Ultimate Travel Guide: New Zealand
Two islands, four million people, one incredible destination. I used to live in New Zealand and Mr Muddy is a Kiwi, so this is a proper Insider's Guide!
When I interviewed James Bell from Beaconsfield-based Turquoise Holidays before Christmas about the best way to travel long haul as a family, I had a sneaky ulterior motive – I was planning a family trip to New Zealand for the five of us. (Yeah, I know, whoaaaaa, pass the tramadol).
We snuck off for Christmas (sunny) and New Year (wet), and we really zipped around between the South Island where Mr Muddy’s family are, and the North Island, where our friends are. This guide reflects the stuff we did this time around, but I’ve also included a bit at the end on experiences I’ve had before in NZ but didn’t do this time around. I lived there for several years, and Mr Muddy is a kiwi so this is a part of the world where I’m confident to recommend to you. Hope it helps!
Go to Matapouri Bay, Northland
Northland runs to hundreds of kilometres to the north of Auckland, topping off with Ninety Mile beach (actually it’s 55 miles long but let’s not get sniffy about it) and Cape Reinga at the tippy top where the Tasman Sea and Pacific Oceans meet and physically swirl around each other. It’s a groovy thing to see but in truth there’s no need to schlep all the way up there to feel the spirit of Northland. Friends of mine have holiday homes (or baches as they call them in NZ) in Matapouri Bay, one of the most naturally beautiful spots I’ve been to in years. Totally worth visiting if you can and a good two hours south of Cape Reinga.
Probably the top of the list if you’re visiting the South Island, and one of the best places in the world to see whales, you’re guaranteed to see the big fellas close up in Kaikoura, a small town on the East Coast of the South Island that also offers wild dolphin swimming. I didn’t do the dolphin thing this time around, but I’ve tried it on previous visits and it’s incredible. [24 JAN 17: please note, this is currently not available as it is inaccessible post-earthquake].
Visit Quake City in Christchurch
The earthquake in 2012 devastated the city but it’s incredible seeing how the city is being rebuilt. There’s a huuuuuuuuuge new children’s park, a movable shopping centre called Re:Start made from shipping containers (above) that’s small but cool, and a must-see exhibition called Quake City tells the stories of those affected by the earthquake.
Shop at Otara market
It’s easy to just do the touristy stuff in Auckland but one of the highlights for us was going to Otara market in South Auckland. A real melting pot of Maori and Pacific Islanders selling food, clothes and markety nicknacks. We picked up two pairs of swimming shorts for $10, a horrifically chavvy cap for my daughter for $15 that she still insists on wearing everywhere, the best fake Raybans ever for $20 and a greenstone tiki for $40. Because nothing’s too good for my family!
Hang out in Waiheke
When Mr Muddy and I lived in Auckland we used to spend loads of time on Waiheke, one of the gulf islands off the coast of the city. It’s much more developed than it used to be in terms of facilities, but it’s still the most glorious island. Palm Beach, pictured, should be your first port of call – great fish and chips and clay-fired pizzas on the beach and a lovely softly shelving beach for paddling. There are several new vineyards that have popped up on the island in addition to my old stomping grounds of Stonyridge, Te Whau and the Mudbrick. We ran out of time to try them but Cable Bay and Peacock Sky are apparently both great. We took day trips from Auckland this time round, but on our previous trip we stayed at The Boatshed – stunning position and food, definitely worth checking out if your budget can stretch to it.
Visit Kare Kare and Piha
Not all New Zealand’s beaches are white pristine sands. About an hour and half north of Auckland are Kare Kare and Piha, black sand beaches set against a stunning subtropical backdrop. Piha was the filming location for The Piano (remember that awesome film?) and the area is full of waterfalls, walking trails and very fat mosquitoes, so insect repellent should be top of your list here. Controversially for locals, a cafe has opened just up from the beach in Piha, where I was served my first ever ‘tulip’ flat white. Those kiwis lead the way on coffee, that’s for sure. UK, get ready to follow.
Weekender in Auckland
All the touristy bits are pretty obvious, so here are my more local insider tips on where to go if you’re in the city for a few days. The top end of Vulcan Lane is a great place for a coffee and people watching. For cool independent shops, Ponsonby is by far your best bet, plus there’s Ponsonby Central (above), an edgy, cool umbrella building for loads of fantastic restaurants. For more mainstream shopping, there’s a new Britomart development down by the harbourside in central Auckland – some lovely expensive boutiques and a fab restaurant Ortelana that I’d recommend – we had a fantastic Italian meal here and it wasn’t ridiculous money either.
Great little beaches would be Minnehaha (it’s teeny tiny, has a shallow shelf and rock pools for the kids and a lovely view of Rangigoto volcano) or, a new one for us this time, Point Chevalier beach – it’s an up and coming area generally, has a great kids park area, and the beach is pretty with safe swimming. It also feels authentically Kiwi, with a large local Maori and Pacific island contingent there. We took the kids for a sailing and windsurfing lesson at the fantastic Lake Pupuke just around the corner from Takapuna Beach – even locals often don’t know about this place!
Matakana Village Farmers’ Market
Thank you to Sue at Turquoise for telling me about this one. The Matakana Village Farmers’ Market, about an hour north of Auckland, is one of the initiatives being undertaken by the small town to become New Zealand’s first Cittaslow (Italian for slow town). So it’s all about the snail lane here – fresh coffee, a meander around the market stalls, buying fresh local produce, taking the time to enjoy local musician, dipping your toes in the river that flows by. Matakana itself is a large region sandwiched between Auckland and the Northland, with its own range of stunning beaches, lakes, forests, regional parks and boutique vineyards. Check out Matakana Market Kitchen for dinner or Takatu Lodge for a place to rest your head.
The International Antarctic Centre, Christchurch Airport
I have to be honest, you can run out of things to do in Christchurch after a while so we took the kids to The Antarctic Centre at Christchurch Airport, not expecting much. But they loved the 4D movie about the Antarctic (water sprayed on them while they were ‘on’ a boat, their seats rocking etc), and also the 2 minute trip on a Hagglund vehicle, used in the Antarctic to go over crevasses and steep inclines.
Stuff we didn’t do but you really should
You can kayak/walk The Abel Tasman national park in the north of the South Island – choose a day and do it with the kids or do a four dayer yourselves (I’ve done that before, it’s amazingly beautiful up there). Walk the Milford Track – a five day monster of a walk in the South West of the South Island. Not for young kids or those who don’t like walking for 8 hours a day, but it’s stunning scenery and the most amazing sense of achievement when you get to the end. (Tip: Remain completely covered at Sandfly Point or you’ll regret it). Queenstown is an obvious stop off for outdoorsy stuff. I find the town horrifically touristy but it does offer brilliant whitewater rafting, bungee jumping and all that jazz. If you love wine Hawke’s Bay (above) is a no-brainer (I’ve stayed at Big Tom’s Cottage before, I’d recommend it). And in the North Island Russell and the Bay of Islands is totally stunning – hire a boat and get out and about. I did a press trip a few years back and stayed at Cloud 9 which was awesome but you’ll be spoilt for choice up there.
The best time of year to go to New Zealand:
December – Feb is the safest for sun. It used to be that Feb was the surefire month but you can never be sure in NZ. Christmas and New Year were good for me in 2015, bar a couple of wet days in Auckland. Pick your month, take your chance, have an amazing time. x