Off-the-beaten-track, these towns are worth a visit

Growing up, I had a lot of misconceptions about the small towns the family station wagon would splutter through on trips up and down the country.  


The "gumboot capital", the "kiwifruit capital", the place with the giant L&P bottle... They're only good for one thing, right? 


Turns out I was very wrong. Take a little more time on your road trip to explore the small towns en route and you're bound to come away with a renewed appreciation of what an exceptional - and at time eccentric -  country we live in. 

Spend a little longer and you'll discover a side of New Zealand few tourists do. Here's a selection of small towns we think don't get the attention they deserve.  


Spend a little longer in our small towns and you'll discover a side of New Zealand few tourists do.
Spend a little longer in our small towns and you'll discover a side of New Zealand few tourists do.


Paeroa

That '90s TV ad was right. It ain't famous for its Hollywood mansions, harbour bridge, bright lights or fast bowlers, but it is famous. The world famous in New Zealand L&P bottle may have been causing traffic jams in the main street since ages ago, but there are plenty of reasons to stick around a while.


Uncover hidden treasure in the antique and second-hand stores and have a picnic in the beautiful grounds of Paeroa Historical Maritime Park, where you can also take a ride on a restored kauri paddle boat. 

Paeroa is smack bang in the middle of one of New Zealand's easiest Great Rides - the Hauraki Rail Trail - so is a perfect base for a cycling adventure.

Head north toward Thames, south to Te Aroha or east to Waihi through the dramatic Karangahake Gorge with its photographic waterfalls and gold mining relics. You can also learn more about the area's gold mining past at Bullswool Farm & Nature Park. The onsite Gold & Kauri Heritage Museum and Bush Discovery Reserve feature a replica miner's camp, eel and freshwater crayfish pond and bird education area alongs a beautiful walking track.


There are plenty of friendly farm animals - including miniature horses and cattle and alpacas - to get up close and personal with too.


Arty Gore has a chequered past.
Image source: ROBYN EDIE/SOUTHLAND TIMES

Arty Gore has a chequered past.


Gore

The name doesn't exactly inspire images of happy holidays, but this Southland town - once known as the Chicago of the South - is something of a dark horse.


Often dismissed as a mere service town for the surrounding farm communities, Gore is in fact a haven for lovers of art, country music, second-hand shopping, nature and simple rural charm. Its pretty, peaceful facade belies a chequered past: it was a hotbed for illicit whiskey production during the prohibition era. Discover how they did it - and how they got caught - at the Hokonui Moonshine Museum, where you can also pick up a bottle of Old Hokonui: a smoky beverage made to the recipe of one of the area's most (in)famous whiskey families, the McRaes. 

These days, the town's greatest claim to fame is perhaps its country music connection - it hosts the New Zealand Gold Guitar Awards, which incorporate the national line dancing champs, each June. If you're not about to whip out your spurs and spangles anytime soon, there's still plenty to keep you busy. 

The town is developing a reputation as a centre for fine art thanks, in large part, to sexologist Dr John Money. Money donated his extensive art collection - including pieces by famed Kiwi artists Rita Angus and Tim Schoon - to the Eastern Southern Gallery before he died, inspiring several others, including Ralph Hotere, to do the same. Those who'd like to catch their own dinner - or have fun trying - should head to the Matarua River, which teems with brown trout.


Head to Croydon Aviation Heritage Centre, Mandeville for a history lesson in aviation and a new view on the countryside.
Image source: GAVIN CONROY

Head to Croydon Aviation Heritage Centre, Mandeville for a history lesson in aviation and a new view on the countryside.


Aviation geeks might like to make the short drive to Mandeville, where you can visit the country's oldest aerodrome and get a plane's eye view of the Southland countryside from the passenger seat of a restored Tiger Moth.  


Taihape

To the uninitiated, Taihape is simply the "gumboot capital of New Zealand" (although holding on to that title in a nation of farmers is no easy feat). To those in the know, however, the Rangitikei District town is also a magnet for adrenaline and horticultural junkies.


The gumboot capital of the world is also a mecca for gardening and adrenaline junkies.

Image source:MURRAY WILSON/STUFF

The gumboot capital of the world is also a mecca for gardening and adrenaline junkies.


