New Zealand Feature
Top Experiences in New Zealand
New Zealand has more than 15,000 km (9,300 miles) of coastline, which ripples and zigzags to create bays, coves, fjords, and countless beaches. These run the gamut from surfing hot spots to quiet sheltered lagoons to rugged, boulder-studded strands. Most are open to the public, and few are crowded. The greatest hazards are sunburn—the lack of smog and a subequatorial location mean the sun is strong—and strong currents.
On the North Island, Coromandel's eastern shore and the Bay of Plenty—especially busy Mount Maunganui —are favorites during summer "time off." The black "iron sand" on the West Coast of the North Island is a result of volcanic activity. Karekare Beach, west of Auckland, is the striking, cliff-backed beach that was made famous in Jane Campion's film The Piano. The dunes at Ninety Mile Beach in Northland are spectacular, and nearby Doubtless Bay has some of the country's loveliest caramel-color beaches. New Zealand's most famous surf breaks are near the laid-back west-coast towns of Raglan and Oakura; you can "hang-10" here or at Piha near Auckland or at the Bay of Plenty beaches.
South Island beaches are captivating, particularly in Abel Tasman National Park and neighboring Golden Bay. The sands are golden, and the water is jade green. Westerly winds carry driftwood, buoys, entire trees, and a fascinating variety of flotsam from as far away as South America to Stewart Island's Mason Bay, making this dramatic sweep of sand a beachcomber's paradise. The sand is crisscrossed with the tracks of kiwis (the birds) that reside in the area by the thousands.
It is one thing to read "9.6-foot wingspan," but it is quite another to watch the magnificent northern royal albatross spread its wings and soar through your field of vision. You don't have to be a twitcher (bird-watching nut) to appreciate New Zealand's feathered population—this country will turn you into a bird nerd. The birds of New Zealand are extraordinary to behold: a raft of thousands of sooty shearwaters (aka muttonbirds or titi) move like smoke over the water; a yellow-eyed penguin pops like a cork from the bright green surf and waddles up the beach; fantails squeak and follow you through the forest; the soft cry of the morepork (owl) is interrupted by the otherworldly call of the kiwi. Pelagic birds such as the royal albatross will take your breath away; the Otago Peninsula colony (off Dunedin) is the only mainland breeding colony for these perfect flying machines. It may be ornithologically incorrect to say so, but many of the native birds are simply hilarious. Penguins always make people smile, and New Zealand is home to the Little Blue (or fairy), the extremely rare hoiho (or yellow-eyed), and the Fiordland crested penguin. The kea and its cousin the kaka are wild and clever parrots whose antics crack people up—these birds like to hang upside down from gutters, drink from water fountains, and remove windshield wipers from cars. And, of course, there is the star of the bird show: the kiwi. You won't ever see another bird like this staunch flightless brown bird, and to glimpse a kiwi is an unforgettable and joyful experience. Hot bird spots include Kapiti Island off the North Island and Stewart Island way down south.
There are boating and fishing options to match any mood.
If you're feeling cruisy, rent a kayak and paddle around the golden beaches and inlets of Abel Tasman National Park, or the penguin-filled waters of Paterson Inlet. Take a canoe on the Whanganui River, or sail the Bay of Islands. Feeling really lazy? Just charter a boat and captain and take in the scenery of the Marlborough Sounds or busy Auckland Hauraki Gulf. Fly-fish a trout from a caldera in Lake Taupo, or from one of the many pristine rivers and lakes throughout the country.
If you want some fun and a bit of a rush, much of the fishing in the South is simple rod or hand-lining for groper (grouper), trumpeter, and greenbone. Northerners argue their snapper is superior to the succulent Stewart Island blue cod; sample both to weigh in on this tasty debate. Go on a creaky wooden boat for the local old-school experience (some skippers will fry your catch), or opt for a sleeker vessel and a bird tour and let your heart soar with the mollymawks.
