Aotearoa New Zealand’s best under-the-radar winter experiences

These untamed adventures will redefine how you view those rugged islands across the Tasman.

By Staff Writers, April 21 2023
Aotearoa New Zealand’s best under-the-radar winter experiences

New Zealand has long been adored by Australians seeking a quintessential winter escape: skiing at iconic resorts in the morning, après ski by mid-afternoon, and heating up alongside roaring fireplaces over a meal and bottle of Pinot Noir in the evenings. Yet there’s more to the story.

Beyond well-known favourites like Mt Ruapehu and The Remarkables lies a destination primed for discovery, with diverse and awe-inspiring experiences that’ll redefine how you view those rugged islands across the Tasman. It all begins with a single flight.

Sound like a holiday worth exploring? Here are five of New Zealand’s best under-the-radar winter experiences to add to your hit list.

1. Follow the Winter Fireplace Trail in Marlborough

Though vines may be bare, winter is when the wine regions are most alive – crisp days enticing rugged-up travellers to sip their way from cellar to cellar, unearthing the passions that go into each and every bottle as they go.

There’s almost always a fireplace involved too.

In Marlborough – synonymous with Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc – the sizzle, crack and pop of fireplaces is a key part of its appeal. Because, it’s home to the fabulous Winter Fireplace Trail: a scenic, gourmet adventure linking over a dozen wineries and restaurants.

Among them? Iconic Cloudy Bay and Allan Scott Family Winemakers (be sure to try the Eli Collection), together with culinary destinations such as Arbour, which was voted ‘New Zealand’s Best Regional Restaurant 2022’.

The award-winning Arbour restaurant is just one of the delicious stops along the trail.. Arbour
The award-winning Arbour restaurant is just one of the delicious stops along the trail.

2. Stargaze in a Dark Sky Reserve

Keen stargazers know winter’s a prime time for viewing the heavens – crisp nights and clear skies provide perfect conditions for an awe-inspiring treat.

At the heart of the South Island is Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve: the local stargazers’ destination of choice.

The largest reserve of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere, chosen for its minimal light pollution, by day the Dark Sky Reserve is a dramatic landscape of glacial lakes and golden tussock lands ringed by snow-capped mountains. And at night? It’s even more enchanting.

The reserve is vast at some 4,300 square kilometres – almost four times the size of Auckland. As a result, you can enjoy great views almost anywhere. The Church of the Good Shepherd at Lake Tekapo is the most popular site, but Tekapo Springs – where you can soak and stargaze – is well worth a visit too.

For a deeper connection to the stars above, join the Dark Sky Project for a Tatai Aroraki (Māori astronomy) experience, bringing the stories of the universe to life through a local lens.

3. Bathe in natural hot springs

Japan’s onsen spa culture has devotees across the globe. Rather than jetting off to Hakone or Fukuoka for a hot springs hit though, you can experience a bathing ritual closer to home at the likes of Maruia Hot Springs at Lewis Pass or Rotorua’s Polynesian Spa.

Nestled in the Southern Alps, Maruia is a holistic experience where steaming outdoor pools combine with a day spa, wellness retreats and glamping, while the Polynesian Spa – in the North Island’s Bay of Plenty – is all about lakeside relaxation.

Slip into relaxation at Polynesian Spa, overlooking Lake Rotorua.. Polynesian Spa
Slip into relaxation at Polynesian Spa, overlooking Lake Rotorua.
Polynesian Spa

While both are very different, they’re a fascinating contrast and it’s well worth visiting both springs if you can, as they show just how diverse winters can be between the North Island and South Island. There are several other hot springs to seek out too.

4. Hunt for truffles in scenic North Canterbury

When you think of truffles, it’s usually picturesque rural scenes in Italy or France that come to mind, yet New Zealand also has a thriving truffle industry, with the small, highly prized clusters of deliciousness grown throughout the country.

Rather than simply enjoying truffles as a garnish atop a delicious meal, why not go right to the source and join a hunt? Kings Truffles in North Canterbury invites visitors to do just that, venturing out in search of the black gold hidden just beneath the surface.

New Zealand’s annual truffle harvest takes place between June and August, with King Truffles’ tours allowing you to get your hands dirty on a hunt. Naturally, there are tastings too. But for something really special, it’s ‘The Truffle Day Out’ you’ll want to join.

Co-hosted by Black Estate Winery and Kings Truffles, the special, one day-only event gives you a chance to dig up truffles high above Waipara Gorge, and then indulge with a relaxed truffle lunch paired with aged wines and fantastic music.

5. Tackle the backcountry via helicopter

What’s better than flying down a pristine mountainside by ski or snowboard? Flying to the top of said mountain by chartered chopper first, breathing in the still isolation of its backcountry terrain as you climb ever higher, before then skiing your way down.

New Zealand, in particular the rugged peaks of its South Island, is made for heliskiing. It’s also easier and more affordable than you may think, with several operators and locations to choose from, in addition to scheduled and private charter options.

Harris Mountains Heli-Ski and Southern Lakes Heliski both operate out of Queenstown’s airport, unlocking sites across Queenstown, Wanaka and Aoraki-Mount Cook.

Of course, this and the experiences above are just a handful of those awaiting in Aotearoa New Zealand – a destination of culture, creativity and wintry adventure right on Australia’s doorstep.

All you need to do is book a flight, add another layer of clothing and start seeking them out.

With regular hops across the Tasman from Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Brisbane and Perth, not to mention the Sunshine Coast starting from June, there’s no time like the present to plan your next unforgettable New Zealand holiday.

Click through to to learn more and inspire your trip.

This article was produced in collaboration with Tourism New Zealand.