On a road trip it’s easy to motor right past many of New Zealand’s hidden gems and secret spots. We’ve compiled a list of detours to inspire making the journey itself a part of your next destination.
Zealong Tea Estate, Hamilton, Waikato
Amidst the rolling Waikato landscape is Zealong Tea Estate, a 40ha plantation with a visitor centre and cafe´ serving lunches and afternoon teas with, of course, great tea. Tours of the plantation, revealing how tea is grown and made, also give insight into the history and culture of tea.
Tokatoka Peak, Wairoa River, Kaipara
Tokatoka Peak pokes its head up from the horizon from many vantage points along State Highway 12. It’s hard to miss and very tempting to climb – which is relatively easy until a steep, short section at the very top. It takes about 20 minutes. You’ll be rewarded with views of the northern Wairoa River, which locals call ‘The Big Muddy’. Take Tokatoka Rd north of Ruawai, near Dargaville, and look for the ‘scenic reserve’ sign.
Lake Grassmere Salt Works, Blenheim, Marlborough
Stumble across Lake Grassmere in the height of summer and you‘ll see what looks like mountains of snow sparkling against brown hills. Stranger still is the grid of ponds beside them, which blush from purple to a deep shade of pink in the summer months. The culprit is salt. Lake Grassmere produces about half the country’s supply, formed by warm winds which blow in across the shallow water. The pink colour of the pools comes from the same algae that inhabit the Red Sea and tiny pink brine shrimp, which we know as ‘sea monkeys’. Lake Grassmere must be one of New Zealand’s most bizarre landscapes.
Second Thoughts Collectables, Te Aroha
Second Thoughts Collectables is run by a bloke named Pete who has a special interest in vinyl LP records from the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, and a wealth of knowledge about the Kiwi music scene from that era. The second-hand vinyl sold here is almost all in excellent condition and priced honestly, according to condition. And it’s all good stuff. As well as the quality vinyl, you’ll also find a ton of pop culture literature and mid-century curios in stock so, if that’s what you’re into, it’s worth a visit.
St Mary’s Church, Tikitiki, East Cape
While you should watch the road on the sharp corner at Tikitiki, East Cape, don’t drive past St Mary’s on the hill overlooking the hairpin bend. The carved archway over the gate is a clue to the riches hidden inside this outwardly unremarkable wooden church. Built in 1924, it’s both a memorial to local Ngati Porou lost in World War I and a celebration of Maori decorative arts. From the windows to the ceiling to the baptismal font, it’s a riot of carving and weaving, thanks to an initiative by Sir Apirana Ngata, who’s memorialized by the marble obelisk outside.
Tawhiti Museum, Hawera, Taranaki
Beware: if you like history or models or jokes, this place eats time. In an old cheese factory, Nigel Ogle has created a treasure house of intricate dioramas and life-size scenes from Taranaki life, dating from pre-European days. Input from Weta Workshop, plus Nigel’s art teacher skill and obsessive attention to detail make this place a delight. The dramatic Whalers and Traders boat ride through an animated scene from 180 years ago is the nearest thing to Disneyland you’ll find in New Zealand. The passion, artistry and humour on display here had John Key gasping, “I’m blown away!” You will be, too.
Tunnel Beach, Otago
Geological upheavals and restless seas have shaped the bays and inlets of the Otago coastline. At Tunnel Beach, 20km south of Dunedin, you’ll see the workings of both man and nature.
John Cargill, a man of substance, felt the need to hide the recreational activities of his daughters from Dunedin’s common folk. In the 1870s, he commissioned the tunnelling of a hole to a secluded beach so his daughters could picnic there, safe from prying eyes.
Today, you too can descend through Cargill’s tunnel and enjoy this enchanting beach.
