New Zealand’s Most Underrated Small Towns and What to Do There


Last year, Brook Sabin and Radha Engling traveled New Zealand on a 100-day road trip that took them to all parts of Aotearoa. Here are the favorite small towns they have encountered on their travels.

St Bathans: Central Otago

The emerald lake of St Bathans is a former mining well.

Brook Sabin / Stuff

The emerald lake of St Bathans is a former mining well.

This lovingly restored mining town – which runs along the edge of an emerald lake – is the heritage equivalent of finding a pot of gold at the end of a metal road.

St Bathans began as a tent city after the discovery of gold in 1861, and quickly developed into a bustling city with 13 hotels, banks, a hospital and even a prison.

Heritage buildings still line St Bathans Lake.

Brook Sabin / Stuff

Heritage buildings still line St Bathans Lake.

In 1934, the enormous mine shaft was beginning to encroach on the city, so it was allowed to fill with water; creating a magical blue lake, bordered by lunar cliffs. The result is an incredibly beautiful scar on the landscape.

Enjoy lunch at the Vulcan Hotel, built in mud bricks in 1882, then stroll through the lakeside alleys. The stone schoolhouse, mud brick Anglican church and the original post office still stand today.

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Clyde: Central Otago

Clyde is full of character.

Brook Sabin / Stuff

Clyde is full of character.

When visiting St Bathans you will want to continue your journey to Clyde, less than an hour away. The historic mining town has a renewed energy, with boutiques, a five-star heritage hotel (The Lord Clyde) and an exceptional restaurant, Olivers.

Don’t miss the short drive to Cromwell and its beautifully restored Old Town.

Karaméa: west coast

The Ōpārara arch dominates the landscape.

Brook Sabin / Stuff

The Ōpārara arch dominates the landscape.

This small west coast town is a great base for some of the country’s most intrepid day trips. Start with the Ōpārara basin; a vast set of limestone caves that formed over 35 million years.

There are two exceptional hiking trails; the first at Ōpārara arch – the largest natural rock arch in the southern hemisphere. The second is the smaller arch in the Gate of Moria, which you can descend using a chain to get inside.

The highlight of the area, however, is a 15-kilometer underground labyrinth known as Honeycomb Caves. You can explore just over a mile on a special guided tour, which reveals stunning underground waterfalls and even moa bones.

Oban: Stewart Island

Whatever the weather, it's always a good time to visit Oban.

Brook Sabin / Stuff

Whatever the weather, it’s always a good time to visit Oban.

One of the most charming little towns in the country is Oban, the capital of Stewart Island. Almost all of the approximately 450 people who inhabit our third largest island live in the city itself, and the South Sea Hotel is the center of gravity. Here, locals gather for quiz nights alongside visitors who sample a hearty serving of locally caught cod.

If you’re looking for something to do in the summer, there are still plenty of flights – and you get the thrill of landing on a small airstrip in the hills.

Once on the island, you will have the charming little village to explore, along dozens of hiking trails. Stewart Island is generally a favorite with overseas tourists, so this may be the last summer to explore without the usual crowds.

Ahipara: Far North

The Huts is the latest accommodation to open in Ahipara.

Brook Sabin / Stuff

The Huts is the latest accommodation to open in Ahipara.

This tiny surfing village near Kaitāia has the potential to be the next Raglan and it has finally taken another step in that direction with a wonderful new place to stay.

“The Huts” is all about minimalist rustic luxury, with an intense emphasis on the environment. They are designed to resemble the algae pickers’ huts that are dotted around the nearby reef. Inside, the basic, uncluttered interior exudes a sense of calm that makes it easy to relax.

The bedding is natural sunflower foam (ultra-comfortable and free from any harmful chemicals) and the duvet is organic cotton. In the morning, hot and fresh bread arrives at your doorstep, to be enjoyed with organic treats and spreads.

The Huts have a distant view of the surfing mecca of Shipwreck Bay, but the fun part is falling asleep at night to the roaring waves.

It’s a place designed for nights and long walks on the beach – you have 90 miles at your disposal. (Although, technically 90 Mile Beach is actually 55 miles long.)

Ōmārama: Waitaki

The Clay Cliffs are only $ 5 per car to visit.

