New Zealand is best experienced at your own pace and with your own vehicle. Explore the country’s secondary routes on these off-the-beaten-path Kiwi journeys.
Wildlife-spotting in the Catlins
Start: Kaka Point
Finish: Porpoise Bay
Distance: 86 km (53 miles)
Essential tip: pack binoculars to make the most of wildlife viewing opportunities.
Overnight in sleepy Kaka Point so you can spy yellow-eyed penguins and blue penguins returning at dusk to nearby Roaring Bay after a day’s fishing. The following morning, visit Nugget Point for marine mammal action including sea lions, fur seals and elephant seals, before continuing west to the Lost Gypsy Gallery at Papatowai; look for the whale sculpture out the front. Owner Blair Sommerville’s always up for a chat, and his quirky and idiosyncratic sculptures are all made from discarded and found objects. Stop at the Florence Hill lookout and detour to the rugged sweep of Tautuku Bay for spirited evidence of one of New Zealand’s wildest coastlines. Continue west to Porpoise Bay’s compact surf beach, home to blue penguins, and a haven for endangered Hector’s dolphins during summer.
Matakana Wine Country
Distance: 86 km (53 miles)
Essential tip: purchase a few bottles of wine so your non-drinking designated driver can enjoy a tipple later in the day.
Detour east from New Zealand’s main highway north at Warkworth (www.warkworthnz.com) to begin exploring the Auckland region’s newest area for wine-making. Just 4km from Warkworth, Ascension Wine Estate (www.ascensionwine.co.nz) channels a Mediterranean ambiance, and laid-back concerts featuring iconic Kiwi bands often echo around the leafy grounds during summer. Continue to the adjacent Heron’s Flight (www.heronsflight.co.nz) and Runner Duck Estate (www.runnerduck.co.nz) vineyards, maybe stopping for lunch at Plume (www.plumerestaurant.co.nz) restaurant, before easing into the foodies’ haven of Matakana village. Local artisan produce is showcased at Matakana’s Saturday morning farmers’ market, including craft beers from the nearby Leigh Sawmill Cafe (www.sawmillcafe.co.nz). Meander past Leigh to good snorkelling at the Goat Island Marine Reserve (www.discovergoatisland.co.nz), or for horseriding along the rugged surf beach of Pakiri.
Rock art and quirky geology in the Waitaki Valley
Distance: 118 km (73 miles)
Essential tip: wear sturdy walking shoes to explore the region’s interesting outdoor sites.
From Omarama’s sleepy rural vibe at the base of the mountainous Lindis Pass, travel 14km north to the lunar landscape of Clay Cliffs, the silt and gravel laden result of two million years of erosion along an active earthquake fault line. Return to Omarama and travel southeast along SH83 through the Waitaki Valley, skirting shimmering Lake Aviemore. Continue to Duntroon, and pick up a Vanished World Fossil Trail map at the Vanished World Centre. More than 20 different locations around North Otago are featured, including the bizarrely-eroded limestone boulders at Elephant Rocks near Ngapara. If the formation looks familiar, the rocks featured in the battle scene in The Chronicles of Narnia (2005). The Vanished World Centre can also advise on nearby Maori rock paintings at Marewhenua and Takiroa.
Giant trees and rugged beaches of the Kauri Coast
Finish: Waipoua Forest
Distance: 72 km (45 miles)
Essential tip: pack a swimming costume for a dip in crisp lake waters or in Tasman Sea surf.
From Dargaville – the self-proclaimed ‘sweet potato capital of New Zealand’ – escape north on SH12. Make time for two essential diversions to the west, firstly to sand dune-shrouded Baylys Beach (www.baylysbeach.kauricoast.co.nz), and then to the Kai Iwi Lakes. A 30-minute walk from the lakes leads to the spectacle of the Tasman Sea rolling incessantly into New Zealand’s North Island. Continue up the Kauri Coast, named after the giant trees that once blanketed this coastline. The Waipoua Forest is an 18km-long remnant of these once extensive forests, with some towering kauri trees reaching 60m in height. The absolute master of the forest is Tane Mahuta, named after the Maori god of the forest, and reckoned to be up to 2000 years old.
Maori culture on the East Cape
Start: Maraehako Bay
Distance: 218 km (135 miles)
Essential tip: don’t wander on to a marae (Maori meeting place) before first seeking permission.
Kick off with a stay at the waterfront Maraehako Bay Retreat, an easygoing Maori-owned hostel that’s overflowing with manaakitanga (Maori hospitality). The laid-back owners can arrange visits to local marae, and also introduce visitors to traditional woodcarvers. Continue on SH35 to Tikitiki and the stunning St Mary’s Church, frugally decorated on the outside, but with a wonderfully ornate Maori-themed interior. Divert east to the sleepy coastal settlement of Rangitukia, and sign up for beach and bush horseriding with Eastender Horse Treks (www.eastenderhorsetreks.co.nz). They can also arrange bone-carving lessons, after-dark eeling adventures, and a traditional Maori hangi (underground earth oven). Return to SH35 and continue south through Tokomaru Bay and Tolaga Bay, finally reaching the tiny village of Whangara, the ancestral home of Paikea from the Maori legend – and 2002 film – of Whale Rider.