I still vividly remember the very first glimpse I ever got of New Zealand. It was 17 years ago, and I was looking out the window of a plane following the coastline of the North Island. Without a cloud in the sky, I had a magnificent view of the bright blue ocean, endless beaches and green hills the country is famous for.
I didn’t know it then, but I was looking at my new home. At the time, I thought I would be here for a year as an international student, but at the end of that year, I decided to stay, and now New Zealand is home.
I spent 11 years living a fairly normal life in Auckland, New Zealand’s biggest city. However, six years ago, inspired by the desire to see more of this beautiful country, I bought a campervan, quit my city job and set off to chase freedom and adventure. Since then, I’ve been a nomad, spending my time exploring everything New Zealand has to offer, writing articles and books about my adventures, and making a living as a virtual marketing consultant.
Needless to say, there aren’t many places in New Zealand I haven’t been to yet.
On my travels, I quickly learned that, while the well-known destinations in New Zealand are popular for good reasons, many less famous spots are just as stunning.
Here are my top seven off-the-beaten-track destinations.
On the North Island
- Aotea/Great Barrier Island
New Zealand is often split into the North Island and the South Island. However, there are actually around 600 islands in total. However, few of them are populated. Aotea/Great Barrier Island, located about 100km east of Auckland, is one of those few, with a population of about 800. It’s a bit of a mission to get to, especially if you want to take a vehicle, but it’s worth it. Like most of New Zealand, Great Barrier Island is a nature lover’s paradise. In the island’s west, you find scenic, sheltered bays, while the east offers stunning, sandy beaches that will remind you of the tropics. And best of all, you will hardly ever encounter crowds on Great Barrier Island.
- Tairāwhiti/The East Cape
Tairāwhiti/The East Cape is a peninsular on the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island. It’s remote and much less touristy than many other parts, though no less beautiful. Those who make the trip are rewarded with beautiful beaches and stunning scenery. The most famous attractions in the area include the wharf and beacon of light in Tologa Bay, the Māori carvings at the top of Mt Hikurangi and the East Cape Lighthouse, the first place in the world to welcome the new day, making it a perfect spot to watch the sunrise.
- Mātakitaki-a-Kupe/Cape Palliser
Mātakitaki-a-Kupe/Cape Palliser, at the southern tip of the North Island, is a small settlement and lighthouse, which you reach by following a dead-end road for about 70 kilometres (43 miles). This is about as off-the-beaten-track as you can get. What makes this spot worth a visit is the stunning scenery, the beautiful lighthouse, the surreal Putangirua Pinnacles and the many seals and sea lions that live on the rocks along the coast (watch where you step. They are everywhere).
The South Island
- Te Aumiti/French Pass
Te Aumiti/French Pass is essentially a small campground, a couple of houses, a boat ramp and a gas station with a little shop at the north-western edge of the Marlborough Sounds. Two things make French Pass worth a visit. Firstly, the drive is spectacular. Some people call it the most scenic drive in New Zealand, which means something in a country known for its incredible beauty. Secondly, the narrow channel of water between D’Urville Island and the mainland has the fastest tidal flows in New Zealand, at up to 8 knots (4 m/s). It’s an impressive and slightly scary sight (you definitely don’t want to accidentally fall in the water here).
- Banks Peninsula
For those who like off-the-beaten track destinations without having to venture too far from the city, Banks Peninsula is a great option. The peninsula southwest of Christchurch offers an intriguing mix of mainstream and remote. The popular French-inspired village of Akaroa is an excellent spot for food and drink, accommodation, souvenir shopping, and hopping on a harbour or dolphin cruise. But take the back roads and turn off to follow the gravel roads down to the various bays around the peninsula, and you quickly feel like civilisation is a million miles away.
Given State Highway 1 passes right through this little town on the east coast of the South Island, it might be odd to see it on a list of off-the-beaten-track destinations. However, surprisingly few people take the time to stop. Those who do often fall in love with this self-declared steampunk capital of New Zealand. The town is a loveable mix of quirky, old and modern. There are steampunk elements everywhere, a Victorian Precinct with the Southern Hemisphere’s most complete Victorian streetscapes and19th century architecture, a beautiful waterfront and two penguin colonies. What’s not to love about that?
- The Catlins
The Catlins, situated on the southeast coast of the South Island, often get overlooked, with many visitors opting for the more famous inland destinations of Queenstown and Wanaka instead. However, the area is absolutely worth a visit, especially for anyone who enjoys a good road trip, due to the abundance of attractions along the way. Nugget Point Lighthouse, Jack’s Blowhole, the quaint settlement of Papatowai, the Cathedral Caves, the dolphins at Curio Bay and Slope Point, the southern-most point of the South Island, are only some of the many sights. There are also countless walks, waterfalls and other picturesque wonders to explore.
These seven are just a few of the many amazing destinations all over New Zealand. From golden beaches to snow-covered mountains and glaciers, domineering volcanoes, crystal clear lakes and ancient forests, New Zealand has it all. So, time to start planning your trip.
About Lisa Jansen
Lisa Jansen is a writer and digital nomad based in New Zealand. She is the author of the travel memoir Life Done Differently: One Woman’s Journey on the Road Less Travelled, as well as two other books. To connect with Lisa, visit her website or follow her journey on Instagram or Facebook.