The in between places: New Zealand hidden gems

My two-week tour of New Zealand in April was full of checking off visits to National Parks and scenic highlights. We did glacier hiking, kayaking Abel Tasman, Hot Water Beaches in the Coromandel, and Maori celebrations to name a few. But what surprised me the most were the magical little towns and experiences in between.

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In New Zealand, especially on the South Island, you may be driving in the wilderness for two to three hours before you reach the next town. But along the way, you find quirky shops, live animal farms, and adventure sports in the middle of nowhere. My dad compared it to driving across the United States as a kid and stopping to see “The Giant Ball of Yarn” on the side of the road.

Here a just a few of my favorite places to stop along the way…

Hokitika

The stones are cut using diamond saws. Source

The stones are cut using diamond saws. Source

This cool little town on New Zealand’s West Coast is only a 2-hour drive to Fox Glacier. Hokitika was founded on gold mining and was central to the West Coast Gold Rush in 1864. Prior to the gold rush, Maori were already headed here in search of Pounamu, also known as greenstone or New Zealand Jade. Today, Hokitika is filled with shops that sell gold and greenstone, and if you’re lucky, you might even find a bit of your own! We stopped into one of the local shops to see them carving the stones into necklaces.

Joe showing off the massive gold nugget that was found here in Hokitika.

Joe showing off the massive gold nugget that was found here in Hokitika.

One of my favorite parts of Hokitika was our accommodation. We stayed at Teichelmann’s Bed and Breakfast. I’ve always tended to shy away from B&B’s because I worried it might feel like I was staying at a stranger’s house or it might not be very relaxing. Well Teichelmann’s made me a believer in B&B’s. This heritage home, which once served as the offices of Dr. Teichelmann, is full of character and charm, but with modern amenities that make you feel right at home. Our hosts, Frances and Brian, made us feel so welcome and comfortable there. They thought of all of the little details – down the beautifully branded soaps and hand creams, way better than your average hotel! Breakfast was delicious, complete with birthday candles (since it was my birthday). I can honestly say, I was sad we didn’t stay longer. But we were off to hike a glacier!  

I mean seriously, how cute is this place?

I mean seriously, how cute is this place?

Still, if you’re headed down south for glacier hiking, I highly recommend you stop off in Hokitika for some gold and greenstone lessons and a comfortable night (or two)’s rest at Teichlemann’s. Hungry? Try Fat Pipi Pizza! ;)

New Zealand’s longest swing bridge

As we headed back north from New Zealand’s Southern Alps, we drove for hours on end between towns. To break up the journey, we were constantly stopping to admire the views or check out quirky little tourist attractions along the way.

As we left Westport and headed inland, we came across Buller Gorge, home of “New Zealand’s Longest Swing Bridge” in the middle of nowhere. We stopped the car to check it out and were quickly sucked into not only crossing the bridge, but also zip lining across the gorge. We hiked through the forest toward the zip line platform and along the way, stopped on the banks of the river to take in the view. After all of the talk of gold in Hokitika, and signs for gold panning, we decided to look for gold. Along the shore, you could see tiny flecks and sparkles in the sand. My dad and Joe went absolutely nuts! And I must admit, I got pretty excited myself. We squatted in the sand for a half hour or more scooping up little gold “nuggets” and comparing who’d found the biggest piece.

Finally we continued our hike and reached the top of the platform. Joe and I strapped in first and went soaring over the gorge. My parents went next, squealing all the way across.

Such a fun way to break up our road trip and stretch our legs. On the way out, we showed our gold findings to the man at the front desk. He laughed and told us it was probably fool’s gold. Who are you calling a fool? We choose to believe we found gold. ;)

Rainbows in Tasman

On our way from Abel Tasman to Hokitika, we passed through Tapawera in the Tasman District. Surrounded by mountains, rain showers passed over and got stuck in the peaks. Along the journey, we spotted some pretty perfect rainbows – so perfect we had to stop the car.

In Tapawera, we also went to the smallest little museum ever. There’s not much inside, but it’s fun to take your photo outside of the cute little building.

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Punakaiki Pancake Rocks

On our way back up from Fox Glacier, we thought it would be fun to keep things interesting and try a different route. So we took a spectacular drive back up the West Coast and stopped to stay the night in Punakaiki Resort.

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Punakaiki is literally in the middle of nowhere. It has a resort, a few camper van parks and an isite center. There’s not even another gas station for about 90km, so be sure to fill up before you arrive! The remote nature of Punakaiki almost makes you feel like you’re on an island. It sits between Greymount and Westport, and in my opinion is a much more interesting and exotic place to stay if you’re headed down the coast.

The resort was absolutely beautiful. The rooms sat on the hill, overlooking the ocean, and the grounds were filled with lush gardens, with the occasional Weka pecking around.

Weka, also known as a Maori Hen, is a flightless bird endemic to New Zealand.

Weka, also known as a Maori Hen, is a flightless bird endemic to New Zealand.

This is the kind of place I’d like to come and stay for a few days in the summer to relax. As usual, we had a jam-packed road trip and only stayed one night, but I would absolutely like to return to stay at Punakaiki resort. Despite the rainy weather, Joe still managed to take a dip in the Tasman Sea.

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Aside from the gorgeous views, Punakaiki is known for its pancake rocks and blowholes.

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The pancake rocks are limestone formations from more than 30 million years ago, and were created when dead marine creatures deposited on the sea floor, then overlaid by weaker layers of mud and clay.

Earthquakes pushed these formations above sea level to reveal the unusual pancake rocks we see today.

So if you’re driving along the west coast, be sure to stop in Punakaiki to see these incredibly old and fascinating rock formations.

The in between places

The in between places and impromptu stops on our road trip were truly magical, and left me wanting more time. They showed me how, especially in New Zealand, you don’t always have to have a plan. Sometimes, you find little hidden gems (or fool’s gold) along the way, and that makes the journey all the more special and memorable.

Have you ever road tripped across New Zealand? What hidden gems have you found along the way?