Travel - Destinations
By: - at September 8, 2013

Top 15 Things to Do in New Zealand

For seasoned travel veterans and intrepid first-time globetrotters, picking the right destination can be a daunting task. So many marvelous and exciting places exist in the world that it is hard to narrow down your options. Unfortunately, certain great travel destinations, like New Zealand, are often buried deep on this list under other, more publicized locations. Failing to take note of this wondrous island nation is a major mistake that doesn't have to happen during your next travel planning session.

flag of New Zealand

Separated into two main islands, known as the North Island and the South Island, as well as several smaller outcroppings, New Zealand is a diverse and historically rich country. As noted in "A Concise History of New Zealand," by Philippa Mein Smith, Polynesian sailors settled the landmass between 1250 and 1300 CE. This late arrival by settlers makes the island nation one of the last landmasses in the world to come into contact with humans. During the age of European expansion, Dutch and British settlers fought to claim control of the island, leading to a history of conflict and strife.

However, from these altercations, a vibrant and flourishing culture arose with roots in both European and Polynesian traditions. Coupling this history with the breathtaking natural wonders of the area makes New Zealand a prime location for potential tourists and visitors.

15)  The Beaches of Auckland
It is hard to find someone who doesn't enjoy a day at the beach. In New Zealand, the beaches take this love affair to a whole new level. Outside of the Auckland metropolitan area are the Piha, Karekare, Muriwai, and Bethell beaches. This series of waterside fronts offer a wide array of visually stunning formations. The proximity of ocean to the Waitakere mountain range creates an intriguing juxtaposition of mountains and frothing waters. The mists that roll down from the ranges coat the black volcanic sand and large rock formations, offering a visual setting that few beaches around the world can match.

Mission Bay, Auckland, New Zealand
Beaches of Auckland New Zealand

Aside from the beauty of nature, these beaches also offer some of the more typical attributes of enjoying the ocean. Swimming and sunbathing are some of the activities you can take part in as a casual visitor. If you are looking for excitement, parasailing, surfing on substantial waves, and other water sports, this string of beaches offer a plethora of activities.

14)  The Great Walks
The South Island of New Zealand has some of the most intriguing walking paths and trails in the world. Known as the "Great Walks of New Zealand," six of the eight members of the grouping are found on this island. Routeburn Track, Kepler Track, Abel Tasman Coastal Track, and the Catlins Coast all offer you the chance to see the country in its natural state. Rare flora and fauna cover these paths, giving you direct access to species that are not found in any other part of the world.

Fiordland National Forest, South Island, New Zealand
Fiordland National Park South Island New Zealand

The Catlins Coast takes you deep into the natural past of the island with a petrified wood forest. Walking among these relics from the past helps put modern culture and technology in perspective when compared to the lasting power of nature. Additionally, other fun sporting activities can also be worked into your vacation. Hiking, animal watching, and rock climbing are all part of the outdoor experience in New Zealand.

13)  Viewing the Kiwi
Speaking of nature, nothing says New Zealand like the kiwi. As the national symbol of the island nation, catching a glimpse of this endangered bird is one of the best things to do when taking a vacation in New Zealand. Aside from its status as a flightless bird, the kiwi also has some other intriguing characteristics. According to the San Diego Zoo, this member of the Ratite family lays the largest egg in relation to its average body size. Adding in that it is one of the smallest members of this genus subsection creates a unique outlook for those viewing a nest in its natural habitat.

kiwi bird new zealand

Looking into the history of the bird is also a fun venture for visitors to New Zealand. The name of the bird derives from local Maori culture and language. The meaning of the name is meant to serve as a representation of the bird's vocal calls and sounds. Additionally, the term "Kiwi" has also found a colloquial use as a method of identifying New Zealand natives.

12)  Waitomo Caves
If viewing mountain ranges and surfing on massive waves doesn't sound appealing, consider taking a more subterranean approach to your visit to New Zealand. The Waitomo Caves, originally revered and explored by the Maori people, now offer visitors a look into the workings of life below the surface. Glowing worms and massive stalactite and stalagmite outcroppings provide the main attraction by dazzling viewers with an eerie spectacle as they traverse the caverns and enclosed pathways. For those looking for additional adventure, the waterways found within the caves offer a tubing experience unlike any other.

Cave Stream, Arthur's Pass, New Zealand
Cave Stream Arthur's Pass New Zealand

As part of the added attraction, one of New Zealand's brightest celebrity stars, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, hosted a musical event in the caverns, as noted on the cave's official site. The reaction was exceedingly positive, with the singer expounding upon the purity of sound and acoustics found within the natural structure. When planning a visit to Waitomo, consider booking ahead. Guided tours, as well as private excursions, are offered to those looking to dare the depths of these ancient caves.

