Where to Visit in New Zealand
Kia Ora/ Welcome to Aotearoa or as its now known; New Zealand. New Zealand is a melting pot of resources put on display for all those who visit. You have colonial buildings from the 19th century representing the historical resources. Next you have the Maori, who are the indigenous people to the land, representing the cultural history through their art and cooking. Lastly are the natural resources, from backpacking through rainforests, listening to the animals calling in the distance, hiking to peaks of the mountains for the sunrise, walking on icy glaciers, and staring at an active volcano, there is plenty to see. So I invite you to read on and explore all that this island paradise has to offer.
In the words of Gandalf, “The world is not in your books or maps, it is out there.” That quote resonates in many ways with so much to explore. But without further ado let’s jump in!
Getting To New Zealand
Many travel to the South Pacific to visit Australia specifically. However, flying to Australia is around a 16 hour flight from the west coast of the United States. That can be a long flight for many. Instead of having to endure that much time in a confined space opt for a visit to New Zealand, only a 12 hour flight from the west coast makes it a lot more bearable. Auckland is where many international flights from Asia and North America arrive. This is a great city to get your feet wet and recover from any jet lag you might have before continuing onward.
Best Time to Travel to New Zealand
Before booking anything it is important to note that New Zealand is located south of the equator which means the seasons are flipped compared to what you might be used to. For those planning on going in December it is summer and peak season, especially with people traveling for Christmas and New Years.
For those who love the snow or any kind of winter sports visiting during June, July, or August is perfect. The ski resorts are located mainly on the South Island. Many athletes from Europe and North America travel during this time so they can practice year round. I went in March and it was a perfect time with the summer crowds having mostly left and the fall foliage coming in, especially around Queenstown and Arrowtown.
Traveling Around New Zealand
Getting around New Zealand couldn’t be easier. The country as a whole is a backpacking retreat and haven.
Plane: This will of course be the fastest but it can be quite expensive depending on where you may be going. When I was there I only took 1 flight in the country which was to get from the South Island to the North Island.
Boat: If you're feeling a little more adventurous you can take the boat from Wellington (which is on the southern tip of the North Island) to Blenheim (which is a much smaller town on the South Island)
Bus: The bus system is the best way to get around, without a doubt. It is the cheapest by far and gives you an opportunity to see different places along the way. These buses serve many backpackers traveling all across the country. One company called Intercity travels to cities and towns small and large. En route to your destination you can jump off for different excursions and continue again later in the day. If you are familiar with Flixbus or Megabus which operates in the United States and Europe, this is very similar.
New Zealand Travel: North Island vs. South Island
New Zealand is made up of 2 big islands, and some outlying smaller islands. The 2 islands have unique characteristics that make them special. Here is what you can expect on each.
This is where most people live and home to the largest cities of Auckland and Wellington. This is the best place to start and settle in before you get underway.
The largest city in New Zealand and most likely your starting point upon arrival. You only need about 2 days to see most of it. Some highlights include:
Mount Eden: It was once a volcano that blew itself up leaving a crater. This is a great place to hike all the way up and you will get an incredible view looking out to the rest of the city.
Auckland Art Gallery: This exhibit features art from around the world but some of the best that is displayed is from the Maori who are the indigenous people of the island.
Sky Tower: The sky tower is a huge entertainment complex with shops, movie theater, and observation deck. This is also the tallest building in the southern hemisphere. If you want to go a little wild you can bungee jump from the top or walk around the outside to get a different kind of view. Both are affiliated with the AJ Hackett group that has similar activities in Australia, Macau, and Canada.
Auckland Harbour Bridge: You can see the bridge from multiple places around the city for different photo opportunities. Another cool thing, just like in Sydney, Australia, you can climb this bridge to the top.
America’s Cup Sailing: Learn from a professional America’s Cup crew and get the opportunity to commandeer the ship as you pass under the Auckland Harbour Bridge with the Auckland city skyline in the distance.