Windows Walk, Karangahake Gorge, Bay of Plenty
A few strides into the Woodstock Gold Company’s tramway tunnel and you’ll be engulfed in ink-black darkness. Further along, daylight unexpectedly enters through an open ‘window’ 35 metres above the Waitawheta River, exposing spectacular views of Mt Karangahake’s sheer vertical rock face on the opposite side of the narrow canyon. The apertures were made by the miners to empty overburden into the river below.
From this perch you can watch tiny figures wandering along another tramway track, literally carved into the granite, before crossing a swing bridge over the river. These tunnels were hewn in the 1890s using back-breaking manual labour, an astonishing engineering feat even in this day and age.
In contrast to all the effort that went into creating it, the ‘windows walk’ can be done in a leisurely hour. Just don’t forget fresh batteries for your torch.
Te Hapua, Parengarenga Harbour, Northland
Te Hapua is New Zealand’s northern-most village. Its sand dunes are so white and fine it’s like walking through icing sugar, and most of New Zealand’s godwits gather here, in late March, to feast, before they fly to Siberia. The Ratana Church is in the heart of Te Hapua.
Castle Hill, Canterbury
You don’t have to take our word that a detour to Castle Hill is worth your time: in 2002 the Dalai Lama declared it the Spiritual Centre of the Universe. It’s hard to quibble with an endorsement like that. Taking its name from the behemoth limestone boulders that resemble the long crumbled ruins of an imposing castle, the hill is a favourite with rock climbers who boulder up and over the stones. Fans of the Narnia films like to visit the location of one of the climactic battle scenes.
Brook Waimarama Sanctuary, Waimarama, Nelson
Just five kilometres from Nelson’s CBD, the Brook Waimarama Sanctuary is an ambitious project to create a fully-fenced, 700ha area of native bush (to be the second largest pest-free fenced sanctuary in New Zealand) for the re-introduction of natives like kiwi, tuatara and kakapo.
Inside the centre is a giant 3D map, with irresistible buttons to push. Correlating lights show parts of the proposed sanctuary. There are also exhibits of the native birds the area proposes to provide a haven for – with more tempting buttons to push to hear the sound of their call.
Jerusalem, Whanganui River, Whanganui
Maoritanga and Catholicism intertwine at Jerusalem (Hiruharama) on the banks of the Whanganui River.
For over a century the site has been a base for the Sisters of Compassion, who built a convent, orphanage and school for the local Maori community in 1892. They were joined by throngs of hippies in the five years following 1969, when poet James K Baxter led his commune there.
A windy, one and a half hours’ drive from Whanganui, Jerusalem is not exactly a quick detour, but it’s worth it to spend a night in the open dormitory of St Joseph’s Convent. For details go to compassion.org.nz
Stonehenge Aotearoa, Carterton, Wairarapa
This modern spin on England’s mysterious prehistoric monument has been specifically adapted for the Pacific and calibrated to chart our celestial movements. It is a fully functional, albeit old-school, observatory. Open 10am-4pm Wed to Sun; guided tours are on weekends and public holidays.
Shalfoon & Francis Museum, Bay of Plenty
There’s a wealth of paraphernalia in this fine heritage store – at 12 Church Street, Opotiki. Cross-cut saw blades, pit saw handles, hand-forged bridge spikes and kerosene wick lamps jostle for space alongside biscuit tins, glass lolly jars, liquorice straps and hand-cranked telephones. George Shalfoon was manning the vast kauri slab counters and ringing up the antique cash register until he retired in 2001, at the age of 83. Now it’s a fascinating, nostalgia-rich museum.
Charming Creek Walkway, Buller, West Coast
Charming Creek Walkway is an easy-going, intriguing and entertaining 10.5km hike that follows a historic tramway through the lower Ngakawau Gorge and the Charming Creek Valley.
Fascinating remnants of the industry which played king to the region in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, punctuate the walk. You’ll pass an abandoned mine, tunnels and spectacular waterfalls. Children will enjoy stopping to dig out lumps of coal along the path, making it a great walk for families.
