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 Oamaru remained 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 a waterfall flanked with a 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.
New Zealand's White Island is one of the few places in the world where you can walk inside a volcano © Peter Dragicevic / Lonely Planet
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’.
Sashimi your own rainbow trout at Lake Taupo
The unbelievably clear and surprisingly warm waters of Lake Taupo, bordered by the snow-crested peaks of Tongariro National Park, are a magnet for nature lovers who walk, cycle, or canoe the lake. It’s also a haven for trout fishing with most anglers plucking out a fish or two. Even if fishing is not your thing, someone is going to land one in these well-stocked waters, so why not try your knife skills and sashimi it on the boat for lunch instead? After your unbeatably fresh meal, take a dip in the pristine lake, then take an excursion to see the Mine Bay Māori rock carvings.
A museum for motorheads and fashionistas at Invercargill
Where would you go to see the largest private truck and car museum in the world? Italy? The USA? Try Invercargill, New Zealand’s the most southerly city. In a 15,000-sq metre chamber you’ll find Bill Richardson Transport World, filled with restored vehicles that range from the Ford Model T to VW Kombis and everything in between. In a typically Kiwi kook these machines are complemented with exhibitions of New Zealand-created Wearable Art. If you’re visiting in June, you can book tickets to the Wearable Art gala, a spectacle of colour and creativity. Bill Richardson does not leave the motorcycle enthusiast wanting either. In 2016 the museum purchased a collection of 300 restored and unrestored beasts made from 1902 onwards, and moved them from Nelson to a new museum, the Classic Motorcycle Mecca, in Invercargill’s city centre.
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