You may have seen the highlights of what New Zealand has to offer, but there is more to this amazing country than the tourist destinations that everyone goes to see.
What about something more, well… unique?
We reached out to both locals and travelers who have spent time in NZ exploring, getting lost, and discovering wonderful new places to see and things to experience.
Some of these you can only find out about through local knowledge. So if you like going a bit off the beaten track, then this is for you!
Below are some hidden gems that are well worth visiting in New Zealand.
North Island Places to Visit
Waimangu Volcanic Valley
Unspoiled, protected destination featuring the world’s largest hot spring in lush natural surrounds. Waimangu Volcanic Valley is a must-see for anyone traveling to New Zealand.
Image Credit: Flikr – Vašek Vinklát
Waimangu is the world’s youngest geothermal system and you can explore it for yourself on a self-guided walking tour.
“There are varying trail lengths– from the 1.5km highlights walk to the 4.5km hike including a climb over Mount Haszard for panoramic views.
You’ll also find Frying Pan Lake here, one of the largest hot water springs in the world, as well as Inferno Crater Lake, which rises and falls as it heats and cools. It’s not to be missed!”
Larry Snider – Casago Vacation Rentals
East Cape (North Island)
East Cape is a stunning part of New Zealand coastline from Whakatane to Ohiwa, through to Gisborne and beyond. The northern end of the East Cape is certainly worth taking the time to stop and visit!
Image Credit: Wikicommons
East Cape is the easternmost point of the main islands of New Zealand. It is located at the northern end of the Gisborne District of New Zealand’s North Island.
“This is where you should go if you want to enjoy a beautiful and unique sunrise because fun fact: It’s the first sunrise of the day out of everywhere in the world! It’s not completely secret, but not many tourists go there, so it’s often pretty quiet.”
Tarawera Falls (North Island)
Tarawera Falls is a 65 m high waterfall on the Tarawera River in the Bay of Plenty region in New Zealand’s North Island.
The Tarawera River flows out of Lake Tarawera and across a rhyolitic lava flow that erupted from Mt Tarawera about 11,000 years ago.
“This is a beautiful waterfall well-worth visiting. It’s not very well-known, because to get there you need to go down private roads of gravel. However, it’s fairly easy to get a permit for access, you can do so at the Kawerau information center.”
Tawharanui Open Sanctuary (North Island)
The experience I would highly recommend is the Kiwi watching tour at Tawharanui Open Sanctuary.
Image Credit: Wikicommons
Located about 1 hour north of central Auckland, the park was set up to be a predator-free “mainland island”, achieved through a 2.5km coast-to-cost predator-proof fence which keeps out pests that target native birdlife.
Kiwiness Tours runs an evening Kiwi walk that gives participants the chance to get up close with Northern Brown Kiwi in their natural habitat. The tour begins at dusk where you are guided through native NZ bush via red torchlight (to not disturb the nocturnal birds).
The Kiwi Walk is led by Kiwiness Tours founder, Ness Wards. Ness is not only an experienced tour guide; she also grew up in Tawharanui – so you’d be hard-pressed to find a better-suited guide for the Tawharanui Kiwi Walk.
The tour lasts around 3 hours and the walk covers roughly 1 – 2 km in distance over well-maintained trails as you are immersed in the sights and sounds of native New Zealand Wildlife.
Whirinaki Forest (North Island)
Deep in the central North Island lies an ancient forest, waiting for you to discover it.
Image Credit: Flikr – Graeme Churchard
It is home to mighty trees, rare native birds and 155-kilometres of superb walking, tramping and mountain biking tracks to suit all levels
Whirinaki Te Pua-a-Tāne Conservation Park is one of the world’s last prehistoric rainforests. It’s amazing Rimu, Tōtara, Kahikatea, Matai and Miro trees tower into the sky, some as high as 215-metres into the air.
“Although it’s becoming more and more popular, I’d still consider this to be a bit of a hidden gem. It’s hard to get to this forest, it’s a long and windy gravel road, which puts most tourists off. But it’s absolutely worth it for the views.
There are many other places, and if you want to discover truly hidden treasures, the best thing you can do is to explore, until you find something not mentioned anywhere on the internet. And it might be because I’m biased, but every single part of New Zealand is stunning.”
