Travel off the beaten track in New Zealand
Our small country, Aotearoa, is becoming an increasingly popular destination but unfortunately on the main routes in the high season the most striking and popular sites are crowded with busloads of tourists. I have just returned from a three-week tour of the country and decided to write this post which will allow you, dear travellers, to discover some alternative destinations, which are not accessible to the general tourist. All places that I have recently visited myself.
So, let's start from the north. One of Northland's main attractions is 90-mile beach. It really deserves the attention that travellers from all over the world give it: huge yellow desert-like dunes stretch along 88 kilometres (90 miles) of coastline. However, almost no one knows that on the opposite east coast there is a hidden gem - Rarawa beach. This beach has fine pure white sand that rings with sound as you walk across it. The waves are foaming with white horses which compete with the purity of the green sea that stretches along the length of the coastline. It is beautiful and deserted.
The beach sparkling like sugar, ends in a peninsula which belongs to the local Maori tribe and is closed to public access. However, on the main part of Rarawa beach it is permitted to drive right onto the sand if you have an SUV.
Next is Auckland, New Zealand's largest city with the country's largest international airport. I love this city with all my heart, but still I try to avoid the touristy areas - Queen Street, Parnell, and the Domain. I prefer to head out to the west coast where there are many beautiful secluded beaches or across the harbour by ferry to Waiheke Island and EcoZip Adventures.
The zipline adventure consists of 3 lines, each subsequent one a little more fun than the previous. You will soar over a canopy of native bush with views of local vineyards, beaches and all the way across to Auckland’s CBD. Each line has twin cables for added safety and can take anyone of 30 kg to 125 kg in weight. A guided walk back through original native bush completes the 3-hour tour. The whole experience will leave you uplifted and exhilarated. You can book the Ecozip shuttle bus to pick you up from the ferry and drop you to your next destination afterwards. I can recommend visiting one of the local beaches or wineries where you can relax and taste all the local wine. If you want complete freedom you can take your own car across on the vehicular ferry instead.
Moving south, the world-famous Waitomo Caves is one of the most popular natural attractions in New Zealand. The glowworms that live in these huge caves are truly a miracle of nature - a magical starry sky underground. The three most popular caves are Glowworm, Aranui and Ruakuri, however, the crowds of people that visit these caves daily makes these tours very unpleasant: queues, children crying, a cacophony of noise. To avoid these troubles and enjoy the spectacle of the underground Milky Way in a quieter setting, I recommend that you take a tour with Spellbound. An experienced guide will take you to more distant caves in a small group of up to 12 people. The tour lasts 3.5 hours, you will visit three caves and it costs less. And yes, you can take pictures in Spellbound Waitomo Caves! Just remember to bring a good camera and a tripod.
Jumping a thousand kilometres south I want to tell you about some beautiful lesser-known caves. These caves are in the Charleston area on the West coast of the South Island. Charleston was once the largest city in New Zealand with a population of 32 thousand people but since the end of the gold rush the population dwindled and now only 100 people live here permanently. Tours to these caves are organized by Underworld Adventure. I’ve tried their black water rafting and I was completely fascinated by the wild power and unspoiled beauty of this place. There were 7 people in the group and the tour lasted 3.5 hours. They also do tours of the glowworms, tubing and other caving adventures.
Back to the north Island, near the small town of Matamata, Hobbiton is firmly established on the tourist map of New Zealand. According to statistics, 40% of its visitors have never watched a movie or read a book. However, the number of tourists who want to see this small farm is growing steadily and is already approaching half a million people a year. In high season a 40-seat bus leaves from Shire Rest Cafe every 10 minutes. Of course, we don’t have a second Hobbiton but if you want to enhance your experience, I suggest you take the Evening Banquet Tour. It is more expensive than the day tour, but the price includes a feast at the Green Dragon Pub and is well worth it.
Also, in the central north island is the famous geothermal town of Rotorua. The most popular place for soaking in mineral baths is the Polynesian spa but they too can be overcrowded. If you prefer privacy, head 80 km south towards Taupo to the Wairakei Terraces. Here you will find beautiful blue water enriched with the healing mineral of silica. This promotes the production of collagen in the skin which makes it firm and fresh. Water erupts from a wide powerful geyser and descends the terraces into man-made pools created by natural stone ledges. Children under 14 years old are not permitted in the complex which means peace and quiet are guaranteed. Entrance costs only $25 NZD.
