It’s that strange time of year again when towns and cities of questionable allure are named the most beautiful in New Zealand.
Last year Hamilton was up for the most beautiful city award. In 2019, Pukekohe and Lower Hutt were in the running.
The 2021 Keep New Zealand Beautiful Awards also throw up a few surprises: How many people head to the Far North to take in the visual splendour of Kaitāia?
The list makes more sense when you consider that the annual awards are designed to honour communities which “provide a benchmark for environmental excellence”. Here we take a look at those up for the title of New Zealand’s most beautiful small town, large town, small city and large city, finding there’s more to most than first meets the eye.
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Most beautiful small town: Foxton v Kaitāia
Perhaps best known for producing the Foxton Fizz soft drink, this small Manawatū town flies under the radar of many travellers without a special interest in flax or the Netherlands. Which is a shame given its unique blend of Māori and Dutch history. Where else in the world would you find a cultural park with an award-winning museum dedicated to Māori and Dutch stories (Te Awahou Nieuwe Stroom), a Māori gallery and workshop (Whare Manaaki), and a colourful replica of a 17th century Dutch windmill (De Molln)? Just think of it as your ticket to Amsterdam via the Horowhenua.
Originally a Māori settlement known as Te Awahou, the town rode the flax booms of the late 19th century before losing economic ground to Palmerston North up the road. As such, it retains an olde-worlde feel – Main Street is full of revamped old buildings which reflect the town’s glory days. There’s even a horse-drawn tram that operates when volunteers are available. At other times, you can check it out at the Station Tea Rooms.
There are plenty of gift, antique and secondhand stores to tempt you to linger longer, and an abundance of excellent places to eat. Head to Cafe De Molen for Dutch and Kiwi-Dutch fare, much of which makes use of the flour milled by the Dutch-style windmill. Think “uitsmijter” (ham, gouda, Dutch mustard and fried eggs on sourdough), Dutch-style pancakes and hot dogs, and “poffertjes” (little puffy pancakes with butter, syrup and lemon). Sweet Dreams Bakery, meanwhile, has developed quite the following for its hearty pies and custard squares in unusual flavours such as passionfruit and Irish Cream.
Work them off at aquatic park Off The Loop, where you can give cable wakeboarding a go, or head to dune-backed Foxton Beach for a swim, stroll, bike ride or beach buggie.
Keep New Zealand beautiful judges commended the town on its initiative to restore the Manawatū River Loop, which silted up some 80 years ago.
Most visitors to this Far North town use it as a pit stop en route to Ninety Mile Beach or Cape Reinga. Take the time to explore it properly though, or at least tick off its main attractions, and you’re likely to be pleasantly surprised.
Not a knock-out beauty at first glance, Kaitāia has quietly been undergoing a makeover: The judges praised its “Kaitāia Artwork” project, a collaboration between the Kaitāia Business Association, local iwi, the community board and local artists to improve the township and create vibrant spaces for people to hang out.
The town boasts a beauty of a cultural centre in the form of Te Ahu: a museum, library, art space, cinema, theatre, café and tourist information centre in one. In the museum, you’ll find wood carvings and greenstone-adorned weapons dating back to the 19th century along with other artefacts, movies, virtual tours and exhibitions that endeavour to explain why Kaitāia is an “unsung leader in New Zealand’s history”.
If you’re a wine lover, you’re also in luck. About 3.5km south you’ll find Okaku Estate Winery, where you can taste award-winning wines in a cosy cellar door near the southern end of Ninety Mile Beach. To the north, you’ll find New Zealand’s northernmost vineyard Karikari Estate, with an al fresco eating and drinking area with sweeping views across the peninsula. And the Far North’s famously beautiful beaches are just a short drive away.
Most beautiful large town: Taupō v Whakatāne
This little town of just 30,000 punches well above its weight with hidden gems
Head into Taupō along the northeastern shore of the lake on a sunny day and its good looks are undeniable: The seasonably snowy peaks of Tongariro National Park could have been positioned behind the Singapore-sized “inland sea” solely for our viewing pleasure.
Add to that thermal landscapes complete with silica terraces, boiling mud and hot pools; the liquid power surge that is Huka Falls; ancient forests; and trout-filled rivers and it’s hard to comprehend why the town is named a finalist in the awards every year.
Taupō’s beauty as a destination goes way beyond surface appearances though. Rivalling Rotorua as the adventure capital of the North Island, it boasts so many ways to boost your adrenaline, visitors can pretty much remain on a permanent high.
