Few places on earth have as much landscape diversity than New Zealand. There is a ton packed into 2 relatively small islands; from glaciers to farmlands, to mountain peaks, to tropical beaches.
I still remember my trip to the islands ten years ago by bus when I first started my travels. The landscape and my experience in New Zealand then was actually a major turning point in my life and travels. As I stared out the bus window at the stunning landscape and culture that I had never experienced before, I decided my year career break would need to be more like a career change. I knew at that moment I didn’t want to go back to what I did before. I wanted to stay traveling longer than a year to continue experiencing new things. This little country can have a powerful effect on people!
Has New Zealand Changed in 10 Years?
Now I’m back in New Zealand; memories flow back into my brain of my first time here. Quite frankly things haven’t changed too much in New Zealand when it comes to tourism. In fact, people still follow the same well-worn tourist trail through the North and South Islands and many of the same tour operators are here doing the exact same offerings I did 10 years ago. In some ways it felt like Ground Hog Day for me.
The first time I was here I just wanted to tick off the main sights, which I did. But this second time, I wanted to do go deeper and have more New Zealand local experiences. When I suggest what you should see and do in New Zealand, this isn’t the normal Bungee Jump, Milford Sound, Rotaburn trek list. Instead it’s a bit slower, cultural, and unusual – my favorite way to travel. It’s a way to travel deeper and hopefully have more meaningful New Zealand local experiences. It takes you off the tourist trail and introduces you to local culture and people.
Planning a Trip to New Zealand? Don’t leave home without these things in your suitcase! New Zealand Packing Essentials
4 Ways to Find New Zealand Local Experiences
Whether it’s a camper or a car, make sure you hit the road in New Zealand and with your own wheels. This is a country that needs to be seen by car – one where you can stop wherever you want, explore, and take side roads. Renting a car allows you the maximum amount of flexibility and quite frankly – it’s just a hell of a lot of fun.
You can pull over wherever you want. It was Lupine season when I was there, which meant meadows of purples and pinks where I could stop whenever a pull off permitted and take photos! I also took advantage of the many fresh fruit stands in little communities and bought kilos of cherries for my road trip snack!
Don’t be shy, ask for advice from locals as you travel the country. I met a local Ottsworld reader (shocker!) Phil by chance at Lake Tekapo and he gave me tips to head up to the Mount John Observatory outside of town to get the best views of the lake. I took the detour and enjoyed every hairpin turn and view! I took back roads, turn offs, and anything that would allow me to get off the beaten track and explore myself.
Stay with Locals in Rural New Zealand
I woke up and looked out the window to vast views of mountains and sheep dotting the landscape. I made my coffee and eggs (courtesy of the owner’s chickens), took my breakfast outside on the patio, and ate while taking in this great view of Central Otago. This was definitely the best Airbnb I’ve ever stayed at before. If you want to get a taste of what New Zealand is really about, then consider this Airbnb stay, Bricolage, where you get your very own little cottage, on the owner’s property and a taste of rural life on the South Island. I stayed with Marty and Keri at their home near the little community of Tarras. They actually spent the last few years building their home themselves. However, they first built a little cottage to live in while they were building the bigger house. Now with the house done, they rent out the cottage! This is an incredibly resourceful couple and clearly salt-of-the-earth people. They named their property Bricolage, a French word for ‘something out of nothing’.
I was overwhelmed with their hospitality and love for their region. Both native New Zealanders, they pointed me in the right direction for local wineries, local olive oil, the best views, and little day hikes. They even invited me to a local BBQ where I met all of the other ‘neighbors’ in the big spread out area. In addition, it was a great spot to base yourself in the South Island to reach the popular tourist town of Wanaka, Cromwell, and take in more of the Lindis Pass.
Or just enjoy the farm life and go out with Marty as he feeds the lambs, cows, pigs, and chickens!
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Get to Know the New Zealand Sheep
Even though NZ has a national animal, the extremely rare kiwi bird, ask any tourist what animal they associate with NZ and the answer will be sheep. The sheep outnumber the people in this country; there are 30 million sheep and 4.6 million people. The sheep could actually unite and form a coo and take over the whole country if they wanted to – an amusing thought I would entertain as I drove myself throughout the countryside.
Sheep farming was established by the 1850s, and has played an important role in New Zealand’s economic history ever since. For decades wool accounted for more than a third of New Zealand’s exports by value.
It’s actually quite hard to ‘get to know’ the New Zealand sheep…trust me, I tried. When you stop a car to take a picture, they all scatter! And it’s nearly impossible to ‘sneak’ up on them! However, if you want to get to know New Zealand’s most iconic sheep, that’s pretty easy, just head to the tiny village of Tarras on the South Island to the Shrek Museum.
Shrek is a kiwi icon. In 2004 Shrek became an overnight phenomenon when he was discovered as a big matted ball of fluff that resembled a giant cauliflower. He was captured after evading musterers and sheering for 6 years by hiding high up in the Central Otago mountains. People fell in love with this big looking hermit cauliflower! After his newfound fame, he traveled the country raising funds for charity.
He traveled around the country and world making appearances raising money for Cure Kids (a cancer foundation). NZ’s biggest corporations were at Shrek’s beck and call and at times he was earning more for an appearance than an All Black Rugby player or other celebrities – $20,000 was his standard fee.
Shrek has sadly passed away. However, you can learn more about Shrek’s strange rise to sheep stardom at the tiny, free museum in Tarras. There you’ll also find books and other memorabilia that will delight and amuse you.
Do a Not-So-Famous New Zealand Hike
You hear a lot about the Great Walks in New Zealand, I did the famed Milford Trek 10 years ago. They are often booked out months in advance because they are so popular. But if you don’t have the time or fitness to do them, or you just want to do something different than everyone else (like me!), there are a bunch of great day hikes you can do as you travel throughout the islands by car.
I love the North Island hike to Lower Tama Lake in Tongariro National Park. Waterfalls and volcano peaks, it doesn’t get much better than that. Pack a lunch and eat out at the turn around spot at the lake with spectacular views. This is an approximately 10km trek, and can be incredibly windy.
There are a number of day hikes around Wanaka in South Island, but I went a little further out of town to the Diamond Lake Hike to escape the crowds. This will only take about 2 hours round-trip, and it is a steep climb up numerous, but well maintained steps. Once you get to the Diamond Lake lookout, be sure to keep going to the Lake Wanaka (total of 5 Km) lookout for some spectacular views of the region. There’s a little bench at the end of the lookout that you can sit and enjoy lunch at too.
There’s a new phenomenon in New Zealand that I didn’t get to do on this trip, but it’s on my list for the future. A number of private farmers have worked together to put together multi day hikes through stunning farmland. Not only does it include great views to landscapes that aren’t normally seen by tourists, but the private hikes also include huts and services for the multi-day hiker like this Banks Private Hike. See some examples of private farm hikes here.
Tama Lakes Hike Tongariro National Park
These ideas will lead you deeper into the local culture and New Zealand local experiences. I guarantee you will love every moment of getting off the tourist trail and blazing one of your own! Just watch out for the sheep!