Many people dream of visiting New Zealand. For most of them, including me, this is likely to be a once in a lifetime experience, because of the county’s remote location. Once you finally arrive down under, the real challenge begins. What to do on these two islands filled with impressive glaciers, beautiful beaches and ancient volcanoes? Find out what activities you cannot miss out on 10 things to do in New Zealand!
1) SPOT A KIWI BIRD
The word ‘kiwi’ can refer to both people, birds and fruits. In this case, I am talking about the endangered flightless bird that has become New Zealand’s national icon. Unfortunately, there are only 5 species of kiwi birds left. A population of about 68,000 in total. Most of them live in remote forests, far away from humans.
Kiwis are rare and hard to come across. Not just because these quirky birds are low in numbers, but also because it is an animal that is most active during the night. However, spotting a kiwi is definitely one of the top 10 things to do in New Zealand. After all, it is the only place in the world where they can be found.
Finding a Kiwi Bird
The chance of you running into a kiwi bird when you are out and about in New Zealand is pretty slim. If you are up for the challenge, I recommend trying your luck on Stewart Island, at the Trounson Kauri Park or in the Waipoua Forest. Go out at night, dim your lights and wait until you hear something sniffing in the dark.
An easier way to come face to face with a kiwi is by visiting a sanctuary. This is an enclosed park where kiwi lives in their natural habitat within a controlled environment. The most famous one is Zealandia close to the city of Wellington. There are also the Whangarei Kiwi Sanctuary, the Tongariro Forest Kiwi Sanctuary and the Okaritao Kiwi Sanctuary. Most sanctuaries organize guided tours at night.
Then there are various kiwi centers throughout the country: the National Kiwi Centre Hokitika, the Kiwi Birdlife Park and the West Coast Wildlife Center – to name a few. However, tickets can get pretty pricey. Low-budget travelers might want to consider a visit to the Auckland or Wellington zoo. You usually pay less and you get to see kiwis as well as other interesting animals.
2) GO ON A HIKE
New Zealand is a hiker’s paradise! From single and multiple day hikes to the Te Araroa trail, that takes you from the most northern point of the country the most southern one over the course of several months. Most travelers make the effort of bringing their heavy hiking shoes all the way to New Zealand for a reason.
There is literally a hiking trail in every part of the country. These trails are also very well indicated by signs that tell you about the distance and the amount of time it takes an average person to finish it. Visit a local tourist information office (I-Site) to get information about hiking possibilities in the area that you are visiting. They usually give out free maps as well.
I am not a big hiker, I have to admit. That being said, hiking is definitely one of the top 10 things to do in New Zealand. My personal highlights were the Hooker Valley Track near Mount Cook and the Franz Josef Glacier Walk on the South Island. The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is also a well-known and beautiful hike.
3) SEE MOUNTAINS & VOLCANOES
New Zealand might very well be one of the only countries in the world where you can go surfing in the morning and skiing in the afternoon. The variety of landscapes on the two islands is amazing! The North Island is known for its volcanoes. The highest ones are Mount Ruapehu, Mount Tongariro, Mount Ngarahoe and Mount Taranaki. During New Zealand winters their craters are usually covered in snow.
To see a volcano in New Zealand you actually do not even have to leave civilization. Did you know that the country’s largest city, Auckland, is built on over 50 inactive volcanoes? From the central business district, you can easily walk up to Mount Eden. Or take the ferry to Devonport to see Mount Victoria. Both volcanoes make for beautiful city views.
South Island Mountains
Mountain lovers can also eat their hearts out on the South Island. Here the mountains were not formed by volcanic activity, but by ice. Unfortunately, the glaciers have shrunk significantly in size over the past decades. But it is not yet too late to visit the Fox and the Franz Josef glaciers. Walking on the actual ice is no longer permitted. You can walk up to it or – if your budget allows it – you can charter a plane or helicopter to take a closer look.
