New Zealand was the first big trip I took as a young adult. One fateful morning I had it in my head I wanted to travel instead of going to University, and by that evening I had already made mind. I had a teacher in grade seven who had moved from New Zealand to Canada, and I remember him showing our class where he grew up on google earth. The image was blurry, but it was a big house on the ocean with a pool in the backyard. I had wanted to go ever since!
I was in New Zealand for five months. You can check out my post, Why I Started a Travel and Outdoor Blog, to read more about how this trip influenced me. I saw my fair share of New Zealand and I have compiled a list of places and activities that I think shouldn’t be missed when travelling this gorgeous country!
I’ll start with the North Island!
When arriving in Auckland, it was difficult to decide where to start. I took advice from friends who had been to New Zealand before me and skipped Auckland entirely. South of this city is a branch off the north island called the Coromandel coast. I HIGHLY recommend going there. It’s easy to miss because it’s a little out of the way but that would be a big mistake! There’s a great small town called Whitianga that you can use as a base for exploring the area. It’s on the coast so there’s a nice beach, but the best part is that it gives you close access to Cathedral Cove and a Hot Water beach. Cathedral cove is a huge rock archway surrounded by creamy cliffs that you can access by foot or by boat. It is worth spending some time relaxing at this beach in this one of a kind location!
Cliffs on the Coromandel Coast
My personal favourite spot that many people skip in NZ is Tauranga. I had the fortune of living here for two months. It is a small and not very touristy city but if you go to the coast section where Mt. Maunganui sits, you won’t regret visiting. The beach is golden and you can walk on trails out on rocky bluffs in the ocean. You can even hike up Mt. Maunganui to get a fantastic view of the city! It tends to be more of a city that backpackers try to find work instead of visiting for the sights, so the hostel feel is calmer than in other locations.
I am a huge Lord of the Rings fan! Not the Hobbit, just Lord of the Rings. Now that I got that off my chest, I think regardless of whether you’ve seen these films or not, you should go to Hobbiton. It is actually where they filmed the scenes in the movies! You can book a tour that takes you around to the most memorable and iconic homes from the movies, and to finish it off you can have a pint at the Green Dragon. All tours come with one complementary drink at the end! It is quite the experience and I met a few people on the tour who hadn’t even seen the movies and still enjoyed it.
Bilbo Baggins House in Hobbiton
Lake Taupo is a great destination to relax near a fresh water lake. It is very large and not very warm for swimming, but this makes it a great place to go sailing! I’d never been sailing on a lake before but I was pleasantly surprised at how enjoyable it was. We sailed to a cliffy area only accessed by boat, and saw incredible carvings in the rock done by the Māori, the New Zealand Natives. It was incredible to see, and left me in wonder of how they could have carved it in the first place!
Acidic Lakes on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing
For all the hikers out there, don’t just buzz down to Queenstown quite yet! Tongariro alpine crossing is on the north island and it is worth your time. Make sure you start the hike early in the morning, due to how busy the trail can be. It is best to beat the crowds, especially if it is supposed to be a beautiful day! The trail takes you through beautiful mountains ranges, and once again, if you are a Lord of the Rings fan, you have a view of mount doom! You also pass by the Emerald Lakes which are cold acidic lakes that smell of sulphur. The hike is 19.4km one way, and takes approximately 6-8 hours to complete. It is best to book it, as transport will be provided to you at the end of the hike.
And now the South Island!
Crossing over to the South Island you arrive in Picton, a small and pretty town, and there are a variety of directions you can choose to travel from this point. The East Coast is the most common way people go, but I suggest going down the West Coast instead! The towns aren’t nearly as busy, and there are some sights that you shouldn’t miss along the way.
Punakaiki is a tiny town on the west coast of the south island, and is lucky enough to have the transit system stop there. If it didn’t, I would have never heard about this place! There is one hostel on the coast that is about a ten minute walk from the bus stop. The rocky coast towers above Punakaiki. It’s so quiet and rugged that it was one of the most natural feeling places I went to in the New Zealand. It is also conveniently located beside the pancake rocks and blowholes. Tourists who don’t stay here overnight will often quickly walk to the pancake rocks, while the bus takes a fifteen minute break. If you arrive in the morning you may be lucky enough to witness the ocean water pummel up through the blowhole for quite the sight!
Pancake Rocks in Punakaiki
Most people probably have Franz Joseph Glacier on their list of places they want to go. When I arrived it was warmer out, and unfortunately with climate change, the glaciers are slowly receding. Because of my timing Franz Joseph Glacier was only doing helicopter tours to get to the glacier, instead of the regular walking tours. The helicopter tours were nearly $200 more expensive than the walking tours, and I found out that Fox Glacier, which was close by and often overlooked, was still doing regular walking tours! I booked Fox and I wasn’t disappointed. I’m not sure why Franz Joseph is the more popular one, but I am here to tell you that either one you chose will be a good choice!
Me Climbing Through an Ice Tunnel on Fox Glacier
Dunedin is a city that can also be overlooked when travelling in New Zealand. It is very much a student town, so there are lots of bars and entertainment around. I personally went to Dunedin because I was searching for penguins, and I found them! You can book tours that take you out to protected areas to view wildlife like seals, sea lions and penguins! It is a very special experience because you get to view them in their natural habitat, and very few tour operators have access to these areas since they are closed off to the rest of the public.
You can’t go to New Zealand without stopping in Queenstown. In fact, you should stop there for at least a week if you can! It is the outdoor/adrenaline junkies paradise. Whether it is luge, speed boating, hiking or bungy jumping, there is something to do for everyone. For the adrenaline junky, make sure to check out the Nevis bungy and swing. There are three bungy jump options in Queenstown, but this one is the largest and if you book it together with the Nevis swing you can get a good deal! The Nevis swing is the largest swing in the WORLD! So if bungy jumping isn’t your thing, then at least try out the swing! After all the intense activities make sure to check out the famous restaurant, Fergburger. It is listed in the Lonely Planet travel guides because it is so popular. It is open 23 hours per day, so you can go in the middle of the night after leaving the bars! They are by far the best burgers I have ever had!
View of Queenstown and the Surrounding Mountains
From Queenstown you can take a day trip to Milford Sound. Milford sound is one of the wettest places in the world. It averages on 189 days of rain per year! Definitely make sure you check the forecast before you book. I was lucky enough to see Milford Sound on a sunny day! The boat tour takes you around the mountainous cliffs rising out of the ocean, and depending on the tour, underneath a few waterfalls as well. The scenery is spectacular, but make sure you keep your camera dry!
Milford Sound Cliffs
New Zealand is a very special place, and there are definitely many more amazing places to visit that I didn’t write about. For example, I was feeling ill when I was in Wanaka, so I didn’t spend a lot of time out of my hostel dorm. Every time I tried to book the Abel Tasman, it was pouring rain! Regardless of these things, I still had amazing experiences, and would encourage anyone thinking about travelling to New Zealand to go! Out of the blue you could be seeing a Māori man walking down the street with tribal face tattoos. This country has such diverse landscapes and the culture is so intriguing, how could you not want to visit?