There’s one very good reason why Peter Jackson picked New Zealand to film his blockbuster trilogy The Lord of the Rings – the landscape is quite simply not of this world. From the smouldering moonscape of Tongariro National Park to the postcard perfect jade waters of Abel Tasman, it’s hard to believe such beauty exists on planet earth. But it does and it’s ripe for exploring, so what are you waiting for?!
There are no sloppy seconds in New Zealand. Every inch is bursting with personality and worth a look. The difficulty you’ll have is deciding which spectacular sight to see first. There are glaciers to walk on, volcanoes to scale, wildlife to be ogled and world class vineyards. Throw in a handful of the world’s most beautiful beaches, a couple of vibrant cities and more adrenalin fueled activities than you can shake a stick at and you’ve got yourself the perfect bag of travel pick and mix.
The good news is with a set of wheels it’s possible to explore a good chunk of the country in a month which is exactly what we did. Here’s our pick of the top 10 things to see and do in New Zealand.
Walk the Tongariro Alpine Crossing
If you only do one big hike (or tramp as the locals call it) in New Zealand make it the Tongariro Alpine Crossing on the North Island. Often described as the best one day walk in New Zealand, the route takes you through an area of spectacular volcanic landscape which includes active volcanoes (Mt Ngauruhoe aka Mt Doom from Lord of the Rings is one of them!), brightly coloured lakes and plenty of steaming vents. Mongateppo hut off the SH7 is the start point. There are a couple of good accommodation options nearby which will also provide a shuttle service to both ends of the walk which takes around 6-8 hours to complete.
Smoulder in Rotorua
To get up close and personal with New Zealand’s fascinating volcanic landscape a stop in Rotorua is a must. This little town sits on a hotbed (quite literally) of geysers, hot springs and bubbling mud pools. The best way to experience it is to hear from the people for whom the geothermal features are a way of life. The Maori from Whakarewarewa Thermal Village have been cooking, bathing and living off the volcanic landscape for centuries. The entertaining tour around their living village gives a fascinating insight into daily life. You can also wrap you lips around a buttery corn on the cob cooked fresh in the hot mineral pool – the only genuine hangi in town – and watch a Maori cultural performance, all for £20 each.
There are also plenty of geothermal experiences to be had for free in Rotorua. Kerosene Hotsprings is located just out of town down a gravel track. This steaming creek and waterfall are nestled in amongst the trees and make for an other-worldly bathing experience, particularly at sunrise.
Hike the Franz Josef Glacier
You won’t forget the first time you catch sight of the tremendous Franz Josef Glacier, spilling down the mountain side between forested mountain peaks in a dazzling icy mass of blue and white. We arranged a half day hike on the ice with Franz Josef Glacier Guides. Kitted out in hats, gloves and crampons, we clambered up over icy ridges and shimmied through narrow cracks in the ice. And the best part? You get dropped on the ice by helicopter which provides jaw-dropping views of the glacier from the sky. You’ll feel like Bear Grylls when you land on a narrow sliver of ice and leap out into the icy wilderness, crampons in tow! A half day glacier hike with Franz Josef Glacier Guides cost us £206 each and includes entry to the Glacier Hot Pools. It’s definitely not cheap, but we felt it was money well spent for a once in a lifetime experience.
Kayak in Abel Tasman National Park
Abel Tasman is one of New Zealand’s most beautiful stretches of coastline. Bay after idyllic bay of golden sand fringed by lush greenery will lull you into a state of sleepy content only to be broken by the gentle slap of waves against your canoe (or your partner telling you to stop gawping and start paddling!) The best way to appreciate the coastal scenery is from a kayak gliding peacefully through the crystal waters. It’s also the only way to get close to the resident seal colony which hangs out on an area of rocks on a small island just off the coast.
For an alternative perspective explore the Abel Tasman Coastal Track, reputedly one of the most scenic in the country. It takes 3-5 days to walk the 51km track, or you can just cover part of it and catch a water taxi back as we did. Marahau is the main gateway into Abel Tasman National Park and has plenty of kayak rental companies and accommodation. It’s also the starting point for the coastal track so a good place to base yourself. Half a day kayaking cost us £65.
