Famous for natural beauty, wildlife, and adventure, New Zealand is a long way to travel, but well worth the effort to cross the oceans.
I arrived in New Zealand with my backpack in 2000 and ended up staying for seven years. Here are some of my favorite places for a wonderful trip and some reading recommendations while you enjoy your stay.
(1) Swim with marine mammals in Kaikoura
The depths of the Hikurangi Trench are just offshore at Kaikoura and attract an abundance of sea-life to the area. You can go whale-watching, swim with wild dolphins, kayak with the seals, or just enjoy kai moana (seafood) while gazing out across the ocean. A magical place.
(2) Relax in the mud at Rotorua
You know when you’ve entered Rotorua as the place smells of sulfur from the geothermal pools that bubble around the city, but you’ll soon get used to it and it’s definitely worth a trip.
Check out the lakes at Wai-o-tapu and watch Lady Knox geyser erupt, or book a spa visit with a mud wrap if you enjoy natural hot springs.
I’d also recommend Tamaki Maori Village or another Maori cultural experience if you’d like to learn more.
(3) Take a boat trip and dive at the Poor Knights Islands
Drive north from Auckland for a few hours to Tutukaka and then take a boat out to the nature reserve of the Poor Knights Islands.
If you dive, make sure you book a couple of days as there are so many different dive sites and lovely sheltered bays to explore.
(4) Climb Rangitoto Volcano
Auckland is built on over 50 volcanoes, most of which are dormant. You can see one of the most perfect cones, Rangitoto, from the shores of the city. Kayak over there from Mission Bay, or take a boat from the Harbour and hike to the summit for incredible views.
This photo is from Kohimarama Beach, which is much quieter than nearby Mission Bay. You can walk along the foreshore or hire rollerblades and skate if you fancy.
(5) Go caving with glow-worms at Waitomo
Take an inner tube down an underwater river at Waitomo, jump into the darkness and then wonder at the glow-worms. You have to wear an (attractive!) wetsuit but it’s well worth it for the experience.
(6) Drink incredible wine and eat Bluff oysters
If you’re an oyster fan, don’t miss the Bluff Oyster, definitely my favorite variety. There is a Bluff Oyster festival in May in the very south of New Zealand, and the season lasts March-August when you can get the oysters in restaurants across the country. They’re harvested from the cold, clear waters of the Foveaux Strait in the very south of the South Island.
You might like a cold glass of New Zealand sauvignon blanc with your oysters — you can pick up a bottle in the vineyards of Gisborne or Hawkes Bay.
If you prefer a Pinot Noir, sample the vineyards around Queenstown in the South Island. You can’t go wrong with a day of adventure followed by a wine tour. I particularly like Peregrine Wines. Check out New Zealand’s wine regions here.
(7) Take a boat trip, kayak or dive Milford Sound
The fjords of Southland are renowned for their hidden bays and dramatic waterfalls. You can kayak the Sound, or take a boat trip, scuba dive the freezing waters or hike the Milford Track.
Watch out for sandflies in the summer, and a lot of rain in the winter. Book everything well in advance as it’s a popular area.
(8) Cross the Tasman Strait on the ferry
There’s a regular ferry crossing between Wellington and Picton which takes about three and a half hours in decent weather. It’s a beautiful trip with views around the bays and across the Cook Strait.
(9) Hike or kayak the Abel Tasman National Park
There are many national parks in New Zealand with multi-day hikes and outdoor adventures galore. I particularly enjoyed the Abel Tasman which has a great combination of hiking, kayaking, boat pickups, and some fantastic dining along the way.
(10) Walk across Mordor over the Tongariro Crossing
The Tongariro National Park was used as the location of Mordor in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings epic movie, and you can cross it on a challenging day hike. If you enjoy skiing (or après-ski!), visit Whakapapa or Turoa during the winter season.
(11) Explore the ice caves on Franz Josef Glacier
New Zealand is incredible for the diversity of experiences that you can have within a short distance. Travel over to the west coast of the South Island and you can hike into the ice caves of the Franz Josef glacier.
If you’re slightly more hardcore or have some ice-climbing experience, you can even get a helicopter higher up.
(12) Escape central Auckland for the west coast beaches
I lived in Devonport on the North Shore of Auckland for five years and used to love getting the ferry to work in the city, but if I wanted to escape, I went west. Check out the black sand beaches of Muriwai, Piha, or Karekare.
You can walk or ride horses on the desolate sands, surf the wild waves, go canyoning down the escarpment, or visit the gannet colony. There’s also a vibrant artists’ scene and great coffee along the way.
(13) Watch the meeting of the oceans at Cape Reinga
Head all the way north to the furthest tip of the North Island and you’ll reach Cape Reinga, the ‘leaping-off place of spirits’ in Maori mythology.
If it’s a stormy day, you’ll see the white caps as the Tasman Sea and the South Pacific ocean meet. It’s a magical place.
Recommended books set in New Zealand
Once Were Warriors – Alan Duff. A frank and uncompromising portrait of New Zealand in which everyone is a victim, until the strength and vision of one woman transcends brutality and leads the way to a new life. Also, a film starring Temuera Morrison.
The Bone People – Keri Hulme. Booker Prize winner. A mystery, a love story, and an ambitious exploration of the zone where Maori and European New Zealand meet, clash, and sometimes merge.
The Whale Rider – Witi Ihimaera. The birth of a daughter — Kahu — breaks the lineage of a Maori tribe. Rejected by her grandfather, Kahu develops the ability to communicate with whales, echoing those of the ancient Whale Rider after whom she was named. Also, a film starring Keisha Castle-Hughes.
Weather Child – Philippa Ballantyne. Fantasy about an alternate history set in New Zealand. Rich with local knowledge about Wellington and Kiwi life.
Risen Gods – J.F.Penn and J.Thorn. When a tidal wave splits Ben and Lucy apart, and volcanoes erupt as the gods of Aotearoa begin to wake, can the two friends find their way back to each other and save the country they love from destruction? A fantasy novel set in New Zealand.