Don’t let New Zealand’s diminutive size deceive you. Despite being only a handful of football fields larger than the state of Victoria, this streak of islands bears the markings of millions of years of volcanic activity, resulting in such stunning, multifarious terrain that you’re never more than a quick drive away something photogenic. To see New Zealand is to wind around its peaks, climb out of its valleys and shoulders its wild, weather-beaten coastline. Here’s how to explore the lesser-visited parts of the country.

If you’re flying into… Nelson

Nelson, New Zealand

What to do

The city of Nelson graces the very tip of the South Island, hemmed in by a u-shape of national parks: Abel Tasman National Park to the north-west, the Kahurangi National Park to the west and Mount Richmond Forest Park to the east. On any given day, you’re less than two and a half hours from the furthest park, making Nelson the perfect base to work outwards from for wilderness immersion. Abel Tasman National Park, to the city’s north, excels in its waterways: sandy shores of forest-fringed beaches, lakes as clear as glass and an abundance of wildlife enjoying its spoils (fur seals, little blue penguins and tui birds all have a home here). The Kahurangi National Park feels like a place of mystery, where 540-million-year-old fossils have been found and ancient roots are on display in the form of moss-strangled, twisted tree trunks. The impossibly clear Te Waikoropupū Springs, with the world’s clearest springwater, is also just two hours drive from Nelson.

Where to stay

Capitalise on Nelson’s coastal position by staying at Te Koi - The Lodge at Bronte leads the charge as the area’s most luxurious accommodation choice. With unrivalled views from atop the Bronte Peninsula, Te Koi is a secluded home with suites, apartments and a full residence available to rent.

Where to eat

Nelson’s position on the coast affords the town a buffet of fresh seafood, most notably oysters. Urban Eatery has an oyster bar that offers on-site shucking with a choice of garnishes including smoked blackcurrent granita and chilli bacon butter, along with other treasures such as tempura soft shell crab. Flavoured with South-East Asian influences, Harry’s Hawker Bar, across from the town’s central square of Trafalgar, goes far beyond the typical pad thai. Venison rolled in Szechuan pepper is one such example, as is a salmon gravlax spiked with kaffir gel and puffed rice. Cod and Lobster Brassiere’s menu also profits from the proximity to seafood and will put diners in a tailspin trying to choose between the miso-cured salmon with wasabi foam or the grazing platter for two piled with chimichurri-steamed mussels and blue cod bites expertly battered.

If you’re flying into… Dunedin

Dunedin, New Zealand

What to do

It’s easy to fall for Dunedin’s Arcadian charms. Colloquially coined as the “Edinburgh of New Zealand”, this former Scottish settlement is set in the shadow of the nearby Otago Peninsula on the South Island’s west coast and remains one of the best-preserved Victorian and Edwardian cities in the southern hemisphere. Further afield is the breathtaking Otago Peninsula where many millennia of volcanic activity have shaped the landscape into a series of picturesque pits and falls, edged by dramatic cliffs. Wildlife is one of Otago’s biggest attractions; the adorable yellow-eyed penguin (the world’s rarest of its species) calls it home, as does the world’s only mainland breeding colony of albatross.

Where to stay

In town, the historic Scenic Hotel Southern Cross – which dates back to 1883 – offers a comfy stay in the centre of Dunedin. If you’re visiting New Zealand during winter, you’ll be glad to come home to Cascade Creek Retreat, where a roaring fire and a warm outdoor bath warms you up for admiring the hills of South Otago.

Where to eat

Housed in one of the city’s oldest buildings, Bacchus Wine Bar has atmosphere right out of the gate. Add to the ambience an extensive wine list with drops sourced from only as far as the North Island’s Hawke’s Bay region and a menu of local lamb and you’ll understand why it’s been a top local choice for over 20 years. Esplanade is an all-day affair; the morning could be begin with sage-fried eggs and prosciutto cotto and finish with a sea-laced reginette zafferano, spun with mussels and clams and blanketed with parsley.

