (homegrown.net.nz), which celebrates the best of Kiwi musical talent. The mindboggling springtime World of Wearable Art (worldofwearableart.com) is one of the planet's most extraordinary fashion events.

DON'T MISS Wellington's cultural credentials were further enhanced with the Peter Jackson-created Great War Exhibition (greatwarexhibition.nz). Now a newly added Quinn's Post Trench Experience uses cutting-edge interactive technology to provide a confronting, informative experience of Gallipoli in 1915 through visuals, sound and smells.

MORE wellingtonnz.com

CHRISTCHURCH

WHAT THEY SAY YOU SHOULD DO Admire Christchurch's post-earthquake reconstruction, pop-up shops and botanic gardens, where giant trees are especially lovely in autumn. Christchurch Art Gallery (christchurchartgallery.org.nz) has contemporary art inside a light-flooded glass building. Orana Wildlife Park (oranawildlifepark.co.nz) provides cheetahs, orangutans and kiwis.

WHAT YOU REALLY SHOULD DO Christchurch has long been a supply base for Antarctic research, so visit the Antarctic – or at least the next best thing. The International Antarctic Centre (iceberg.co.nz) provides an experience of an ice storm at minus 18 degrees, a sound-and-light show during which artificial snow falls, and a ride on an all-terrain, amphibious vehicle that charges through water and lurches over earth mounds. You can also take a simulated Antarctic cruise, learn more in museum-like galleries, and get close to endearing blue penguins.

DON'T MISS Canterbury Museum (canterburymuseum.com) has an Antarctic Gallery with the world's largest collection of Antarctic memorabilia. Exhibits relating to explorers Scott, Shackleton and Amundsen are especially interesting.

MORE christchurchnz.com

HAMILTON-WAIKATO

WHAT THEY SAY YOU SHOULD DO Two things are famous in this North Island region: the glow worms of Waitomo Caves (waitomo.com) and Hobbiton (hobbitontours.com), the recreated Lord of the Rings movie set on a sheep farm stand-in for The Shire. Visit hobbit houses and the Green Dragon Inn on tours, and learn about the films' production.

WHAT YOU REALLY SHOULD DO This tranquil, overlooked rural region has surprises such as a tea plantation (zealong.com) and great surfing off black-sand beaches at Raglan (raglan.org.nz), which boasts one of the longest, most reliable left-hand breaks anywhere. Regional centre Hamilton hosts premier sporting and cultural events including rugby at Waikato Stadium (fmgstadiumwaikato.co.nz) and a hot-air balloon festival (balloonsoverwaikato.co.nz). Hamilton Zoo (hamiltonzoo.co.nz) is especially good for its enormous walk-through aviary.

DON'T MISS Waikato's most-visited attraction isn't Hobbiton but Hamilton Gardens (hamiltongardens.co.nz). It traces the history of landscape design through Chinese, Italian, English and other world gardens, and has lovely rose, rhododendron and camellia collections.

MORE hamiltonwaikato.com

KAURI CLIFFS

WHAT THEY SAY YOU SHOULD DO One of NZ's most famous lodges has one of the world's most renowned golf courses thanks to its stunning location on the clifftops, with Norfolk pines adding a strikingly sculptural dimension. Hole number seven might be the most gobsmacking, but 15, 16 and 17 are magnificent too.

WHAT YOU REALLY SHOULD DO Three-quarters of guests at Kauri Cliffs have looked beyond the stereotype and now aren't golfers at all – though you should still walk the greens for those astonishing views. Some 2630 hectares of rainforest and farmland provide hiking, biking, farm tours, fishing and bird-watching. Private beaches include Pink Beach, covered in millions of pink shells and framed in red-flowering pohutukawa trees. As you'd expect of the lodge's Relais & Chateaux accreditation (relaischateaux.com), the food provides another good reason to linger.

DON'T MISS A Maori cultural tour, which will give you an appreciation of the region's Maori heritage and history, including how native ingredients are used.