Brook Sabin / Stuff

The Clay Cliffs are only $ 5 per car to visit.

If you want to see some of the best mountain scenery in the country, the drive from Queenstown to Mackenzie is a must. You get a resort style experience in Queenstown, a scenic drive through Cromwell, Lindis Pass and Lake Pūkaki, then the grandeur of Aoraki / Mount Cook to complete.

On this trip, spend a night in Ōmārama and visit the spectacular clay cliffs, which appear to have come straight from Turkish Cappadocia, known for its lunar landscape.

Hot Tubs Ōmārama is the perfect place to relax after a long day of driving.

Brook Sabin / Stuff

Hot Tubs Ōmārama is the perfect place to relax after a long day of driving.

In the evening, take a dip in a private pool at Hot Tubs Ōmārama before crossing Twizel to Aoraki / Mt Cook the next morning.

Reefton: west coast

If you’re a gin lover, Reefton is a must-have to add to your small town hit list. The old fortress of the gold mines seemed doomed to slow decline until budding entrepreneurs decided to focus on catering and make gin the big game in town.

In 2017, the Reefton Distilling Co was formed, combining pure mountain water with a multitude of upland plants to create a unique West Coast drop.

The distillery has won numerous international awards and has raised over $ 3 million to expand its business. For $ 35, take a quick tour of the factory then set off on a sensory journey through the rainforest with a tasting at the bar.

There are now plans for a larger distillery as well as a plan to reinvigorate the city with other tourist attractions. The gold rush may be over, but the gin rush is on.

Whangamōmona: Taranaki

The Whangamōmona Hotel is also the “passport office”.

Brook Sabin / Stuff

The Whangamōmona Hotel is also the “passport office”.

The small town of Whangamōmona will swell to about 60 times its population in January to celebrate Independence Day.

The village sits in the remote heart of the Forgotten World Highway; an enchanting walk through thick bush and rolling farmland in the hinterland of Taranaki.

The village jokingly declared itself a republic in 1989 and has since elected a goat – among many unusual candidates – the president.

On January 23, 2021, the village held its biannual election, bringing the number of 50 usual inhabitants to more than 3,000.

You will need to purchase a $ 5 passport to enter (border officials take position on the road). Upon your arrival – according to Independence Day procedures – “there will be sheep, possums, dogs, cow and even slippery and gooey eels” next to the stalls selling “local delicacies”.

François-Joseph: West Coast

Franz Josef is hoping for a busy summer.

Brook Sabin / Stuff

Franz Josef is hoping for a busy summer.

The small glacial village has been hit hard by the Covid-19; it was home to one of the busiest helipads in the southern hemisphere, carrying tourists to the glaciers, but it’s now much quieter.

However, the city is starting to come to life: the five-star Te Waonui Forest Retreat has come out of hibernation and is offering substantial discounts to attract Kiwis. Likewise, neighboring Glacier Hot Pools reopened this month.

After a day of hiking on the glaciers, take a dip in the hot pools before relaxing in a hotel paradise – you won’t have the chance to do it cheaper.

Rāwene: Far North

Rāwene's waterfront is full of character and great places to grab a coffee.

Brook Sabin / Stuff

Rāwene’s waterfront is full of character and great places to grab a coffee.

This charming little port town of Hokianga is bursting with rustic charm; colorful buildings line the waterfront representing its own renaissance style.

Rāwene is the third oldest European settlement in the country and is full of interesting stories and buildings of character to match. Take the ferry to Kohukohu, which describes itself as full of “musicians, artists, writers, avant-garde, environmentalists, environmentalists, artisans and gardeners”. It’s a quaint little place – a village of yesteryear – where housie is still played on Thursday evenings.

Where to stay:

Clyde: The Lord Clyde starting overnight from $ 270. See: thelordclyde.co.nz

Ahipara: The Huts, from $ 250 per night. See: thehuts.co.nz

Franz Josef: Te Waonui Forest Retreat starts from $ 220 a night. See: tewaonui.co.nz

Brook Sabin and Radha Engling crisscrossed New Zealand on a nationwide Stuff Travel road trip in a new Hyundai Kona Electric. The vehicle has an actual range of 449 km on a single charge, for more information see: Hyundai.co.nz/Kona-electric.

This story was originally posted in December 2020 and has since been updated.


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