The road less travelled: How to avoid the tourist hordes this summer

by North & South / 29 January, 2017
ArticleGalleryModule - Kiwi roads less travelled

More than 3.4 million international tourists wombled – actually, hobbited – around New Zealand in 2015. Peter Jackson must wish he’d been clipping the ticket: close to 30 per cent of them visited a “Hobbit-related attraction”. 

This summer is shaping up as another boom time for overseas visitors, despite Tourism NZ’s efforts to spread the load into the shoulder seasons and take pressure off hot-spot accommodation and activities. Understandably, however, most want to come for a New Zealand summer – just as we’re loading up the family wagon with togs, tents and tramping boots for our own holiday escapes.

We’ve been spoilt, of course: so many of us know the joy of having a stretch of beach to ourselves; of heading into the bush and encountering only a handful of fellow hikers, or nosing the boat into a lake barely ruffled by other water-sports enthusiasts. The Kiwi notion of a “madding crowd” would be laughed at by the residents of Shanghai, Tokyo or London.

Still, while New Zealand remains a Lonely Planet favourite (Tourism NZ estimates by 2022, overseas visitors will outnumber locals), you might consider exploring a stretch of the country away from the main “tourist circuit”.

International visitors tend to arrive in Auckland and head north to the Bay of Islands, or south to Waitomo and Rotorua, via Hobbiton. Some peel off to the Coromandel beaches, causing sand-central-station at Cathedral Cove and Hot Water Beach. The Tongariro Alpine Crossing reaches “peak crossers” over the key summer period (as many as 3000 a day), as do the South Islands’ Great Walks. (The Coromandel Walks Project, a collaborative partnership with DoC, Thames-Coromandel District Council and iwi Ngati Hei, promises to take some strain off our North Island Great Walks over the next five to 10 years, linking coastline trails and eventually traversing the peninsula’s spine).

In the South Island, from December to early March, Queenstown, Wanaka, Tekapo, Milford Sound and Punakaiki on the West Coast heave with motorhomes, tourist buses, backpackers and nervous rental car drivers, negotiating our narrow roads and eccentric British fashion for driving on the left.

The following “alternative summer travels” suggestions – any-time getaways, in fact – have been compiled by North & South writers and photographers, based on recent forays around the country for work or holiday. Regretfully, we dropped from our list the spectacular wilderness drive through Molesworth Station from Marlborough to Hanmer Springs, which is closed as a result of the November 14 earthquake. We wish speedy returns to business for the tourism operators in all our quake-damaged regions.

Nugget Point, the Catlins. Photo/One Shot

Coromandel: the inside story

The Coromandel Peninsula is a summer playground from top to bottom, but the east coast surf beaches lure the largest crowds. Quieter, but equally lovely, is the low coast road from Thames to Coromandel town, then further north to Colville. The narrow road itself is an adventure, hugging the water tightly. You’re not in a hurry, though, and the pohutukawa-punctuated road is part of the inland coast’s charm.

Don’t rush through Thames; the old goldmining town has lately turned its attention to artisan products and sprucing up its heritage buildings. And just upriver, the Kauaeranga Valley features a sweaty-to-glow range of walks (The Pinnacles hut will likely be booked out for summer 2017, but you can tackle part of the track or pick another meander through nikau-spiked bush).

Coromandel town might well have more potters, fabric artists, oyster shuckers and organic nut growers per sqkm than anywhere else in the southern hemisphere. And there’s tiny Colville, the peninsula’s laidback northern outpost (you’ll still find everything you need in its well-stocked, co-op owned general store). Going “to the top” means navigating a further 40km of mostly unsealed road, but if you’re campsite-prepared, it’s worth the effort

Taranaki: North, south and round the mountain

Taranaki came second in Lonely Planet’s 2016 list of the world’s top 10 regions. (Choquequirao in Peru won the beauty pageant – and we’re keeping Taranaki on our “least travelled” list, in the hopes it takes a while for overseas tourists to catch on. And that they go to Peru first.)

If you’re driving from the north, don’t rush the stunning stretch of road from Te Kuiti to Mokau on the coast, then south to Waitara. While technically not in Taranaki, Mokau is a perfect stop for a whitebait-fritter sandwich and a cruise up the Mokau River. Or check the tides and stroll Whitecliffs Walk-way, north of Urenui (topped off with a craft beer at Mike’s Brewery).

You’ll want time in New Plymouth, especially if you’re an art or garden fan. Among other treats, there’s the Len Lye Centre and Govett-Brewster Art Gallery for the appreciation of indoor aesthetics; Pukekura Park, Pukeiti and Tupare gardens for nature lovers.