Elsewhere, it’s a local hydroponic farm and an apiary in Central Otago that props up the menu at Nova, a café that found fame with its injectable donuts, served with a syringe of jam. It’s more than this gimmick however, with faithful lunch and dinner dishes such as Pinot Braised Hare Ragu and Katsu Burgers with hoisin plum sauce.

If you’re flying into… Rotorua

Rotorua, New Zealand

What to do

Generations of Māori have settled in Rotorua, making use of the geothermal waters for bathing, cooking and repairing battle-weary muscles, as well as inserting the springs into local legends. Hell’s Gate or Tikitere, one of the most active thermal parks in the world, is now a place of relaxation where visitors immerse themselves in the muddy sulphur pools. Rotorua flaunts the best of nature’s extremes: standing amid the hissing steam and tangerine-coloured silica shelves of Wai-o-Tapu Thermal Valley or next to Pohutu Geyser – which erupts up to 20 times a day – reminds visitors of the ferocity of the earth’s core, while a bike ride through towering California redwoods of the calm Whakarewarewa Forest is a lesson in its beauty. Rotorua is also the site of New Zealand’s only living Māori village, set on the outskirts of the forest edge.

Redwoods, New Zealand

Where to stay

If Black Swan Lakeside Boutique Hotel were any closer to the edge of Lake Rotorua, it would be in it. Needless to say, the views from the Lakeview Rooms are astounding and with fireplaces and balconies crowning each, you can enjoy them year round. Views are also a drawcard at nearby Solitaire Lodge (are you sensing a theme?), as are freestanding baths and well-stocked mini bars.

Where to eat

Patrons spill out onto Tutaneki Street from Atticus Finch, where dependable, hearty fare comes in the form of spiced rump of lamb with dollops of green olive tapenade or lime mayo smeared on ginger sesame fried chicken. Nearby, BREW Craft Beer Pub turns out burgers for gourmands of every persuasion (vegans will rejoice at the flavourful tofu burger with kimchi veganaise) and some pretty top-notch beer too – you’ll likely always find a golden IPA on tap.

If you’re flying into...Napier

Napier, New Zealand

What to do

Captured in the curve of Hawke’s Bay, the city of Napier is ringed with peaks, most notably the sweep of Te Mata. Although its streets are lined with Art Deco architecture, it’s the nearby natural wonders that often commands the most attention from visitors. Half an hour’s drive south of the city is the stretch of bulges culminating at the peak of Te Mata and to the north, the cluster of world-renowned wineries of Hawke’s Bay – New Zealand’s largest region save for Marlborough – that can be cycled through if you’re after a healthy sample of the area’s famed Sauvignon Blanc. A meandering drive two and a half hours’ north is Lake Waikaremoana, an enchanting knot of forest, lakeside trails and wetlands. In short, pull on some sensible shoes and get exploring.

Where to stay

In Te Awanga, half an hour south, The Farm at Cape Kidnappers frequently tops accommodation bucket lists worldwide with its lush lodge feel and rugged cliff vantage. In addition to its views and spacious suites, it’s the little things, too, like the menu sprinkled with produce from the on-site vegetable garden or the chance to be a part of the working farm’s shepherding outings. The Manse in nearby Hawke’s Bay is similarly sumptuous, with the added benefit of a long list of activities: truffle hunting, clay pigeon shooting and meat masterclasses should suffice for self-imposed isolation.  

Where to eat

The menu may shift daily at Pacifica but rest assured whatever lands on the finished product will be worth the gamble. Again, seafood is front and centre, given a decidedly simple but delicious shakeup, in dishes such as gribiche-laced flounder blanketed in crumb. At the end of a quick drive through town, you’re rewarded with Mission Estate Winery, a glorious estate home just shy of 200 years old, that serves robust mains of both surf and turf variety.

SEE ALSO: 25 Spectacular Wonders to Discover in New Zealand

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