Skydiving, bungy jumping, swinging off a cliff over the Waikato on the suitably named Cliffhanger swing, jet boating and white water rafting are among the many ways to (over)excite yourself, while more sedate activities include canoeing, kayaking and taking a cruise to the 10-metre-high Māori rock carvings near Mine Bay.
Ultra-scenic walks and bike rides abound (try the Aratiatia Rapids Walking/Cycling Track and the walk around the perimeter of the Craters of the Moon geothermal area), as do places to laze around in naturally warm water. Taupō DeBretts Hot Springs are a good option if you’d like to follow your soak with a spa treatment or have kids to entertain (the heated slide is a winner), while Spa Thermal Park Hot Spring under a bridge where the Waikato River meets the Otumuheke Stream is an excellent free option.
With its active geysers, colourful silica terraces and a geothermal cave, Ōrākei Kōrako is well worth the 30-minute drive out if town: It’s undoubtedly one of the best geothermal attractions in New Zealand.
The judges commended the town for upgrading the Great Lake Pathway, a mostly flat walking and biking trail with spectacular views across the lake to the triplet peaks of Tongariro National Park. It was also praised for a project that will see car-free pedestrian and cycle-friendly zones introduced to the town centre.
The eastern Bay of Plenty town doesn’t draw the same crowds as its western neighbours, but that’s not because it isn’t beautiful. Just a bit further away from the likes of Auckland and Hamilton.
Its relative remoteness is an advantage for holidaymakers who prefer their days on long, pohutukawa-lined beaches to begin without a battle for a car park, and not to have to wait for a table in the top cafés.
One of the sunniest towns in New Zealand, it’s a great place to get active outdoors. Keep your eyes peeled for dolphins, seals, little blue penguins and rare native birds on a guided tour of Moutohorā Wildlife Sanctuary on Whale Island, swim or surf at 11km Ōhope Beach (which has been named one of the most beautiful in New Zealand), kayak or stand-up paddleboard on Ōhiwa Harbour, or hit up one of the many hiking and biking trails.
Whakatāne is also one of the best places in New Zealand to spot a kiwi – it markets itself as “the Kiwi Capital of the world”. Their calls can be heard from the town centre and they’ve been known to trespass on properties next to reserves. For the best chance of spotting one, join a night walking tour.
For a dose of culture, head to Mātaatua Wharenui, aka ‘the house that came home’. The spectacularly carved meeting house spent decades overseas – including 40 years in the cellars of London’s Victoria & Albert Museum – and 70 years in Dunedin before finally making its way home in 2011.The hour-long “express” tour begins with a pōwhiri and includes an award-winning digital experience that brings traditions of the Ngāti Awa people to life before concluding with cups of kawakawa tea and kūmara brownies in the wharekai (dining hall).
Other highlights include picnic-perfect Wairere Falls, the 16km Ngā Tapuwae o Toi (Footprints of Toi) walk with its clifftop views of the hidden gem of a beach that is Otarawairere Bay, and biodiversity hotspot Whikinaki Te Pua-aTāne Conservation Park.
The judges were impressed by the town’s community seed library, climate change strategy, litter prevention and waste minimisation initiatives, and sustainable tourism offering such as the kiwi walks.
Most beautiful small city: Hastings v Whanganui
The engine room of the Hawke’s Bay economy isn’t everyone’s first choice for a holiday in the region. But with art deco architecture to rival Napier and just as many orchards and vineyards in its backyard, it can make just as a good a base.
The Art Deco Hastings walk leaflet from the local i-SITE will take you past the cream of the crop of the old buildings, which include the Hawke’s Bay Opera House with its fine Spanish Mission-style facade. The city embraced the California-inspired style after the same 1931 earthquake that reduced much of Napier to rubble destroyed its own buildings: Squint and you could almost believe you were in Santa Barbara.
Water theme park Splash Planet is on many visitors’ to-do lists – as is getting out of town. And with Hawke’s Bay wine country just beyond the town limits, why wouldn’t you? You could spend a happy few days, if not weeks, eating and drinking your way around the region’s vineyards, restaurants, breweries, farmers’ markets and seasonal fruit stands. If that makes you feel a bit porky, explore the vineyards by bike or take a hike up Te Mata Peak.
Judges selected Hastings for its analysis into the trees in its parks and reserves (a New Zealand first), eco committee, waste and litter prevention campaigns featuring mascots Luke the Litter Legend and Colin the Cheeky Chucker, and continued focus on beautification and sustainable tourism.
Dismiss Whanganui as just another provincial backwater at your peril. Last year’s ‘Most Beautiful Small City’ has more going on than initially meets the eye.
One of New Zealand’s oldest cities, the place is full of well-maintained heritage buildings and underrated attractions such as the regional museum and gardens planted more than a century ago.