If you want to enjoy thermal baths for free, visit Kerosene River in Taupo but be aware that the water temperature here reaches 60 degrees. To access it I recommend going to the Spa Park (located on Spa Road) where the hot waters of Kerosene river flow into the cold Waikato river. It is very pleasant to sit on the pebbles at this intersection, although I cannot promise you privacy as the place is quite popular among European tourists.
Moving on, New Zealand is a hiking paradise. Tracks of different lengths and level of difficulty are similar in one thing - excellent infrastructure: well-marked trails, information signs, toilets, and even accommodation on long routes. There is only one problem: how to find a track that will not be overcrowded like the London underground at rush hour (for example, Abel Tasman National Park absolutely disappointed me with its crowds last season).
Every year thousands of tourists flock to Tongariro National Park to walk along the famous Tongariro Crossing. Due to its wild popularity which puts pressure on the local ecosystem, the Department of Conservation intends to charge a toll on this route in the future. In addition to the lack of parking space and excess of visitors, tourists are faced with unstable weather, fraught with strong winds and rain even in summer, as well as with the complexity of the track - not everyone is ready to rock climb! (5 out of 5 hiking level).
I’ve discovered a great alternative - Tarawera Trail. This 15-kilometre track is located near Rotorua and runs along the picturesque shores of Lake Tarawera to Hot Water Beach. Hiking difficulty level is 4 out of 5. And most importantly – no crowds! In the 4.5 hours that my clients and I spent on the track we met only two small groups of hikers. You need to park at Tarawera Trail parking (not far from the Buried Village) and start out no later than 9 a.m. to reach Hot Water Beach by 2 p.m. at the latest. There you can relax, have a soak in the hot water and leave at 3:45 p.m. by Totally Tarawera water taxi to get back to the parking lot. This must be ordered in advance ($30 NZD per person one way). Do not forget to bring lunch and plenty of drinking water. I do not recommend going along the track in or immediately after any rain - the slopes will be dangerously slippery.
Hot Water Beach on Lake Tarawera deserves its own mention on the New Zealand Off the Beaten Track list. To begin with, you can get to it only by water in a motorboat or kayak, or on foot walking 15 km. It is quiet, beautiful and very cool. Unlike the other Hot Water beach on the Coromandel Peninsula, here you do not need to dig a hole to enjoy the thermal water. Instead it rises up constantly from the sand near the shore to mix with the cold lake water. Your body will enjoy streaks of hot and cold water, gratefully relaxing after the 15-kilometer hike. Mount Tarawera rests nearby and black swans gracefully swim along the shore complementing the peaceful picture of New Zealand paradise. There is a DOC camp site on the beach which must be booked and pre-paid in advance. So, grab your tent if you’d like to spend a night or more here. And remember to be extremely careful where you place your feet and hands in the coastal sand – near the shore outlet the water is extremely hot! Also, it is recommended you do not dive underwater here to avoid catching a rare meningitis virus.
If you did reach the Tongariro National Park hoping to walk along the Tongariro Crossing but the weather ruined your plans, I can also recommend the Ohakune Old Coach Road trail. It is also 15 km long, however the road is more direct than on the Tarawera Trail and is without the gruelling climbs. (Hiking difficulty level is 2.5 out of 5.) Here you will not find breathtaking views, but you can explore the old viaduct and the railway tunnel. You will meet just a few hikers. The route is also available for cyclists (share with care!) and you can hire bikes from the nearby towns of Ohakune or National Park. You can book a shuttle in advance from your accommodation in either town to drop you off or pick you up from either end of the route.
The South Island is more deserted than the North and here there are plenty of tracks with gorgeous views. One of my favourites is the trail that goes above the Tasman Glacier. This glacier slides from Mount Cook - the highest New Zealand peak - and ends in Lake Tasman. It in turn flows through the river system into the amazingly beautiful Pukaki Lake. Tourists can usually see the Tasman Glacier from the water taking a boat tour of Lake Tasman. The tour is quite interesting but popular and costs about $170 NZD. Instead, you can see the glacier from the mountain if you take a chance and go along the Tasman Valley Road and not stop at the Tasman Glacier car park but go further along the Ball Shelter route. Frankly, this is not a road, but a direction dotted with rubble and stones. No insurance will indemnify you for damage to a rented car on this track. However, the game is worth the risk - there is a stunning view ahead of you! Wear hiking shoes and be prepared for strong winds even in seemingly calm weather. Be sure to warn someone on the "mainland" where you are going to go and be extremely careful on this route. It is available only from November to March.
That's all for today. I am sure that in the future I will be adding to this recommended list of Off the Beaten Tracks in New Zealand. I hope you enjoy my recommendations and have a unique experience in Aotearoa!