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The South Island in Winter | © Luke Bethal/Flickr
The South Island in Winter | © Luke Bethal/Flickr

The 16 Best Things to Do in New Zealand This Winter

Picture of Thalita Alves
Thalita Alves
Updated: 11 May 2017

Travelling to New Zealand during the winter months will expose you to an incredible assortment of activities. From sporty attractions to chilled out destinations and cool events, there’s a bit of something for everyone. In fact, here are 16 of the very best things to do during the winter season.

Go skiing and snowboarding

Winter can only mean one thing: snow! And, with so many epic ski resorts to choose from, there’s no excuse not to shred some powder during your visit. Even if you’re a beginner, the majority of terrains in the North and South Islands will cater to your demands – many of them have separate runs for different skill levels, and guided instruction is an option too. Mount Ruapehu is your key destination in the North Island, while popular South Island fields include Cardrona, Mt Hutt and Treble Cone.

Cozy up to the hot springs

Too cold, too soon? Not to worry – New Zealand’s geothermal springs will come to the rescue. Rotorua is quite famous for its hot water wonders, as is the South Island’s Hanmer Springs. The latter is quite close to a ski field too – making it a perfect stopover after a day hitting the snow. Taupo, Tongariro, and the Bay of Plenty’s White Island are the other thermal treasures to discover on your travels.

Go whale watching

Autumn and winter are the seasons to head down to Kaikoura for a bit of whale watching. In fact, June and July (right in the middle of winter) will be when these majestic creatures are at the peak of their migration period – so you’re likely to see a number of different species at once. Other places to catch sight of the whales include Wellington and Picton.

Celebrate the Maori New Year

Matariki (the Maori New Year) is celebrated country-wide and marks the beginning of the winter solstice. This ancient festival observes the arrival of the Matariki/Pleiades constellation to the southern skies, and thus the end of the harvest season. Various community festivities are held each year, and usually include dawn ceremonies, cultural performances, art exhibitions, and the sharing of local myths and legends.

Watch a rugby match

Sports fans will know that winter is rugby season. The New Zealand Lions Tour will be held across several locations in early June, promising to attract tens of thousands of British and Irish Lion supporters as their national teams tour the country. Aside from that, there’s also a regular lineup of matches from local rugby teams throughout the winter – Eventfinda is a good resource for discovering upcoming games.

Or spectate the biennial Winter Games

If you’re heading to the Southern Alps in the latter part of the season (i.e. August-September), the epic Audi Quattro Winter Games will be worth checking out. The Winter Olympic, Paralympic and X Games event is on its fifth year – and it’s completely free for snow sports lovers to watch. To add to the entire experience, live concerts and festivals will be held alongside the professional championships.

Sw dub 12 yesterday #rideliberty #shredon #wgnz | 📷: @lukelvmbert

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Explore the local wineries

The vines may be bare, but the wineries are a treat all year round. If you want to explore New Zealand’s best wine producing destinations, there are various tours that will help you maximize your visit. Central Otago is a good place to try a variety of reds, while Marlborough is home to some of the land’s most famous white wines. Most wineries you’ll come across will have their own restaurants, with plenty of indoor seating to keep you snug in the coldest days.

Visit the South Island

Admittedly, the South Island is exquisite all year long. But there is a special sparkle along its alpine ranges in the winter. Queenstown comes to life in the colder seasons, as does the neighbouring lakeside town of Wanaka. Many Lord of the Rings film locations, like Glenorchy and Aoraki/Mount Cook, will also be at their very best form in the snowy days.

Check out the winter festivals

Queenstown’s Winter Festival is probably the most famous, but many New Zealand towns and cities have their own showcase of cool celebrations to get involved in. Wellington’s Cuba Street comes alive in June’s Jazz Festival, Waiheke Island holds a Winter Arts Festival every June around Queens Birthday weekend, and the Auckland Queens Birthday Races are free to enjoy at the same time.

Unleash your inner foodie

This is the prime time to familiarise yourself with the local gastro scene. The iconic Hawke’s Bay Food and Wine Classic festival is ready to wow visiting food and wine lovers with an incredible assortment of full-bodied reds, the freshest local produce, and lashings of local lamb and venison as you warm up by generous fireplaces. Chocoholics will love Dunedin’s Cadbury Chocolate Carnival, held in July of every year. Auckland’s Restaurant Month kicks off on the August 1, and Visa Wellington On A Plate pleases palates later in the same month.

Relish the season’s artsy events

Head over to Oamaru for the annual Steampunk Festival, appease your cultural affinities with the New Zealand International Film Festival, and get inspired by an amazing line-up of authors at the Dunedin Writers & Readers Festival. Basically, you’re in New Zealand during the winter months, there’s no excuse not to embrace the wonderful artistic culture that enriches this awesome destination.

Oamaru Steampunk Festival | © ItravelNZ/Flickr

Oamaru Steampunk Festival | © ItravelNZ/Flickr

Head over to Fashion Week

New Zealand Fashion Week hits the Auckland catwalks every winter. A remarkable lineup of New Zealand’s finest fashion designers come together to showcase their latest collections to their stylish audiences. The event, which has been dazzling the crowds since 2001, attracts more than 30,000 visitors – ultimately giving a platform for designers and brands to talk directly to their fashion-forward customers.

#newzealandfashionweek #frontrowseat

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Light up your South Island visit

If you’re travelling around Otago, Dunedin lights up every June for its Midwinter Carnival and Lantern Parade. Further up the South Island, Lyttelton’s Festival of Lights brighten up the Canterbury skies. Both events dazzle the crowds with street parties and cool performances, closing everything off with a bang when the final firework displays are unleashed.

See New Zealand’s wildlife at its finest

It’s not just whale-watching that you can experience in the colder months. For local events, check out the Wild Dunedin Festival – which promises to celebrate everything related to the region’s wonderfully diverse wildlife. Alternatively, make sure to stop by the various nature reserves right on your doorstep, including Wellington’s Zealandia, Rotorua’s Rainbow Springs, or even the Auckland Zoo (the latter of which is filled with interesting critters from New Zealand and abroad).

Visit Milford Sound

While the Great Walks aren’t suited for hiking in winter, Milford Sound is a great place to visit in the colder months. It will be less crowded, meaning you’ll get to fully appreciate the landscapes and unique bird life that come out this season. Some tracks near Routeburn remain open too – just be careful of those slippery surfaces, and remember that daylight won’t be lingering for as long as you’d expect in the summer months.

Go to the beach (yes, really)

Granted, you would need to extremely resistant to cold temperatures to go for an ocean swim – but even so, a visit to the beach shouldn’t be discarded. Similar to Milford Sound, dropping by New Zealand’s lovely beaches in the colder months will give you a less crowded perspective of your surroundings. Long coastal walks are ideal for appreciating the exquisite scenery, and a serene beach side picnic is always a good idea.