Surfers and wave-watchers can get their fix on Surf Highway 45, from New Plymouth to Hawera, with a short detour to the photogenic Cape Egmont Lighthouse. Even in summer, almost every road that connects the highway to the coastline will deliver waves and gloriously uncrowded beaches. We like to cut inland from surf-city Opunake, then take a left-turn to Dawson Falls in Egmont National Park on the lower flanks of Mt Taranaki. And don’t bypass Eltham, with its graceful heritage buildings, where you can also potter around a vast retro collection at The Bank eclectic vintage store.

Complete the mountain loop via the townships of Stratford and Inglewood – the latter, for good coffee and the Fun Ho! National Toy Museum.

The forgotten world highway

Add this sinuous stretch of highway to your Taranaki holiday, starting from either Stratford  or Taumarunui. This 150km wriggle of a road follows a colonial bridle path, hugging the contours of the land as it winds over four mountain saddles and through a river gorge. There’s a slightly spooky one-lane tunnel, and you’ll pass through the village of Whangamomona, which in 1989 famously declared itself an independent republic after disagreements with local councils. You can pick up a passport from the local hotel.

Consider spending a few days in this west-wing of the Ruapehu district; Taumarunui is conveniently located at the convergence of two major rivers. There’s the Raurimu Spiral’s feat of engineering for railway buffs; even better, a journey into the wilderness on a self-drive rail cart or RailBike with Forgotten World Adventures.

Walkers and mountain bikers have a wealth of options in and around Ohakune: DoC walks of varying duration and difficulty, also the Ohakune Old Coach Road cycling and walking track. It’s growing in popularity, so get pedalling on the plateau before the lycra-louts arrive.

Whanganui river road

The stretch of SH4 from National Park Village to Whanganui rates a scenic mention, but even lovelier is the alternative route that diverts at Raetihi and follows the Whanganui River before rejoining SH4 just north of Upokongaro. The drive is an hour longer – and more, because you’ll want to stop often: at the once-bustling, now laidback little river-town Pipiriki. You’ll pass remote Maori villages, historic meeting houses, and also James K. Baxter’s beloved Jerusalem.

Western Bay of Plenty

One of the attractions of Whakatane-Opotiki is that the region is a bit too far for most sun-seeking Aucklanders and Wellingtonians. That didn’t stop Ohope being voted New Zealand’s Most Loved Beach in an AA Traveller online poll – but the Western Bay’s white-sand coast, the sprawling Ohiwa Harbour and surrounding wilderness parks make for a winning summer destination that’s not overrun by big-city escapees. There’s also sulphuric White Island (Whakaari) for the family volcanologist; superb diving and fishing; and Whakatane is a handy distance to Whirinaki Forest Park – one of the world’s last prehistoric rainforests – also the vast, rugged Te Urewera National Park.

East Cape circuit

NZ Tourism statistics show Gisborne and the East Cape to be the region least visited by Kiwis.

This seems an excellent reason to put it on your to-do list – if not necessarily in the company of nightlife-seeking, tribal teenagers. But a road trip around the East Cape is the Real Thing of getaways: a 330km meander (between Opotiki and Gisborne) on narrow, winding roads, sometimes waiting for jay-walking sheep and watching out for kids on horses. Old Cape hands suggest you take three days at least; there are motorcamps, motels and beach-stays scattered around the coast – but best to book ahead rather than risk a run of “No Vacancy” signs.

Not-to-be-missed stops include the East Cape Lighthouse (750 steps to the top), the largest pohutukawa tree in the world (in the Te Araroa schoolyard), gorgeously scenic Tokomaru and Anaura Bays, Tolaga Bay’s historic wharf, and remote, exquisite Maori meeting houses and churches along the way. Plan to hang out in Gisborne for a few days, too, simmering gently in sunshine, surf and summer-ripened chardonnays.

Cape Palliser escape

For a break from endless Wellington and Wairarapa summer arts, wine and food festivals, take SH2 and Cape Palliser Rd to the southernmost point of the North Island, with its imposing cast-iron lighthouse and pungent fur-seal colony. En route, you can potter about the fishing village of Ngawi, visit the Putangirua Pinnacles and take the short detour to Lake Ferry overlooking grey, shingled dunes and pristine wetland. A seal and bird watchers’ big day out – then repair to the Lake Ferry Hotel, which has beds for the night, plus a bar and cafe. 