Soak up the city in Auckland
If I could design the perfect city, it would look a lot like Auckland. Pretty white clapboard houses are scattered across rolling green hills overlooking the gorgeous Hauraki Gulf. There’s something refreshing and wholesome about Auckland. Maybe its the abundance of sea air being sandwiched between two harbours or the greenery which surrounds the city, but it’s easy to see why Auckland is frequently rated one of the world’s best cities for quality of life. The city is easily explored in a day. Check out eclectic Parsonby Road, views from the Sky Tower and grab a bite in one of the lovely harbourside restaurants.
Vineyards on Waiheke Island
With charming vineyards draped romantically over the hillside plus awesome views of Auckland and a ton of pretty beaches, it’s no surprise that Waiheke is one of Aucklands most popular day trips. You can hire a bike from just outside the ferry office and cycle between the vineyards. Just don’t make the same mistake we did and visit on a Sunday when New Zealand drinking laws rule that alcohol can only be consumed alongside a meal, which means no wine tastings! Disaster! We had a great time riding around the island soaking up the impressive scenery nonetheless and enjoyed a delicious meal at Mudbrick Vineyard where we were also able to sample their famous wine legally! Bike hire cost £37 for both of us and two courses with wine at Mudbrick was £60. Be sure to try the apple crumble panna cotta!
Hot Water Beach
For something completely unique head to Hot Water Beach on the Coromandel Peninsula and join the hoards digging their own hot tub at sunset. For two hours either side of low tide a rocky outcrop on the beach oozing hot water becomes accessible. It’s messy, chaotic and a lot of fun! Some hot tubs are too cold, some too hot so be prepared to share and create the perfect mix! Spades can be hired from the cafes nearby for £2.
Queenstown adrenalin rush
No visit to New Zealand is complete without a stop at ‘Global Adventure Capital’ Queenstown where there are all manner of adrenalin charged activities to get your heart pumping. For proficient mountain bikers, Queenstown Bike Park is the holy grail with miles of thrilling, white-knuckle downhill tracks serviced by a gondola on Bob’s Peak. The bike park draws thousands of enthusiasts from all over the world every year and the town has become something of a mountain bike mecca. If you’re used to the British trail grading system, it’s worth knowing that the “easy” tracks in Queenstown Bike Park are equivalent to advanced tracks in the UK. Most bike hire shops offer a package which includes gondola lift passes. We paid $152 for a half day pass with bike hire.
On our second day in Queenstown we opted for a jet boat ride with KJet. Hurtling down the picturesque Kawarau and Lower Shotover rivers at 85kph passing within inches of the rock face before being thrown sideways by a 360 degree spin was a lot of fun! However if you’re looking for a more thrilling ride which passes through the really narrow canyons (which is what all the promotional images show) you’ll need to book a trip on the upper Shotover river with ‘Shotover Jet‘. We were given the impression that all jet boat companies offer the same experience, however it turns out each company has a licence to operate on a specific section of the river. Worth noting to avoid an adrenalin flop!
Oceanside in Kaikoura
Kaikoura is all about the sea and the creatures that live in it. Whale watching is the big draw here although breathing in the sea air and amazing views from the cliff tops while feasting on fish and chips is just as good! We decided against a whale watching trip, having blown our backpacker budget on other activites, plus we had already been swimming with whale sharks in the Philippines which would be hard to beat! Instead we took a stroll along the Kaikoura Peninsula Walkway which is a 3 hour circular walk along the cliff tops overlooking the bay. The views are stunning and there’s even a seal colony that lives on the rocks which you can get fantastically close to. Round off the day with a serving of fish and chips from legendary local chippy Coopers Catch.
Stand beneath Mount Cook
Driving into Mount Cook national park is a surreal experience. As you close in on Aoraki village – the start point for exploring the park – the mountains get steadily bigger, farmland gives way to stunning turquoise lakes and your jaw will drop lower and lower! Standing at 3,724m in the heart of the park is Mt Cook, New Zealand’s highest mountain, it’s snow capped peak stretching majestically towards the brilliant blue sky. Although getting to the top is off the cards unless you’re a serious climber, you can take in the views from the valley below via numerous walking tracks. We followed the Hooker Valley Trail, a 3 hour return route which leads you past some of the National Park’s towering peaks, across a series of suspension bridges, past lakes and rivers until you reach Mount Cook itself.