Up north ups the excitement, with big game fishing out of Russell and Paihia for big fish such as striped marlin. Tuna is always a challenging catch, and the Hokitika Trench off Greymouth is one of the few places in the world where the three species of bluefin tuna gather.
If you want a major adrenaline buzz, go jet-boating on the Shotover River near Queenstown, or raft the North Island's Kaituna River, near Rotorua, which has the highest commercially rafted waterfall (22 feet) in the Southern Hemisphere. Or get off the boat and go spearfishing for moki in the kelp forests beneath the waves.
The traditional way to hike in New Zealand is freedom walking. Freedom walkers carry their sleeping bags, food, and cooking gear and sleep in basic huts. A more refined alternative—usually on more popular trails—is the guided walk, on which you trek with a light day pack, guides do the cooking, and you sleep in heated lodges.
The most popular walks are in the Southern Alps. The Milford Track, one of New Zealand’s nine Great Walks, is a four-day walk through breathtaking scenery to the edge of Milford Sound (Great Walks need to booked in advance, www.doc.govt.nz). The Queen Charlotte Track (71 km [45 miles]) winds along the jagged coast of the Marlborough Sounds region; you can often see seals and dolphins from the waterside cliffs.
Rakiura National Park's North West Circuit is a challenging hike. The 10- to 12-day trek will sometimes feel more like mud wrestling than walking, but the scenic rewards are immeasurable, as is the pint of beer waiting at the South Sea Hotel when it's over. To experience Rakiura, do the three-day Rakiura Track, or have a water taxi drop you along one of the many coastal trails and walk back.
On the North Island the Coromandel has forests of regenerating kauri trees, more than 100 years old; 80-foot-tall tree ferns; a gorgeous coastline; and well-marked trails. You can hike among active volcanic peaks in Tongariro National Park. On a nub of the West Coast sits the majestic Mt. Taranaki. If time is short, set aside a few hours for trekking in the Waitakere Ranges, a short drive from Auckland city.
If you think New Zealand is provincial in its accommodations, think again—Kiwis know how to live in their landscape, and that knowledge is reflected in lodging options on offer.
Check out stunning Blanket Bay (www.blanketbay.com) on the end of Lake Wakatipu near Glenorchy, with its schist-stone chalets under the shadow of the Remarkables mountain range, if you can spend more than NZ$1,000 per night. Or try Wharekauhau Lodge (www.wharekauhau.co.nz), 5,500 acres of quiet luxury surrounded by native forest and overlooking Palliser Bay, 90 minutes from Wellington.
Blend into the native forest at one of the environmentally friendly eco-villas at Punakaki Resort (www.punakaiki-resort.co.nz) on the wild West Coast of the South Island with views of the ocean or the rain forest in Paparoa National Park. Stay in the treetops at Kaikoura's Hapuku Lodge & Tree Houses (www.hapukulodge.com).
Kick it old-style at the granddaddy of all New Zealand lodges, Chateau Tongariro (www.chateau.co.nz), an iconic heritage building at the base of active volcano Mt. Ruapehu in Tongariro National Park.
Dream of grapes growing on the vine? Stay at one of the two cottages in Hawke's Bay's Craggy Range Winery (www.craggyrange.com) near Napier, or at Owhanake Bay Estate (www.owhanake.co.nz), a boutique accommodation and vineyard on Waiheke Island near Auckland.
Wild and rugged station life and genuine Kiwi company come with a taste of the good life at Mt. Nicholas Lodge (www.mtnicholaslodge.co.nz), a 100,000-acre working station near Queenstown.
With all of its mountains, New Zealand is a skier's paradise, from the volcanic cones in the North Island to the massive Southern Alps on the South Island.
The ski season usually lasts from June to October, although the weather plays a big role. New Zealand isn't that big on ski resorts: most of the ski slopes are their own entities and you drive or shuttle in from nearby towns. Although there are plenty of major fields to choose from, don't overlook club fields, private mountain areas managed and run by private ski clubs that are open to the public. The skiing might be a little more adventurous, but certainly less crowded! Brown Bear Ski & Snowboard (www.brownbear.co.nz) has a comprehensive list of New Zealand's ski areas.