The low cost of living has attracted many artists who, in turn, have created or contributed to many attractions: galleries, theatres, music venues, street art and two art museums: The Sarjeant Gallery Te Whare o Rehua and Quartz Museum of Studio Ceramics.
Its natural attractions are considerable too. Think picture-perfect views of mounts Ruapehu and Taranaki and, of course, the Whanganui River, once known as the Rhine of New Zealand.
Whanganui National Park is an aqua adventure playground: Explore New Zealand’s longest navigable river by jet boat, kayak or paddle steamer. If you’re more of a landlubber, tackle one of the many cycle tracks which include the epic Mountains to Sea Cycle Trail.
Judges were swayed by the city’s ongoing efforts to beautify itself, climate change strategy, sustainable tourism projects, composting service which removes organic waste from schools, and litter and waste minimisation initiatives.
Most beautiful large city: Dunedin v Wellington
Its claim to be “like Bali but with wetsuits” might prompt many to think “yeah, nah”, but few would deny the city has southern charm in spades.
Set at the foot of a hill-hugged harbour, Dunners is a stunner in location terms (the often frigid temperatures aside) and boasts some of the best preserved Victorian and Edwardian buildings this side of the equator (the bluestone railway station is sometimes said to be the most photographed in New Zealand).
There’s much more to it than the Scottish heritage and students it is famous for, although both those things contribute to its quirky conviviality. You’ll find New Zealand’s only castle perched high on the Otago Peninsula (Larnach Castle), Aotearoa’s answer to Egypt’s Pyramids (The Pyramids), the world’s only bicultural science centre (Tūhura at Otago Museum), and one of the oldest – and arguably still one of the best – breweries in the country (Speight’s). For starters.
The seaside suburb of St Clair has a touch of Sydney’s Bondi and Bronte beaches about it with its heated saltwater pool and cool cafés, and Tunnel Beach, with its cliffs, sea arches and waterfall cascading onto the sand is a treat for those who like a walk on the wild side.
The city’s a beauty if you’re into cheap eats too. Head to the Otago Farmers Market at the railway station on Saturday mornings for everything from fresh fruit, veg and meat to savoury crêpes and locally brewed beer and kombucha. If you like your ice cream, it’s worth going out of your way to find the Patti’s & Cream food truck on St Clair Esplanade. The doughnut raspberry ripple is a dream.
Some might say Welly’s “world’s coolest little capital” title is no longer apt, but you can be good-looking without being cool. Cases in example: Paris Hilton and Tom Cruise.
With elegant Victorian buildings running down bushy hillsides toward a hook-shaped harbour where wildlife such as dolphins and whales can often be seen, Wellington is undeniably a pretty city. As Stuff senior journalist Andrea Vance pointed out, it’s a different story once you turn away from the waterfront and head toward the CBD through alleyways that are “less Melbourne laneway, more inner-city slum”.
“While the city’s setting is breathtaking, it has been ill-served by generations of planners,” she wrote. “It is now a hodge-podge of eye-wateringly ugly buildings, that reflect neither culture nor the landscape.”
That may be, but it still has its beautiful spots. What visitor hasn’t felt compelled to grab hold of their camera when standing atop Mt Victoria for the first time, riding the Cable Car to the Botanic Gardens, or winding their way past the ruggedly good-looking bays of the south coast and Miramar Peninsula?
If you’re a culture vulture or like your coffee, craft beer or food (and who doesn’t like to indulge in at least one of these things), Welly’s a beaut of a city too.
Stuff senior travel reporter Siobhan Downes reckons Wellington’s a beautiful city even on a bad day – if you take the time to scratch the surface.
Head down Hannah’s Laneway, she said, and you’ll find a bean-to-bar chocolate factory, a hole-in-the-wall selling gourmet peanut butter, “a gem of a café that does the city’s best brownies”, and a pizza joint producing authentic Neapolitan pies. Feel like cosying up in a wine bar, brewpup or classic cocktail spot? Visit Ghuznee Street. Into vintage clothes and homewares or clothes by Kiwi designers? Make a beeline to Cuba St (where, it must be said, you will also find some exceptionally seedy bars).
For the judges, it was all about the city’s focus on reducing the number of cars of the road and promoting alternative forms of transport such as public transport and cycling.
Wellington’s beauty, like all these towns’ and cities’, lies not just in their looks, but in how much they have to offer the city. Whether they’re the most beautiful this country has to offer though is a matter of opinion. As an Aucklander, I reckon it’s pretty heard to go past the view of the city skyline as you drive in from the North Shore. Or the view out to Rangitoto from many of the city’s beaches. I could go on.