1. Great Barrier Island
Ninety-three kilometres from Auckland, this rugged rock never feels especially busy in summer, but in winter it can feel as if you have the place to yourself. Once aboard the vehicle ferry your adventure begins, as there’s a good chance dolphins will accompany the vessel.
Once you’ve disembarked, wend your way along the windy roads from Tryphena to one of several DOC campsites. Walk, fish, stargaze, surf, or just relish the miles of isolated coast and take a dip at Kaitoke Hot Springs, where the water’s always warm.
To take advantage of the SeaLink Ferry discount, when you book your passage, if you’re a member of the NZMCA, two passengers with a vehicle under seven metres can travel for just $761.
A paradise for pohutukawa lovers, the further reaches of this region are virtually deserted in winter, so make a beeline for Thames and just keep on trucking towards Coromandel Town and Colville.
Traverse the western side of the peninsula and make for Stony Bay, where the glorious 10km Coromandel Coastal Walkway begins, or head up the other way, on the eastern side, towards Port Jackson, where the campground’s picnic tables have been painted for use as giant outdoor board games, so rug up and roll the dice.
Happily all the counters and dice are left out. Do be warned, though; the roads beyond Colville are largely unsealed and at many points very narrow, so this is only suitable for super-confident drivers. Most rental firms won’t insure beyond Colville, so you’ll need to be piloting your own vehicle.
3. Abel Tasman National Park
To enjoy this national park as early Dutch explorer Abel Tasman did, visit in July or August when you’ll see fewer visitors and much less traffic on the roads and sea. Departing from Nelson, explore the many artisan food establishments as you pass through the towns of Tasman Bay, Mapua, Motueka and Kaiteriteri before finishing up at Marahau, the seaside village known as The Gateway to Abel Tasman National Park.
Maybe you’ll start a driftwood appreciation organisation on the shores of Motueka. Or you could blow your entire holiday budget on arts, crafts and kai in Mapua. If you make it all the way to Marahau, be sure to experience some of the world’s coolest coastal kayaking.
Let’s not neglect Southland this winter, and while the beaches around Invercargill will be borderline Antarctic, if you’re dressed appropriately, this neck of the woods is the very definition of invigorating.
Colac Bay, Gemstone Beach and Riverton are all excellent in winter, especially if you’re not a fan of crowds. Walk up Mores Reserve for views across Foveaux Strait all the way to Stewart Island or park up and experience the Southern Ocean as it crashes musically on rocky shores; if you’re lucky, you might even see dolphins feeding in Riverton estuary.