Arrowtown Autumn Festival on Buckingham Street, New Zealand. Image credit gracethang2 via

11 Best Small Towns in New Zealand for a Weekend Retreat

New Zealand, an island country located in the southwestern Pacific Ocean, comprises two main landmasses—the North Island (Te Ika-a-Māui) and the South Island (Te Waipounamu)—along with over 700 smaller islands. With a total land area of approximately 103,483 square miles, it ranks as the 75th largest country in the world. Popular cities in New Zealand, such as Queenstown, Rotorua, Auckland, and Wellington, are often sought-after destinations. However, beyond these well-trodden paths, smaller towns are ideal for weekend retreats for those wanting to experience New Zealand's charm away from the bustling tourist centers.


A street in the center of Akaroa, New Zealand.
Downtown Akaroa, New Zealand.

Akaroa is on the Banks Peninsula. The town was established in 1840 as a French settlement intended to serve as the administrative center for the French annexation of the South Island. Despite the French's brief tenure, their influence is seen along Rue Jolie and Rue Lavaud, where visitors can savor French dishes, such as bouillabaisse and escargot. For those seeking accommodation, Akaroa Cottages is set on 5 hectares of bushland, 300 meters from Children's Bay beach and 7 kilometers from Hinewai Reserve. Spanning over 1,250 hectares, the reserve is a conservation success story. Guests can hike through native bushland and observe the area's ecological restoration efforts.

Visitors to Akaroa can enhance their experience by visiting The Giants House, known for its sculpture garden and mosaic art. For animal discovery, Pōhatu Penguins take visitors on a tour to observe the native wildlife, particularly the little blue penguins, in their natural habitat.


People can seen exploring around the Arrowtown during the Arrowtown Autumn Festival on Buckingham Street.
Arrowtown Autumn Festival on Buckingham Street, New Zealand. Image credit gracethang2 via

Arrowtown, along the gold-bearing Arrow River and located just 20 minutes from Queenstown, New Zealand, is a historic town that traces its origins to the Otago Gold Rush of 1862. This rapid influx of settlers seeking fortune led to the establishment of a bustling community, featuring cottages, shops, hotels, and churches, with over 60 historical buildings preserved to this day. A three-day weekend can be well-spent at the Arrowtown House Boutique Hotel. Its upscale guestrooms are near the peaks of the Feehly Hill Scenic Reserve and the Bush Creek Reserve. The hotel is also a short five-minute walk to the Lakes District Museum.

Exploring Arrowtown is not complete without seeing The Arrowtown Chinese Settlement. This historic site educates visitors on the town's gold mining past and the contribution of Chinese miners. Visitors can also hike the trails along the river at the Arrow River Walk to see the natural landscape that attracted settlers and miners in the 19th century. For a cultural attraction, the Dorothy Browns Cinema is an intimate boutique movie theater that showcases a mix of mainstream and art-house films.


Summer fun along the beach in Raglan, New Zealand
Summer fun in Raglan, New Zealand. Image credit Photos BrianScantlebury via Shutterstock

Raglan, located west of Hamilton, New Zealand, is a surfing mecca known for its black sand coastline. This area is characterized by a vibrant mix of cafés, like the Raglan Roast, and surf shops, including the Raglan Surf Company. It's a great weekend retreat for those interested in sustainable living and alternative lifestyles. Bow Street Studios has options for serviced apartments on the waterfront or a two-bedroom historic cottage, one of Raglan's first three homes. The apartments are designed to be bright and spacious, spanning two stories with features including a kitchen and courtyard.

A trip to Manu Bay is a must-do for visitors. It is famous worldwide for its surfing conditions and hosts international surfing competitions. Another water attraction is Bridal Veil Falls, located a short drive from the town. It is a 55-meter waterfall amidst the forest, accessible via a walking track that includes viewing platforms. Finally, the Te Toto Gorge Lookout has views of the coastline and the Tasman Sea. The landscape has been shaped by volcanic activity and erosion over millennia.


Tourist and local people visit Mangawhai Head beach in Northland region, New Zealand.
Mangawhai Head beach in New Zealand. Image credit Handoko Kurniawan via Shutterstock

Mangawhai, also known as Mangawhai Heads, sits on the Pacific coast. Its sand dune system, under the management of the Department of Conservation, is a habitat for various bird species, including fairy terns, Caspian terns, variable oystercatchers, and New Zealand dotterels. Mangawhai Heads and the village of Mangawhai are connected by a causeway of native wetlands. Short visits to the town can be spent at the Mangawhai Chalets. Its private chalets are off a main road and surrounded by a maintained garden.

