Kaitoke Hot Springs trail, Great Barrier Island. © ATEED

10 unique ideas for weekend escapes around New Zealand

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Make the most of a fair-weather weekend by getting out to explore some of these lesser-known attractions around New Zealand.

1. Head to Great Barrier Island

Whether you travel there by ferry or plane, Great Barrier Island is a wonderful place to explore, with empty white sand beaches in remote corners and bush walks with brilliant views. Hire a rental car and take a road trip around the 40km-long island at your own pace. There’s the surf beach side and the quieter bay side with a steep mountainous spine in between. As well as the famous beaches, there is the remarkable Glenfern Sanctuary at Port Fitzroy, home to species such as the endangered brown teal (pāteke),kererū and kākā, and the famous natural Kaitoke Hot Springs, nestled in the native bush. 

2. Explore Canterbury’s Hurunui District

Hurunui might be one of Canterbury’s best-kept secrets – a place where the mountains, sea and rolling vineyards all intersect. Perhaps the most well-known part of Hurunui is Hanmer Springs, the classic Kiwi holiday spot of the South Island, but Hanmer also has beautiful mountain biking trails, jet-boating and plenty of walks to choose from, in addition to the amazing hot pools. Nearby in the Waipara Valley, you’re in wine country. Check out Black Estate, Pegasus Bay and Greystone Wines, although there are 31 wineries to choose from, twelve of which have cellar doors. 

3. Discover the southern tip of the North Island 

Like every other spot where land and sea come to serious blows, Cape Palliser is spellbindingly magical. Perched on a promontory above the Cape is the iconic red and white lighthouse, which is worth the 250-step climb for the view it gives over the Bay and across Cook Strait to the South Island. There’s plenty to do in the area, from fishing aboard a chartered launch out of Ngawi or casting from the beach, to surfing or simply knocking about in a rented bach. A few minutes drive from Ngawi, you’ll find the spectacular rock formations of the Putangirua Pinnacles, reached by an easy walk from the road. These crumbling earth pillars are so photogenic they served as a backdrop in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

4. Visit Quarantine Island

A short boat ride from Port Chalmers or Portabello will take you to Quarantine Island in the middle of Otago Harbour. The island itself takes about an hour to walk around through native forest, there are a couple of caves to discover and two intriguing boat wrecks on either side of the jetty. Owned by DOC, the island is free to visit for a walk and a picnic, but  you’ll need permission to enter the buildings, owned by the Quarantine Island Community Group. However, you can book the caretaker’s cottage for an overnight stay which can sleep a sizable group. 

5. Drive the Manawatū Scenic Route

The drive along the Manawatū Scenic Route from Āpiti to Pōhāngina is a soothing journey through rural countryside. Taking in the smooth, curving tarmac is like waltzing with the river as the road dips in and out of the valleys. You can also tackle it on two wheels, on the popular Āpiti Loop Cycleway. But whether you’re travelling by bike or car there are a couple of gems along the way. The Āpiti Lavender Farm offers accommodation for cyclists and, in summer, the opportunity to picnic amidst the fragrant purple flowers. Further down the valley, you'll find Pōhāngina Heights. It’s a lush expanse of gardens with free-range chickens, peacocks, bunnies and sweeping views across the valley. Make an appointment to view the gardens in case the gate is locked, or better, stay the night in one of the two self-contained cottages on site and watch the sunset from the outdoor bath. It’s BYO food, so a visit to nearby Cartwheel Creamery is recommended for some local cheese to go with your wine.

6. Meet wildlife on Ulva Island

The 266ha Ulva Island is situated in Paterson Inlet just off the coast of Stewart Island and can be reached by boat from Halfmoon Bay or Golden Bay. Administered as a DOC open sanctuary, it’s a birdwatchers’ paradise. The island was first designated a wildlife sanctuary in 1899, but it wasn’t until 1997 that it was declared officially predator-free. Since then, a number of rare species have been introduced, including the South Island saddleback, the Stewart Island robin and a threatened species of skink. Rare plants also flourish, including the lanternberry and the tmsepteris, which grew in Gondwanaland before the dinosaurs walked the earth.

7. Take a Forgotten World Journey

Since 2012, Forgotten World Adventures has been running self-drive tours along the disused stretch of railway line between Taumarunui and Stratford, taking visitors deep into the rugged North Island countryside. Chose from a short outing or a multi-day round trip on one of the 50 rail carts – repurposed golf buggies retrofitted with rubber wheels to ride along the train tracks, all the way to Whangamōmona and back. Discover the hinterland, wildlife and history of the region, including feats of heritage engineering – like the longest tunnel on the tour, a pitch-black 1.6km, constructed by hand. Work began in 1912 on the tunnel and was finally finished in 1920 with teams of men digging from either end, working in four-metre sections, 200 metres below ground. 

8. Walk the Mt Crichton Loop Track

This loop track runs alongside sections of Twelve Mile Creek through red beech in the gullies and, higher up, passes through mountain beech and mānuka, with views of Lake Dispute and glimpses of Lake Wakatipu. Goldrush relics can be spotted along the way, as miners once worked extensively in the area between the 1860s and the 1930s. Artefacts include a large sluiced canyon and a vast 24 metre-long tunnel. Sam Summers' Hut also provides a fascinating glimpse of life as a gold prospector. Today the hut provides very basic accommodation for trampers and is maintained by DOC if you want to stay for a rustic night in the wilderness.

9. Get underwater at the Coromandel’s offshore islands

Off the coast of the Coromandel Peninsula archipelagos of small, mostly uninhabited islands provide the kind of underwater landscapes that divers’ dreams are made of. The Mercury Islands can be reached by boat from Whitianga and have unique ecosystems to explore both above and below the sea. While landing ashore is prohibited on most of the Mercury Islands, the sheltered coves are popular with boaties and underwater there are temperate diving conditions with rich currents flowing from the tropics. Further south, the Aldermen group of islands off the coast of Pāuanui are often referred to as the vanishing volcanoes – remnants of a much larger volcanic complex that erupted around five million years ago. The Aldermens are one of the most important wildlife sanctuaries in the Coromandel region, home to endangered reptiles, rare native plants many nesting sea birds, so venturing ashore is strictly prohibited. 

10. Join the daily run on the Pelorus Mail Boat

With no road access to the homes in Marlborough’s Pelorus Sound, locals depend on the Pelorus Mail Boat’s daily visits to get their supplies. This curvy, crinkled bit of coastline is the start of the largest of the four semi-separate Marlborough Sounds. Pelorus, or Te Hoiere, is 42 kilometres long, with 380 kilometres of shoreline – which, stretched out, is roughly the distance from Auckland to Mount Ruapehu. Aboard the Pelorus Mail Boat, you can explore most of it. Since 1922, the boat has carried freight, stock and fare-paying tourists, making it viable for the contractors who run the route. Take a day cruise aboard the Mail Boat to discover hidden coves and isolated bays as you venture to the outer edges of the Sound. Dolphins are regularly spotted, as are friendly domestic animals – dogs, goats and even pigs – who come down to meet the boat, providing a fascinating glimpse into the lives of the people who live here. 

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