Wingspan National Bird of Prey Centre, Rotorua
Having a falcon perched on a leather gloved hand is quite an experience. Wingspan is the National Birds of Prey Centre devoted to the preservation of native raptors. There are a number of rescued birds on display indoors, and daily outdoor free-flying demonstrations of the New Zealand Falcon. This is a rare opportunity to see these magnificent birds at close quarters.
Collectamania, Ohaupo, Waikato
Ohaupo Antiques has gorgeous Art Deco light shades, antique glassware, vintage dolls and early advertising. There is automobilia and brewery-ana for men’s sheds, and Victorian kitchen-alia for heritage cuisine queens. Jane Daly, owner, truly knows quality collectables.
The store is laid out spaciously in group categories and feels more like a collecting great-aunt’s large lounge than an antique shop. Jane’s favourite area is Victorian sewing tools, with its toy sewing machines, porcupine pincushions, silver measuring tapes, hem clamps and button hooks.
Te Rewa Rewa Bridge, New Plymouth
Te Rewa Rewa Bridge over Waiwhakaiho River opened in 2010, and connects New Plymouth to Bell Block on a coastal walk and cycleway. The designer wanted it to have dignity and harmony and to touch the landscape lightly; he achieved this with intriguing and artful engineering.
The bridge is aligned with sacred Mount Taranaki; look down the barrel from the north end and it frames the mountain’s perfect cone.
Ruapekepeka Pa, Towai, Northland
The site of the last battle in the north in 1845-46 is also special because of the cunning defence system built by chief Te Ruki Kawiti – much of which you can see hints of in the landscape. One of Kawiti’s cannons remains and the earthen defences of the advanced British position are also still visible.
Ruapekapeka Historic Reserve is between Whangarei and Kawakawa – download a site guide from ruapekapeka.co.nz or pick up a copy at the car park before walking 15 minutes to the pa.
Elvis Presley Memorial Record Room, Hawera, Taranaki
Out the back of a house in Hawera is a two-room garage crammed tight with Elvis Presley memorabilia. It’s a private tribute, exhibiting an impressive collection of Elvis recordings, books, art and souvenirs, including concert tickets, Elvis-inspired crockery, jewellery, ties, musical instruments, key rings, clocks and replica clothing. Fans of The King can also meet the King of the Fans: Kevin Wasley – surely New Zealand’s most ardent rock ‘n’ roller. Hawera i-Site can help make an appointment to visit; entry is by donation.
In the 1880s, Colonel Joseph Cowie Nichols built a stately home on a large sheep station 20 minutes drive south of Oamaru.
Today the 27-room mansion is out of bounds, but a drive through the grounds of Kuriheka provides an interesting diversion.
An inveterate collector of things military, Colonel Nichols liked field guns, which he positioned strategically around the grounds. The estate’s outbuildings are of a quality rarely seen in New Zealand and include huge stables built in the German Gothic style.
Kahutara Taxidermy Museum, Kahutara, Wairarapa
‘Tararua Ted’, as John McCosh is affectionately known, is recognized as one of New Zealand’s leading practitioners of taxidermy. He houses the results of his pastime in a rustic log cabin which you are welcome to visit. On display in his gallery are many local birds, insects and animals, but the real stars are the more exotic beasts – including a lion, a tiger and an alligator. Open by appointment only.
Dargaville Museum, Kaipara
Dargaville Museum has an eclectic collection of curios and artefacts showcasing our earliest maritime adventures, charting the area’s kauri gum rush and even laying down a wonderful working model train set. A highlight is the collection, in its music room, of over 90 accordions. The exhibit features a figurine collection, early sheet music, rare recordings and – the gem – an accordion made of kauri.
Tolaga Bay Wharf, East Cape
We may not be able to walk on water, but a stroll out to sea along the longest wharf in the Southern hemisphere might be the next best thing. The 660m trek to the end of Tolaga Bay Wharf takes about half an hour. It’s not unusual to have the wharf to yourself.
