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Top Experiences in New Zealand

Overnight Cruise in the Milford Sound

The Milford Sound reaches into the 1.2 million-hectare primeval forests of Fiordland National Park. Milford is an eerie place, and the best way to experience it is on an overnight cruise underneath the high rounded mountains that jut up from the inky ocean like moss-covered teeth. Spend a couple of hours kayaking the shores looking for penguins, seals, and dolphins, before retiring on deck to watch the stars wheel overhead. This is one of the few places you pray for rain and usually get it—the Milford Sound receives 21 feet of rain a year, which veins the cliff faces with rushing white waterfalls.

Hike New Zealand's Great Walks

There are nine official Great Walks, although one of them is technically a river journey, throughout some of the best scenery in the North and South Islands. These walks take travelers past glaciers, along the coasts, through volcanic areas, and deep into pristine alpine wilderness. Each walk has a well-maintained track and huts, and a booking system was created a few years ago to manage visitor pressure. The length of tracks vary—the Rakiura Track on Stewart Island is the shortest at 18 mi; the Heaphy Track the longest at 51.

Attend an All Blacks' Test Match

There is nothing like the intensity of an All Blacks' test match on home soil. Rugby is part of the nation's psyche: more than 135,000 New Zealanders play the winter sport, and even more are fierce supporters. With a historical 75% winning record, the All Blacks are a formidable team—except when it comes to bringing home World Cups. The 80-minute test matches are held outdoors, surrounded by a sea of supporters clad in black (rain gear, usually). From the bilingual national anthem, to the pregame performance of the haka (a dance which conveys the history, life-force, and ties to the nation), to the referee's first whistle, you know you're in for something special.

Taste the Wine

New Zealand wines are some of the best and most affordable in the world, and it's easy to loosely follow the wine trail from north to south. Auckland and Waiheke Island are known for their boutique vineyards, while the East Coast area of Hawke's Bay is one of the oldest. Some of the older estates started growing grapes in the 19th century. Martinborough, in the Wairarapa just outside of Wellington, is a small town surrounded by several local vineyards that produce excellent pinot noirs. In the South Island, Marlborough is the country's largest grape-growing area, producing more than 70% of New Zealand's wine, including some world-class sauvignon blancs. Nelson and Blenheim vie for the sunniest region in New Zealand, and have an excellent climate for grapes, while the Central Otago region is known for earthy reds.

Hike a Glacier

Nearly two-thirds of the glacial ice in the 140 glaciers in Westland National Park is contained in Franz Josef and Fox glaciers, only 15 mi apart and two of the most accessible glaciers in the world. Tucked in between mountains covered in subtemperate rain forest, New Zealand glaciers are unique in that they are only 12 mi from the sea, which means the glacier process of packing down layers of snow happens in fast-forward here: what usually takes about 3,000 years can happen in seven years in New Zealand. For something really special, take one of the guided heli-hiking trips on the glacier.

Mingle with Marine Life

New Zealand is surrounded by sea, and visitors have a variety of opportunities to get up close to marine life like dolphins, penguins, and whales. In Kaikoura, on the east coast of the South Island, dramatic snowcapped mountains plunge 8,500 feet to the coast, and just a few miles off-shore there's another undersea plunge, allowing large mammals (like the giant sperm whale) to come close to the shore. Kaikoura used to be a whaling station, but in an environmentally friendly turn of events, whale-watching is now its biggest industry. Also on the South Island's east coast is Akaroa, where you can swim with Hector's Dolphins, the world's smallest and rarest, found only in New Zealand waters.

Learn about Māori Culture

Māori is a living culture, and can be difficult to access without a proper introduction—most local communities don't want visitors turning up uninvited on their marae. Rotorua, a thermal area on the East Coast of the North Island, is famous for its Māori heritage, and even more famous for teaching visitors about that heritage. Whakarewarewa and Te Puia villages, for example, teach traditional greenstone carving and give cultural performances. The museum of Te Papa Tongarewa on the Wellington waterfront is another good place to learn about Māori traditions and history through elaborate displays and artifacts.

Tongariro Crossing

The Tongariro Crossing is known as the "greatest one-day walk in the world." This 10.6-mi walk is an all-day affair, going up and nearly over the 6,453-ft Mt. Tongariro (an active volcano), past the Red Crater and the Emerald Lakes, descending through native forest alongside rivers and waterfalls. The walk is usually done in the summer months, as ever-changing weather can be treacherous on this high-altitude hike. Bus transportation can be arranged to drop off and pick up visitors on either end of the hike; pack a picnic lunch to have alongside the gleaming Emerald Lakes, the reward for your climbing efforts.

Bird-Watch on Stewart Island

Eighteen miles off the southern tip of the South Island lies Stewart Island, a tiny piece of land with one settlement (Oban, in Halfmoon Bay), 12 mi of road, and New Zealand's newest national park, Raikura, which covers 85% of the island. Birds are king here, free from the devastation caused by the introduced predators that plague the mainland. Visitors can see any number of species here: nearby Ulva Island Bird Sanctuary houses 30 different species.

Visit Tane Mahuta in Waipoua Forest

Tane Mahuta (Lord of the Forest) is a 168-ft tall, 45 ft diameter kauri tree, one of the last massive giants of New Zealand forests. Tane Mahuta is reached via a five-minute walk into the Waipoua Forest. Kauri trees are massive wooden bulks of straight-grained wood that were logged nearly to extinction—less than 4% of kauri forests remain, and the Waipoua Forest contains three-quarters of all remaining kauri trees. Tane Mahuta is more than 2,000 years old and an important symbol in New Zealand history and sustainability.

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