Keen gardeners should check out one of the four showpiece gardens - Titoki, Rongoiti, Waitoka and Kiri Kiri - while those in search of pure, untamed nature can lose themselves in the network of bush walks. If you're after a bit more action, check out one of the adventure activities on offer, from white-water rafting  and jet boating to abseiling and horse riding.


Back in town, browse the speciality arts and craft stores, catch a flick at the Majestic theatre and enjoy a good old-fashioned - with good old-fashioned service - at one of the local eateries.


Of course it wouldn't be a trip to Taihape without stopping for a selfie with its iconic giant gumboot made from corrugated iron and number eight wire. If you must fully embrace the gumboot theme, visit during the last weekend in January when you can throw a gumboot with the best of them. 


Ngaruawahia is the capital of Maoridom.
Image source: GETTY IMAGES

Ngaruawahia is the capital of Maoridom.


Ngaruawahia

Broadcaster Heather du Plessis-Allan invoked the wrath of Ngaruawahia locals last year when she described the town in an opinion piece as "not worthy of stopping to pee in". The Waikato Times ran a story about the local backlash to the piece on its front page headed "Take that, Heather! Ngaruawahia strikes back" and depicting the broadcaster with crudely drawn devil horns and a moustache. Waikato District Mayor Allan Sanson was among the outraged, saying there's more to the area than "hearsay and a public toilet". And we're inclined to agree.

While it may look a little rough around the edges, the town is a bastion of Maori culture and has some stellar outdoor attractions to boot. Considered the capital of Maoridom, Ngaruawahia is home to the Maori king. His seat: the ornately carved Turangawaewae Marae. The marae opens to the public during the regatta that takes place each March, which includes a parade of waka. The town is watched over by Taupiri Mountain, a sacred site home to the most significant Maori burial ground in the Waikato.

To get back to nature, check out the Hakarimata Track or Te Awa Cycleway or simply hang out by the Waikato and Waipa rivers. Sanson has recommended hitting up the local bakery, where truckies are known to line up for a pie, and has assured visitors that there's nothing wrong with the public toilets. "[T]ey are the busiest toilets around," he said in response to du Plessis-Allan's piece. "This is the first time I have heard complaints about them."


Oamaru is the self-professed Steampunk capital of New Zealand.

Oamaru is the self-professed Steampunk capital of New Zealand.


Oamaru

Come for the penguins, stay for the victorian architecture, offbeat art scene and generally kooky but cool vibe.

Most tourists are in town to visit the resident penguin colonies, but stick around long enough and you'll discover a town that is reimagining its past in ingenious ways. The once dilapidated victorian buildings in the harbour precinct have been transformed into galleries, boutique clothing, antiques and arts and crafts stores, a brewery and far more top-notch bars and restaurants than you might expect in a town of its size. The steampunk scene is huge here and you can lose yourself in a parallel universe of retro-futuristic creations at Steampunk HQ, housed in the landmark Meeks Grain Elevator building.

Oamaru is also the final destination in the Alps to Ocean Cycleway. Complete a section of the track on a day trip or take four to six days to do the full ride from Aoraki/Mt Cook, which takes in yet more towns well worth a stopover as well as some pretty awe-inspiring scenery. If you're after a nature fix closer to town, visit the little blue penguins who've made their home in a disused quarry not far from the harbour district. Slightly further afield, at Bushy Beach, yellow-eyed penguins can sometimes be found under the neighbouring buildings, including the aptly named Penguin Club.


Fleur's Place in Moeraki is one of the South Island's best loved restaurants.
Image source: MYTCHALL BRANSGROVE/STUFF

Fleur's Place in Moeraki is one of the South Island's best loved restaurants.


Moeraki

A tiny settlement which requires a slight detour off the North Otago stretch of SH1 and risks being ignored by travellers keen to get back on the road after pondering the Moeraki boulders scattered along the beach further north. Admittedly there's not a lot here to capture distracted minds - although it is home to one of the South Island's most-loved restaurants, the legendary Fleur's Place, built right on the edge of the bay, near a jetty where the catch of the day can be unloaded almost at the kitchen door.


There's also a campground, motels, baches, permanent homes and a traditional country pub which has splendid views across various boats bobbing at their moorings and is a highly recommended stop to waste an afternoon in. The coast here is rugged and often weather-lashed, but more than anything Moeraki is testament to the restorative power of spending even a short time in a quiet spot next to the ocean.


