Riding renaissance: 6 great cycling trails around New Zealand
Welcome to the golden age of cycling, of aching calf muscles and helmet hair. Thousands are pumping up their tyres to explore the best of New Zealand on two wheels.
Words: Cheree Morrison and The Insider’s Guide to New Zealand 2021
A traveler is rarely freer than when on a bike. Gone are the shackles of state highways; gas stations are left in the dust. There is no end of the road — only a path not yet taken. Goodbye maps, overpacked car boots and backseat drivers, there’s little need for you here. (Well, perhaps hold onto the maps.)
There’s a particular type of freedom to be found on a bike seat, and many tourists are currently choosing to forego four wheels in favour of two. New Zealand was perhaps divinely created with cycle trails in mind — the scenery is staggering, endless small towns offer charming small-town hospitality, and the terrain is generally novice-rider friendly.
Central Otago was the first region to get into cycling-centric tourism and, following the success of the Otago Central Rail Trail, the collection of rides known as Ngā Haerenga, or the New Zealand Cycle Trail, has grown to 22 locations and more than 2500 kilometres. In 2018, it’s estimated that 400,000 trail users cycled more than 1.3 million trips.
The reasons why travelers are choosing helmets over Hondas varies. For some, the benefits include lowering their eco-footprint, supporting a variety of local businesses and getting to explore Aoteroa on their terms. For others, it’s a chance to recapture a child-like joy, to stretch office-weary muscles or enjoy local tipples with friends (it’s thirsty work — cycling tourists are statistically more likely to visit a winery on their travels).
Fitness is no longer a barrier; e-bikes are soaring in popularity and are more available than ever. Whatever the reason, and whatever the way, here is a selection of cycle trails from The Insider’s Guide to New Zealand 2021 to tempt even the most ardent of drivers.
1. The Kauri Coast
With the right attitude, a little muscle power and two wheels, it’s possible to ride from Auckland to Cape Reinga. The stretch from Auckland to Rāwene is split into two sections of Ngā Haerenga — the Kauri Coast Cycleway and the Kaipara Missing Link.
The 113-kilometre Kauri Coast Cycleway begins in Rāwene at the Hokianga Harbour and concludes in Dargaville. Riders follow SH12 as it ribbons around the edge of the Hokianga, before drifting into the depths of the Waipoua Forest. Pay respects to Tāne Mahuta, Lord of the Forest, and weave around the kauri trees that assert their dominance by forcing the asphalt to rise around them.
The gravel road that leads towards Trounson Park will delight or terrify before the seal road returns and reconnects back with the state highway at Kaihū. From there, riders can decide whether to take the backroads to Dargaville or stick to the main road. This cycleway traces highways and country roads and has some steep sections, so it’s best suited to confident riders. The ride takes between eight and 11 hours, so plan it over two days. nzcycletrail.com
2. Hastings District
Biking has become so popular in Hastings that Lycra and high-vis are practically the dress code. At any winery or café, and there’s bound to be a couple of bikes resting against a tree outside. There are 200 kilometres of cycle trails across the entire Hawke’s Bay, and the warm, dry climate makes it easy riding year-round. Most tracks are grades 1 and 2, and the majority of roads are flat (except for some trails in the Tukituki Valley).
THE WINERIES RIDE
The Wineries Ride is a leisurely lime-sand pathway with short on-road sections. The shortest loop is 30 kilometres and starts at Roys Hill Reserve near Unison Vineyard, heading towards the Gimblett Gravels region and vineyards, including Trinity Hill and Oak Estate (or an additional 11-kilometre détour to Sileni Estate Winery). For a longer route (60 kilometres), start at Clive near the Evers Swindell Reserve and follow the path between the Clive and Ngaruroro Rivers.
This trail takes riders through the gorgeous Ormond Road aka “Oak Avenue”, a 1.4-kilometre stretch of road lined with 211 oaks as well as elms, redwoods and cedar planted in the 1870s. It was formerly the avenue entrance to the Karamu homestead owned by the provincial superintendent and politician, John Davies Ormond (1831 to 1917). hawkesbaynz.com
3. Hunterville to Levin
Even the laziest cyclist can enjoy cycling on the flat roads and trails around Foxton and Foxton Beach. But if that’s a touch too much, hire an e-bike from Elements Electric Bikes (see Facebook). There are many easy trails in the area — try the Stock Route Track (4.5 kilometres), which winds through farmland, or the Cousins Ave Reserve Track (4.4 kilometres) through mature plantation forests. However powered, definitely do the loop from Foxton to Foxton Beach, returning along the Manawatū Estuary.
Starting from Foxton, head down Foxton Beach Road, cross over at Palmers Road, and then pedal towards the beach. Now ride towards the estuary — watching out for birdlife — and up the Manawatū River as far as possible, cutting back to Foxton Road. It’s about seven kilometres each way.
4. Nelson City
The Great Taste Trail is a scenic urban and coastal route that showcases the best the region has to offer. The trail stretches a whopping 174 kilometres and can easily be broken into bite-sized pieces for leisurely morning rides or afternoon adventures.
Weaving through country lanes and along the spectacular coastline, riders are treated to unparalleled views of Tasman Bay, the picturesque Waimea plains, rolling Moutere hills and the mountainous ranges that encircle them. heartofbiking.org.nz/tasmans-great-taste-trail
5. Amberley to Kaikōura
The beauty of historic farms and fruiting grapevines can’t be fully experienced when whizzing through the Waipara Valley by car. Cyclists know that slow and steady wins the race in this quaint countryside. The easy and scenic Waipara Valley Vineyard Trail traverses the heart of wine country and accommodates well-deserved pit stops. Cycle past curious sheep, lush vineyards and cellar doors — and don’t miss the Greystone loop for a 15-minute route around a north-facing slope full of organic grapevines.
The return trip, which begins at Glenmark Domain, takes between one and two hours and can be shortened by returning via SH1. For a tangible taste of the countryside, return on the same track, stopping at a winery for lunch or a glass of vino. hurunuitrails.org.nz.
There are trails around Mackenzie’s lakes and canals to make the quad muscles of the pedal-keen twitch with delight. The one with the most ardent devotees is the Alps 2 Ocean Cycle Trail — several sections of which thread through the Mackenzie region before concluding at Oamaru.
Mackenzie local Jason Menard is an Alps 2 Ocean fan: “It’s a great way to experience the diversity of New Zealand in less than a week. Several times a day you enter new terrain with ever-changing scenery. One constant during the ride is the journey of water that the trail follows. Starting from the ocean on the western side, dropping moisture on Aoraki/Mt Cook, turning into snow and ice, flowing into grey braided rivers, into turquoise lakes, then into hydro canals, dams, more lakes and rivers, and finally back to the ocean on the eastern side.”
He’s also convinced that the Tekapo to Twizel section is the most rewarding. But this may well be due to the celebratory/obligatory beer with which he punctuates that journey at Twizel’s MOW bar. Starting at section 1, north of Aoraki/Mt Cook Village, requires a short helicopter flight across the Tasman River to a spot called Rotten Tommy before continuing to Braemar Road (35 kilometres). Section 2 leads from there to Twizel (42 kilometres).
Many opt for the alternative route from Lake Tekapo to Twizel instead (54 kilometres), which hugs the Lake Pūkaki shoreline before passing through the expansive grasslands of the Pūkaki Flats. alps2ocean.com
The Insider’s Guide to New Zealand, created annually by NZ Life & Leisure, is a thorough and independently researched guide to six of the country’s most spectacular regions, and is packed with recommendations on what to do and see on your next holiday. Buy your copy of the 2021 edition here.