New Zealand is not densely populated with a population of just 4 million people spread over two islands roughly the same size as Japan. Cities are few and far between—especially in the South Island—but there are dozens of small towns dotted around the countryside. While most travelers come to New Zealand for its impressive natural attractions, some of these charming small towns can easily be incorporated into a New Zealand road trip. With beautiful surroundings, distinct cultures, and interesting histories, here are the coolest New Zealand small towns that should be on your radar.
Mangonui, Far North
The Far North town of Mangonui is a historic fishing village at the eastern end of Doubtless Bay best known for an excellent overwater fish and chip restaurant. If that's not to your tastes, several other restaurants and boutiques line the water. The 1.8-mile Mangonui Heritage Trail leads to a number of historic buildings around town while a 45-minute walk from town takes you to Rangikapiti Pa, an ancient Maori fortified settlement on a hill. Although Mangonui's coastline itself isn't beachy, it's a short drive from some excellent beaches, such as Coopers Beach and Cable Bay.
Rawene, Far North
Tiny Rawene sits on Northland's remote west coast. The predominantly Maori area couldn't be more different from its east-coast counterpart, the Bay of Islands, in terms of tourist development. It's New Zealand's third-oldest European settlement, having attracted settlers for a long time because of the kauri trees that were once in abundance. With a handful of cafes, art galleries, and historic buildings, as well as a ferry over to Kohukohu on the northern side of the Hokianga Harbour, Rawene is under-touristed Northland at its best.
Roughly half-way between Auckland and the Bay of Islands, and about 40 minutes south of Whangarei, Waipu is a popular pit-stop for travelers along Northland's east coast. If you have a bit of time, it's worth detouring to beautiful Waipu Cove, a beachside settlement 5 miles down the road, for a swim or a beach walk. Waipu has a strong Scottish heritage, as it was settled by Scottish migrants by way of Nova Scotia, Canada. Visitors come from all over the country, and around the world, for Waipu's annual Highland Games, held on Jan. 1 every year. You'll be entertained by Highland dancing, caber tossing, and other Scottish sports.
Matakana, North Auckland
A popular getaway spot with Aucklanders (and an easy day trip), Matakana is technically still within the Auckland district but has a distinct country feel. The presence of a weekly farmers' market, vineyards, gorgeous beaches, and the quirky Sculptureum outdoor sculpture park, means that there's plenty to do in town, though you'll almost never have Matakana to yourself.
Raglan is a famous surfing spot on Waikato's western coast. The glittering sweep of black sand at Ngarunui Beach is the ideal place to learn to surf, and surf schools set up in the area in season. The little town of Raglan itself, 3 miles from the beach, has stylish cafes and beachy boutiques where you can pick up surfing necessities.
South of Raglan on the coast of Waikato, Kawhia hides a natural hot water beach that's far lesser known than its counterpart in the Coromandel. At the beach you can climb over the sand dunes at low tide, shovel in hand, and dig your own natural hot water spa. Every February, Kawhia hosts the Kawhia Kai Festival, a celebration of Maori food (kai) and culture.
The small Maori town of Hiruharama, or Jerusalem, on the Whanganui River was perhaps best known as the home of off-beat New Zealand poet and commune founder, James K. Baxter, before his death in the 1970s. Although the commune was disbanded after Baxter’s death, travelers can still absorb some of its history and atmosphere in Jerusalem. While you're there, make a stop at the thin-spired St. Joseph’s Catholic Church. It was built in the 1890s and features an altar engraved with Maori designs.
Havelock, Marlborough Sounds
Not to be confused with larger Havelock North, near Napier in the North Island, Havelock is a small town in the Marlborough Sounds, at the top of the South Island. It's the self-proclaimed "green shell mussel capital of the world," as the juicy bivalves are farmed in the clean waters of the Marlborough Sounds and processed at factories in Havelock. Waterfront restaurants overlooking moored yachts are a great place to feast on a lunch of mussels. Havelock is also the base for the scenic Pelorus Mail Boat, a daily service taking mail and supplies to inhabitants of the more remote parts of the Marlborough Sounds, which travelers can ride.
Collingwood, Golden Bay
At the western end of remote Golden Bay, Collingwood overlooks the Ruataniwha Inlet and is backed by the forests of the Kahurangi National Park. It's also a short drive from Farewell Spit, an important bird sanctuary. There's not much in town, but that's part of the attraction: Collingwood has a real frontier vibe. The town was named after Admiral Collingwood, Lord Nelson's second-in-command in the Battle of Trafalgar in Spain in 1805.
Karamea, West Coast
Karamea is the northernmost settlement on the West Coast of the South Island. Like Collingwood, it's a gateway to the Kahurangi National Park, a popular hiking destination for travelers seeking a rugged multi-day trek. Squished between the forested mountains and the sea, visitors can also enjoy beachy activities here. Be warned that Karamea is the very definition of remote: it's 59 miles north of Westport, which itself is just a small town, and a 4.5 hour drive from Nelson, the nearest city.
St. Arnaud, Nelson Lakes National Park
Located on Lake Rotoiti in the Nelson Lakes National Park, St. Arnaud is worth visiting at any time of year. In winter, it's a good base for skiing at the Rainbow Ski area, while at other times of year the Nelson Lakes are popular swimming, boating, and hiking destinations. St. Arnaud itself has just a few lodges, shops, and campgrounds. The higher altitude here (2,100 feet) means it's much cooler than sea-level Nelson.
Murchison, Tasman District
In the middle of the upper South Island, between Nelson and the West Coast, Murchison is surrounded by the mountainous Kahurangi National Park and Nelson Lakes National Park. At the confluence of the Buller and Matakitaki Rivers, and with the Gowan, Mangles, Matiri, Glenroy, and Maruia Rivers nearby, it's a top white-water rafting and kayaking destination. Rapids range from an easy Class II to challenging class IV.
Akaroa, Banks Peninsula
In a country dominated by English and Scottish colonial-era settlements, Akaroa, on the Banks Peninsula east of Christchurch, is unusually French. Akaroa is the oldest town in Canterbury province (founded in 1840), and historians believe that the town's French settlement prompted Britain to speed up its annexation of New Zealand. There are many 19th-century buildings and cute French cafes here, as well as dolphin-watching, sea kayaking, biking, and hiking on the Banks Peninsula.
Arrowtown, Central Otago
A popular day trip destination from Queenstown, Arrowtown is a gold rush-era town on the Arrow River. The more than 60 heritage buildings in Arrowtown give it an old vibe that's rare in New Zealand. Like Queenstown, Arrowtown is a convenient base for nearby skiing, hiking, biking, fishing, and winery tours.
Oban, Rakiura/Stewart Island
Rakiura/Stewart Island's only real settlement, Oban has a strong community character all of its own. Stewart Island is New Zealand's "third" island, off the bottom of the South Island, and 85 percent of the island is a national park. This makes Oban a great base for hiking, wildlife and bird spotting, and even viewing the Aurora Australis at certain times of year.