There’s undoubtedly going to be a scramble when New Zealand’s borders open to Australians. But if you want to beat the crowds of Aussies, there are alternative ports of call not too far from where everyone else is going. Here are the five best spot swaps.
Skip Dunedin, Try The Catlins
• How don’t more Australians know about The Catlins? It’s a bona-fide Kiwi mystery. But most Aussies stick to the beaten path in New Zealand – so stray a little off it and you’ll reap the rewards. The Catlins is a charming little natural paradise an hour’s drive south of Dunedin and is one of the most sparsely populated regions in NZ, though it’s easy to access via the Southern Scenic Route. Here, mountains literally tumble into the sea and onto stunning, deserted beaches. The Catlins is home to the world’s rarest penguins, and the most endangered sea lions – and they’re all just on the beach in front of you. You’ll also see Hector dolphins, the world’s smallest, and six of the country’s best waterfalls, as well as one of only three accessible forest fossils left on Earth. It’s 180 million years old and you can only see it on the beach at low tide. It’s not far from gigantic caves that look like catherals, also only seen at low tide. There’s plenty to do around here; it’s one of NZ’s best surfing areas, with surf schools to learn at, or you can hike, cycle, fish or swim. A range of accommodation options is spread across two main villages; wake with the birds at B&Bs among the forest, eat with farming families at farmstays, or try some old-world NZ lodges near the beach.
Take me there: Fly to Queenstown, then drive south for three hours to The Catlins along the Southern Scenic Route.
Skip Queenstown, Try Cromwell
• While no-one’s questioning the credentials of Queenstown – an adventure capital surrounded entirely by stunning mountain ranges and a glacial lake rumoured to be bottomless – you just know it’ll be packed solid with Aussies. So why not drive 50 minutes down the road to another stunning town on its own lake, that’s surrounded by its own mountains? You won’t have heard of Cromwell, but it’s New Zealand’s best hidden gem. Two rivers meet by a charming lakeside village beneath rugged mountains; you can even take a jet-boat ride on the same river (Kawarau River) as you would in Queenstown. It also has an historic precinct that dates back to its gold rush days in the 1860s, and its lakeside village is full of boutique shops, art galleries, cafes and restaurants, as well as a farmers’ market where you’ll meet all the locals. They call Cromwell the fruit bowl of the south – there are fruit stalls everywhere – though what you’ve got right beside Cromwell is some of the best wineries in New Zealand. The area produces 70 per cent of Central Otago’s wine, which includes some of the planet’s best pinot noir. Check out the views from the tasting rooms and restaurants at wineries like Carrick Winery and Mt Difficulty Wines.
Take me there: Fly to Queenstown with Air NZ or Qantas, then drive 50 minutes east.
Skip The Bay Of Islands, Try Hokianga Harbour
• Many Aucklanders and travellers make the pilgrimage (especially in summer time) to the Bay of Islands, three hours north of Auckland. Yet few come to the other coast of Northland. The Bay of Islands is the country’s most popular sailing, swimming and beach destination – but it gets crowded. An hour west, on the west coast of Northland, soak up a much more mellow beach vibe at Hokianga Harbour. Drive west and the first thing you’ll notice is the turqoise waters of the harbour and the dazzling white sand dunes by the coast (they’re as much as 150 metres high, and you can toboggan down them). The twin towns of Omapere and Opononi are here on the harbour, as well as Rawene – which has to be the country’s most picturesque town with its art galleries, craft shops, cafes and historic houses on the water. This is the birthplace of New Zealand – it’s where one of the first ever Maori settlements was in the 14th century and the name means “nest of the northern tribes”. There are cultural centres to check out, though for a real taste of history check out the gigantic kauri trees in the forests here – one of them is 2,000 years old. Stay in an historic hotel with views across the water, then kayak, take boat tours and fish off the wharfs with the locals.
Take me there: Fly to Auckland, then drive north for 3 ½ hours up the west coast.
Skip Wellington (City), Try Porirua
You won’t have heard of Porirua – it’s overshadowed by New Zealand’s capital city, Wellington, 20 minutes south. Although Porirua is technically part of Wellington metropolitan area, it’s not well known to travellers – but that’s the great part, you’ll have it to yourselves. This is one impressive place – there are more than 100 kilometres of walking tracks here, which traverse stunning coastline, rainforest, farms, wetlands and historic sites. The city is built on Porirua Harbour and is surrounded entirely by coastal parks, reserves and beautiful beaches. There’s lots to do and see – kayak on the harbour, take a walk past the 36 iconic jewel-coloured boat sheds that were built in the 1940s right on the harbour, or take tours by boat or jet ski. You can also take a day trip to Mana Island, 20 minutes by ferry off the coast. It’s a predator-free nature reserve where you can see little spotted kiwis; you’ll also encounter blue penguins and views all the way to the South Island. But its Porirua’s diversity that really makes this a buzzing city to visit – check out night markets with food trucks offering cuisine from all over the world, while the city’s restaurants reflect its multi-culturalism (including New Zealand’s only Polish restaurant). You can also check out museums, art galleries and some of the best fish and chip restaurants in in the country, then watch the sunset over the sand.
Take me there: Easy, fly to Wellington then drive north for 20 minutes.
Skip Waiheke Island, Try Great Barrier Island
Travellers flock to Waiheke Island, a 35-minute ferry ride from Auckland. It’s a stunning mix of vineyards, cafes, restaurants, olive groves and beaches. But go further on your ferry (or fly) to one of New Zealand’s wildest island destinations, Great Barrier Island. Locals live off the grid, using solar power and rainwater – and one in ten of the 1000 locals are artists. But this is the sort of island to inspire creativity – 60 per cent of the island is nature reserve loaded with hikes, even to hot springs you can bathe in (the island is located on a geothermal area). Surfers and beachcombers will love its wild east coast, but its west coast offers calm water in bays and deep sheltered harbours perfect for swimming, kayaking and diving. Great Barrier Island is also the only island on Earth declared a Dark Sky Sanctuary – check out the Milky Way and all those stars at night from B&Bs and guesthouses built in the forests and by the beach. But there’s actually a lot more to Great Barrier Island than nature – for such a small population, it has a thriving community with lively nights. You’ll get to meet artists, organic gardeners, hunters and brewers – and there are art and heritage trails to follow to find all the best galleries. You’ll also find the Southern Hemisphere’s most remote boutique gin distillery and zero-waste, solar-powered microbreweries.
Take me there: Fly to Auckland, then take
a four-and-a-half ferry, or 30 minute flight.