Time and tide

From Rai Valley, 48km east of Nelson, head to French Pass in the Marlborough Sounds. Not only is the two-hour drive spectacular, French Pass has an otherworldly appeal. The settlement sits opposite D’Urville Island and the turbulent French Pass passage, where the water races through on each tide at up to eight knots, creating fierce whirlpools and currents. French seafarer Dumont D’Urville, who described the sea as “a seething sheet”, spent several days investigating the passage before venturing through it in 1827. Even then, he clipped the reef twice. Maori in waka were the superior navigators of the passage (so let’s drop D’Urville Island for its original name, Rangitoto ki te Tonga). You can book a trip on the sailing ship Steadfast; there are safe swimming spots, a DoC campground and general store.

West to Westport

For months to come, while SH1 through Kaikoura remains closed, traffic on the St Arnaud-Murchison road will be heavy. But we still recommend the drive from the high, picturesque Nelson Lakes National Park through the Buller Gorge to Westport (making sure you stop to wobble across the gorge’s 110m swingbridge). Westport is the gateway to Karamea, with its no-exit highway and splendid isolation. You can walk to the limestone Oparara Arch, spanning the Oparara River; there are guided tours to explore caves, arches and wildlife further upriver. And Karamea is near the southern entrance to the Heaphy Track, so you can strike out on a number of day walks. Don’t dismiss Westport: its coal-town heritage, driftwood-strewn beaches and bracing walks make it a rewarding stopover.

Lakeland treasures

Lake Tekapo and Lake Pukaki are the biggies of the Mackenzie Country, but consider a visit to tussock-fringed Lake Alexandrina, a long, narrow and deep “mini-me” of adjacent Lake Tekapo. The smaller, spring-fed lake is alive with trout and salmon (no motor boats or jet-skis allowed).

Or, just south of Twizel, turn west off SH8 for lovely Lake Ohau. There’s good accommodation at Lake Ohau Lodge and Lake Ohau Quarters. And besides passing posses of Alps 2 Ocean Cycle Trail riders, en route from Mt Cook to Oamaru, you’ll feel miles from the camera-toting crowds. 

Bannockburn

Outside of Burgundy, this is the world’s best place to grow the fickle pinot noir grape. The old 1860s goldmining town in the Cromwell Basin offers plenty of opportunities to sample the region’s boutique pinots – noir and gris – and other fine aromatic wines. You’ll want to find a perch in the sunshine above the valley’s tawny terroir, while you ponder more energetic activities.

Otago heritage trail hamlets

Central Otago is dotted with small settlements that are steeped in hard-scrabble mining history, a grim past which belies their current cute-factor. Prime among those worth short detours from the Otago Heritage Trail are St Bathans, Naseby and Ophir. St Bathans, which has a permanent population that barely reaches double figures, is famous for its haunted pub hotel and the startling, mineral-blue Blue Lake framed by moonscape limestone cliffs – a perfect swimming and picnic spot. Ophir has wonderful historic buildings and one of the country’s most impressive suspension bridges, while Naseby, the “jewel of the Maniototo”, is also New Zealand’s capital of curling – a year-round sport, now there’s a rink. The landscape will capture you, so take local poet Brian Turner’s advice by reclining among the tussock to gaze up into the great blue dome of sky.  

Southern scenic

The Catlins have been “discovered”, but this southeastern corner of the country between Kaka Point and Fortrose is a treasure-trove of natural beauty, quirky galleries, cafes and yes, some quirky people. Take time to potter, while not bypassing the Catlins’ better-known attractions: Nugget Point, Purakaunui Falls, Cathedral Caves, Curio Bay with its 160 million-year-old fossilised trees, yellow-eyed penguins and Hector’s dolphins, and the pretty village of Papatowai, near the mouth of the Tahakopa River.

West coasting

Although the glaciers – Fox and Franz Josef – are busy year-round, there are lightly peopled delights on the West Coast’s SH6 from Whataroa to Haast, including the seaside gem of Okarito, with its bird-rich wetland and wild beach walks. Heading south, you can venture out to Gillespie’s Beach, explore Bruce Bay where towering rainforest meets the sea, or hold out for the end of the road. That’s 50km beyond Haast and worth every twist and turn to the magical fishing hamlet of Jackson Bay. With luck, the Cray Pot will be open for freshly-caught seafood and fish and chips

Third island adventure

Yes, it’s a long, long way to Rakiura (Stewart Island), but you’ll be paid back for making the effort. It’s your best opportunity to see kiwi in the wild; also kaka, cheeky weka and a chorus of other native birds on predator-free Ulva Island, nearby. Rakiura National Park comprises around 85 per cent of the island, so you’re spoilt for walks, multi-day tramps and kayaking expeditions. Round off your Rakiura days at New Zealand’s southernmost, 47° latitude pub, sinking a beer with the locals.      

This was published in the January 2017 issue of North & South.
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