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New Zealand is a perfect place to contemplate the universe: Our night skies are recognised as some of the most star-studded on Earth.
There are plenty of good places to enjoy them – and winter is the prime time – and our internationally recognised Dark Sky preserves all but guarantee a magical night under the stars.
Visit NZ’s Stonehenge in the Wairarapa
New Zealand’s answer to the UK’s Stonehenge is one of the best places in the country to pick out planets and constellations while learning about Māori starlore and how ancient civilisations, including the people of the Pacific, used them to tell the time and navigate.
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Similar in size and design to its prehistoric namesake on England’s Salisbury Plains, Stonehenge Aotearoa features 24 pillars and lintels which frame the rising and setting points of especially bright stars. Together with the obelisk, they form a giant clock and calendar which identifies the date, the times of the solstices and equinoxes, conjunctions between the sun and bright stars and other clever things that help tell time.
You can explore the open-air observatory on your own, or book a daytime tour to learn more about the henge and how it incorporates ancient Egyptian, Babylonian, Celtic, Polynesian and Māori elements.
The night-time or sunset Star Safari, meanwhile, will turn you into a walking encyclopaedia on New Zealand’s night sky. If the weather’s co-operating, you’ll get to zoom in on the bright lights above using a giant telescope. If not, you’ll get a guided tour of the Mars exhibition.
While you’re in the Wairarapa, head to Castlepoint for a fab view of the Milky Way above its famed lighthouse.
Price: Admission to the henge is $15 for adults, $5 for students and $10 for SuperGold cardholders. Children 5 and under are free. The Star Safari costs $15 for adults and $5 for students 13 and over. Children 12 and under go free when accompanied by a caregiver. Ninety-minute private and group daytime tours start from $120. stonehenge-aotearoa.nz
Visit a wine cellar/observatory near Lake Pūkaki
Located within the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve, the five-star Mt Cook Lakeside Retreat on the shores of Lake Pūkaki offers a supremely comfortable stargazing experience – with a twist.
Enjoy a warming tot of whiskey or glass of wine in the well-stocked wine cellar/observatory before taking in the night sky through the retractable roof.
The skies in these parts are so untainted by light pollution and the observatory telescope so powerful, you can pick out the rings of Saturn and bands of Jupiter, along with only-in-the-southern-hemisphere luminaries such as the Southern Cross and Magellanic Clouds.
Once you’re sufficiently bedazzled, head back to your private villa, where an outdoor hot tub filled with fresh artesian water awaits.
Price: The private stargazing experience at Mt Cook Lakeside Retreat is available to both guests and non-guests. The $120 charge per person includes nibbles and a glass of wine or tot of whiskey. Luxury villas cost from $1295 per night for up to two people. Includes breakfast, a three-course dinner and welcome bottle of wine. mtcookretreat.nz
Spot shooting stars on NZ’s best night hike
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing, a 19.4km trek across a Mars-like landscape famous for its hyper-blue and green lakes and movie star Mt Doom, is often touted as one of New Zealand’s best day hikes. But it’s arguably even better at night.
Adrift Tongariro offers a guided sunrise tour which will see you don a headtorch at between 1.30 and 3am and set out under the Milky Way through Aotearoa’s oldest national park.
You’ll reach the Red Crater as the sun rises above it, bringing out its burnt red hues, and take it all in as you eat breakfast. One of the best things about it (the incredible stargazing aside)? You’re likely to have the dual Unesco World Heritage Site to yourself.
Price: The private sunrise guided walk starts from $600 per person. Discounts available for groups of three or more. adriftnz.co.nz
Meteorites, dinosaur bones and the Coromandel’s biggest telescope
Stargazers B&B in the bizarrely underrated Coromandel town of Kuaotunu is the culmination of a lifelong obsession for co-owner Alistair Brickell.
Alistair, who runs the business with his wife Harriette, first became hooked on the heavens as a boy in Canada eagerly following the space race between the US and USSR – he even made it to the Apollo 14 launch at Cape Canaveral.
After retiring as a geologist, he and Harriette built a home that revolves around the night sky much as the Moon does the Earth. After dark, you’ll find him, B&B guests and anyone else who wants to join in peering through the Coromandel’s largest telescope in the onsite observatory. The two-hour tours start with an introduction to the New Zealand night sky and how Māori and Polynesian voyagers used the stars for navigation, aided by a walk-in “pipehenge”, which serves as a compass, calendar and observatory.
You’ll zoom in on planets such as Mars, Venus, Saturn and Jupiter (if you’re lucky, you’ll see “the great red spot”, multiple moons and cloud bands of the latter), the mountains and lava flows of the Moon, and a few of an infinite number of constellations.
Back in the office, you’ll examine four-and-a-half-billion-year-old meteorites and other astronomical and geological marvels, also including 150-million-year-old dinosaur bones. You’ll exit via the 25-metre scale model of the solar system – with a takeaway sundial kit to aid your stargazing efforts back home.
Price: The “Galaxy Gazer” evening astronomy tour costs $60 per adult, $30 for kids 17 and under, and $150 for a family of two adults and two children. stargazersbb.com
Do the moonwalk on Great Barrier Island
Take a moonlit stroll along a white-sand beach before looking through an eight-inch telescope set up on the dunes at the celestial bodies above the first island in the world to achieve International Dark Sky Sanctuary status.
Legs stretched, sit back in a “moon chair” and sip a hot chocolate or herbal tea as you moon- and stargaze to your heart’s content.
With vast swathes of wilderness and no street lights, it’s little wonder the island has developed an international reputation for astrotourism.
“Once it gets dark, it gets really dark,” Good Heavens owner and director Hilde Hoven says. “The perfect backdrop for a very rich display of twinkling stars.”
Good Heavens, which donates a percentage of profits to community organisations and events, offers a “Look Up and Get Lost” group stargazing experience and private tours in addition to its “Moon Walk” group tour.
Price: The “Moon Walk” and “Look Up and Get Lost” experiences cost $120 per adult and $60 per child. Private tours start from $840 for a group of up to six. goodheavens.co.nz