There’s a good reason why New Zealand is usually on the top of any travel bucket list. There’s no other place like it on earth.
This island nation in the middle of the Pacific Ocean is full of volcanoes, geothermal springs, and lush forests. It also offers world-class lodges and wineries, all in a setting influenced by the rich cultural history of its indigenous Māori people. Where else can visitors have multiple unique experiences? Whether you’re looking to dig your own hot tub on a secluded beach, catch a glimpse of a glow worm cave, or hike up a glacier, New Zealand has it all.
Walk Around Hamilton Gardens
Blink and you might think you have been transported to Italy, India, or Palm Springs. The sprawling Hamilton Gardens is arranged as a series of architecturally-themed areas, so in one visit you’ll stroll past Italian Renaissance gardens, a Japanese contemplative garden, and a modernist area, complete with a Marilyn Monroe mural and a glass pavilion.
Adventure in Queenstown
Queenstown is known as the adventure capital of New Zealand, and this is the place to come if you’ve ever wanted to bungee jump or skydive. But once you’ve had your fill of flinging yourself from planes and bridges, there’s plenty to do in this cosmopolitan city. There’s a fantastic bar scene as well as art galleries, plenty of hiking, and a thriving arts scene.
Whale Watch in Kaikoura
This small seaside town wedged between the Pacific Ocean and the Southern Alps is one of the top whale-watching spots in New Zealand. Sperm whales are the most common type here, but lucky visitors may also spot dolphins, seals, and albatross. Try to time a trip during the annual migration of the humpback whales as they swim through Kaikoura towards the Antarctic waters to feed. If you can’t find your sea legs, there are plenty of coastal walks as well.
Stay at a Luxury Lodge
Although renting a campervan is a classic way to explore New Zealand, roughing it may not be for everyone. If you’d rather explore New Zealand in style, the country’s lodges won’t disappoint. These hotels are luxurious but wholly unpretentious and tend to be on the smaller side, so the experience feels intimate. The lodges also have unique architecture in common. Treetops, which is set on 2,500 private acres of forest, makes an ideal base for exploring Rotorua. One of the newest lodges to open is Helena Bay near the top of the North Island, as well as the Penthouse of Eichardt’s in Queenstown.
Check out Wellington
New Zealand’s capital city of Wellington is affectionately called Wellie by the locals, but you may also know it as “Wellywood.” This city on the southern tip of the North Island is New Zealand’s hotspot for film technology and production, thanks to a certain Peter Jackson (you may have heard of The Lord of the Rings). The weather may be notoriously bad here, but packing a rain jacket is a small price to pay to enjoy Wellington’s rich cultural offerings. Get out to explore the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, the Royal New Zealand Ballet, or the State Opera. Wellington is also bursting with craft breweries and restaurants.
Try Adrenaline Sports
New Zealand is synonymous with adrenaline-inducing sports and there’s no shortage of extreme activities to choose from. Try skydiving or bungee jumping in Queenstown, or throw yourself off of Auckland’s Sky Tower. Zorbing involves climbing into a huge plastic bubble and rolling down a hill. If you’ve ever wanted to know what it feels like to be inside a washing machine, ask for a bucket of water to be thrown into your zorb. If water sports are more your style, hop aboard the Huka Falls Jetboat in Lake Taupo or white-water raft down a waterfall on the Kaituna River in Rotorua.
Ogle the Len Lye Center
The late artist Len Lye once said, “Great architecture goes fifty-fifty with great art,” and that maxim can be applied to the new Len Lye Center, which is part of the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery in New Plymouth. Lye was fascinated by temples, and his passion helped inspire the shape of the Center. The exterior, which is made from a series of stainless steel tubes, appears to shimmer and move in a nod to Lye’s kinetic sculptures. The Len Lye Center is New Zealand’s first museum dedicated to the work of a single artist.
Sail to Waiheke Island
Waiheke Island is reached via a short ferry ride from Auckland but feels like a world away. This little island has its own micro climate, ensuring warm, dry weather in the summer months. The white-sand beaches are the big draw here, but there’s also zip lining and hiking trails through the forests. Or dry off and head inland to explore the art galleries and restaurants. Beyond the beach, the other major draw is the wineries. There are more than 35 wineries here, and the specialty is red wines.
Look at Napier's Architecture
If you think about the world’s greatest places to view art deco architecture, Miami is more likely to come to mind than New Zealand. But the city of Napier is a deco gem. Most of Napier was flattened by a devastating earthquake in 1931 when it was rebuilt in art deco style. One of the best ways to learn about the city’s history is to sign up for a tour in a vintage Packard through the Art Deco Trust.