MORE robertsonlodges.com

DUNEDIN

WHAT THEY SAY YOU SHOULD DO Dunedin is visited mostly by cruise passengers. Its colonial-era architecture particularly impresses at Olveston House (olveston.co.nz) and Lanarch Castle (larnachcastle.co.nz) in the hills beyond the city. Speight's Brewery Heritage Centre (speights.co.nz) has tours and tastings.

WHAT YOU REALLY SHOULD DO This South Island university town has a lively atmosphere, good restaurant culture and other interesting attractions such as Toitu Otago Settlers Museum (toituosm.com) and Otago Museum (otagomuseum.nz), plus an interesting literary heritage. Lately spectacular street art has appeared in some 25 locations, providing splashes of striking downtown colour. Head out of town on the Taieri Gorge Railway (dunedinrailways.co.nz) for a picturesque four-hour scenic ride.

DON'T MISS The nearby Otago Peninsula – yes, yet another NZ scenic beauty – is home to penguins, seals, sea lions and a breeding colony of royal albatross. On the bay's opposite shore, Orokonui Ecosanctuary (orokonui.nz) houses many native creatures behind a predator-proof fence, including kiwis, bellbirds, skinks and the lizard-like tuatara.

MORE dunedinnz.com

MARLBOROUGH REGION

WHAT THEY SAY YOU SHOULD DO Marlborough on the north end of South Island is NZ's largest wine region, particularly notable for Sauvignon Blanc. Its most famous drop is Cloudy Bay (cloudybay.co.nz), which operates one of nearly 40 cellar doors. Many, such as Hans Herzog (herzog.co.nz), are also notable for their restaurants.

WHAT YOU REALLY SHOULD DO This is a much more nuanced destination with far more than just world-class wine. Picton provides a departure point for the island-studded, dolphin-leaping Marlborough Sounds, lovely for boating, kayaking and fishing. The 70-kilometre Queen Charlotte Track is gorgeous. Havelock is notable for mussels: inspect a mussel farm or time a visit for the March Seafood Festival (havelockmusselfestival.co.nz), which has a great line-up of live-music acts. An Arts & Culture Trail links the region's galleries and artists' studios.

DON'T MISS Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre (omaka.org.nz) has a well-presented collection of vintage aircraft, and should be more widely celebrated. New exhibition space Dangerous Skies focuses on World War II aviation.

MORE marlboroughnz.com

FIVE NEW THINGS ABOUT NZ

WATERFALL ADVENTURES

NZers are always looking for new ways to terrify tourists. The latest adrenaline sport near Wanaka involves climbing beside (and occasionally behind) a waterfall using iron ladders and suspension wires. The hardest challenge, amusingly titled Lord of the Rungs, involves nearly four hours of effort. A relatively easy one-hour course suits the inexperienced. See wildwire.co.nz

GREAT BARRIER ISLAND

This island in the Hauraki Gulf northeast of Auckland has been designated an International Dark Sky Sanctuary, the highest rating for night environments by the International Dark-Sky Association (darksky.org), and one of only four worldwide. Its location and absence of outdoor electricity have preserved its night-time darkness, making this a top place to stargaze. See greatbarrier.co.nz

QUEENSTOWN HOTELS

Some 500 new hotel rooms are projected this year and next, so expect more competition. Hotel St Moritz (stmoritz.co.nz), an Mgallery by Sofitel property, recently underwent a multi-million-dollar refurbishment, and the opening of sleek, quirky QT Queenstown (qthotelsandresorts.com) adds glamour. JUCY Snooze (jucysnooze.co.nz) is a welcome budget-oriented addition to Queenstown's tight accommodation supply. See queenstownnz.co.nz

NATIONAL ART GALLERY

Just opened in Wellington, Toi Art is lodged within world-class Te Papa, already NZ's best museum. It's similarly interactive (you can step inside a virtual-reality artist's studio) and family friendly, with hands-on activities. It showcases classical and contemporary NZ art. Te Papa is revamping all its exhibitions, so be sure to revisit. See tepapa.govt.nz