Waikari Rock Art, Canterbury
The South Island climate made life difficult for early southern Maori; they spent much of their time in survival mode, hunting and fishing. Yet these people were inspired to express themselves in artistic form, evidence of which can be found on the smooth underbelly of limestone outcrops. Take the trail, over paddocks, from Waikari town.
Viands Bakery, Kihikihi, Waikato
Viands Bakery is famous for its pies. It’s twice winner of the New Zealand Supreme Pie competition, and with 4,500 entries from 444 bakeries these are wins worth celebrating. It has a large selection, including seafood and vegetarian. The cold fruit pies are fabulous, too.
Antiques @ Tirau, Tirau, Waikato
You’ll have seen the corrugated iron sheep on the way into town? Head across the road to [email protected] for the real treasure in this town. There’s a room dedicated to art deco, art nouveau and Victorian light fittings, royal memorabilia, a collection of box cameras, crystal glasses, vintage children’s toys – including a miniature Singer sewing machine – and jewellery dating from as far back as the 1880s.
Chronicle Glass, Whanganui
We watched a glassblower at work over the furnaces – molten glass, a blowpipe, a blob rolled on cold steel, a puffed-cheeked blow and then the blob becomes a glass bubble and the basis of a bowl. Magic!
Chronicle Glass has plenty of glass-blowing action; with 40 glass artists in the area, the two kilns are usually fired up. It’s also a great place to invest in fine glass art.
Honeycomb Cave, Oparara Basin, West Coast
Most people have heard of the glorious Kahurangi National Park, home of the Heaphy Track. Not so many have heard of a stunning cave system at Oparara, north of Karamea called Honeycomb Hill Cave.
It boasts the largest and most varied collection of sub-fossil bird bones ever found in New Zealand, with more than 50 bird species, many extinct, including moa and the giant Haast’s eagles.
The only way to access these limestone caves is with a guided eco-tour – a stunning three-hour walk through giant kahikatea, ancient beech trees, and a multitude of ferns, mosses and lichens.
Reptile Park, Warkworth, Rodney
How often do you get to see a tuatara, a family of chameleons or, if you look closely and with patience, 13 different types of New Zealand lizards? There are also 16 turtle and tortoise species, alligators and exotic Malaysian lizards – which closely resemble dragons – and New Zealand’s only reptile park, on the road between Whangateau and Leigh, north of Auckland.
Eastern Southland Art Gallery, Gore
In an attractive old brick building in Gore, you’ll find some top art. In uncluttered displays are indigenous arts and crafts from Australia and West Africa, significant works by Rita Angus and Theo Schoon, and changing contemporary exhibitions from around the world. But, perhaps most unexpected is the Ralph Hotere gallery of more than 60 graphic works and paintings, most donated by the artist himself.
Te Waimate Mission, Waimate North, Northland
This Heritage New Zealand property in Waimate North (20 minutes drive from Kerikeri, on Te Ahu Ahu Rd) was built in 1832 by Anglican missionaries on New Zealand’s first farm, set up to introduce Maori to European agricultural methods. Wandering through the rooms of the beautiful Georgian house, furnished with missionary period furniture and tools, is a calming experience – such is the serenity of the place. The grounds are lovely, too, and perfect for picnics – ideally with wicker baskets, cushions and home-made lemonade.
Haddad Menswear, Otorohanga
Not much has changed since brothers Karam and John Haddad opened Haddad Menswear in 1965. The brothers still hang measuring tapes around their necks and regularly wrap them around a manly girth or across a set of rural shoulders. Haddad work gear and outdoor clothing must fit well; a real man must be comfortable.
Kerosene Creek, Rotorua
Rotorua’s formerly best-kept secret, set in native bush and complete with its own little waterfall, is a beauty of a spot for soaking in thermal water and stunning scenery. It’s a natural spring, so don’t put your head underwater. And it’s a bit tricky to find. Look for Old Waiotapu Rd, between Rotorua and Taupo on SH5; drive two kilometres on that unsealed road to a car park then walk 200 metres along the stream.