North Island skiing centers around Mt. Ruapehu, an active volcano with two skiing areas: Whakapapa (the larger of the two, with 30 groomed trails) and Turoa (20 groomed trails, including the country's longest vertical drop of 2,369 feet). Mt. Ruapehu is New Zealand's largest ski area, and no wonder: who would pass up the opportunity to ski down Mt. Doom from Lord of the Rings? The nearby town of Ohakune is also the Queenstown of the north in the wintertime, famous for its lively hospitality.
The South Island provides a few more major fields to choose from. Near Queenstown, the Remarkables is a popular area with three basins and one heckuva view. Coronet Peak is known for its excellent facilities, treeless slopes, and night skiing, with a wide range of terrain for all levels.
Wanaka's Treble Cone is the most challenging field in New Zealand, with intermediate and advanced downhill powder runs on a vertical drop of 2,313 feet. Nearby Cardrona is more suited to families, with more rolling slopes for beginners.
Mt. Hutt near Methven (Canterbury) is New Zealand's best and highest ski slope with first-rate powder skiing; it also has the longest season.
Heli-skiing, snowboarding terrain parks, and cross-country skiing are also popular, so check out the local regions to see what's available.
New Zealand's 9,300-plus miles of coastline provides excellent surfing beaches for experts and beginners alike. The water is cold, so bring a wet suit. Since many beaches have notorious rips, be sure to talk to the locals and check the weather before heading out.
The North Island has the highest concentration of surf beaches, with Northland providing ample opportunities. In Auckland, Te Arai Point, Mangawhai, Piha, and Muriwai are popular hot spots, and Coromandel's Whangamata is a favorite.
Find white-sand, cliff-side beaches in the East Cape area, including Ruatoria, Tokomaru Bay, Tolaga Bay, and Gisborne. Whale Rider was filmed in this area. The locals are fiercely protective of their land, so tread gently. Farther south are the beaches of the Napier and Wairarapa area: Mahia, Ocean Beach, Castlepoint, and Cape Palliser.
Raglan, New Zealand's most famous surf beach, is on the west coast of the North Island. Its breaks were featured in the 1964 cult-classic The Endless Summer. Farther south, Taranaki's Surf Highway, a 43-mile stretch from New Plymouth to Hawera on State Highway 45, provides inlets and remote beaches.
The South Island's coast is more difficult to get to and colder, so there are fewer surfing opportunities. Kaikoura, Christchurch, Hokitika, Greymouth, and Dunedin all have good breaks.
With its cool winters and mild summers, New Zealand is fast becoming famous for fine white wines and rich reds.
The largest, most well-known region is Marlborough, on the top of the South Island, which produces 70% of the national crop. Marlborough produces fine Sauvignon Blancs, as well as unique Rieslings and Pinot Noirs.
Hawke's Bay is the second largest region, located on the east coast of the North Island. New Zealand's premiere food and wine destination is known for Chardonnays, Cabernet Sauvignons, Syrahs, and Merlots.
Auckland has about 100 vineyards and wineries. It is known for rich, Bordeaux-style reds, as well as the boutique vineyards on Waiheke Island.
Gisborne, also on the east coast of the North Island, is the fourth-largest grape-growing region, and produces buttery-rich tones in its tasty Chardonnays.
The Wairarapa features small wineries, most of which are within walking distance of the town square. This is Pinot Noir country, and it produces some of New Zealand's best.
Nelson, another small, idyllic wine region in the north of South Island, is known for light reds as well as its artistic flair.
Canterbury, in the east of the South Island, is the country's newest wine region, but its Rieslings and Pinot Noirs stand out.
Central Otago, near Queenstown in the South Island, wins the most handsome wine region award: vineyards are hemmed in by staggering white-capped mountain ranges, producing earthy rich reds.
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