CHRISTCHURCH RENEWED

The Canterbury earthquakes that battered Christchurch in 2010 and 2011 haven't struck the city off the tourism map. Heritage buildings are being restored and new architecture and street art is emerging, providing an ever-changing urban landscape and ongoing redevelopments, such as a new hospitality precinct along the Avon River and new retail destination The Crossing. See christchurchnz.com

OVERLOOKED NZ REGIONS

Recently prime minister Jacinda Ardern featured in a humorous video campaigning to get NZ included on world maps. Australians know NZ is there, but overlook some interesting regions.

EAST CAPE

The north-east knob of North Island is mainland NZ's most easterly point, accessed on magnificent coastal Highway 35 between Gisborne and Whakatane, an hour east of much-visited Rotorua. The region gets scant visitors despite its wild beauty, deserted beaches, lush bush walks, great seafood and significant Maori heritage. A heart-banging hoof up 700 steps to East Cape Lighthouse has views to infinity. See tairawhitigisborne.co.nz

NEW PLYMOUTH

This town on North Island's west coast is backed by snow-capped volcanic cone Mt Taranaki, popular with hikers as one of NZ's easier summit challenges, though it takes six hours. It rises in Egmont National Park, crisscrossed with walking trails. New Plymouth is studded with art galleries and parklands, and has 13 kilometres of seaside promenades with the wonderful outlooks. See visitnewplymouth.nz

STEWART ISLAND

Stewart Island lies off South Island's south coast – any further and you're in Antarctica. It has a population of 400, 10 times as many walking tracks as roads, and is almost all national park, home to abundant birds, notably brown kiwi and rare yellow-eyed penguins. It's wild, windswept, nearly pristine and combines exhilarating beaches with rainforest: a great destination for hiking, kayaking and fishing. See stewartisland.co.nz

NELSON

Nelson is a delightful arts-and-crafts town of galleries, glass-blowers and fashion designers. But the surrounding region on this north end of South Island is the big attraction for its clash of mountain and coastal landscapes, rolling vineyards, sunny climate and excellent hiking and mountain biking. Nearby national parks include Abel Tasman, Nelson Lakes and Kahurangi, which featured as a backdrop in Lord of the Rings movies. See nelsontasman.nz

THE CATLINS

Halfway between Dunedin and Invercargill on the under-populated southeast coast of South Island, this wilderness of age-old forests and rocky coastline is abundant in wildlife, waterfalls and glorious windswept beaches. Weather conditions are changeable, providing moody landscapes. The Catlins are the highlight of the Southern Scenic Route that leads south from Queenstown around the southern coast. See catlins.org.nz

KIWI PHRASES WORTH KNOWING

Nothing is more endearing than the Kiwi turn of phrase. Here are five key expressions to set you on your way.

KIA ORA

An informal Maori greeting, though also used in thanks and to show agreement. It literally means "be well". The Maori language has a complex set of greetings depending on the situation and the number of people being addressed.

THE WOP WOPS

Sounds like an awful affliction, but this is a place you should get into as much as you can in NZ, the remote countryside or middle-of-nowhere. It's the (un-capitalised) equivalent of our Woop Woop, sometimes abbreviated to just "the wops".

YEAH NAH

A way of responding to a statement you disagree with, signalling that you're about to explain why. Or that you don't really care. It can also show agreement, if somewhat half-hearted. So really it can mean "yes", "no" or "maybe". Get it?

CHUR, BRO

The slurred, shortened version of "cheers, brother", frequently used for "thank you". Any male can be addressed as "bro", either in friendly or aggressive manner, roughly as we use "mate". A cuzzy bro is a particularly good mate.

SWEET AS, BRO

Classic NZ-speak for something excellent, cool or great. It can also express satisfaction or agreement and is interchangeable with "awesome" and that other great NZ alternative "choice, bro".

Comments