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You’ve probably heard that New Zealand has it all, but until you visit you really can’t grasp exactly what that means. There’s something for everyone here, and while it’s a long flight for most people, it’s well worth the journey to reach this stunning island with its array of exciting destinations. These are just some of the reasons it truly is the very best country in the world to visit – or, to live (lucky New Zealanders)!
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The colors in New Zealand are unlike anything you’ve probably ever seen, especially around some of its top natural wonders, including lakes like Pukaki and Tekapo on the South Island that showcase surreal shades of electric blue. You’ll probably have to take your sunglasses off to be sure what you’re seeing isn’t because of the lenses.
A popular activity in New Zealand is hiking, and the South Island is filled with dramatic mountains and endless miles of trails for exploring. The popular Hooker Valley Track in Mount Cook National Park takes about three hours to complete, 6.2 miles round trip, and can be accomplished by just about every fitness level. One of the world’s greatest, it boasts unparalleled mountain scenery, including Mount Cook and neighboring peaks, waterfalls, rushing rivers, lakes and glaciers. The route crosses three thrilling (especially on a windy day) swinging suspension bridges and ends at a lookout over Hooker Lake where one can see Hooker Glacier calving icebergs into the water while an unobstructed view of Mount Cook looms above.
Not only can you view Hooker Glacier, but many others around the country, including another right in Mount Cook National Park. Tasman Glacier is New Zealand’s longest at around 17 miles long and it can be viewed on a steep but short walk that includes alpine-fed lakes. Follow the path that meanders by the Blue Lakes and you’ll reach the viewpoint on the moraine wall. Here you can see across the valley, including the glacier, terminal lake and soaring surrounding peaks. In mid-spring through summer, you may be able to spot icebergs floating in the lake too.
There are countless beaches to be discovered in New Zealand, including wild, often empty stretches along the west coast of the South Island. Punakaiki Beach is renowned for its layered Pancake Rocks and surrounding blowholes which attract many tourists, but with a short scenic drive you can escape all those visitors and enjoy places like Motukiekie Beach where sea stacks rise from the waves just offshore and waterfalls cascade down the cliffs. Take a walk along the sand and you might even encounter tiny blue penguins.
Located along the banks of Lake Wakatipu, Queenstown is not only one of the world’s most beautiful towns, but it’s New Zealand’s adventure capital with everything from hiking, biking and river rafting to jet boating, sky diving and bungee jumping. It’s also home to the highest cliff jump in the world, the Shotover Canyon Swing. No matter what you do, you’ll be surrounded by mountain peaks in just about every direction. From the Skyline Gondola, you can get a great view of it all from above, and even whiz down the mountain in a luge.
Breathtaking colors can be found on the North Island too, including the geothermal reserves of Te Puia, Waiotapu and Waimangu around Rotorua. There are remarkable examples of boiling pools, hot springs, geysers, bubbling mud pots, volcanic terraces, craters and fumeroles. You’ll also find hot pools at temperatures safe enough to soak in along with pampering mud baths that will leave your skin feeling silky soft.
There are so many waterfalls across New Zealand it would be impossible to list them all. On the drive from Franz Josef to Queenstown, you might see more than you’ve seen in your lifetime. There are many spectacular cascades around Milford Sound too, like 531-foot Bowen Falls and 508-foot Sterling Falls. Tawhai Falls, also known as Gollum’s Pool, a filming location in “Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers,” is a stunner, plunging into an aquamarine pool below. Located in Tongariro National Park, it can be reached with just a 15-minute walk.
From dolphins and whales to penguins and Kiwis, New Zealand is an animal lovers’ paradise. Kaikoura is one of just a few places in the world where sperm whales can be seen year round. The marine environment off its shores is so rich in nutrients that it attracts these incredible creatures that can weigh more than 50 tons and grow to up to 65 feet in length. Join a whale watching tour with Whale Watch Kaikoura, the only vessel-based whale watching company in the country, and you’ll also have the opportunity to spot dusky dolphins, the rare and endangered hectors dolphin and New Zealand fur seals.
You can cross off another bucket-list experience while in New Zealand, watching the colorful aurora. The aurora australis, or southern lights, offers a show that’s just as dazzling on this side of the world, with Stewart Island the top viewing spot. It sits about 15 miles south of the South Island and also offers plenty of remote wilderness and birdlife to explore with a human population of less than 400.
Fans of “Lord of the Rings,” “The Hobbit,” and many other cinema hits can take tours of some of the most famous filming sites, including Hobbiton on the North Island. One not-to-be-missed tour for Queenstown visitors is Pure Glenorchy’s Lord of the Rings tour. Fan of the films or not, the scenery and interesting details about New Zealand are enough to make this a highlight of your visit. If you’re a fan, this is reason enough alone to visit Queenstown. In the end, you’ll even head to a magical forest used in Jackson’s films and dress up in LOTR costumes.
The temperate climate and soil diversity have made New Zealand a world-class wine-producing country. Marlborough is the leading wine producer, and there are many others scattered throughout both the North and South Islands, providing opportunities for tours, tastings and plenty of postcard-worthy photos.
New Zealand has made great efforts to preserve and respect its indigenous culture, something visitors can delve into at a number of attractions, like the Tamaki Maori Village near Rotorua. Enjoy an unforgettable Maori cultural performance and hangi, a feast steam-cooked in an oven dug in the ground, along with activities of days gone by, including facial tattooing, weaving, carving and demonstration.
One of the best parts of visiting New Zealand is the New Zealanders, also known as “kiwis”. Wherever you go you’ll find some of the warmest hospitality and the friendliest people you may ever meet, offering a warm “Kia ora” welcome. Stranger doesn’t seem to be a word here, and it truly makes for a trip you’ll never forget, a place you’ll want to come back to again and again.