Bay of Islands
If you head a couple hours north of Auckland you will reach the city of Paihia which is the jumping off point to visit the Bay of Islands. This would be the ideal spot to spend the night at a hotel/AirBnB. To be able to get the most out of it you should stay for 2-3 days minimum with all the places you can go to. Some places you can visit are:
The Waitangi Treaty Grounds: The birth of independent New Zealand began when the declaration of independence was signed between the local Maori chiefs and the British government in the mid 19th century. There is also a small museum to walk around and learn about some of the tense details leading up to it.
Piercy Island (Motukokako Island): This island is famously known as the “Hole in the Rock” known for its massive hole carved out over centuries by salt water and heavy winds. As you sail through it and around keep your eyes open as you might be lucky enough to see some dolphins passing by.
Russell: This small area hosts lots of history. It was here that the first capital building and first harbour were built. As you walk around you will notice some of the colonial buildings dating back to the 19th century. If you hike to the top of Flagstaff Hill you are rewarded with some great views looking over the neighboring islands. I think it's one of the best photo spots for scenery and landscape in the chain of islands. I regret visiting it only on a day trip from Auckland which makes me want to return in the near future to spend more time.
About 3 hours south of Auckland, there are plenty of great activities in Rotorua and on the way there.
The Shire: On the way from Auckland, a stop here will transport you to another world. For any Lord of the Rings fans this is a must visit and might be the highlight for some. It was built on an old sheep farm making the perfect location with its rolling hills. The idea was just to create it for the 3 movies. When the last movie called it a wrap in 2003 the crew decided to tear it down completely which made people sad because some visitors were eager to see it. Eight years later The Hobbit trilogy came around so the staff rebuilt it like it was before but after the filming was done they just left it. To visit you must book in advance and go with a guide. On the tour you will pass by many places like the party tree, the green dragon inn (where you can purchase drinks), and don’t forget Bilbo Baggins' residence itself!
Black Water Rafting: Another unique activity just 1 hour drive from The Shire is Black Water Rafting. There is one company that offers it in a small town called Waitomo which is famous for its glow worm caves. Other companies offer the more relaxing boat ride through the caves. There are 2 options for this tour. One option goes to an extreme level by ziplining and rappelling down into the canyon and caves. I chose not to do that one and opted for the more relaxing tube. You are fitted with a wetsuit, and helmet with headlight, and your own small rubber donut that you float on. At the end of the trip your guide tells you to turn off your headlight lamp and let the glowworms on the cave walls guide you to the end. It's something so amazing that you have to see to believe. You can’t use any camera or light as it might disturb the glow worm's natural habitat. One thing the guides told us is that if you see the glow worms light below you, you might be underwater.
Zorbing: My favorite thing I loved about Rotorua; the extremely unique Zorbing. What is Zorbing? Well you go to the top of the hill and you are put into a giant hamster ball and you are off on your way rolling down the hill. On a nice warm day the staff will fill up your ball with water and you can slip and slide to the finish line. There are a couple of places in Rotorua to do it but one thing I found interesting is that Zorbing is a proud New Zealand invention.
Maori Villages: A trip to Rotorua is not complete without visiting one of the local Maori villages. Visiting one of the villages includes learning some Maori words, watching traditional dances, singing, and finishing with a Hangi feast. Hangi is a Maori word and refers to the style of cooking that has been done for centuries and still happens to this day. The secret behind it is using the geysers to heat the food from underneath. A traditional meal consists of Kumara (sweet potatoes), corn, a protein which might be lamb, chicken, or pork, and cabbage. To make it nice and tender the food has to be cooked for 3-5 hours.
The capital and second largest city is Wellington and earns a nickname as being the San Francisco of New Zealand. Some may find similarities with its large hills like Mount Victoria, its historic cable car (Kelburn), the colorful street art, its wonderful display of gastronomy (Cuba Street), and its classic Victorian style homes. They also are not too far off on their longitude. San Francisco sits at 37 degrees north and Wellington is at 41 degrees south.
You can’t go wrong with plenty of opportunities to learn more from the world’s first ecosanctuary called Zealandia; teaching about conservation and preservation techniques of the native and natural lands across the country. For fans of the arts, there are multiple galleries to visit featuring Maori paintings and other local artists.