Shane Paarman – Awesome Stuff 365
Tutea Falls lookout – Secret Roturua Spot
Lots of people do whitewater rafting in Rotorua, but if you’re not quite up for that adrenalin, a walk along the Okere Falls track will bring you to the Tutea Falls lookout.
You can watch the rafters go over and perhaps get splashed a few times yourself! We got some great photos here.
Gemstone Beach – Orepuki Beach (South Island)
Image Credit: Flikr – Josef Laimer
The surf brings in all sorts of special stones that can be polished up into ‘gemstones’. Kids, in particular, can have tons of fun searching for ‘precious jewels’ that have been washed up in the surf.
The beach is in Orepuki which is about an hour west of Invercargill. There are a number of accommodation options in the area from baches that can be rented or motels.
There’s plenty more to do in the area, from short walks and hikes to wildlife spotting and spending time in small cozy cafes.
Lake Ohau (South Island)
While swarms of visitors gather by the busload at nearby Lake Pukaki and Lake Tekapo, there is one hidden gem just down the road that promises similar beauty with far more tranquility.
Image Credit: Wikicommons
Home to idyllic South Island scenery, including a braided river stretching from the lake that winds its way toward the majestic Southern Alps.
The lake is located near the small town of Twizel. However, the road from town only takes you to the east side of the lake. To access the Lake Ohau Lodge and other west-shore destinations, simply continue along Hwy 8 and turn onto Lake Ohau Road.
Both sides provide spectacular views and are worthy of exploring if time permits. There are a few accommodation options around the lake which range from basic campsites to charming lodges, and a handful more in the town of Twizel.
Adam Marland – We Dream of Travel
Rob Roy Glacier walk (South Island)
“As a local from the South Island, I highly recommend the Rob Roy Glacier walk as a must see but lesser known to spot to visit in New Zealand.” Laura Jopson – Laura The Explorer
Franz Josef and Fox are the most well known glaciers, however the Rob Roy Glacier is found via a beautiful bush walk in the Matukituki Valley near Wanaka.
Getting there: The 1hr drive out there is also stunning in itself. The hike takes 3-4 hours and is an easy well marked trail.
There are two viewpoints on the hike, a lower viewpoint and an upper viewpoint. The views from the lower viewpoint are quite limited, so it’s definitely worth planning to visit the upper viewpoint for expansive views of the glacier and mountains.
Visitors should be aware however that the section of trail between the lower and upper viewpoints crosses through avalanche paths, so should not be attempted over winter or spring unless advised by the Department of Conservation that it is safe to access.
Also, google maps shows the route from Wanaka as taking 2 hours, however it actually only takes one hour by car. It does cross several fiords and these should be assessed before crossing.
Waitangitāhuna River (South Island)
“I’ve spent a lot of time fly fishing in the backblocks of New Zealand, and through that I have discovered some interesting places that are right off the beaten track.
Image Credit: Wikicommons
It doesn’t get much more remote than the West Coast of the South Island of New Zealand, and one place I love to visit is the Waitangitoana River (officially now known as the Waitangitāhuna River) near Whataroa, just north of the Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers.
The river underwent a massive change of course after a landslide in 1967 and is now predominantly fed by groundwater so it runs crystal clear most of the time.
It’s an excellent sight fishing river and you can always see big trout feeding in its waters – fun for anglers and non anglers alike.
It’s also home to a White Heron breeding sanctuary in the lower reaches and you can do jet boat tours to see these sacred and beautiful birds in the only breeding colony in the country.”
Rick Wallace – Tackle Village
Lake Tekapo (South Island)
Even though Lake Tekapo on the South Island is a popular stopping spot for tourists traveling between Christchurch and Queenstown, the majority only stay for around an hour while their bus refuels.
Image Source: Flikr – Bernard Spragg
With postcard-worthy views of light blue seas, snow-capped peaks of the Southern Alps, and rich wildflowers, it is difficult to understand why more tourists do not remain longer. Pack a picnic lunch and enjoy the vista from whichever vantage point you choose.
And don’t go before sunset. A stay past dark gives untouched night skies. Lake Tekapo’s scenic location, designated as an International Dark Sky Reserve by the International Dark-Sky Association, enables you to observe the stars and planets in the sky with unequaled vistas.
Lake Nerine & Crucible Lake (South Island)
The icebergs and crystal blue waters of Crucible Lake can be seen within Mount Aspiring National Park on the south island.
