One of the best parts of exploring New Zealand is stumbling across tiny towns and their tasty treats.
From eclairs to pāua pies – and even a town that runs on gin – here are the best things I ate and drank on a 100-day road trip around New Zealand.
Pāua pies – Tokomaru Bay
A trip around East Cape is a bucket list drive; kids play on horses, wild pigs run down the road, and cows can be found wandering along remote golden beaches. The road that links this beautiful slice of New Zealand is known as State Highway 35. it is more like a grand voyage of winding roads that takes you to some of the most untouched parts of the country.
While you’ll pass dozens of empty beaches, quaint little communities and the eastern-most point of New Zealand – one of your compulsory stops is Tokomaru Bay’s Cafe 35. Here you’ll find the Cape’s iconic pāua pie. During the school holidays or long weekends, there will be queues – fresh batches are gone within minutes. You can even try loaded paua fries.
If you’re not a fan of seafood, the pork belly pies are also unmissable.
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* The travel hot list: The Stuff travel team’s picks of things to try in 2021
Chocolates and cheesecake – Lawrence
Lawrence was once the center of the Otago Gold Rush, but today it’s another kind boom taking the village by storm: a sugar rush.
The Lawrence Mint is a chocolate shop with a difference. It’s all about small-batch handmade creations, and in a tiny town of around 500 people, it has a steady stream of devotees worshiping at the altar of cocoa. The cheesecakes are also worthy of high praise. Part of its popularity is that everything is handmade using Belgian chocolate – and you can taste the love that goes into every morsel.
The shop has closed for winter, with plans well underway for a new location just down the road – complete with a tiny food truck called “The Little Minty”. If a spring road trip through Otago is on your horizon, don’t miss this sweet stop.
Eclairs – Ohakune
In the winter months, Ohakune is a bustling gateway to Mt Ruapehu. But every morning, well before dawn, the busiest place in town is Johnny Nation’s Chocolate Eclair Shop. There you’ll find bakers hard at work preparing hundreds of eclairs, which start flying off the shelves from 0630 each morning.
The store, which has been operating for more than 70 years, sell their giant chocolate creations for just $ 4. During busier days, queues will snake out the door. At $ 4 each, you won’t find better value.
Mind-blowing sandwiches – Hokitika
“What? A 45-minute wait!” The person in front of us walked out.
All of us in the queue grinned. Those who have tasted the creations at the Hokitika Sandwich Company don’t walk out. Ever.
How good can a sandwich be? I compare it to chocolate: it’s a little like eating cooking chocolate your entire life, then suddenly discovering Whittakers. These sandwiches are that good.
A few years ago, Kiwi Joseph Walker left his restaurant in the US to open a sandwich bar in Hokitika, and it’s now the most exciting place in town.
And it’s not hard to see why; the bread, meat and cheese are all sourced as locally as possible. And Walker has perfected some kind of sandwich sorcery bringing it all together. What looks simple, tastes sensational.
The last time I was there, a Wānaka resident had decided to make her annual holiday on the West Coast for the second year in the row – simply because she wanted to stay in Hokitika and eat a few sandwiches while enjoying the wild scenery.
The donut town – Motueka
The South Island town of Motueka has become Destination Donut. It’s all thanks to the town’s Melbourne-esque eatery known as The Smoking Barrel, where hundreds of donuts are created early each morning.
The flavors are extraordinary. We’re talking R18 Naughty Snickers with bourbon salted caramel, Bounty Bar, vanilla creme brulee, Caramilk deluxe, and salted caramel popcorn – to name a few.
Then there are the breakfast donuts, like bacon and eggs benedict. It’s miraculously all packed inside the dough – cut it open, and a perfect egg is revealed.
The Smoking Barrel is run by husband and wife team Josiah and Rachel Smits. The talented pair started the cafe with a focus on slow-cooked barbecue meats, but in recent years the donuts have proved enormously popular. So much so, the cafe usually makes more than 400 each day and are almost always sold out within hours.
Willy Wonka’s tiny chocolate shop – Greytown
Greytown’s Schoc Chocolates is like visiting Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory if it decided to relocate to a tiny turn-of-the-century cottage. Creator Murray Langham calls it a “Chocolate Therapy Studio”, and I suggest you check-in for some serious rehab.
Inside is a cocoa wonderland with truffles, boxes of chocolates, hampers and marzipan. The pièce de résistance is the “chocolate tablet”: Schoc’s version of a chocolate bar. You’ll find a wall with more than 60 flavors, and – drum roll, please – you can taste any of them for free. If you have a sweet tooth, head straight for rose milk.
Alternatively, if you have a penchant for unusual chocolate, Schoc makes flavors like carrot and coriander, curry and poppadoms, and even apricot and rosemary. The dark chocolate with ghost chilli (one of the hottest in the world) will test your constitution.
Toffee heaven – Kerikeri
The best sweet treat I’ve ever tried is a macadamia butter toffee crunch from Makana Confections in Kerikeri.
A visit to the chocolate shop includes free samples, alongside views of the workshop – where you can watch the latest creations being made.
While the truffles and chocolates are delightful, the luscious slabs of toffee coated in milk chocolate and dusted with macadamia are in a league of their own. Helpfully, if you can’t make it to the original store in Kerikeri, the company also has another store near Blenheim.
Gin country – Reefton
This old gold mining stronghold on the West Coast seemed destined for a slow decline until budding entrepreneurs decided to focus on making gin the big game in town.
In 2017 the Reefton Distilling Co was formed, combining pure mountain water with a host of high country botanicals to create a uniquely West Coast drop.
The distillery has won a host of international awards and raised more than $ 3 million to expand its operation.
For $ 35, experience a factory tour, then go on a sensory journey through the rainforest with a tasting at the bar.
There are now plans for a larger distillery alongside a blueprint to reinvigorate the town with other tourist attractions.
Pork belly pies – Fairlie
Pie lovers, start your (digestive) engines. While a trip to Lake Tekapo and Aoraki / Mt Cook is a scenic highlight of any holiday, your taste buds won’t be satisfied until you stop off at the Fairlie Bakehouse and try their pies.
You’ll find this bustling little town between Timaru and Lake Tekapo, and it’s easy to spot the pie shop: the bakehouse is the busiest place in town.
While all the flavors are delicious, it’s the pork belly with apple sauce and crackling that have most raving. The bacon and salmon pie also has its fair share of worshipers, although, I’m not one of them. Salmon in a pie is one step too far for me.
Cheese please – Featherston
If you’re in the Wairarapa for a wine weekend, remember what also gets better with age: cheese. The town of Featherston has a shop called C’est Cheese, and it’s home to one of the largest ranges of specialty cheeses in the country.
This little shop’s dedication to cheese makes you feel like you could be in Europe; you’ll find creations like The Drunken Nanny, which is goat’s cheese from Martinborough, Grinning Gecko camembert from Whangārei and even creations by its own brand: the Remutaka Pass Creamery.
The cheesey nirvana is located in one of the town’s historic buildings (almost 150 years old), which is also home to a cheese bar, where you can try heavily-cheesed scones alongside cheesy mushrooms on toast with a giant cheese wafer.
What are your favorite tiny town treats? Tell us in the comments.
This story was originally published in August 2021 and has been updated.