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New Zealand is arguably one of the most breathtaking countries on the planet, and it’s also famous as one of the best places to enjoy heart-pounding, and often unique, outdoor adventures. Divided between the North and South Islands, you’ll find a wealth of fun things to see and do no matter which you plan to spend time on, but these are truly some of the most amazing to put on your itinerary.
Step into a whole new world and see stunning emerald crater lakes
The Tongariro Crossingin Tongariro National Park offers the chance to take a dramatic journey through volcanic alpine landscape on the North Island that looks as if it’s a whole other planet. Striking emerald crater lakes dot the perimeter of the Tongariro volcanic complex, while a number of geothermal vents add to the dramatic effects. A three-hour adventure considered to be one of the finest day hikes in the world, starts at Whakapapa Visitor Center, leading to Taranaki Falls, and will bring you through untamed forest and scrubland, across the lava line of the volcanic eruptions that took place centuries ago.
View a glacier that cuts through a rain forest
How often do you have the opportunity to witness a glacier surrounded by temperate rain forest that advances almost to sea level? Well, unless you’ve already been to Westland National Park on New Zealand’s South Island, probably never. In fact, the rugged west coast of the South Island is the only place you can do just that. Franz Josef, in particularly, is considered to be one of the most accessible glaciers on Earth. Visitors can take a hike that leads right up to the foot of the massive glacier, or take a helicopter tour among the frozen rivers of ice which flow down from the dramatic mountain peaks.
Soak in natural hot pools
New Zealand offers a number of spectacular places for soaking in natural hot pools, including Hot Water Beach, set along the east coast of the Coromandel Peninsula on the North Island. Within two hours either side of low tide, visitors head to this normally deserted beach to enjoy the hot water that bubbles right through the golden sands. Dig your very own personal natural spa bath in the sand, and relax inside the soothing waters. Flat hot pools is another great spot to take a bath outdoors – hidden in a remote valley on the South Island’s west coast, Copland Track will lead you to a cluster of natural thermal hot pools that are tucked among the rain forest and surrounded by soaring snow-capped mountains.
Experience the legend of a sea monster
Vast and beautiful Lake Taupo is nearly the size of Singapore, and offers a vast array of things to do, including fishing for rainbow or brown trout and kayaking around its secluded coves and beaches. The lake is home to a fascinating legend as well – some Maori believe a sea monster, or Taniwha, is lurking beneath its waters, so you may want to keep an eye out to see if you can experience it for yourself. You can also view evidence of the lake’s fiery birth, created some 2,000 years ago by a massive volcanic eruption, in the boiling mud pools, geysers and steaming craters. Spend time in one of the beaches along the shore and you can even enjoy a swim in warm, geothermal waters. Mine Bay, accessible only by boat, kayak or other watercraft, is home to intricate Maori rock carvings.
Take a ride on the TranzAlpine Train
By taking the rail journey from Christchurch to Greymouth on the TranzAlpine train, you can enjoy amazing views like this one, over the Waimakariri river gorge. One of the top train journeys in the world, it brings passengers from the fertile farmlands of the Canterbury Plains through 16 tunnels and more than five viaducts with jaw-dropping views of snow-capped peaks, icy rivers, forests, stunning gorges and river valleys on the South Island. The final destination, Greymouth, makes a great place to base yourself for exploring the unspoiled region with wild rivers, glaciers and the renowned Punakaiki pancake rocks.
Sail the Bay of Islands
If you’re looking for a scenic and relaxing experience, go sailing in the Bay of Islands, located near the northern tip of the North Island. This subtropical micro-region is renowned for world-class sailing, with its collection of more than 140 islands, and a coastline with four picturesque villages, including the charming town of Russell. You’ll discover lots of secluded bays and and fabulous sandy beaches, as well as having the opportunity to spot a wide range of marine life like whales, penguins, dolphins and marlin. When you want a break from the water, you can stop off at one of the many islands that have great hiking trails, or even spend the night by camping on Urupukapuka Island.
View New Zealand’s most photogenic waterfall
The nearly 80-foot-high Whangarei Falls that plunges over basalt cliffs is considered to be New Zealand’s most photogenic waterfall. As it’s easily accessible, offers a beautiful setting and flows all year-round (with the exception of very dry summers), it’s really a must-see when in the Whangarei region, located just 10 minutes from Whangarei’s city center or a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Auckland. The two viewing platforms above the waterfall offer spectacular views of the falls as well as a bird’s eye view of the forest below. The classic curtain waterfall is part of the Hatea River and is one of the most popular swimming spots in the area – it’s also a lovely place for a picnic.
