New Zealand, the place I was born and raised, is quite literally “the Land of the Long White Cloud” (which is also the country’s nickname). Rolling green hills as far as you can see, intermittent with the odd snow-capped mountain range while never been more than 75 miles from the oceans edge, New Zealand really is a beautiful destination to visit.
When I was asked to write this blog post for the lovely Sara from Now Viewing the World, I had made a list in my head of a handful of things I would recommend visitors to New Zealand. After asking on Facebook what my friends thought were some “must-dos” in NZ, that list quadrupled in size! It’s clear that there is a large number of beautiful things to see and do while visiting New Zealand, and with a country the same size as England, doing all of them in one trip might be a bit tricky.
But here is a list of my top things to do when you visit “Middle Earth”:
- Visit Queenstown and Arrowtown.
Queenstown is by far my favorite place in New Zealand and the number one place I tell people to visit. The flight into the city can be scary (you’ll know what I mean if you’ve ever done it!) but the snowy mountain ranges nearby, the breathtakingly beautiful lakes that come up into the city, and the cute little buildings in Arrowtown make visiting this area essential. Tip: head up the gondola to get the best views over the city and lakes. If you’ve got the nerves, ride the luge down the hill! It’s SO much fun. If you’re an adrenaline junky, try the canyon swing while in Queenstown. It’s definitely too scary for myself but I’ve been told by friends that it’s a thrill for sure!
- Walk or drive up the Steepest Street in the World.
Dunedin, in the South Island of New Zealand, boasts the Steepest Street in the World, Baldwin Street. Every year in July, a charity event is held on the street and involves rolling over 30,000 Jaffas (a local confectionary almost like an m&m but with an orange flavored coating) down the hill. If driving up the hill, be warned that there isn’t much room to turn around at the top and also it’s tough doing point turns on the steepest street!
- Go whale watching in Kaikoura.
When I was 12 years old, we went on school camp to the South Island and one of the days we took the train down to Kaikoura with plans to go whale watching the next day. Unfortunately, Mother Nature had other plans for us and the seas were too wild to go out that day. Keep this in mind when planning your trip! If we were around another day or two, we could’ve rescheduled our boat ride but we didn’t so we took our refund and left by train the same day. It’s always something I’ve regretted as all my friends tell me it’s an incredible experience. If you manage to go, let me know what you think and I can be jealous all over again!
- Drive to the top of the country, exploring the Bay of Islands on the way.
Cape Reinga, at the northern most point accessible to the public of the country, is where the Pacific Ocean meets the Tasman Sea. This area is a nature lovers’ heaven with a number of walking tracks available to explore. Nearby Bay of Islands is a playground for wildlife including penguins, dolphins, whales, and more.
- Try skiing/snowboarding on one of the mountains.
New Zealand is known as a hot spot destination for adrenaline junkies – we actually invented the Bungy Jump! And our ski fields are no exception. If you’re looking for world class ski fields, that are wide and open with absolutely no trees to accidentally run into, then NZ is your place. There are two main ski fields in the North Island to pick from and countless in the South Island so wherever you decide to go, you have options. Tip: winter in New Zealand is June-August so make sure you come at the right time!
- Head to the capital city of Wellington.
But be ready for windy weather! There’s a popular saying that goes “You can’t beat Wellington on a good day” and you really can’t. When the sun is out, the wind is gone and the sky is cloudless, Wellington really is a 5-star destination. Unfortunately, this only happens about 20 days a year. So count yourself lucky if you get to see one!
There’s a number of things to do in Wellington, even on windy and cold days. My favorites would have to be checking out the latest exhibits at Te Papa Museum, riding the Cable Car up to see the best views over the city, cruising up and down Cuba Street looking at all the unique stores, and going for a walk along the waterfront, keeping an eye out for dolphins or orca whales.
- Climb up Mount Maunganui and take in the stunning views from the top.
I wouldn’t recommend this one for people with a beginners’ level of fitness, or if you’re hungover (trust me on this one, it’s not pleasant!). Tip: sunrise and sunset are the best for this hike.
- Look for hobbits at Hobbiton.
If you’re a Lord of the Rings fan, then visiting Hobbiton is an absolute must do; I’d also argue even if you aren’t a fan of LOTR then this is still a fun place to visit! The Shire, from the famous movies which portrayed New Zealand to the rest of the world, is now a tourist attraction in the central Waikato region. There are a number of tours on offer including the Hobbiton movie set tour which includes a special Hobbit drink at the end.
- See some geothermal action at Wai-o-tapu in Rotorua.
It’s a less known fact that New Zealand has a large number of volcanos, including active ones. Rotorua is part of the Taupo volcanic zone which includes volcanic crater lakes, geysers, and mud pools, most of which you can see at the local attraction Wai-a-tapu. While offering a more touristy attraction for natural phenomenon’s, the expert guides on hand to give you a history lesson at the same time is completely worth it.
- Taste some delicious New Zealand wine on Waiheke Island.
It saddens me when I hear people say they only visited Auckland when they went to NZ (no offense to my Auckland friends!) – it would be like only visiting New York City in the USA and saying you’ve experience all of America. I’m not saying that visiting Auckland isn’t recommended, but at least take the 45-minute ferry ride over to Waiheke Island and do some wine tasting while you’re there! If it’s a lovely summer day, hire a bike and head around the island (not recommended for beginner fitness level) otherwise there are a number of companies that offer wine tours which include transport.
- Drive around the Coromandel peninsula, stopping at Hot Water Beach and Cathedral Cove.
Best visited in summer time, this area is often voted the best place in New Zealand. The short hike to Cathedral Cove is worth it (2 hours’ round trip), even Taylor Swift filmed a music video there! If you happen to be going past Hot Water Beach two hours either side of low tide, you’ll find natural hot pools amongst the golden sand. Tip: don’t forget to bring a shovel!
- Check out the Waitomo Glowworm Caves.
The glowworm caves in Waitomo offer a unique experience, as the thousands of glowworms in the caves are native to New Zealand (Arachnocampa luminosa species). Enjoy a boat ride through the caves while you marvel at the worms all around you and hearing the informative commentary from the expert guides.
- See some Art Deco architecture in Hawkes Bay.
Now, this point may be a tiny bit bias as I grew up in Hawkes Bay, but I think Napier’s Art Deco architecture is such an exceptional part of NZ history that has to be seen to be appreciated. In 1931, a massive earthquake hit Hawkes Bay and destroyed the entire city (fires from the fallen buildings did the most damage). At the time of the rebuild, the Art Deco style was fashionable around the world, leading to the majority of the city now having that theme. Each year, the city hosts an Art Deco Festival where hundreds of vintage cars, and thousands of people from around the world come to celebrate. Tip: if you come to the Festival, do dress up! You stand out more if you don’t dress up, trust me!
- Explore pretty much everywhere in the South Island.
I saved this one for last for a good reason…. I had SO many places to talk about in the South Island that I could’ve written an extra 2000 words on that area alone. So instead of writing on and on and on about each place, I am just going to say: go everywhere. It’s all amazing, breath-taking, incredible and down-right beautiful. My top picks: Wanaka, the entire drive up the West Coast, Arthurs Pass, Lake Tekapo, Glenorchy, Milford Sound, Abel Tasman National Park, Marlborough Sounds, and everywhere else I mentioned earlier in this article. Let me know what was your favorite spot in the South Island and if I missed anything!
I hope you enjoyed this locals article about the top things to do while visiting New Zealand. And if you manage to do all of these on your travels then I salute my hat to you!