The South Island on the other hand is far different than the north in many ways. The South Island is what gives the country its beauty and those famous postcard photos. Even if you are wanting to spend most of your time in the major cities like Auckland or Wellington, you should dedicate at least a week to explore all the different areas the south has to offer.
Sometimes referred to as the adrenaline capital of the world, this is the place where you can let it all go. You will get your heart racing with any of these activities.
Bungee Jumping: This thrill rush is found all across the country. One company in Queenstown brings you to the Shotover River and right before the leap of faith you decide how you want to fall. You can do the traditional style face forward, go backwards, or if you want to be creative, take a seat and the staff will kick you off.
Whitewater Rafting: There are 2 rivers (the Kawarau and the Shotover). They range between a grade II- IV depending on the time of year and the amount of rainfall. When I went the Kawarau River was very shallow and no one could go on it so we went for the Shotover River.
Shotover Speed Jet: Traveling at 52 MPH, zipping through the river canyons, and getting splashed along the way with tight turns makes a fun alternative for those who might not want to get completely soaked compared to white water rafting.
Skyline Queenstown: This small adventure park sits atop the city. To visit you take a little gondola to the top. Stay for the views, go for a bike ride or hike, or slide down the hill on a luge.
Other things you can do in town is to take the famous TSS Earnslaw steamboat to the Walter Peak High Country farm. This is an evening tour which typically includes a nice buffet dinner, a sheep shearing demonstration (one of New Zealand’s biggest exports) and then watch one of their border collies round the sheep up back into the stables for the night. If you're in for a new experience check out the Odyssey Sensory Maze where you will put all of your senses to the test.
Arrowtown: Just outside of Queenstown (about 30 minutes) is a small town called Arrowtown. This was the sight of a small gold rush that took place in the 19th century. For those history buffs, it gives you a look into the past.
Milford Sound: One of the gems of the South Island is Milford Sound. Located inside Fiordland National Park, 3 ½ hours from Queenstown, these fjords are something that you have to see to believe. You could technically do it on a day trip but it would lead to a very long day. The best way is to fly into the small regional airport or grab a 1 way bus ticket. You will need a few days to explore all that this great beauty has to offer.
In 2011, Christchurch was heavily damaged when a 6.3 earthquake shook the city However, the city and the community were resilient in staying strong and rebuilding. It's a small city and you may only need 2-3 days to see most of it depending on your preference. Some highlights include:
The International Antarctic Center: This interactive museum takes you on a tour of the icy continent to learn about some of the expeditions and experiments done by scientists and voyagers.
Willowbank Wildlife Reserve: This animal reserve is home to many different types of animals such as lemurs, sheep, goats, iguanas, and one of the symbols of New Zealand; the Kiwi bird. This small flightless bird is also nocturnal so you won’t see too many walking around outside. When you enter the small room it is dark with a few dim lights to see them.
Quake City: This is another interactive museum about earthquakes. This may be a somber museum but it is also very important in staying prepared no matter where you live for any possible natural disaster. I am from California and we are in earthquake country as well so this museum was very informative in new ways to learn more and to keep safe in times of crisis.
On a similar note there is a memorial dedicated to the survivors and those lives who were lost in the 2011 earthquake featuring white chairs outside on a lawn.
Exploring New Zealand
New Zealand has something different for every type of traveler. If you like the city life, then you have Auckland and Wellington. If you want to destress and go somewhere quiet in nature you could spend weeks or months traveling around the South Island. And if you want to go a little crazy there is no shortage of adrenaline activities. It is a country with very friendly people sharing their wonderful hospitality for all of those who are eager to see it.
As of 2020 Sean Hale has visited 37 countries on 6 of the 7 continents of the world traveling while going to school and working full time. He will be finishing his undergraduate in 2020 in the field of recreation, parks, and tourism. After graduation he is hoping to carry on traveling to far and distant locations uncovering the underrated and unseen destinations of the world. Follow his adventures on Instagram @carryonsean.
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