Bungee jump off the Auckland Sky Tower
If you’re the very adventurous type, bungee jumping off the Sky Tower in New Zealand’s largest city is a must. This observation and telecommunications tower is the tallest free-standing structure in the Southern Hemisphere, not to mention that it’s an iconic landmark in the Auckland skyline. Of course, that also means that a jump from here is not for the faint-of-heart. SkyJump is the outfitter offering New Zealand’s highest jumping point where the brave plummet nearly 630 feet at over 52 miles per hour off the tower. If you’re not up for this heart-pounding thrill, you can just enjoy the incredible views that stretch for 50 miles on a clear day and dine in the tower’s revolving restaurant.
Take a bicycling winery tour around Hawke’s Bay
Hawke’s Bay, located along the idyllic Te Awanga coast is one of the country’s premier wine regions. One of the best ways to visit the more than 70 wineries in the area, is on two wheels as the land is flat, and the majority of the wineries are within easy cycling distance. Spend the day sampling fantastic wines and cap it off with a visit to downtown Napier, considered to be one of the best-preserved Art Deco towns in the world. There are a number of outfitters offering self-guided bike tours, including Good Fun Bike Rides and On Yer Bike Winery Tours.
Experience the world’s ultimate jet boat ride
Head to the Shotover River on the South Island, and you can experience one of the most thrilling rides on the planet. Called the world’s “ultimate jet boat experience,” the Shotover Jet is a unique ride that will take you through narrow, dramatic canyons and exhilarating full 360-degree spins, all while battling the strong currents at speeds of nearly 60 miles per hour. This is one tourist attraction that lives up to the hype, but if it sounds like a little too much for your liking, you might want to join an organized raft trip on the river instead. If offers a more gentle ride, along with views that are straight of the “Lord of the Rings.”
Go beer tasting at Auckland’s Hallertau Brewery
New Zealand has some great local brews. If you like beer and are in the Auckland area, be sure to head to Hallertau Brewery, just 20 minutes from the city center. Of course, if you’re planning on bungee jumping off the Sky Tower, be sure you do that first for obvious reasons. The brewery and restaurant is tucked away in the lush Riverhead area and not only offers memorable handcrafted brews, but outstanding New Zealand fare. Dishes include produce that is so fresh, it’s plucked right from the restaurant’s onsite kitchen garden.
Fly over White Island
Whakaari, also known as White Island, is New Zealand’s most active volcano – breathing, roaring and hissing from its steaming vents. Situated 30 miles off the coast of Whakatane on the North Island, it’s had about 35 small to moderate eruptions over the past two centuries. The little island was formed by three separate volcanic cones, and while the two oldest have eroded away, the younger cone rose up between them. As the island is privately owned, you can only gain access via a tour operator by boat or helicopter, which usually includes a walking tour around around it. Fixed-wing air operators offer flyover-only tours, which is an amazing way to get a bird’s eye view of the dramatic scene from above. The trip to and from the island is also quite memorable – via boat you’ll enjoy the abundance of sea and bird life, including dolphins that often swim alongside; or by helicopter, you can take in the full grandeur of White Island, rising out of the South Pacific.
Join a tribal gathering
If you’d like to learn about New Zealand’s indigenous culture, one of the best ways to do it is to attend a Maori gathering. The Tamaki Maori Village offers a variety of experiences on the North Island, including a Maori cultural performance and hangi, where a feast is steam cooked in an oven dug in the ground, giving the meat and vegetables a delicious smoky flavor. The living village offers the sounds and activities of days gone by, including facial tattooing, weaving, carving and demonstrations on how food was cooked and preserved here many years ago. You can see and talk to the indigenous people, and will even have the chance to participate in stick games, warrior training, learn the poi and perform the haka.
Hike the Abel Tasman Coastal Track
At the very top of the South Island, you can explore picture-postcard beaches, impressive rock formations and interesting wildlife at Abel Tasman National Park. This may be New Zealand’s smallest national park, but it packs a punch as a hiker’s paradise with mountainous terrain as well as boasting some of the most beautiful stretches of sand you’ll find anywhere. You’ll need to access it by foot, plane or boat, but that just seems there is no vehicle traffic to contend with. If you’re up for a longer adventure, hike the Abel Tasman Coastal Track. It takes 3 to 5 days to complete, climbing around the headlands, through native forests and on to a series of beaches. Many birds call the park home, including blue penguins, wekas and oyster catchers, which can be spotted along the way.