Murchison's bakeries and tea rooms offer warm respite from the often frigid weather.
Image source: MARION VAN DIJK

Murchison's bakeries and tea rooms offer warm respite from the often frigid weather.


Murchison

While it's long been known for the wrong reasons - an inhospitable winter climate (think freezing fog and sodden valleys) and a historic but never-forgotten massive earthquake - every South Island traveller has been forced to reconsider their relationship with Murch since (ironically enough) last November's  earthquake across the island in Kaikoura. With SH1 blocked, all the state highway traffic to and from points north has been funnelled along SH6 and through Murchison's main street.  


To be fair, the town's rehabilitation has been underway for years now, as outdoorsy types seized on its proximity to some of the island's best rivers and the wilderness of the vast Kahurangi National Park close-by; but if you tend to a more pedestrian pace, this is as good a time as ever to make your peace with Murchison and hope for a seat in one of its crowded tearooms - because if you don't stop here, it's a long, winding drive before you'll find anything better.


Outdoors types have seized on Murchison's proximity to Kahurangi National Park.
Image source: CHRISTINE MCCORMACK/THE PRESS

Outdoors types have seized on Murchison's proximity to Kahurangi National Park.


Alexandra

It's hard to dislike this pretty Central Otago town, but it tends to live in the shadow of its more glamorous neighbours (Wanaka, Queenstown). And although it's close to Lake Dunstan and the Central Otago Rail Trail, it's on the very edge of these, rather than in the heart of the action.


But it's definitely a place which rewards a closer look. Its commercial centre reeks the prosperity of a small town which enjoys both its own fortunes and the spin-offs of the tourism goldrush down the highway. Its pleasant yet dramatic setting beside the Clutha and beneath some classic Central Otago hill country promises plenty of opportunity for rewarding wandering.


It has all the usual things that small towns like to boast of - golf courses, parks, shops, some excellent cafes - but perhaps its standout feature is the climate, which is extraordinary, one of the country's most extreme and hence inspiring. 


Skydiving over Motueka.
Image: BRADEN FASTIER

Skydiving over Motueka.


Motueka

It could be dismissed as the vaguely shabby country-cousin to Nelson about 45 minutes back down the highway, and Motueka seems destined to always be treated as a gateway to somewhere a bit further on - think the Abel Tasman, Golden Bay, the Motueka Valley or the wine country of the Moutere.


But it's a unique and well-loved town, which stretches for miles along a big main drag and a couple of minor ones. Come the summer high season Motueka High St is completely jammed with traffic - most of it towing boats, jetskis or caravans - and the sense of a frontier boomtown is hard to avoid.

It's a different story in winter when a visit to the town can be a fairly lonely experience. Mot has never really done glamour or grandeur - it has some pleasant local walks (along the foreshore, for instance), skydiving is a popular attraction at the local airfield, there are plenty of cafes and shops to poke about in - but it has long since learned that being a gateway to somewhere else can actually be a good thing: after all, there can't be many other towns in New Zealand which are so strategically located for exploring such a richness of natural beauty as lies within an hour or less of Mot High St.


Gore Bay near Cheviot is worth a stop.
Gore Bay near Cheviot is worth a stop.


Cheviot (and surrounds)

In happier times, Cheviot was a bustling farm town on one of the busiest bits of Mainland SH1, between Kaikoura and Christchurch, with the usual array of hearty country cafes and eccentric local shops. Nature dealt it a cruel hand, though, with last November's earthquakes when the through traffic it relied so heavily on vanished overnight. A massive repair job has been underway since, but the damaged and fragile highway continues to open and close unpredictably.


Which is a shame, because besides the appealing slice-of-rural-hospitality it has long offered, Cheviot sits at the hub of a hinterland well worth exploring, be it the pretty Cheviot Hills Reserve, the Cheviot Coastal Classic cycle trail, or the drive out to the surf beach and seaside community of Gore Bay.


The fact it's actually readily accessible from the largely undamaged south (Canterbury) end of SH1 - and a trip here requires passage through the excellent winegrowing country of Waipara -  makes a stopover here even more recommendable

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