Avoid the queues, peak pricing and the summer holidaymaker crush by heading to New Zealand during the winter low season (May to September) to tick off some of its big-ticket attractions at a quiet time, and seek out some special highlights that summer never sees.TranzAlpine train. Image by KiwiRail
TranzAlpine train journey
One of the world’s greatest train journeys, the TranzAlpine (kiwirailscenic.co.nz/tranzalpine) links the South Island’s east and west coasts via the Southern Alps. The sequence of remarkable landscapes that unfolds is all the more beautiful in winter – from the frost-dusted Canterbury Plains to the snowy valleys of Arthur's Pass National Park (doc.govt.nz/parks-and-recreation/national-parks/arthurs-pass) and alongside big, braided rivers super-charged by gushing mountain cascades. Ignore any warnings about the wet West Coast – the locals will tell you the rain falls ‘mostly in big drops and mainly at night’!Abel Tasman National Park. Image by Hector Garcia / CC BY-SA 2.0
Abel Tasman National Park adventure
Famous for glorious, golden beaches and a cruisy coastal track, Abel Tasmin National Park is swamped by walkers and boaties in the summertime. Come autumn, though, this tide of visitors recedes despite consistently clement weather year round. Here’s your chance to savour New Zealand’s most popular national park in blissful solitude, when wildlife viewing is at its best and prices are lowest. Kayaking and tramping are great ways to see the park in winter, with overnight stays still definitely an option thanks to the Department of Conservation's heated Great Walk Huts. For more information, check the website.
Cycling the Hauraki Rail Trail
Scenic, easy, and close to Auckland – it’s no wonder the Hauraki Rail Trail (haurakirailtrail.co.nz) has proven such a hit. One of New Zealand’s new national Cycle Trails (nzcycletrail.com), the 82km track traces historic railway lines across the green plains between Thames and Te Aroha, and through the Karangahake Gorge, rich in pioneering history and strewn with old gold mining relics. Avoid the peak-season procession by riding the trail in winter, starting at the town of Thames to take advantage of the prevailing and mild northeasterly tail wind. Stoke up the engine with home-cooked food at cafes along the way, and banish any residual chills at Te Aroha Mineral Spas.Wellington cafe. Image by New Zealand Tourism
Eat and drink Wellington
There’s nothing like a red-hot dining scene to keep the winter blues away, and Wellington positively sizzles during its fortnight-long food festival in August – the perfect excuse to spend plenty of time indoors. Wellington on a Plate (wellingtononaplate.com) packs in stacks of special food events, from the strange to the sublime, while 100 or so eateries dish up special festival menus for the duration. While you’re at it, hop along to one (or several) of Wellington’s craft beer bars (craftbeercapital.com) to sample some of the city’s exciting new brews.
Gore’s Golden Guitar Week
The sweet lil’ town of Gore – way down in the deep south – hosts New Zealand’s biggest country music festival in June each year. Gold Guitar Week (goldguitars.co.nz) is a veritable bonanza of thigh-slappin’ good times, including a raft of concerts and the ‘Freeze Ya Bits Off’ busking competition. The week is capped off with the Gold Guitar Awards. No one-trick pony, Gore is also home to the shockingly good Eastern Southland Gallery (affectionately known as the ‘Goreggenheim’), and a terrific little museum celebrating the region’s moonshining past, complete with cockle-warming whisky tastings.Whale watching, Kaikoura. Image by New Zealand Tourism
Whale-watching in Kaikoura
Sperm whales hang around the Kaikoura coast all year round, gorging themselves in its squid-rich waters while Whale Watch (whalewatch.co.nz) tour boats take in the spectacle. Come winter, however, some other big fellas – humpback, pilot, blue and southern right whales – drop by during their migration from the Antarctic to the tropics. June to August is the best time to see them, with the bonus of snow-capped mountain scenery. Kayaking trips (kaikourakayaks.co.nz) are a fantastic way to encounter Kaikoura’s wildlife and run throughout the year.Windy Canyon Track, Great Barrier Island. Image by New Zealand Tourism
Tramp the Aotea Track
Rugged, bushy, and beautiful, Great Barrier Island is a true wilderness on Auckland’s doorstep. It gets pretty darn busy in the summer season, but come winter the island is much less visited despite enjoying the mild climate pervasive in the north. Cooler days bring crystal-clear skies, perfect conditions for enjoying the views of the three-day Aotea Track (doc.govt.nz/parks-and-recreation) penetrating the island’s forested interior and climbing its highest peak, Hirakimata (627m). Two cosy huts and hot springs en route make this a wonderful winter walk.
A therapeutic stop between Christchurch and Kaikoura, Hanmer Springs is New Zealand’s best hot springs resort. The town lies in a picturesque basin surrounded by mountains, the hub of which is the Thermal Pools & Spa (hanmersprings.co.nz) – a pleasure-seekers’ paradise with all sorts of open-air geothermal pools, fun slides, spa facilities, picnic areas and cafe. Should you manage to drag yourself away, you’ll find loads more to do in the area, including hiking, horse trekking, mountain biking, jet boating and even bungee jumping.The Remarkables, Queenstown. Image by New Zealand Tourism
Queenstown is non-stop fun, but add a liberal dusting of the white stuff and it really comes alive. Snow bunnies can take their pick of four ski fields as well as a kickass freestyle-dedicated snow park and 40kms of groomed cross-country trails at the Snow Farm. Add to this stacks of ski-touring and heli-skiing options, and some of the best scenery in the land, you may find yourself wishing that winter never ends. Queenstown’s buzzy Winter Festival (winterfestival.co.nz) gets the snowball rolling in June.
The Russell Birdman
This weekend-long, super-fun festival (russellbirdman.co.nz) in July encourages (arguably daft) folks to don ridiculous costumes and leap off a wharf for the entertainment of others. In keeping with many of NZ’s avian species, some don't quite master the art of flight. Located in the ‘winterless far north’, the charming historic town of Russell is handy to all the Bay of Islands’ watery delights such as dolphin-spotting cruises. Cultural enlightenment is also on hand nearby at the Waitangi Treaty Grounds: birthplace of modern New Zealand.
Sarah Bennett and Lee Slater are co-authors of Lonely Planet’s New Zealand and Hiking & Tramping New Zealand guidebooks. Follow them on Twitter @BennettnSlater.