16 reasons to visit New Zealand in 2016

From winter to summer, spring to autumn there’s always plenty going on in New Zealand.

New Zealand might not be very big, but it is a land of dramatic contrasts. There are striking shorelines and majestic peaks where, if you plan your trip right, you can ski on snow and surf in the ocean all in the same day. It’s also a nation where the inhabitants are dedicated to sport, art, culture, history and the great outdoors.

From winter to summer, spring to autumn there’s always plenty going on so to help plan your visit in 2016 here you’ll find a handful of popular pursuits, some ancient and heavenly – like the Tekapo night sky where visitors reach for the stars – and others like the inaugural Hawkes Bay Marathon where participants will have their feet planted firmly on the ground. Whether you want to pedal or peruse, cheer or clap, there’s sure to be an activity, event or location in New Zealand for you.

1. Get a kick out of watching rugby

Following their most recent Rugby World Cup win, the people of New Zealand are even more fixated on the rugged game than ever. This coming season, the team will be welcoming a host of fresh faces onboard and, to see how those new players stack up, in 2016 there are plenty of test matches for fans to attend. Witness the All Blacks up against Wales in Auckland in June, taking on South Africa in a test in Christchurch in September or later that same month as they pit their wits against The Pumas (Argentina) in Hamilton. Dedicated fans will ensure they’re in Wellington for The Bledisloe Cup in September while for sports fans who like a lot of notice, here’s a note for your diary – in 2017 the British and Irish Lions will be taking a tour of New Zealand. This series, featuring at least three test matches, will be the most significant sporting event hosted in New Zealand since the 2011 Rugby World Cup.

2. Get festive at Auckland City Limits

Music to the ears of New Zealand music lovers, the City Limits Music Festival is coming to Auckland. Inspired by the Austin City Limits Music Festival in Texas, over 40 artists will be taking the stage on March 19, 2016 at Western Springs Stadium. This green space (right next to Auckland Zoo) offers a more relaxed concert vibe to the other stadiums in town and, from 11am-11pm, the line up will include a range of impressive artists. Headliners The National, Kendrick Lamar and Action Bronson will be joined by local acts The Phoenix Foundation, Che Fu and singer-songwriter Tami Neilson who is taking the country world by storm. 

3. Have a taste of Christchurch’s burgeoning hospitality scene

Five years on from the earthquake of February 2011, Christchurch has a host of new restaurants and a confident local identity, led by the likes of the locavore fine diner Roots in Lyttelton. Craft brewers, meanwhile, have opened throughout the city – including Dux Central, in a fine old building in the CBD – along with cafes such as C1-Espresso in a 1930s bank building, and Supreme Supreme in an artfully reworked former Chinese restaurant. Meanwhile everyone’s favourite popup, The Smash Palace, just moved its bus to High Street next to sister restaurant Brick Farm. 

4. Go mountain biking in Rotorua

Crankworx is the world’s biggest mountain biking festival with events in Whistler in Canada (the festival’s birthplace), Les Deux Alpes in France and also Rotorua from March 9-13, 2016. Celebrating epic endurance riding and sheer bravery on two wheels, there are events for adults and children plus it’s great for those who just like to watch. Based at the Skyline Gravity Park, this adrenalin spectacular is all about competition, concerts, culture and cranking, with six key events. The entertainment isn’t just limited to bikes either, with an extensive outdoor expo, not to mention a music festival featuring top New Zealand artists.

5. Stay at a remarkable new luxury lodge

Helena Bay is one of the most beautiful bays along a coastline full of breathtaking, sheltered sandy coves – and in 2016, three exclusive villas will open to guests right on the water. This new luxury lodge cost millions of dollars and took many years to complete and the complex includes a Turkish hammam, a gym and a swimming pool – all designed to blend seamless with the scenic surrounds. The farm, meanwhile, is spectacular, with four private coves and an intensive replanting programme.

6. Get close to local wildlife at Wellington Zoo 

Wellington Zoo has recently undergone a $6 million expansion and “Meet the Locals” is the newest feature of that revamp. Described as the zoo’s love letter to New Zealand, ‘Meet the Locals’ celebrates New Zealand’s diverse flora and fauna. Designed around four areas, Penguin Point is a mini wild-west south coast where endangered korora (little blue penguins) can be seen in an area that’s remarkably close to their natural habitat while Pohutukawa Farm is home to cute kunekune pigs, sheep, rabbits, guinea pigs and chickens plus there’s a pond full of freshwater eels. A third popular section features native bush and precious ecosystems with the entire experience tied together in the fourth realm, Conservation Connection. 

7. Celebrate 30 years of cutting-edge culture

The New Zealand Festival is the longest-running and largest multi-arts festival in the country and includes some of the world’s top acts. The Festival also nurtures exciting new work from New Zealand’s best local artists and producers. In 2016 the Festival celebrates its 30th anniversary, welcoming audiences and performers from all over the world to the capital city of Wellington from February 26-March 20.  Highlights of the 2016 Festival include the long-awaited Pina Bausch Tanztheater Wuppertal dance season and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis’ taking part in three concerts, including two with the NZ Symphony Orchestra. And if that’s not enough, in 2016, for the first time ever The Auckland Arts Festival, having just become an annual as opposed to biennial event, will be running at the same time as Wellington’s festival with a diverse cultural programme erupting in Auckland from March 2-20.