For visitors to Mangawhai, the Mangawhai Cliff Walk is a notable pathway. This walk starts at the shoreline and moves to the clifftops and gives visitors the chance to spot passing whales and schools of sharks. Both casual walkers and serious hikers are drawn here. In town, the Mangawhai Village Market, a weekly event held every Saturday from 9 am to 1 pm, sells an assortment of crafts, food, and produce. Additionally, in the Tanekaha Forest, hikers can engage with the native flora on the 2-hour Tanekaha Falls Track, which leads to cascading waterfalls.


Hokitika Jade Factory in the south island of New Zealand.
Hokitika Jade Factory in New Zealand. Image credit ChameleonsEye via

Hokitika, established in 1860 following the discovery of gold on the West Coast of New Zealand, quickly became a vital river port. However, the shifting sands of the Hokitika Bar at the river's mouth proved treacherous for many ships. Today, Hokitika is celebrated as the "Cool Little Town," known for its historical architecture, galleries featuring pounamu (greenstone) jewelry, and a variety of local crafts, including gold, wood, and pottery, which can be viewed at the Hokitika Craft Gallery. Shining Star Beachfront Accommodation is an option for a weekend spent here. The cabins have views of the Tasman Sea and convenient access to Hokitika Beach.

The Hokitika Gorge Walk leads through forests to a suspension bridge overlooking turquoise waters, a top attraction in Hokitika. The National Kiwi Centre is another essential visit for those interested in New Zealand's native wildlife. Visitors have encounters with the kiwi bird in a controlled environment. Lastly, the Lake Kaniere Scenic Reserve, set in the Southern Alps, is a place for hiking, picnicking, and photography.


Kaikoura township with clearing morning fog, South Island, New Zealand
Kaikoura township with clearing morning fog, South Island, New Zealand

Kaikoura, on New Zealand's east coast, is a premier destination for marine wildlife encounters, particularly whales, fur seals, and dolphins. The town is also recognized for its crayfish, reflecting its name derived from the Māori language, where 'kai' means food and 'kōura' means crayfish. During winter, the snow-capped mountains contribute to the area's scenery. Sudima Kaikoura is a recommended accommodation for its coastal location with sea views and a small restaurant on-site.

For those exploring Kaikōura, three key attractions stand out. Whale Watch Kaikoura takes customers on guided tours to observe whales in their natural habitat, facilitated by knowledgeable guides. The Kaikoura Peninsula Walkway presents an opportunity to observe the local wildlife and learn about the area's cultural and historical significance through well-placed information panels. Additionally, the Kaikoura Lookout has views of the town, the ocean, and the surrounding mountains, an ideal spot for watching the sunset.


Downtown street in Wanaka, New Zealand.
Downtown street in Wanaka, New Zealand. Image credit stockphoto mania via Shutterstock

Wanaka is a town in the center of the Southern Alps, on the southern shores of Lake Wanaka, New Zealand. Visitors travel to Wanaka year-round. In the summer, engage in hiking, mountain biking, fishing, and kayaking, while winter months transform the region into a skiing and snowboarding destination with close proximity to the Treble Cone Resort and Cardrona Alpine Resort. Wanaka Alpine View Lodge has wooden cabins for short stays. The Aspiring cabin, in particular, is highlighted for its fully serviceable kitchen equipped with modern utilities.

Wanaka is home to numerous attractions, among which is Roys Peak. Its challenging ascent rewards hikers with views of Lake Wanaka and the surrounding peaks. The Wānaka Lavender Farm is a less demanding attraction. Visitors can wander through fields of lavender, purchase a range of lavender products, and interact with farm animals. Meanwhile, Glendhu Bay Lookout gives views of Glendhu Bay and Lake Wanaka against the backdrop of mountains.


Russell town overlook, Bay of Islands, North island of New Zealand
Overlooking Russell, New Zealand.

Russell, New Zealand, situated in the Bay of Islands, is a town of historical importance. It was the nation’s first seaport, the place of the initial European settlement, and the site of New Zealand’s first capital in nearby Okiato. The town has preserved its original street layout and names since 1843. Once notorious as "The hellhole of the Pacific’" because of its 19th-century reputation as a lawless haven for sailors, whalers, and traders, Russell is now a favored holiday destination. Among its historic architecture, The Duke of Marlborough is New Zealand's first licensed hotel, bar, and restaurant, standing on the waterfront in Russell’s village. It is a go-to accommodation for those visiting.