Driving Creek, Coromandel
Driving Creek near Coromandel township is one of those something-for-everyone experiences, combining engineering, art and ecology in a beautiful native bush setting. Craftsman Barry Brickell has built a narrow gauge mountain railway for a tourist train to wind up to a mountain-top terminus called the Eyefull Tower. Yes, the views are grand. And, back at home base, after the one-hour return trip, visitors can visit the pottery, where stoneware and clay sculptures are made and sold.
This is the only indoor curling rink in the Southern hemisphere; it has four 46m long ‘sheets’ where up to eight people can play this combination of bowls, chess and billiards. Though the polished granite stones weigh 20kg, it’s all about sliding them towards the target ring, so even children and people in wheelchairs can play, using sticks; strategy is more important than strength. Special shoe covers keep you on your feet and, if you’re escaping from a blistering Central Otago day, there are warm clothes for hire, too.
Morere Hot Springs, Nuhaka, Hawke’s Bay
Morere Springs Scenic Reserve, south of Gisborne, has stands of nikau palms interspersed with ferns, lichens, orchids and epiphytes that give it a ‘goblin forest’ ambience. The grounds are well set up for picnics; visitors can also take bush walks before or after soaking in a thermal pool. Three bush tracks climb up through the rainforest and, by prior arrangement with the office, you can take a trek and then go directly to the enchanting Nikau Pools, nestled amongst towering palms.
Wine Tastes Queenstown, Central Queenstown
A sip from a $1000 bottle of wine is sweet indeed and not reserved for society’s elite. Visitors to Wine Tastes at 14 Beach Street in Queenstown can drink like a king or queen at the push of a button and – for the fancier drops – not much more than a tenner.
More than 80 wines from throughout New Zealand can be sampled here, with the average taste priced between $2 and $4. If those numbers don’t lure you in, the glowing pendant lamps and button armchairs draped with faux furs will.
Sommeliers set you up with a glass and a card that tracks which wines you’re tasting. After that, you’re left to sample at your own pace, interrupted only by the arrival of cheese, bread, dukkah and Sicilian olives.
Kororareka Oyster Farm, Russell, Bay of Islands
A mint green shed is home to Kororareka Oyster Farm. Owner Alex Clifford has been an oyster farmer most of his life and keeps the oyster shop open all year round. On Fridays he also smokes mullet and sells fresh flounder, as well as oysters in pots, half shells or in full shells. He’s happy to chat, as you sit on the front deck looking out over Orongo Bay eating the juiciest, creamiest oysters in town.
Te Hikoi Southern Journey, Riverton, Southland
This museum is all about telling stories, and as the second oldest settlement in New Zealand after Russell, there are plenty of them. Maori, whalers, sealers, gold miners, loggers and pioneers – both European and Chinese – all have their moments: in video, in interactive displays and through artefacts. The standard of presentation is so classy and professional that it’s easy to become absorbed in the tale of sealer Jacky Price and his wife Hineawhitia, as you sit in the sailing ship theatre; or the intricacies of mutton-birding; or the profile of young James Caddell, the country’s first ‘Pakeha Maori’.
Cromwell’s Heritage Quarter, Cromwell, Central Otago
When the rising waters of Lake Dunstan began lapping at Cromwell’s former main street, a group of determined locals got together to save what they could. Hauling schist remains to higher ground, they gradually created a charming historic village.
The traffic-free main street, cobbled courtyards and stone alleyways of the Cromwell Heritage Precinct is still run by volunteers, 25 years on
Historic displays in some buildings illustrate the Central Otago gold rush of the 1860s. Others house art galleries, gift shops and cafés.
The little-known village is tucked away by the lakeshore behind a residential area.
