Top 10 things to do in winter besides skiing

A New Zealand winter has something for everyone. If hitting the slopes isn’t your thing, try some of these ski-free winter activities.

1. TranzAlpine train

There’s nothing like train travel for creating a sense of adventure. With the TranzAlpine Train you’ll experience one of the world’s great train journeys in just five hours. Although short, the journey is anything but repetitive. Beginning with frost-bitten Canterbury Plains and snow-capped Southern Alps, the journey ends, after emerging from the Otira Tunnel, with the tropical rainforests of the West Coast.

To get the most from the trip, head to the outdoor observation car when you reach the cliffs of the Waimakariri Gorge – but be ready for the sudden plunges into darkness when the train hits the tunnels.

2. Whale watching

Whale watching can be an awe-inspiring experience. To see these majestic creatures up close is to fall in love with them. For the ultimate whale-watching experience, head to Kaikōura between June and August for peak migration season. You’ll increase your chances of spotting humpbacks, blue whales, and the elusive sperm whale – a species rarely seen in outside of Kaikōura.

If you’re in the North Island, you can’t go wrong with the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park near Auckland and the Coromandel. It is home to almost a third of the world’s marine mammal species, including the blue whale and the critically endangered Bryde’s whale.

3. The southern lights

No doubt you’ve heard of the northern lights, but did you know about the southern lights? Auroras occur around the Earth’s magnetic poles, which means New Zealand is one of the best places to see Aurora Australis, or the southern lights. What’s more, winter is the ideal time to go aurora spotting because the sky is clearer on cold nights.

Insider tip: the farther south you go, the better the view. Head to the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve for one of the world’s least light polluted night skies. To get the most from the experience, join a Dark Sky Project tour at the Mount John Observatory. Or visit the southernmost island of New Zealand, Rakiura Stewart Island. Rakiura means “glowing skies” in Te Reo Māori, so you know you’re in the right place. If you can’t make it to the South Island, visit the dark sky sanctuary on Great Barrier Island.


4. Alpine walks

Hiking New Zealand’s most popular routes out of season is a great way to avoid the crowds and see the country’s alpine regions at their best – covered in a thick blanket of snow.

Topping most lists for best day walk is the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. And it’s not hard to understand why. The 19-kilometre alpine trek covers an alpine landscape that has an almost otherworldly beauty, where bright emerald lakes stand out against a bleak volcanic landscape.

For the ultimate view of a snow-capped Aoraki/Mount Cook, New Zealand’s highest peak, try the Hooker Valley Track(opens in new window).

5. Matariki

Traditionally, Māori celebrate the new year when the Matariki star cluster appears in the night sky, which usually falls around June or July. Today, the occasion is marked across the country with a fortnight of cultural events, ending in a public holiday. 

For public events in Auckland, visit Matariki Festival(opens in new window)

Multiple kai (food) workshops and events are organised across the country. Visit Feast Matariki(opens in new window) for more information.

For the ultimate Matariki experience, visit Te Pā Tū in Rotorua. Highlights include a fire ceremony, kapa haka (traditional song and dance), and a hāngī (traditional cooking).

6. Winter festivals

Experience New Zealand through food and drink by visiting the Visa Wellington on a Plate culinary festival. Light up a dark winter evening, literally, with Queentown’s Luma Festival. This four-day light festival is internationally renowned for its illuminated installations and sculpture. Celebrate Matariki, Māori New Year at the Tirama Mai light festival(opens in new window) in Christchurch. Or visit the quiet rural town of Ōamaru for its larger-than-life annual steampunk festival.

7. Hot tubs and hot springs

In New Zealand beaches are for summer, hot pools are for winter.

After a full day of sight-seeing in Queenstown, unwind at Onsen Hot Pools. The combination of mineral-rich waters and stunning views that no writer can ever fully describe ensures this little hideaway is the perfect way to end the day.

For the ultimate geothermal experience, visit Hell's Gate. With the constant steaming and bubbling in the background – which is simultaneously exhilarating and unsettling – you’ll find Hell’s Gate aptly named. The name was given, incidentally, by Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw, who described the area as the “very gates of hell”.

8. Glow-worm caves

Traversing underground caverns in search of glow-worms is an activity beloved by New Zealanders. There’s nothing quite like the simple pleasure of seeing these shimmering little creatures silently lighting up a cave.

In the Waikato they’ve been glow-worm spotting for 130 years at the Waitomo Glow-worm Caves – New Zealand’s oldest glow-worm tourist attraction.

Another great place to go glow-worming is the caves on the shore of Lake Te Anau. These caves are only accessible by boat, which adds to the fun of it – as winding limestone passages, roaring whirlpools, and underground waterfalls become natural attractions in their own right.

9. Marlborough Winter Fireplace Trail

One of the joys of winter is finding a warm spot to sit and reflect over a hot drink or a glass of wine. With crisp sunny days, frosty nights, and some of the best sauvignon blanc in the world, Marlborough during winter is one of the best places to do just that. For bars and restaurants with the cosy fireplaces and hygge-inducing beverages, try the Marlborough Winter Fireplace Trail.

10. All Blacks Experience

To understand New Zealand, you need to understand the All Blacks – New Zealand’s national rugby team. For more than a century the All Blacks have set the benchmark for international rugby. The strength of New Zealand rugby has as much to do with individual talent as it does with New Zealand culture. Visit the All Blacks Experience to find out what takes to make an All Black. Then see the country’s players in action at a live game and find out why Kiwis love this fast-paced winter sport.

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