Mount Aspiring National Park also contains the beautiful Lake Nerine, but it will take some time to reach there. The hike is certainly worth it though!
Farewell Spit (South Island)
“Most NZ locals probably know about Farewell Spit but we were surprised at how few Kiwis have visited this gorgeous spot! We felt very lucky to take the tour. We saw fossils that were millions of years old, sea lions, gannets, and the historic old Farewell Spit light station. The tour guide was a delight.”
This stretch of coastline contains the world’s longest natural sandbar. Farewell Spit is so far off the radar of tourists that you are guaranteed to find a private beach for the day.
The 26-kilometer-long beach is located at the end of Golden Bay on the northwestern coast of New Zealand’s south island! It is comparable to a desert in the Pacific Ocean.
Jenny Ly – Go Wanderly
Favorite Spots in Golden Bay (South Island)
Nicole Gustas – International Citizens Insurance
American tourists don’t get to Golden Bay much and it’s a pity. It is a spectacular area for nature, beaches and relaxing. Some of our favourite things to do:
Labyrinth Rocks Park, Scott Road, Takaka
If you have walked around Punakaiki Pancake Rocks and thought, Gosh, I wish I could walk through a natural rock maze that looked like this – you’re in luck!
This natural rock formation has pathways that are easy to walk; the rock walls are several meters high. It is quiet, cool and tranquil. It also has many toys and decorations tucked away in nooks for children to discover.
Wainui Falls, Wainui Falls Road, Wainui Bay
Technically part of Abel Tasman National Park but is accessed through the Takaka side, which makes it a very different experience. The walk to the falls takes about 40 minutes and most of it is gentle.
It is a beautiful slice of Golden Bay nature and the falls are beautiful.
Te Waikoropupu Springs
is a beautiful park and easily accessible even for people with mobility issues. If you are curious about where Te Waikoropupu Springs lets out, then take a drive over Takaka Hill (365 curves, one for every day of the year!) and go to The Riuwaka Resurgence.
That is the spot where the Riuwaka River comes out of the hill, and several years ago it was proved that the water comes from the same source as Te Waikoropupu Springs. The walk is easy and it is a beautiful spot.
Favorite Spots in the Christchurch Area:
For a couple of Americans who had never visited Christchurch before the earthquake this was an enlightening visit. Kids will be intrigued by all the hands-on exhibits, and inquisitive minds will be fascinated by the science of what happened that day.
For us, the film in which people told the stories of what had happened to them that day was enthralling and moving. We visited the museum twice just so we could make sure to see the whole thing.
This little pocket museum is tucked between the Canterbury Museum and Christchurch Art Gallery on Worcester Boulevard. If you’re a science nerd or a history geek you have to go!
Ernest, Lord Rutherford is one of New Zealand’s legendary scientists. This tells the story of how he made his discoveries in the field of nuclear physics and how his discoveries helped his peers. It also includes a preserved Victorian lecture hall, where you can see the graffiti that college students carved into their desks during boring seminars!
Canterbury Beer Collective:
This is the smallest pub in New Zealand, and quite probably the friendliest as well. Great place to watch the world go by, taste Canterbury’s best brews and get great tips on what to do from Chris, the owner.
Godley Head Walk:
Past Lyttleton in Sumner, the Godley Head walk offers remarkable views of both the bay and the open ocean.
The historic gun emplacement and military buildings are fascinating to explore, and the murals are excellent.
Secret South Island Spots
These destinations are provided by Nick Ashley from Christchurch Airport
Diving the MS Mikhail Lermontov – Marlborough Sounds
In the digital age it’s becoming harder and harder to stay hidden, but a 175m cruise liner from the Soviet Union has managed to do just that.
It maintains a relatively low profile despite being one of the biggest, easily accessible, diveable ship wrecks in the world.
For qualified divers, the almost three-hour drive from Picton on windy back roads is more than worthwhile.
A short detour to remote Titirangi Bay is a great option for those preferring to stay on dry land. Check out Go Dive Pacific for more.
Lakes Rotoroa and Rotoiti are tucked away in the Nelson Lakes National Park, on the border between the dry east and rainy west.
Water taxi services provide the opportunity to escape to an isolated part of the country and feel like a true adventurer while conveniently bypassing hours of hiking.
