and what you should do instead
New Zealand is a fairly small country, and a country rather new to it’s tourism boom. Because of this, every travel guide tends to point to the same places, and while many of them are absolutely wonderful not all of them live up to the hype, and some are just too busy to enjoy. We’ve devised a list of 5 our must-see disappointments, and what you could see instead.
*nb: we feel a little bit bad spoiling these sneaky spots, so do us a solid and
keep them secret.
1. Hot Water Beach, Coromandel.
The Coromandel Peninsula in general is considered a must do, and Hot Water Beach in particular. Coromandel is full of tropical blue water, white sand beaches, and stunning basalt rock formations. The popularity of the peninsula is primarily a result of its proximity to Auckland, but being the home of the beautiful Cathedral Cove doesn’t hurt. When I first heard about this place, the main information I had was that it was busy, code for: “Well I definitely don’t want to go there.” Luckily there are still some stunning, quiet, beautiful parts of the Coromandel Peninsula left, but you’ll have to find them for yourself. Hot Water Beach is not one of those places.
Why people go: Digging down into the sand at low tide reveals natural hot springs. The tenacious can dig themselves a full size hot pool to sit in and take in the beautiful beach view.
Why we didn’t like it: Because this is an activity that requires it to be low tide, everyone heads to this already popular spot around the same time of day or night, and then head down to the same trickle of hot water. This spot turns into a zoo, and you are almost guaranteed to be sitting in a pool with strangers, and zero peace and quiet.
Where to go instead: There are tons of natural hot springs in New Zealand, and many of them are free. If you are very lucky, a local will show you their favourite. We would recommend Kawhia Hot Water Beach on the west coast, bring a spade, line up the poles and dig!
2. Hokitika Gorge, West Coast.
This tourist spot draws big numbers as well, especially on a beautiful day. A short walk leads you across a swingbridge, and to a small beach. There are enough people moving through this carpark that it can sustain a coffee cart and flushing toilets. Not too bad for how remote it is.
Why people go: The water here is a gorgeous, vibrant blue due to the perfect combination of glacial till, algae, and sunlight. I have even seen people swimming here (which, with the swift current, can be quite dangerous).
Why we didn’t like it: Yep, this place is everything it’s touted to be, it just isn’t really anything special. For how long of a drive it is, we expected to experience something we couldn’t see anywhere else.
Where to go instead: Most rivers in this area will have the same beautiful colour, and many even allow for a swim without the worrying combination of a fast current and high, inaccessible sides. Try Rakaia Gorge in Methven instead, which has an access point on each side of the river and a lookout just off of the inland scenic route.
Bonus: Take a walk along the Historic Kawaru Bridge just outside of Queenstown to see the stunning blues of the Kawaru Gorge!
3. Moeriaki Boulders, Koekoho Beach, Otago.
New Zealand is full of geologic marvels, so if you’re into cool rock formations, you’ll love this country. Moeriaki boulders are one of the cooler formations to visit, trust us, we’ve done the self-guided “cool rocks of New Zealand” tour.
Why people go: Perfectly spherical boulders sitting on the low tide mark, backed by a beautiful ocean expanse.
Why we didn’t like it: The seven or so boulders are localized to one spot and full tour busses of people show up to see them. We took the DOC track out, but discovered on our way out that most people take the by-donation “tourist walk” down past the café and gift shop. The whole magical experience just feels incredibly commercial.
Where to go instead: We have 2 suggestions for this one because we couldn’t decide (seriously, there are so many cool rocks in this country).
Option 1: The Koutu Boulders (in Koutu) are the most similar to Moeriaki. It is a beautiful beach, littered with spherical boulders, but with a few key differences. The boulders are spread along a 20 minute or so beach walk, giving people plenty of space to spread out and enjoy the scenery. There are still a few close to the road end for those who don’t wish to walk too much. For those who do, there is a high tide track as well, and you can turn this wander into a loop or escape the tide if you lose track of time.
Option 2: The Whitecliffs boulders are one of the most magical-looking spots I’ve ever seen. These boulders are not on the beach but the forest floor instead, creating a pretty realistic fairy land. The access is through private farm land, and the owners ask for a donation of $5 for access, which in our minds is totally worth it. This walk does require a fair level of fitness as, white it’s short, it requires going down a quite steep, muddy farm track, and then of course up it again.
*Large vehicles and motorhomes will not be able to access this road.
4. Franz Josef Glacier, West Coast.
Now, if you’re planning on going on a heli-hike, this is the place for you, but if you want to roll up and get a view of a glacier, there are better options. If you DO find yourself here, challenge yourself with the Roberts Point Trail (5hrs) or take a guided walk with the incredibly knowledgeable Glacier Valley Eco Tours.
Why people go: This is the most popular spot on the glacier highway, and is one of the only places you can see glaciers in a rainforest environment.
Why we didn’t like it: Global warming has caused the glacier to retreat exponentially over the past decade, meaning a 45min walk to get to a not-very-impressive viewpoint. It has gotten so bad, there are even talks of putting in a gondola to bring people up to a point where they are level with the base of the glacier. We might be biased, as we’ve seen some cool glaciers in our time, but this spot was pretty blah.
Where to go instead: Rob Roy Glacier in Mt. Aspiring National Park, just outside of Wanaka. There are tons of glaciers in New Zealand, but Rob Roy is pretty accessible if you have a decent level of fitness. It is a 2 hour hike on a beautiful manicured trail, with no challenging mud or rocks to navigate (there ARE stairs). The end point is a stunning open space where you can sit, have a picnic, or just view the glacier. There is also a lookout halfway up for those with less time to spare. Yes, this spot is quite popular, but it is worth it.
5. Church of the Good Shepard, McKenzie Basin.
Said to be the most photographed spot in New Zealand, and located on the shores of Lake Tekapo, the Church of the Good Shepard is immensely popular. We had assumed, based on it’s popularity, that this church had architectural or historical importance, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.
*This is an active church, and visitors are reminded to treat the parish, services, staff, and wedding parties with respect. As of 2017/2018 a fence has been erected to keep disrespectful tourists away through the summer months.
Why people go: We aren’t really sure honestly, but probably it’s location. The scenery behind the church is lovely, especially in lupine season, and the two could be photographed together if the carpark was relocated.
Why we didn't like it: This tiny spot is crawling with tour busses, snapping pictures of active church services and wedding parties. There is no view of the church without RV's parked outside of it, and it felt intrusive to be there.
Where to go instead: This is a little trickier as, again, we aren’t so sure WHY people visit here, but for a beautiful church in a beautiful location, Raukokore Anglican Church on the east cape took our breath away. We were both absolutely stunned by it’s beauty, and we were the only people there.
* BONUS: for the intrepid church-viewers, a chapel made entirely of living trees can be found in Ohaupo. Open only on Sundays in the summer months, visitors can enter the gardens for $15 to see the treechurch. Read more.
Interested in seeing some more lesser know spots? Check out or post about the North Islands hidden gems.