It may be synonymous with adventure sports, epic scenery from the Lord of the Rings films and the spine-tingling haka of the All Blacks rugby team, but New Zealand has plenty of unique but lesser-known experiences for travellers. That isn’t so surprising, really – this far-flung country adrift in the South Pacific has a long history of invention and innovation.
Admire flappers in Napier and steampunks in Oamaru
Art deco fans with eyes on Miami and Mumbai’s architectural heritage should also set their sights on Napier on New Zealand’s North Island. Rebuilt in the 1930s after a devastating 7.8 magnitude earthquake, the city centre bursts with pastel colours, graceful buildings and geometric designs. In February each year, usually around Valentine’s Day, Napier townsfolk pull out the stops for a weekend-long celebration of all things ’30s – vintage cars, flapper fashions, speakeasies and brass bands. Any other time of the year, stop by the Art Deco Centre on the beachfront and book a walking tour to appreciate the detail you would otherwise overlook.
On the South Island, the once-neglected seaside town of Oamaruremained relatively unchanged after its 19th-century economic heyday, leaving most of its Victorian buildings intact. Over the last decade or so, an influx of creatives and bohemians has transformed the town into the ‘steampunk capital of the world’. Steampunk, which grew from a sci-fi subgenre to encompass fashion, film and other arts, reimagines modern technology against the backdrop of a steam-powered Victorian England. Begin your exploration of this fascinating subculture at the Steampunk HQ, a gallery in the 1830s-era Meeks Grain Elevator Building. The town’s Victorian Precinct is also home to antiquarian bookshops, vintage stores and artisan shops.
Climb a ladder like no other in Wanaka
Queenstown, the winter sports capital of New Zealand, is a must-visit destination year-round, but nearby Wanaka should be on your itinerary too. Among its many worthwhile sights is New Zealand’s only via ferrata. Wildwire Wanaka is a relatively new set-up in the foothills on the way to Tititea/Mt Aspiring National Park where even the most danger-adverse of travellers can stretch themselves by ‘basically climbing a ladder’ as the owners put it; it’s no ordinary ladder, however – this one ascends past the spectacular Twin Falls, offering epic views as part of a wow-did-I-really-do-that adventure. Wildwire run half- and full-day excursions, depending on your level of fitness (and tolerance of vertigo).
Test your nerves on a sky walk in Auckland
Even if your visit to New Zealand is so brief you don’t get out of Auckland, you can still have a Kiwi adrenaline experience to tell the grandchildren about. The tallest building in the Southern Hemisphere – the 328m-high Sky Tower – is located in downtown. At its 192m mark sits an observation floor where the gutsy can step past the glass and ‘sky walk’ around a narrow metal gangplank. There are safety harnesses, of course, but there is no handrail to grip while your legs turn to jelly, making this experience all the more extreme. If the height makes your head spin, concentrate on the 360-degree views of the harbour (and not the city below!). Still not satisfied? You can also bungee-jump off the building…
Aurora hunting and stargazing in the South Island
The aurora borealis (Northern Lights) gets much more attention, but did you know that there is an equivalent light show in the Southern Hemisphere: the aurora australis (Southern Lights)? This celestial phenomenon can be seen from the bottom of New Zealand’s South Island, particularly between March and September. Head down to The Catlins, Invercargill and Lake Tekapo, plus Dunedin if you’re lucky, to witness the spectacle. You’ll need to find a rural location away from light pollution on a dark, moonless night to increase your chances. For night-sky gazers that get all this way but miss out on the aurora, Lake Tekapo is one of the world’s International Dark Sky Reserves and New Zealand’s best spot for some serious galaxy searching. Nightly tours head up to the observatory on Mt John for spectacular Milky Way views from the University of Canterbury’s telescopes.
Helicopter to the volcanic White Island
Not a budget experience but one you’ll never forget: imagine hopping aboard a helicopter in renowned Rotorua (bucket list material already, with its geothermal activity and Māori culture) then flying to New Zealand’s only permanently active volcano to explore on foot. Located just off the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island, visitors to White Island can wander the crater floor and see sulphur formations, steaming vents and hot streams up close. The island is privately owned, making the whole experience feel as if you might stumble across a Bond villain’s lair while you’re there. The aerial views of the volcano, and Rotorua’s lakes district, are all thrown in for nothing.
Get muddy at Mudtopia in Rotorua
Your childish, not-yet-satisfied desire to get covered from head to toe in thick brown muck can finally be fulfilled if you’re in Rotorua in December. Mudtopia is a three-day music and mud festival held at this centre of outdoor activity on the North Island. For wellness devotees, there is a spa with mud massages, mud facials and mud beauty treatments (Rotorua’s mud is packed with restorative minerals). For everyone else, there are pools of mud to slosh around in, mud games, a mud run and a muddy obstacle course – describe by the organisers as ‘a kids’ bouncy castle on steroids, covered in slippery mud’.