Huts dotting the coastlines provide spartan back-country accommodation amid stunning scenery.
As with any trips away from civilization, ensure that adequate precautions are taken.
Maruia River Retreat
Hanmer Springs is by far the most well-known spa destination in the upper South Island. Just up the road, Maruia Hot Springs is slightly more secluded.
But true exclusivity is best found at Maruia River Retreat, a boutique lodge offering a truly luxurious wellness experience completed with delicious cuisine and regular events and retreats.
Helicopter transfers are an option but not necessary as this stunning destination is conveniently located right on State Highway 65.
Reefton Distilling Co.
A sleepy town of just a few hundred people near the top of the West Coast, Reefton’s rich gold mining history provided its previous claim to fame – the southern hemisphere’s first electricity network.
But the Reefon Distilling Co has put the town on the map in the modern era thanks to the highly popular Little Biddy Gin which is now exported to Australia and the UK.
For a refreshing change from vineyard tours, go for a $35 distillery tour & tasting which run daily at 4pm.
Access to the country’s biggest farm and its sweeping views is possible during the summer months via Acheron Road.
There are no facilities or mobile coverage for the 200km gravel road that provides an alternate route to State Highway 1 via Kaikoura, so make sure you fill up will fuel beforehand.
The trip is tame compared to Skippers Canyon near Queenstown or some ski area access roads but it’s not suitable for vehicles with low ground clearance especially at the southern end.
Ripapa and Quail islands
Christchurch’s Lyttelton Harbour provides an interesting summertime day trip to a pair of Islands.
The tiny Ripapa Island was used by Māori as a pā in the early nineteenth century, followed by time as a quarantine and prison facility, and finally as a naval fort complete with four large guns, remnants of which still remain.
The much larger Quail Island is most notable for being a staging ground for Robert Scott and Ernest Shackleton’s Antarctic expeditions.
Castle Hill & Cave Stream
Inland from Christchurch is an area of impressive limestone rock outcrops that were used as the backdrop for the first Chronicles of Narnia movie.
In addition to peaceful walks throughout the otherworldly scenic area, water flowing through the limestone geology has created a cave system that makes for a thrilling one-hour underground adventure.
Public entrance is free but, being well-prepared and only traversing the cave during dry late summer months is essential.
Another one of New Zealand’s manty filming location, this time as seen in Z for Zachariach, Washpen Falls is a popular day trip for Christchurch locals that’s slightly off the usual tourist routes.
It’s an easy track with some uphill sections but is well maintained and packed full of interesting sights, local history, and great views. Entrance is $10 per adult and $5 per child. Afterwards, the World Famous Sheffield Pies shop is just down the road for a well-earned treat.
An easy walking track across a small swing bridge will put you right in the middle of an iconic Lord of The Rings film set. While movie props have long been removed, the expansive vistas of Mt Sunday remain.
Nearby accommodation includes Mt Potts and Arrowsmith Lodges, both on high country farming stations, or at the small “off-grid” holiday huts at Lake Clearwater village.
Access is via gravel road that’s not suitable for vehicles with low ground clearance, and facilities in the area are very limited.
Mt John Walkway
One of the most popular South Island tourist spots, driving up Mt John at Lake Tekapo is usually a must-do.
But the world-famous views from the top are even better after walking up the well-signposted switchback track.
It’s a bit of a workout but doing so avoids the very limited opening days and hours of the $8 toll road.
Start and finish at Tekapo Spring, which could provide a relaxing soak afterwards, plus mulled wine and occasional local ice hockey matches during winter months.
Take a short detour from State Highway 85 deep in the Otago region, to visit another quaint mining village.
Gold was extracted from a pit for over 50 years, but it has since accumulated a small 168-deep lake of azure water which contrasts against the surrounding bleached clay cliffs.
The historic Vulcan Hotel is a perfect lunch spot, although overnight guests might want to heed claims that it’s New Zealand’s most haunted building.
Surely one of New Zealand’s coolest cafes, this floating establishment serves up coffee, burgers, and more to hungry cyclists.
As a stop along the Central Otago Rail Trail there is no drive-up access but this just adds to the exclusivity, and it can also be reached from the other side of Lake Dunstan by private boat, jetski, kayak or paddle board.
Make sure you check the opening hours before making the trip to avoid disappointment.