With the New Zealand – Australia travel bubble in full swing (with some small hiccups), winter 2021 promises to be a little more exciting than 2020! Do you really want to travel around New Zealand in winter though? How cold is it? Where are the best places to visit? Should you just wait until spring? Stay tuned for all the answers!
New Zealand in Winter: The Weather
Winter weather in New Zealand varies quite a lot between areas, with some mountain destinations being quite literally freezing and the top of the North Island claiming the title of the “Winterless North”.
Queenstown for example, averages around 8 degrees in winter, while Kaitaia, in the far north, averages double that. That’s quite a difference! So you could, in theory, spend all your time north of Auckland and have a relatively “winterless” trip, or spend most of your time exploring the mountains of the south and constantly be surrounded by snow. And then there’s everywhere in between!
Where to go
If you’re planning a trip in New Zealand in winter you’re probably wondering the best places to go. I’m here to help! I’ll make my top five suggestions, including the best places to see those winter wonderland scenes as well as some spots to escape the cold.
Queenstown and Wanaka
You can’t go past these two iconic tourist towns in the far south of the South Island. They are perfectly catered to winter tourism, with heaps of ski fields to choose from and some of the best snow-capped mountain scenery in New Zealand. There are countless hikes for all levels of fitness and a lot of them can be done in winter.
You could spend a few days in each, which would also allow you to see a lot of the surrounding areas. Queenstown and Wanaka are the start or end points to some beautiful drives (especially in winter) and you can even do a long day trip to Milford Sound.
Mount Cook National Park
If you want to see New Zealand’s tallest mountains looking as good as they possibly can, you need to visit Mount Cook National Park in winter (or in spring after recent snow).
There are heaps of walks to do and you’ll see beautiful mountain scenes, glaciers and iceberg filled lakes on fairly easy walks. Check out the Hooker Valley Track, Red Tarns Track and Tasman Glacier Track to see what I mean! The drive to the end of the road in Mount Cook National Park is worth it alone – so many great views by the sides of the road.
Top of the South Island
The top of the South Island is known as a warm and sunny place, and you’ll get some cracking days even in the depths of winter. The main reason I’m suggesting it here is the variety – you can go from the winter wonderland of Nelson Lakes National Park to the golden sands of Abel Tasman National Park in a couple of hours.
Nelson Lakes National Park is best visited in winter for two reasons. Firstly, it obviously looks better with a coating of snow, and second there are way less sandflies in the colder months. Sandflies are the number one complaint about this place!
Abel Tasman National Park is a great winter option. Obviously make sure to choose a nice sunny day to visit though! You can do a section of the multiday Abel Tasman Coastal Track (a NZ Great Walk) or just hang out at sheltered coves. It might be a bit cold to swim though!
The North Island Volcanoes
I haven’t actually visited the central North Island in winter, but I’ve seen photos and it looks awesome. Places like Mount Taranaki look a lot better with some snow and there are several ski fields to choose from. If you’re into snow and winter mountain scenes these are your best (or only) North Island options.
Northland is full of great beaches and coastal views, and while you probably won’t want to go swimming anywhere in New Zealand in winter, you can sightsee comfortably if the weather is fine. With temperatures often in the mid-teens it can actually be quite a pleasant time to visit Northland, and you’re likely to have places all to yourself.
Mount Maunganui and the Coromandel Peninsula are nearby (not in Northland though) and are also good options for warmish beach destinations to visit in winter, and if you’re spending a few days in Auckland you could catch the ferry over to Waiheke Island on a nice day.
The Big Cities
Winter is a decent time for a city break in New Zealand. The cold doesn’t matter so much when you’re exploring inner city attractions and there’s always a nice warm café or bar to warm up in. I travelled around Europe in winter, mostly exploring big cities, and I thought it was a decent time to do it. Auckland is the obvious option, but Wellington and Dunedin are the most interesting cities in New Zealand to explore in my opinion.
New Zealand in Winter Highlights
- Skiing or snowboarding. If you haven’t tried it yet, this year could be the perfect chance. The ski fields should be a bit quieter with tourism being so affected lately.
- Play in the snow. It’s always fun to play in the snow every now and again! It snows occasionally in places like Dunedin and Christchurch, but you’ll want to head to some higher elevation areas for the best snow-playing opportunities.
- Watch some Rugby. The All Blacks should be playing this year, and Super Rugby Trans-Tasman is about to start (assuming the boarders stay open).
- Scenic Drives. New Zealand is home to heaps of stunning roads. Many wind through valleys surrounded by snow-capped peaks or skirt beautiful blue lakes (surrounded by snow-capped mountains). All these roads look better when there’s lots of snow, so if you’re into photography or just want to see some amazing winter scenes you can’t beat a winter road trip! Just be careful, drive to the conditions and always check the weather before you leave! The best ones include the drive to Mount Sunday, the road between Wanaka and Haast, the drive to Mount Cook and the road between Queenstown and Glenorchy.
Are you planning a trip to New Zealand? Check out my two-week New Zealand itinerary!
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