Drink at Hawke’s Bay Wineries
Think of this area as the Sonoma or Calistoga of New Zealand. Hawke’s Bay is low-key, unpretentious, and offers more than award-winning wines. One of the best ways to explore the area’s 50+ wineries is to rent a bike from Takaro Trails. Pedal to wineries such as Elephant Hill, Craggy Range and Black Barn, which also has an amphitheater for concerts. Hawke’s Bay is also a foodie paradise with locally-made artisanal cheese, honey, and chocolate.
Instagram Milford Sound
New Zealand offers no shortage of Instagram-worthy landscapes, and Milford Sound is one of its stars. Located within Fiordland National Park, Milford Sound has been called the eighth wonder of the world by Rudyard Kipling. The view of Mitre Peak rising above the waters of Milford Sound is as iconic to New Zealand as the Opera House is to Sydney. Soak in the scenery from a kayak or sign up for a boat cruise. Scuba diving and hiking are also available.
Marvel the Waitomo Glowworm Caves
New Zealand is known for its otherworldly landscapes, but to see this one you’ll need to head underground. A tour of the Waitomo Glow Worm Caves begins deep in a limestone cave, where visitors will see stalactites and stalagmites. But the real highlight is the cave’s glow worms. A boat ride in total darkness offers a view of the ceiling, which is covered with thousands of tiny glowing worms that make it look like a canopy of stars.
Escape to Coromandel Peninsula
Aucklanders looking to escape the hustle and bustle of the city hit the Coromandel Peninsula for a weekend break. Just a few hours north of Auckland, the Coromandel has some of the best beaches in the country. Surfers love Whangamata Beach, but once you’ve had your fill of the sand there are also hiking trails through the forests.
Check out West Coast South Island
The South Island’s West Coast stretches 600 kilometers from Kahurangi Point to Awarua Point and is often called Mother Nature’s playground. This swath of land is known for its rugged beauty and is filled with mountains, glaciers, national parks, and rain forests. One of the best ways to take it all in is by driving along the Great Coast Road or hiking the Heaphy Track between Karamea and Golden Bay. Adrenaline-inducing activities here include glacier walks, ice climbing, and caving to see glow worms.
Auckland is New Zealand’s largest and most vibrant city, so plan to spend a few days here to get your Kiwi cultural fix. Visit the Auckland Art Gallery to see contemporary art, or the Auckland War Memorial Museum for the world’s largest collection of Māori and Polynesian artifacts. Climb to the top of Mt Eden for a sweeping view of the dormant volcanoes that surround the city. Some of Auckland’s coolest neighborhoods include Ponsonby and the Britomart.
Soak at Hot Water Beach
Want to dig your own hot tub? Grab a shovel and head to one of the North Island’s hot water beaches. Start digging until you hit an underwater geothermal hot spring. To get the perfect temperature, a little creative engineering is needed to combine hot and cold water. The Coromandel Peninsula is famous for its Hot Water Beach but can get crowded. For a quieter option on a dramatic black sand beach, try the Kawhia near Hamilton.
Drink in Dunedin
Dunedin is the second largest town in the South Island and is known primarily for two things: its Scottish heritage and its students. What does this mean for visitors? It’s a chance to indulge in some whisky, haggis, and bagpipes. The student population also injects plenty of vitality into the town by way of affordable restaurants and a thriving bar and music scene. Beyond the booze, Dunedin makes a great base for exploring the Otago Peninsula, which is famous for its wines and rare wildlife such as the albatross.
Hike Ulve Island
Named for an inner island off of the Scottish Hebrides, Ulva Island is one of the best places to spot rare flora and fauna in a natural setting, including the elusive kiwi bird. The island is reachable via a short water taxi ride from Stewart Island. It operates as a pest-free wildlife sanctuary, which means the rare birds are free to thrive without threat. This 660-acre rainforest offers hiking, isolated beaches, and coves, along with the opportunity to see birds such as the saddleback (tieke) and the yellowhead (mōhua). More than 16,000 kiwis call the island home.
If there is one word to describe Christchurch, it would be resilient. The city was devastated in 2011 by a powerful earthquake—and was hit again in November 2016—but is currently in the midst of a cultural and creative rebirth. While the Christchurch Cathedral is still damaged, there’s a transitional cardboard cathedral. Don’t miss the Christchurch Art Gallery, housed in a modern building, for New Zealand and international artists. The Re:START shopping mall is crafted from old shipping containers and will be open for another year.