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New Zealand is arguably one of the most beautiful countries on the planet, and it’s also famous as one of the best places to enjoy heart-poundingly and often unique outdoor adventures. It has everything from towering mountains and glaciers to magnificent beaches, thermal regions, and fjords, as well as charming villages and cosmopolitan cities, making it a top destination on many travelers’ bucket lists. With so much to offer, where do you begin? These top attractions will help you plan what’s sure to be an unforgettable adventure.
What Is It? The Tongariro Crossing Tongariro National Park offers the chance to take a dramatic journey through the volcanic alpine landscape on the North Island that looks as if it’s a whole other planet.
Why Do It? Striking emerald crater lakes dot the perimeter of the Tongariro volcanic complex, while a number of geothermal vents add to the dramatic effects.
Good to Know: 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.
What Is It? How often do you have the opportunity to witness a glacier surrounded by a temperate rain forest that advances almost to sea level?
Why Do It? 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.
Good to Know: Franz Josef, in particular, 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 that flow down from the dramatic mountain peaks.
What Is It? 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.
Why Do It? 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.
Good to Know: Spend time on 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.
What Is It? 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.
Why Do It? 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.
Good to Know: 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
What Is It? 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.
Why Do It? 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 fabulous sandy beaches, as well as having the opportunity to spot a wide range of marine life like whales, penguins, dolphins, and marlin.
Good to Know: 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.
What Is It? The nearly 80-foot-high Whangarei Falls that plunges over basalt cliffs is considered to be New Zealand’s most photogenic waterfall.
Why Do It? 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.
Good to Know: 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.
What Is It? If you’re the very adventurous type, bungee jumping off the Sky Tower in New Zealand’s largest city is a must.
Why Do It? 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.
Good to Know: 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.
What Is It? 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.
Why Do It? Within two hours on 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.
Good to Know: 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.
What Is It? Hawke’s Bay, located along the idyllic Te Awanga coast is one of the country’s premier wine regions.
Why Do It? 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.
Good to Know: There are a number of outfitters offering self-guided bike tours, including Good Fun Bike Rides and On Yer Bike Winery Tours.
What Is It? Head to the Shotover River on the South Island, and you can experience one of the most thrilling rides on the planet.
Why Do It? 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.
Good to Know: 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. It offers a more gentle ride, along with views that are straight from the “Lord of the Rings.”
What Is It? 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.
Why Do It? 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.
Good to Know: 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 onto a series of beaches. Many birds call the park home, including blue penguins, wekas and oystercatchers, which can be spotted along the way.
What Is It? The Waitomo Caves are located on the North Island in the King Country region.
Why Do It? 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.
Good to Know: 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.
What Is It? 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.
Why Do It? 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.
Good to Know: 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.
What Is It? 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.
Why Do It? 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.
Good to Know: If kayaking sounds like too much effort, boat cruises, by day or overnight, are another great way to experience the Sound.
What Is It? 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.
Why Do It? 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.
Good to Know: 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.
What Is It? 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.
Why Do It? The brewery and restaurant are 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.
Good to Know: Of course, if you’re planning on bungee jumping off the Sky Tower, be sure you do that first for obvious reasons.
What Is It? 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.
Why Do It? The Tamaki Maori Village offers a variety of experiences on the North Island, including a Maori cultural performance and hangi, where a feast is steamed 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.
Good to Know: 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.
What Is It? Te Wairoa was once a sleepy little, serene village, but in 1886, it was destroyed by a volcano eruption.
Why Do It? 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 the 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 of what it was like before its destruction.
Good to Know: 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.
What Is It? If you visit Wellington, and you should, don’t miss the chance to explore Cuba Street.
Why Do It? 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.
Good to Know: 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.
What Is It? The kiwi is a national symbol of New Zealand, native to the country. Stewart Island offers one of the best opportunities for wildlife watching in New Zealand, with the chance to see this rare, flightless bird in its natural habitat.
Why Do It? In the Maori language, it’s known as Rakiura, or “the land of glowing skies,” as it’s also one of the few places on earth to view the Southern Lights. More than 85 percent of the island is national parkland, with most coming for the peaceful, laid-back atmosphere, hiking, and bird watching.
Good to Know: By walking the Rakiura Track, you’ll get up close and personal with the island’s wild, breathtaking beauty, and likely, a kiwi or two along the way.
What Is It? The Waimangu Valley can be found in Rotorua, known as New Zealand’s thermal wonderland, with geysers and hot springs in and around the city.
Why Do It? Natural eruptions of steam, hot water, and mud occasionally sprout up in new locations. The valley was completely reshaped when Mount Tarawera erupted in 1886, while the Maori villages of Te Wairoa, Te Arihi and Moura disappeared under masses of lava and ash. Organized tours of the area include walking the shores of Lake Rotomahana, passing the now inactive Waimangu Geyser, viewing Cathedral Rocks, Warbrick Terrace and the Waimangu Cauldron, a 10-acre lake of steaming hot water.
Good to Know: Just below Mount Tarawera, you’ll discover Maori rock drawings on the shores of Lake Tarawera followed by a boat excursion across the water to the partly excavated buried village of Te Wairoa.
What Is It? The Marlborough Wine Region, on the north end of the South Island, is the largest wine-producing region in the country, home to world-renowned Sauvignon Blanc as well as New Zealand’s sunniest and driest climate.
Why Do It? Wine enthusiasts can enjoy plenty of tasting opportunities with wineries, many of which have open cellar doors for sampling and buying. There are also reserves here, offering all types of outdoor activities like swimming, boating, diving and kayaking as well as mountain biking and hiking.
Good to Know: One of the best ways to explore the waterways is by renting a kayak, with friendly, curious dolphins likely to approach.
What Is It? Aoraki Mt Cook National Park is home to New Zealand’s tallest mountain, featuring a number of skyscraping peaks, glaciers and permanent snowfields.
Why Do It? While it’s popular with mountaineers, you don’t have to be a climber to enjoy the breathtaking scenery, with a number of fairly easy alpine walks that start near the village of Mt Cook, set at the base of the mountain. Flightseeing tours offer another great way to see it. Helicopter and plane rides provide unsurpassed views, including the option to land at the top of Tasman Glacier.
Good to Know: While the rugged alpine terrain doesn’t contain many trees or plants due to its altitude, it’s covered with colorful lupins that brighten the rocky landscape.
What Is It? Lady Knox Geyser is the top attraction in the Waiotapu Thermal Wonderland.
Why Do It? It sends a jet of water high into the air, with almost unvarying punctuality at 10:15 a.m., though its punctuality does require a little help. Soap powder is thrown into the water to set it off. As it contains sodium carbonate, this decreases the surface viscosity, which helps to spark the event.
Good to Know: If that sounds a bit hokey, there are numerous other sights here to explore that make it well worth a visit anyway, including mud pools, a champagne pool and Devil’s Bath, with its bright, the almost neon green color caused by suspended sulfur.
What Is It? Paparoa National Park is home to the famous Pancake Rocks and Blowholes along the rugged and wild west coast of the South Island.
Why Do It? The curious limestone rock formations look like giant pancakes and are especially stunning at high tide in a westerly sea. They were formed 30 million years ago from minute fragments of dead marine creatures and plants which landed on the seabed about one and a quarter miles below the surface. Immense water pressure caused the fragments to solidify into hard and soft layers. Over time, seismic action lifted the limestone above the seabed, while mildly acidic rain, wind and seawater sculpted the unique shapes.
Good to Know: An easy 0.7-mile walk winds through the formations, providing a closer look.