8. Cruise into an Art Deco paradise

The Hawke’s Bay city of Napier is renowned for its Art Deco architecture, having largely been rebuilt following a devastating earthquake in 1931. Taking advantage of those beautiful buildings since 1988, The Art Deco Trust’s expert guides have ushered thousands of visitors through the elegant streetscapes to explore the hidden gems of the past, on foot, by mini bus and bike, even aboard luxurious vintage cars. In February 2016, for the first time ever, P&O's Pacific Pearl will call into the Port of Napier during the Art Deco Festival. Following a multimillion-dollar revamp in 2010, the Pacific Pearl is a comfortable ship, spread over 11 decks and offering a range of dining, entertainment and lounging options with capacity for 1800 passengers. 

9. Cycle the West Coast’s newest trail

Cycling the South Island’s rugged West Coast is an adventure you’ll treasure forever. Recommended as a four- or five-day adventure if you do it from end to end, the trail’s mostly smooth surface travels from Ross to Greymouth via Hokitika and Kumara. Trundle alongside rugged shores, rushing rivers, languid lakes and pass through forests of towering trees. Bird watchers will have plenty to occupy them, while history buffs will want to stop at the Shantytown Heritage Park. With more and more dining and accommodation options sprouting up around the trail, all tastes and budgets can be catered for.

10. Run a marathon in a natural wonderland

If you’ve ever wanted to pound the path of a brand new marathon, you’ll be sure to head to Hawke’s Bay in May. With a full marathon, half marathon, 10km run and a kids’ course, this inaugural event follows roads and bike trails before making its way through vineyards. Taking in some of the highlights of this productive region, the last 10km will have you running through private vineyards and olive groves with the finish line for all events at the gorgeous Sileni Estates Winery.

11. Taste some of New Zealand’s craft beers

If Wellington beer festival Beervana is anything to go by, Kiwis love their beer. Festivals aside, breweries are opening the length of the country, many of them with cellar doors and taprooms where you can while away a few hours over an IPA using New Zealand hops. In Wellington, check out cult brewer Garage Project’s new bar across the road from the brewery, GP 91 Aro; in Christchurch, drop by Three Boys Brewery. The legendary Emerson’s, meanwhile, opens its new brewery in Dunedin this year.

12. Visit Peter Jackson’s Great Trench Experience

Lord of the Rings director Sir Peter Jackson has taken on what used to be Wellington’s Dominion Museum, to create a world class World War One experience. Commemorating the role played by New Zealand in the First World War, visitors are invited to journey through the conflict, year by year, facing up to the challenges faced by the soldiers. Experience the throb of fear and the hardship and horror of the battlefields. The museum exhibition opened in 2015 but the Great Trench Experience, due to open in 2016, promises an even more chilling multi-sensory experience. The exhibition will be open for the next four years and while the main exhibition space is free to visit (a donation is appreciated), the Trench Experience will have an entry fee. 

13. Challenge yourself at Lake Taupo

Lake Taupo is bigger than Singapore, and cycling around it is epic, although largely accessible to the relatively fit cyclist. Whether you take on 40th anniversary Lake Taupo Challenge in November (with 8000 other cyclists) or just take on small section of the 160km circumference, here you’ll find some of New Zealand’s most beautiful cycling. Thanks to the free draining pumice terrain, this is year-round cycle heaven with plenty of companies offering cycle hire and sherpa services. The Great Lake Trail can be ridden across two days and a night, or split into sections to suit your fitness levels and timeframe.

14. Wine and dine on Waiheke Island 

Waiheke Island has steep hills and craggy cliffs running down to white sand beaches, and locals swear it’s warmer there than the mainland. All of which produces some superb wine and fabulous food: the wineries are currently pouring 2013 syrahs, a vintage considered among the island’s best. Small wonder that Lonely Planet recently named the island “best in travel” for 2016: head to Casita Miro for a rustic, Spanish-inspired lunch followed by a swim at Onetangi, and Cable Bay for an upscale dinner – the view back to Auckland is mesmerising. 

15. Go stargazing in the world’s clearest skies

Tekapo, in the Canterbury district of the South Island, has a very fitting slogan – “where earth meets sky” – in honour of the stellar starscapes that are making the town famous. In 2012, a 430,000ha area around Tekapo was designated the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve and visitors are amazed when they behold the star-studded skies. Visit Mt John Observatory and be transported by the unforgettable night sky tour, or if you strike it right you may witness the Southern Lights (Aurora Australis) without light pollution. Be sure to dress warmly as it can get very nippy, especially in winter.

16. Visit New Zealand’s first museum of contemporary art

Len Lye, the pioneering filmmaker, kinetic sculptor, painter and poet, is one of New Zealand’s most influential artists and in 2015 a gallery dedicated to his work was opened with great fanfare. Located in the coastal city of New Plymouth, The Len Lye Centre includes massive galleries and a 62-seat theatre where a range of original and duplicated versions of Lye’s kinetic sculptures and unique films are on display. The building housing these treasures is described as New Zealand’s first piece of destination architecture and will give Guggenheims around the world a run for their money.