For most people, New Zealand’s main draws are its landscapes and outdoor activities, and for good reason.
You’ve probably heard of Auckland, Wellington, and Christchurch, the larger cities. You may even know a few of the touristy towns, such as Rotorura (a geothermal wonderland) and Queenstown (the self-proclaimed adventure capital).
The six towns on this list are lesser-known destinations. Although some of them serve as gateways to New Zealand’s natural attractions, they are interesting in their own right, and not merely service towns.
From seafood feasts to wineries, water activities to hiking trails, and Art Deco to Victorian architecture, come discover these underrated New Zealand towns before everyone else does…
The Bay of Islands is the most northerly (hence warmest) region in New Zealand, and Paihia is its main tourist town. The area is popular for water-based activities such as kayaking, fishing, boating, or swimming with dolphins. And of course, it’s a paradise for seafood aficionados.
If you’re more of a landlubber, several easy walks take you along the coast or through the lush native forests. There is a short but steep path leading to a lookout point right from Paihia’s main street.
Paihia and its surrounding area are also replete with history. This is where the British and the Maori signed a treaty at Waitangi in 1840, giving the British Crown sovereignty over New Zealand. In addition to soaking up the rich Maori culture, you can easily visit the historical towns of Kerikeri (home to New Zealand’s oldest building) and Russell (first permanent European settlement and oldest church) from Paihia.
A 35-minute ferry ride from Auckland is the island of Waiheke, a popular weekend retreat for local urbanites. Oneroa, the main town, can almost be considered a village and feels a world apart from New Zealand’s largest city, visible in the distance.
Although you could come here on a day trip from Auckland, there are enough scenic hiking trails, beaches, and wineries to keep you occupied for a week. Two of the most interesting walks branch out from the ferry terminal near Oneroa, and take two to three hours each. Unless you come on a weekend, you’ll likely have the trails to yourself.
If you don’t have your own vehicle, Oneroa makes a good base, as it is the hub of a surprisingly extensive public bus system. Several shops, cafés, and restaurants in various price ranges line the main street. For a budget lunch or organic coffee, try Little Frog Café, or splurge for dinner at The Oyster Inn.
Located on the east coast of the North Island, Napier seems lost in a time warp with its unique concentration of 1930s Art Deco architecture. After an earthquake and the ensuing fire destroyed most of the town center in 1931, it was strategically rebuilt in the favored style of the era.
Besides strolling around to admire the unique architecture, you can also rent a vintage car, with or without a driver. Or join the locals by dressing up in 1930s garb and participating in various events during the Art Deco Festival each February.
Napier also features a long waterfront promenade, botanical gardens, a wine center selling local products, and restaurants serving a wide variety of cuisines. And if this isn’t enough, the town enjoys one of the sunniest climates in New Zealand.
At the northern tip of the South Island, Nelson is the gateway to the Abel Tasman National Park, a stunning coastal park that you can explore through a combination of hiking and kayaking. If you’re feeling lazy, you can also discover the region aboard a cruise boat or catamaran. The Nelson tourist office will help you organize your stay in the park.
Leafy Nelson is a pleasant town in its own right. Surrounded by mountains, it is located about two hours from Picton, where ferries arrive and depart for Wellington on the North Island. Visit the Queen’s Gardens, the Saturday Market, or walk up to the “Center of New Zealand” monument for sweeping views.
Curiously, what I remember best from my visit eight years ago is the most delicious carrot cake I’ve ever had, available from just about every café in town. You can also tour wineries, such as Waimea Estate, and breweries.
Wanaka is a favorite holiday destination among New Zealanders, but not as well known to international travellers who make a beeline for neighboring Queenstown. This helps ensure that Wanaka remains a more peaceful and less commercialized resort town.
Encircled by mountains that retain traces of snow even in summer, it sits cheerfully on the southern shore of Lake Wanaka. Mount Aspiring National Park, where you can hike among glaciers, river valleys and alpine lakes, is only a one-hour drive away.
There is plenty you can do on a limited budget, especially if you have your own transport. Hike the Rob Roy track (half day), walk the Mount Iron circuit loop (a couple of hours at the most), rent a kayak, or visit a few wineries. With its numerous cafés, restaurants, and quirky cinema, it’s a very pleasant place to spend a few days.
Probably the most British-looking town in New Zealand, Dunedin was founded by the Scots and grew because of a gold rush. You’ll find beautifully preserved Victorian and Edwardian architecture, gardens, and a large student population. Dunedin also claims the steepest residential street in the world (Baldwin street, with a 35% grade).
Although the streets may seem empty at night, safety is never an issue. Dunedin specializes in intimate cocktail bars and pubs with live music, each with their popular days of the week. Ask locals, especially students, where to go and when.
If you’re tired of wine, visit the Speight brewery, but remember to book in advance. Tours are very popular, possibly because of the unlimited samples at the end!
Even if you’re in New Zealand mostly for the outdoors, consider spending a night or two in some of these pleasant towns, if just to enjoy their food, architecture, and unique vibe.
Tempted to visit the urban and scenic delights of New Zealand for yourself? Check out our range of small group adventures.
(All images c/o Marie-France Roy at bigtravelnut.com)