The highest peak of the Southern Alps is that of Mount Cook. I was very much impressed by the mountain range and the glacier lakes that make for almost surreal landscapes. Another beautiful area to visit is the Remarkables around Queenstown. A New Zealand trip is definitely not complete without seeing at least a mountain, glacier and volcano.
4) CHECK OUT GEOTHERMAL ACTIVITY
New Zealand’s unique location makes for a lot of visible geothermal activity. This is not just limited to a large number of volcanoes. You can see steam coming out of the earth, bubbling mud, hot pools, geysers and large volcanic lakes. It is amazing to witness – despite the sulfuric smell that these areas are accompanied by.
Rotorua on the North Island is a place known for its extraordinary geothermal activity. That makes it pretty much a tourist hub filled with overpriced spas and wellness centers. What most people do not know, is that there are actually many other places to experience this. Between Rotorua and Taupo there are actually plenty of parks where you can be amazed by New Zealand’s magic. Think about paying a visit to the Craters of the Moon, the Waikarei Terraces and Wai-O-Tapu.
All the geothermal activity in New Zealand makes for a lot of hot springs. Especially during winter time, it is nice to warm up and relax by going bathing. Hanmer Springs and Rotorua are famous for their spas. At the hot water beach on the Coromandel Peninsula, you can create your own. Make sure you visit at low tide and bring your own shovel. That is all it takes to build your own hot water spa.
5) SURF, SAND & WAVES
Are you an experienced surfer or a beginner? Regardless of your level of experience, you will find plenty of opportunities to ride New Zealand’s waves. Do not forget to bring your wetsuit. On the North Island, Raglan and Gisborne are known for being nice surf spots. At Solscape in Raglan, you even can combine your love for surfing with your love for yoga.
In the south, you will find excellent waves near the coast of Christchurch and at St. Clair’s Beach in Dunedin. I recommend renting equipment at the Esplanade surf school in Dunedin. I have also seen people carrying around surfboards near Coromandel, Wellington, Piha and Westport. Be aware of the tides and currents. They can be a bit tricky around New Zealand.
Not much of a water lover? In New Zealand, you can also surf something other than waves: sand dunes! North of Auckland you can surf the enormous dunes of Te Paki near Cape Reinga. All you need is a board and you are good to go. Surfing – whether it is on water or sand – is one of the top 10 things to do in New Zealand.
6) VISIT THE GLOW WORMS
Never heard of glow worms? Neither had I before visiting New Zealand. Apparently, the kiwi bird is not the only species that is only to be found on the North and South Island. You will find glow worms at night time in dark caves and other sheltered areas. Seeing these magical creatures was definitely one of the highlights of my New Zealand trip.
Waitomo on the North Island is famous for its glow worm caves. You can go through the caves on foot or go for a more adventurous experience by going black water rafting or abseiling. Beware: these activities do come with a price tag. In the south, you can meet the worms at Te Anau. An excursion that includes some explanation by a guide and a short boat ride inside the cave in complete darkness and silence. At Hokitika, there is a small glow worm dell that you can visit for free as soon as the sun has gone down.
As pretty as the lights of the glow worms might seem: did you know are actually just looking at maggots and their ‘webs’ made out of saliva? Yes, drooling maggots with a shiny bum. Eventually, they turn into flies without a digestive system. They only stay alive just long enough to reproduce. Glow worms are one of the many natural wonders of New Zealand!
7) EXPERIENCE MIDDLE EARTH
Have you ever seen the Lord of the Rings or Hobbit movies? If not, it might be a good idea to do so before visiting New Zealand. Director Peter Jackson shot these movies based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s books in the most gorgeous locations of the North and South Island. Fantasy fans from all over the world instantly embraced New Zealand as Middle Earth.
On the North Island, you can visit Hobbiton. This hobbit village was initially demolished after Jackson completed the first trilogy. The Hobbit movies required the set to be rebuilt. This time around they decided to keep it, opening it as a tourist attraction. A visit to Hobbiton comes with transportation to the set, a guided tour, plenty of photo opportunities and a free drink at the Green Dragon.
