Widely known for its striking landscapes and expansive wilderness regions, New Zealand is also home to some lesser-known, wonderfully weird, and unsuspecting gems.
Stemming from the imaginations of a few very creative Kiwi’s, and often rich in generations of local history, quirky places can be discovered across the country and have become infamous institutions among locals. Whilst we’re daydreaming about “some-day…,” or building future bucket lists, why not add a few one-of-a-kind destinations truly off the beaten path?
From a church built from living trees to glamping in a hobbit-hole, you won’t believe these New Zealand places actually exist.
The Ōhaupō TreeChurch, Ohaupo
With a passion for church architecture and the natural beauty of trees, Barry Cox decided that the gardens he was creating in the central North Island town of Ōhaupō, “needed a church” – so he built one from trees. He engineered the iron framework from a vision in his head, then planted trees to grow over it. Set in the heart of more than a hectare of beautifully sculpted public gardens, the TreeChurch is a luscious natural space full of light and warmth.
Equipped with a marble altar, this is really one of the quirkiest places to host a wedding in all of New Zealand.
Pelorus Mail Boat, Marlborough
Joining a mail run to deliver the post and supplies to the isolated locals of the Pelorus Sound/Te Hoiere is perhaps the most authentic way to discover the Marlborough Sounds. With local Bindy Taylor at the helm, the Pelorus Mail Boat gives an intimate view of the remote area and a personal insight into its history. The boat is often escorted by the region’s diverse wildlife, including bottlenose dolphins, as it makes its deliveries along the intricate coastline.
A born and bred Marlburian, Bindy’s favourite part of the job is the people she gets to meet, as well as their precious cargo – it’s not uncommon for goats, pigs, and sheep to make the trip.
Hokonui Moonshine Museum, Hokonui
Once branded as criminals for their famed bootlegging operation, the McRae family has since become Southland folk heroes. With a history dating back to 1872 when Mary McRae first arrived in the Hokonui district from Scotland with her seven children and a whisky still, this family has spent generations mastering the craft of distilling. When prohibition arrived in the region in 1894, Mary was even known for hiding a small barrel of whisky from the police under a “voluminous” skirt.
Gore’s Hokonui Moonshine Museum opened in 2000 to preserve the region’s colourful history of illicit whiskey-making and consumption. In 2021 the museum will open its first operating distillery to produce Old Hokonui Moonshine – made to the original recipe – on site. Using third-generation local grain growers to harvest barley and a bespoke ‘art still’ commissioned especially for the project, the region’s reputation for unique moonshine continues.
Barrytown Hall, Barrytown
Perched on the edge of the West Coast between Punakaiki and Greymouth, the Barrytown Hall is an iconic destination for local and international touring musicians. Built-in 1929 the hall began hosting gigs in about 1972 and is a focal point of the dispersed Coastie communities. The remote destination has hosted many international acts including Townes Van Zandt, and US rock bands Shellac and Dead Moon.
In 2017 the hall was forced to stop hosting concerts after a noise complaint. At the end of 2019 Barrytown Hall won the dispute and were given the green light to continue holding live gigs after a crowdfunding campaign to soundproof the venue. During the campaign, a sign at the hall read: “When leaving, please remind our neighbours that drunk people have loudly been leaving this establishment long before they decided to buy houses next door.”
The Museum of Natural Mystery, Dunedin
Bruce Mahalski lives among the dead – quite literally. The front rooms of his home, a 19th-century villa in central Dunedin, are the final resting place for hundreds of animals, their bones arrayed neatly on shelves, in cabinets, and around the walls. While some come from exotic overseas animals, most of Mahalski’s collection is the (ethically sourced) remains of the creatures New Zealanders are surrounded by every day: cats and dogs, native birds, and local pests like rabbits, possums, and stoats.
While it may seem macabre, Mahalski sees his collection as a celebration of life and the interconnectedness of all beings, a concept he explores in the intricate bone sculptures he makes and displays in the final room of the museum. You even have the option to stay overnight in Mahalski’s collection with Airbnb.
Underhill Valley, Waikato
Set in Waikato, the home of the magical Waitomo glow worm caves and Hobbiton movie set, the Underhill Valley earth house is a fairytale experience. Classified as “glamping” Underhill Valley is both simple and luxurious. The earth house is carved into the side of the hill and feels like a romantic hobbit hole. The giant timber doors open to a pond and private paths that lead around its landscaped grounds. A stay at Underhill Valley is a rare opportunity to disconnect from the world and embrace the peace of the beautiful property.
Underhill Valley is owned and hosted by Jessie and Craig Moon, who live on the property along with their young children. The earth house was hand-crafted by Jessie’s father over many years – down to the iron-hinges on the large wooden doors. Spending her childhood planning what this little house would look like, Underhill Valley is Jessie’s fairytale come true – a very special place for the family and its guests.