Queenstown may get all the attention (and Instagram posts) but if you’re prepared to wander a little further west, you’ll be rewarded with an untouched New Zealand that offers visitors a world-class travel experience – without the crowds.
Off the beaten path in the South Island, Central Otago and Waitaki might be two of New Zealand’s most underrated destinations. Which makes them all the more attractive, offering extraordinary landscapes and dramatic seasons alongside boutique accommodation, luxury lodges, historic gold-rush towns, high-energy activities and some of the country’s best wineries.
Here are 16 excellent reasons to explore this majestic part of New Zealand’s South Island.
1. Eat at the Ancient Briton Hotel
Looking for a place to eat after a morning of curling? Make a beeline for this 156-year-old pub in the historic town of Naseby and relax in the quaint bar for a spot of local and seasonal food – think award-wining lamb from nearby Shortland station, West Coast whitebait and fresh Bluff oysters. www.ancientbriton.co.nz
2. Cycle the Otago Central Rail Trail
Renowned as New Zealand’s “original great ride”, the trail follows the old railway track from the goldrush town of Clyde to Middlemarch, taking in Central Otago’s spectacular scenery. Stop for lunch at historic towns along the way and quench your thirst at village pubs and cafes. Trail Journeys can help you plan your trip, as well as assist with bike hire, transfers and transport. www.otagocentralrailtrail.co.nz
3. Cruise down the Clutha River
Take in the dramatic landscape of the Roxburgh Gorge and discover the history of gold mining as you drift downstream the Clutha River. Here you’ll view the old gold rush sites of Doctor’s and Butcher’s Points and see the rustic schist huts that the miners lived in all of those years ago. Tea and coffee (and freshly baked cake) is served on the banks of the Clutha at Doctor’s Point. www.clutharivercruises.co.nz
4. Stay at Mt Michael Lodge
Nestled on the edge of a picture-perfect vineyard, this boutique accommodation offers an immaculate bed and breakfast experience. Relax in a private courtyard – or private outdoor spa – and take in the views of the Pisa mountain range. Breakfast is a personal affair, with hosts Alistair and Fiona cooking up a storm to cater for your every whim. www.mtmichaellodge.co.nz
5. Eat at Bannockburn Hotel
It’s all about the 40-page wine list at this excellent restaurant, which offers a masterful curation of both local and overseas drops along with 60 wines by the glass. Tapas and sharing plates feature here, showcasing local produce and flavours. Smoked salmon pate sits alongside unctuous, hand-folded burrata with seasonal sides and toasted ciabatta. Book an early dinner on the outdoor terrace to catch the spectacular sunset over Mt Difficulty. www.bannockburnhotel.com
6. Walk the Four Barrels Wine Trail
Set a leisurely pace as you make your way around an 8km loop trail that takes you to the cellar doors of four vineyards including Misha’s Wine, Aurum Wines, Scott Base and Wooing Tree Vineyard. The walk takes you through picturesque orchards and around Lake Dunstan, so pack a picnic lunch or take advantage of the all-day grazing menu at Scott Base. Wooing Tree also offers gourmet platters, cheeseboards and sweet treats. www.newzealand.com/au/feature/the-4-barrels-walking-wine-trail
7. Drink at The Cloudy Bay Shed
Fancy kicking back in a sheepskin-lined hanging chair with a glass of Pinot Noir in your hand? Designed by architect Paul Rolfe, Cloudy Bay’s newest cellar door at Northburn takes wine tasting – and relaxation – to a luxurious new level. The sleek interior boasts an expansive private tasting room and a cosy terrace overlooking a postcard-perfect bucolic scene (there is even a bubbling brook). The sublime view is the perfect accompaniment for a tasting, snack or special event. www.visit-cloudy-bay-shed
8. Go for a wander around Clyde
One of Central Otago’s hidden gems, Clyde is a former goldrush town that boasts perfectly preserved buildings from the late 19th century. Explore the village on foot and discover the original stone walls and charming shop fronts along Sunderland Street, including the Town Hall, Dunstan Times Building and Dunstan Hotel. If you fancy a spot of shopping, head to Touch for yarn and homewares and Lily and Esther for an edit of some of New Zealand’s best independent fashion labels.
9. Stay at Olivers Lodge, Clyde
The former 1869 general store has been reimagined as boutique accommodation by owners Andrea and David Ritchie with a sensitive restoration of the homestead, store, coach sheds, stables and barns. The accommodation is divided into the Lodge and Stables and features an eclectic collection of vintage décor and furnishings. Spend a night in the Stables and you’re likely to find a claw-foot bathtub in your room. Charming attention to detail is completed with a deluxe breakfast in the morning. Olivers Restaurant, a café-bakery-delicatessen and a craft brewery are also located onsite. www.oliverscentralotago.co.nz
10. Experience Hot Tubs Omarama
Unwind after a day of cycling or walking in your own wood-fired hot tub. Each tub is artfully hidden behind landscaped hills of tussock while offering 360-degree views of the surrounding Waitaki mountain ranges. Open at night as well as during the day, so you can relax in privacy under the stars. www.hottubsomarama.co.nz
11. Eat at High Country Salmon
Need a salmon fix? Stop by the salmon farm and floating shop for sashimi so fresh it’s just about breathing. You can also feed the fish and relax in the café over salmon chowder or sushi. www.highcountrysalmon.co.nz
12. Walk to Clay Cliffs
You could be forgiven for thinking you’re about to encounter the Army of the Undead as you approach this unique geological formation*. Such is the drama of the towering clay pinnacles and ravines of Clay Cliffs. Located near Omarama, the cliffs are accessed by a short walk up the mountain. Visit the Omarama Visitor Information Centre for directions and tips ahead of your visit.
* The Putangirua Pinnacles in the Wairarapa district of Wellington was the actual location of the Army of the Undead in Lord of the Rings.
13. Experience Glide Omarama
If you’re after a little adventure in your holiday, consider soaring above the Southern Alps in your own glider at Glide Omarama. Accompanied by a qualified instructor, you will get views of Mount Cook and Lake Benmore. You’ll enjoy a smooth and gentle ride but depending on how brave you feel, you can request some aerobatics. www.glideomarama.com
14. Explore Janet Frame House
Fans of New Zealand’s internationally-acclaimed author Janet Frame will love exploring her childhood home in Oamaru. Readers will recognise parts of the home that Frame described in detail throughout her work, particularly in the first part of her autobiography, To the Is-Land. It’s where her imagination was nurtured throughout childhood and where she first discovered her affinity with writing. The house also provides an insight into 1930s New Zealand domestic interiors. Open 1 November to 30 April from 2pm to 4pm daily. www.waitakinz.com/explore/janet-frame-house
15. Eat at Fleurs Place
When Rick Stein says that a restaurant is his top pick for seafood in New Zealand, you don’t order the venison. Well, you can of course - because it’s excellent - but you’ll be missing the morning’s catch straight off the fishing boats in Moereki, just steps away from Fleurs Place. Rick Stein isn’t the only fan of Fleur’s – the place is literally covered in admiring graffiti from visitors around the world. You won’t go wrong with the fish of the day, but if you’re a fan of shellfish, the hotpot is not to be missed. www.fleursplace.com
16. Experience Karitane Maori Tours
Explore the beautiful Waikouaiti river on a traditional waka (double hulled canoe) and discover local flora and fauna. An immersive Maori cultural experience, you’ll help regenerate the local environment by planting some harakeke (flak). www.karitanemaoritours.nz
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