When you are visiting the city of Wellington, you just cannot miss the heart of New Zealand’s film industry in the Miramar suburb. At the Weta Cave you can watch a free documentary about its history and browse through Middle Earth memorabilia. Another option is to book a Weta Workshop Tour. At the workshop you get to see (and sometimes hold) props used in various movies, learn about digital editing and basically all the hard work that goes into making a movie.
Since Peter Jackson filmed the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies all over New Zealand, there are numerous opportunities to immerse yourself in Middle Earth. There are organized tours available, but budget travelers might want to do the research themselves. You can walk through the Mount Victoria park in Wellington (the Shire), explore the Remarkables around Queenstown (Gondor) and make a stop at the town of Twizel near Mount Cook (Edoras).
8) ENJOY THE WATER
New Zealand’s huge coastline offers great spots for swimming and relaxing close to the water. Every coast seems to be different. I encountered crystal clear waters in the south at Dunedin’s St. Clair’s beach and turquoise ones around the Coromandel peninsula in the north. In the water, you might even be accompanied by whales, seals (Wharariki), dolphins (Kairkoura) and bioluminescence at night! Again, just be aware of the tides and currents when going for a swim.
The bright blue lakes on the South Island might look very enticing; the water is way too cold for swimming. Thankfully there are plenty of lakes in New Zealand that are suitable for swimming. Swimming in Lake Rotoiti near the town of St. Arnaud was an amazing experience. You can swim in crystal clear waters, surrounded by green mountains. Another place I can recommend is Salisbury Falls. Here you can take a dip in the river when the Golden Bay area gets too hot.
When I visited New Zealand during the summer (December – February), going kayaking seemed to be the thing to do. Many people own kayaks and they are often available for rent at beaches. It turned out to be an amazing way to explore the coastline. My favorite places for sea kayaking are the Coromandel peninsula (Cathedral Cove), the Bay of Islands and Golden Bay. The Abel Tasman National Park is a great place to go for a multi-day kayak trip.
Right in the center of the North Island, you will find the volcanic lake Taupo. This is also a great place to go kayaking while being surrounded by nature. Especially if you do not feel comfortable enough yet to venture out onto the open sea. The same goes for the Whanganui river. If you prefer a change of scenery, you can opt for a trip on the Avon River in the city of Christchurch on the South Island.
9) BUY A PIECE OF GREENSTONE JEWELLERY
Greenstone is one of New Zealand’s signature products. It is known as ‘pounamu’ in the Maori language. This type of stone is very hard, durable and valuable. In New Zealand they make the most beautiful earrings, bracelets and necklaces out of them. And they make for great souvenirs! Did you know that in the Maori culture every design has a unique meaning to it?
Shops, where you can buy crystals and different type of stones, are to be found literally all over New Zealand. Especially in hippie towns such as Coromandel and Takaka. The stones have usually been found nearby and are reasonably priced too. The place to go for greenstone, in particular, is the town of Hokitika on the South Island.
10) GET YOUR ADRENALINE GOING
All that space and all those beautiful landscapes, make New Zealand a perfect place for adventures. Skydiving, paragliding, bungee jumping, rafting, jet boating, mountain biking… You name it! Queenstown is especially known for being a place to get your adrenaline going – and to spend all of your money on doing that.
The highest bungee jump possible in New Zealand is 134 meters: the Nevis Bungee. Taking a jump from Auckland’s Sky Tower is also a favorite of many adventurous travelers. The Bay of Islands and Wanaka are popular areas for paragliding, while skydiving is often done around Lake Taupo and the west coast of the South Island near the glaciers. Mountain bike trails are to be found throughout New Zealand. A local tourist information center (I-Site) can provide you with advice and maps. The best places to try a jet boat are at the Huka Falls and the Shotover River.
I hope these 10 things to do in New Zealand have helped you plan your next visit to this amazing country!
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