For visitors to Russell, Flagstaff Hill is a spot for photography and sightseeing, thanks to its views of the Bay of Islands. It also holds significance as the site of conflict between Māori and European settlers. Additionally, Christ Church, established in 1835, is New Zealand's oldest surviving church and still bears the scars of musket ball fire from the era, a tangible connection to the country's early colonial history. For water activities, including swimming and sunbathing, Oneroa Bay has sandy beaches and clear water.


View of the town of Whakatane, the Whakatane River and the Pacific Ocean, Bay of Plenty, North Island, New Zealand
Overlooking Whakatane, the Whakatane River and the Pacific Ocean, New Zealand.

Whakatane, in the eastern Bay of Plenty, is recognized for having one of the highest sunshine rates in New Zealand. This favorable climate supports a variety of outdoor activities, including some of the best fishing opportunities in New Zealand, particularly for yellowfin tuna. Whakatane is also a gateway to White Island, an offshore volcano. However, it is no longer accessible to tourists due to its recent eruption in 2019. For a weekend stay, Tuscany Villas Whakatane has comfortable rooms equipped with kitchenette facilities for light meals. The villa is within easy walking distance of the Whakatane River and Wharf complex.

Visitors to Whakatane should drop by the Ohope Scenic Reserve. Its trails through the native forest are a surreal experience. The Nga Tapuwae o Toi Track is another hiking option and has trails through native bush and along coastal cliffs. Here, visitors have the chance to observe kiwis in their natural habitat.


Looking down the main street towards distant wooded slopes in Picton, New Zealand.
Main street towards distant wooded slopes in Picton, New Zealand. Image credit RogerMechan via Shutterstock

Picton, at the head of Queen Charlotte Sound in the Marlborough Sounds, is the South Island gateway for the Bluebridge and Interislander ferries, connecting the main islands of New Zealand. This seaside town has a sheltered harbor and seafront, lined with a variety of cafés, such as Le Café, and galleries, including The Diversion Gallery. The Escape To Picton Boutique Hotel, located by the town’s waterfront, has guestrooms with views of the marina. It features three suites decorated with Victorian-inspired décor and is an intimate lodging experience.

There are several attractions and landmarks in Picton: The Queen Charlotte Track is a hike with coastal views, native bush, and wildlife. Day hikes and multi-day treks cater to all levels of fitness. Meanwhile, Kaipupu Wildlife Sanctuary is a community-driven conservation project that provides a safe place for native wildlife. It is a place for visitors to experience New Zealand's natural heritage up close. Finally, Cloudy Bay Vineyards, in the center of Marlborough wine country, is known for its fine sauvignon blanc, among other varieties. The winery has wine tastings and tours that educate visitors on the region's winemaking traditions.

St Arnaud

Woman Hiking Towards Mountain Summit High Above Lake Rotoiti. Nelson Lakes National Park, New Zealand
Woman hiking above Lake Rotoiti, Nelson Lakes National Park, New Zealand.

St Arnaud, on the shores of Lake Rotoiti in the Nelson region of New Zealand, is a gateway to the Nelson Lakes National Park. Hiking and fishing occur within the park's honeydew forests and mountainous terrain. Anglers come here specifically for the fine brown trout in Lake Rotorua and Lake Rotoiti. For accommodation, The Woodsman’s Den is a private and secluded 2-bedroom guesthouse on a 10-acre property. It is surrounded by native forests and enriched with the sounds of local birdlife.

For hikers in St Arnaud, the Mount Robert Circuit is a challenging yet rewarding trail with views of Lake Rotoiti and the surrounding mountains. Meanwhile, the Lake Rotoiti Jetty is a starting point for those looking to explore the lake's clear waters and aquatic life. You will likely see the presence of native eels here. In terms of winter activities, the Rainbow Ski Area has various slopes for skiing and snowboarding and caters to all skill levels against the dramatic backdrop of the Nelson Lakes National Park's alpine scenery.

New Zealand offers a variety of landscapes and urban areas, alongside quieter retreats suitable for weekend getaways. For those interested in history, Arrowtown provides a glimpse into the past, while Raglan is known for its surf culture. Akaroa offers a touch of French influence, and Wānaka is recognized for its lake and alpine scenery. These smaller towns represent New Zealand's diverse appeal, with activities ranging from hiking in Mangawhai's Tanekaha Forest, enjoying beachside cafes in Picton, to exploring Māori history in Russell. Each town caters to different interests, making them versatile destinations for travelers seeking a long weekend away in New Zealand.

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