Head underground to see the dazzling lights of the Waitomo Caves
The Waitomo Caves are located on the North Island in the King Country region. Like many caves throughout the world, they’re famous for their stalactite and stalagmite displays, but Waitomo offers quite a bit more. When you enter the fascinating labyrinth of caverns, accessed by boat or inner tube, thousands of glowworms illuminate the way, with the appearance of twinkling blue and green fairy lights. The caves formed more than 30 million years ago, beginning with the creation of limestone at the bottom of the ocean – standing today as one of New Zealand’s most inspiring natural wonders.
Watch for whales
In the waters near Kaikoura, a town on the east coast of the South Island, there’s a 95% chance of spotting whales all year round, thanks to the marine environment that’s so rich in nutrients it attracts and some of the planet’s most magnificent creatures. In fact, this is one of the only places in the world where you can easily see sperm whales. Killer whales are often spotted from December to March, and humpback whales in June and July. A number of dolphin species can be seen in the area nearly every day as well. There are multiple outfitters to choose from to embark on a whale watching excursion by sea, or by air. Viewing the largest toothed whale on Earth from above is truly an unforgettable experience.
Kayak through Milford Sound
Paddling through the “8th wonder of the world,” as Rudyard Kipling called Milford Sound, located on the west coast of the South Island, is truly an amazing experience. Spectacular natural features can be seen around nearly every corner. Paddle across the water to encounter local wildlife while viewing forest-covered mountains dotted with waterfalls that plummet almost vertically, some as high as 3,300 feet, into a deep fjord. Breathtaking no matter what the weather, the cliffs of the fjord rise vertically from the dark waters, and when it rains those waterfalls become even more powerful, multiplying the magnificent effects. If kayaking sounds like too much effort, boat cruises, by day or overnight, are another great way to experience the Sound.
Explore Wellington’s Cuba Street
If you visit Wellington, and you should, don’t miss the chance to explore Cuba Street. Even though historically it is not related to the island nation of Cuba, the culture and food is a throwback to the multi-ethnic country. One of the more bohemian areas of the city, it’s lined with an eclectic collection of cafes, unique boutiques, small fashion retailers, art galleries, and music shops. Plus you’ll get to enjoy a variety of street entertainers, some might play guitar, put on a marionette show, or play with fire. It’s considered the center of one of downtown’s four quarters, the Cuba Quarter, and unsurprisingly, it’s one of the best spots for an excellent cup of coffee, particularly Fidel’s Cafe, serving authentic Cuban espresso as well as dishes that are inspired by the Caribbean country.
Visit the buried village of Te Wairoa
Te Wairoa was once a sleepy little, serene village, but in 1886, it was destroyed by a volcano eruption. The explosion of Mount Terewaka buried the entire village, including what was considered a natural wonder of the world, the pink and white terraces. It also took out 5,000-square-miles of surrounding countryside. Today, the buried village is considered a must-visit. You can take an organized tour of the valley via a boat excursion, or it can be reached in about a 15-minute drive from Rotorua, on the North Island. By viewing the exhibition of old photos and objects that were uncovered beneath the lava, you’ll get a glimpse as to what it was like before its destruction. Several houses were excavated, and there are also remains of a mill, tourist hotel and an ancient stone Maori storehouse with archaic figures, along with a museum highlighting the artifacts and remnants.
Drive Ninety-Mile Beach
Legendary for its stunning sunsets and boasting one of the best left hand surf breaks in the world, Ninety-Mile Beach is an almost never-ending paradise. This legendary strip of sand stretches from Ahipara to Scott Point on the North Island, just a few miles south of Cape Maria van Diemen. Its giant sand dunes and windswept shores play host to sand surfers and stranded cars alike. While it’s officially a highway, if you don’t have a four-wheel drive vehicle, it’s better not to attempt it. Rental car companies don’t allow their cars on the sand, mostly for safety reasons. Another option for driving along the beach is to catch a coach tour from Kaitaia. If you do have a four-wheel drive, you’ll need to check the tide tables to be sure you’re driving across it during low tide. This is also the time you can dig for tuatua, a native shellfish, in the sand, considered to be an especially delectable treat.