With ocean in every direction it is no surprise that New Zealand has a maritime climate, warm in the summer months, December to March, and never truly cold, even in winter. Weather patterns are strongly affected by prevailing westerlies, which suck up moisture from the Tasman Sea and dump it on the western side of both islands.
The South Island gets the lion’s share, with the West Coast and Fiordland ranking among the world’s wettest places, worth bearing in mind when deciding the best time to visit. Mountain ranges running the length of both islands cast long rain shadows eastward, making those locations considerably drier. The south is a few degrees cooler than elsewhere, and subtropical Auckland and Northland are appreciably more humid.
In the North Island, warm, damp summers fade imperceptibly into cool, wet winters, while the further south you travel the more the weather divides the year into four distinct seasons.
Most people visit New Zealand in the summer, but it is a viable destination at any time provided you pick your destinations. From December to March you’ll find everything open, though often busy with holidaying Kiwis from Christmas to mid-January.
In general, you’re better off joining the bulk of foreign visitors during the shoulder seasons – October, November and April – as sights and attractions are quieter, and accommodation easier to come by.
Winter (May–Sept) is the wettest, coldest and consequently least popular time, unless you are enamoured of winter sports, in which case it’s fabulous. The switch to prevailing southerly winds tends to bring periods of crisp, dry and cloudless weather to the West Coast and heavy snowfalls to the Southern Alps and Central North Island, allowing for some of the most varied and least-populated skiing and snowboarding in the world.
In the southern hemisphere, Christmas falls near the start of the school summer holidays, which run from mid-December until early February. From Boxing Day through to the middle of January Kiwis hit the beaches en masse and during this time you’ll find a lot more people about. Motels and campsites can be difficult to book and often raise their prices, though B&Bs and hostels rarely up their rates. To help you chart a path through the chaos, i-SITE visitor centres are open longer hours, as are many other tourist attractions. Other school holidays last for two weeks in mid- to late April, a fortnight in early to mid-July and the first two weeks of October, though these have a less pronounced effect.
Public holidays are big news in New Zealand and it can feel like the entire country has taken to the roads, so it’s worth staying put rather than trying to travel on these days. Each region also takes one day a year to celebrate its Anniversary Day, remembering the founding of the original provinces that made up New Zealand, and generally celebrated with an agricultural show, horse-jumping, sheepshearing, cake-baking and best-vegetable contests and novelty events (such as gumboot throwing). We’ve listed official dates below, but days are usually observed on the nearest Monday (or occasionally Friday) to make a long weekend.
Many of the festivals listed below are covered in more detail in the relevant section of the guide. PH indicates a public holiday.
January 2 (PH)
First Saturday in January Glenorchy Races (w glenorchy-nz.co.nz).
January 17 Anniversary Day (PH in Southland).
January 22 Anniversary Day (PH in Wellington).
January 29 Anniversary Day (PH in Auckland, Northland, Waikato, Coromandel, Taupo and the Bay of Plenty), celebrated with a massive regatta on Auckland’s Waitemata Harbour.
February 1 Anniversary Day (PH in Nelson).
February 6 Waitangi Day (PH); formal events at Waitangi.
First Saturday in February (in even-numbered years) Rippon Open Air Festival, Wanaka.
First Saturday in February Martinborough Fair, Martinborough w martinboroughfair.org.nz.
Second Saturday in February Wine Marlborough Festival, Blenheim (w wine-marlborough-festival.co.nz).
Second weekend in February Coast-to-Coast multisport race, South Island (w coasttocoast.co.nz).
Mid-February to early March Wellington Fringe Festival (w fringe.org.nz).
Mid-February to mid-March Burst: The Festival of Flowers, Christchurch (w festivalofflowers.co.nz).
Late February to late March NZ International Arts Festival, Wellington (even-numbered years only; w nzfestival.co.nz).
First week in March Golden Shears sheepshearing competition in Masterton (w goldenshears.co.nz).
First Saturday in March Martinborough Fair, Martinborough w martinboroughfair.org.nz.
Second Saturday in March Pasifika Festival, Auckland (w aucklandcouncil.govt.nz); Wildfoods Festival, Hokitika (w wildfoods.co.nz).
Mid-March WOMAD world music festival, New Plymouth; Sounds of Aotearoa, New Plymouth, featuring NZ’s finest musicians (w http://soundsaotearoa.com).
Mid-March Ellerslie International Flower Show, Christchurch (w ellerslieflowershow.co.nz). NZ’s largest, running for 5 days.
Mid-March Round-the-Bays Sunday fun run, Auckland (w roundthebays.co.nz).
Third weekend in March Te Houtaewa Challenge and Te Houtaewa Surf Challenge, Ahipara
Closest Saturday to March 17 Ngaruawahia Maori Regatta, near Hamilton.
March 23 Anniversary Day (PH in Otago).
March 31 Anniversary Day (PH in Taranaki).
Late March to late April Good Friday (PH) and Easter Sunday (PH).
Easter week Royal Easter Show, Auckland (w royaleastershow.co.nz); Warbirds Over Wanaka airshow (even-numbered years only); National Jazz Festival, Tauranga (w jazz.org.nz).
April 25 ANZAC Day (PH). Dawn services at cenotaphs around the country.
Late April Five-day Festival of Colour, Wanaka (odd-numbered years only).
Mid-April to late April Arrowtown Autumn Festival (w arrowtownautumnfestival.org.nz).
First Monday in June Queen’s Birthday (PH).
Middle weekend in June Fieldays, the southern hemisphere’s largest agricultural show, Hamilton (w fieldays.co.nz).
Mid- to late June Matariki, Maori New Year festivities (w matarikievents.co.nz).
Late June to early July Queenstown Winter Festival (w winterfestival.co.nz).
Early July to late November New Zealand International Film Festival, held for two weeks each in the nation’s 14 largest cities (w nzff.co.nz).
Third weekend in June Deco Decanted Jazz Festival, Napier (w artdeconapier.com).
Early August Taranaki International Festival of the Arts (odd-numbered years only).
Late September to early October Alexandra Blossom Festival (w blossom.co.nz).
Late September to early October World of Wearable Art Awards (WOW), Wellington (w worldofwearableart.com).
Fourth Monday in October Labour Day (PH).
October 31 Halloween.
Late October to early November Taranaki Garden Spectacular, New Plymouth.
November 1 Anniversary Day (PH in Hawke’s Bay and Marlborough).
November 5 Guy Fawkes’ Night fireworks.
Second week in November New Zealand Cup & Show Week, Canterbury (w nzcupandshow.co.nz).
Third Friday in November Anniversary Day (PH in Canterbury).
Third Sunday in November Toast Martinborough Wine, Food & Music Festival (w toastmartinborough.co.nz).
December 1 Anniversary Day (PH in Westland).
Mid-December to January Festival of Lights, New Plymouth.
December 25 Christmas Day (PH).
December 26 Boxing Day (PH).
Late Dec Rhythm and Vines three-day music festival, culminating on New Year’s Eve, Gisborne (w rhythmandvines.co.nz).