Pick Your Own Daffodils, Hadstock Farm, Canterbury
Come Spring, a 20-minute drive out of Christchurch is rewarded with a sea of golden daffodils in flower. For a fee of $10, you can pick them by the bucket load – enough, surely, to cheer the saddest souls on the dreariest of days.
Moutere Inn, Upper Moutere, Nelson
Next to hop farms and a scattering of artisan craft shops sits the Moutere Inn – a classic country pub in the pretty little village of Upper Moutere, near Nelson. It has two claims to fame: one is that it’s the oldest pub in New Zealand – established by the village’s German settlers in 1850 – and the other is its beer list. As well as the obligatory crate bottles of Tui, the pub boasts a list of ales and lagers to rival Wellington’s craft beer spots, making it a mecca for beer geeks and a great place to sample the locally-grown hop varieties. Plus, the inn has several rooms upstairs – so there’s no need to drive anywhere afterwards.
Lost Gypsy Gallery, Papatowai, Catlins
In an old house bus, Blair Somerville crouches over his latest project, incorporating a clock, gummi bears and his bizarre inspiration. All around him are handmade, hands-on gadgets and gizmos waiting for a pull or a push to set them going, sparking delighted laughter from the visitors to this unique gallery, garden and café (the tea is especially good). Water, shells, found objects and recycled cast-offs are combined with science, art, imagination and a sense of fun to entertain, amuse and amaze visitors of any age. Are you brave enough to press the mysterious button labelled ‘one of life’s temptations’?
Frog Rock, Canterbury
About 70km north of Christchurch, on the road to Hanmer, a giant amphibian-like rock sits next to the road. Travellers can stop nearby and take the 100m walk up onto the frog’s back.
Otatara Pa, Taradale, Hawke’s Bay
Wooden palisades, carved pou (memorial posts) and a carved gate greet visitors to Otatara Pa. On an hour-long walk you’ll see the remains of terraces, dwelling sites and food storage pits – and will, undoubtedly, sense the deep cultural significance of the site: it is one of New Zealand’s largest pa sites and also one of the oldest. Plus, there are great views from the top – to Napier, across to Cape Kidnappers and, on a good day, even to Mt Ruapehu.
Ohau Waterfall, Kaikoura, Canterbury
Nestled in the bush 27km out of Kaikoura, along SH1, is Ohau Waterfall – a playground for seal pups, which are often seen frolicking in the fall’s pool during the winter months.
Te Waihou Walkway, Putaruru, Hamilton
Just a short drive from Putaruru is a spectacular walk that follows Te Waihou River. Also known as the Blue Spring, the river is crystal clear. The walkway can be approached from either end; if you only have one vehicle, head to the car park 3.6km along Leslie Road and walk to the Blue Spring and back, as that is the most scenic half of the track. The entire walk takes around one and a half hours one way.
Waitakaruru Arboretum and Sculpture Park, Hamilton, Waikato
The Sculpture Park at Waitakaruru Arboretum has around 80 sculptures and installations to be discovered on nature trails in a reclaimed, landscaped quarry. A labelling system enables visitors to identify trees and shrubs and appreciate a huge array of New Zealand-made art. It’s also a great place to cycle – BYO bike.
The park is about 20 minutes drive from Hamilton, Cambridge or Morrinsville – open by appointment only, see sculpturepark.co.nz for directions.
Lake Tutira, Hawke’s Bay
When travelling north of Napier on SH2, keep an eye out for a shimmering body of water. This is Lake Tutira – set among tranquil pastures, with camping areas, picnic sites and idyllic bays overhung with weeping willows. Black swans and mallard ducks drift lazily, etching triangular wakes on the smooth surface. Tui and bellbirds sing joyful melodies overhead. Five superb walking tracks lead to lookouts with expansive views; and there’s also rainbow and brown trout fishing here, six pa sites and the adjacent Lake Waikapiro wetlands to be explored.