11)  Relive History with the Maori People
The North Island of New Zealand offers plenty of opportunities to learn about the culture that arose after Polynesian settlers first landed on the exotic land formations. As you retrace the Maori footsteps, you will find plenty of things to do to immerse yourself in their rich traditions. Performances and traditional gatherings offer an excellent window into the history and culture of these people. A public feast, complete with smoked meats and vegetables, as well as tribal dancing and displays, is a popular venue for tourists and visitors. Generally, an oven is dug into the ground, offering a new take on slow cooking and smoky flavors.

Maori Wood Carving
Maori wood carving New Zealand

Of course, the Maori culture also has more recent developments that may intrigue you. A resurgence of pride and awareness has led the Maori people to take political action to preserve and expand their rights. For those who are intrigued by political action and involvement, get to know the issues and potentially view a protest or debate. Doing so can give you a deeper understanding of the issues surrounding these people, as well as offer you a bird's-eye view of potentially historical changes in New Zealand law and culture. Naturally, be wary of heated situations and respect the opinions of those who have a stake in the matter, as this is a very important development for those involved.

10)  A Convergence of Glaciers and Rainforests
Few people have ever experienced walking along a glacier. Delving into the depths of a rainforest is equally as impressive. However, New Zealand offers a place that provides you with access to both – side by side. On the western coast of the South Island, a rugged convergence is taking place that involves the Fox and Franz Josef glaciers, as well as the coastal rain forest. As noted on New Zealand's official website, these glaciers reach almost to sea level, making them oddities among their counterparts. As the glaciers moved down from the 2,600 meter heights of the Southern Alps, they have bisected portions of the local rainforest. This odd combination provides stunning picture opportunities and a chance to traverse unusual paths and trails.

Franz Josef Glacier
Franz Josef Glacier forest New Zealand

Over the past several thousand years, the glaciers have advanced and retreated across the landscape. This movement created pitted valleys and deep gouges into the terrain. For intrepid travelers campaigning through the forest, arriving at the feet of a glacier is the ultimate experience. Depending on your skill level and your comfort with navigating this terrain, hiring a tour guide or similar expert may be a smart decision.

9)  A Train Ride Unlike Any Other
Although more efficient methods of travel are available, sometimes a train ride can be a nice and relaxing alternative to flying or other means of traversing long distances. In New Zealand, this type of travel takes center stage. As the TranzAlpine train route moves through Christchurch, Greymouth, and Arthur's Pass on the South Island's western shores, passengers are offered a view unlike any other. Misty mountain ranges, volcanic shores, and even a close view of the Franz Josef glacier are part of the trip. For those who want to catch a glimpse of these natural wonders while still enjoying the comfort and amenities of modern life, few other services can compare.

scenic train ride New Zealand

As noted on the railway's official site, the train leaves Christchurch or Greymouth, depending on its current location, and travels over 223 kilometers. The trip from one destination to another takes around four and a half hours and makes a stop in Arthur's Pass. A cafe, bar, and other food options are provided to passengers, as well as an open-air viewing platform. Group accommodations and seating requests are also offered by the railway company. If necessary, those departing from Chirstchurch can take advantage of the free shuttle bus that picks passengers up from local hotels and other public areas.

8)  The Aoraki Mackenzie Dark Sky Reserve
Sometimes, a vacation benefits from taking a slower pace. For those looking to get away from the hustle and bustle of modern life, sitting under the stars is a great way to escape your daily problems. Of course, few stargazing spots can compare with the Aoraki Mackenzie Dark Sky Reserve. As noted by the country's official website, this reserve is one of the few gold-rated dark sky reserves in the world. This means that light-pollution and other issues that affect the viewing and study of the night skies are kept to a minimum. For serious enthusiasts and the common tourist alike, viewing the wonders of stars and other space phenomena is enhanced greatly by this adherence to purity and preservation.

Mt John Observatory
Mt John Observatory Aoraki Dark Sky Reservation New Zealand

At the heart of this 4,300 square kilometer reserve is the Mt. John Observatory. The clarity of the region, aided by the Southern Alps in the west and the Two Thumb Range in the east, helped designate this area as the prime spot for a new observatory in 1963. Astronomers from around the world have studied at this facility, adding a layer of prestige to the reserve. For stargazing tours and guidance, tourists should contact the Hillary Alpine Center and Planetarium. Located within the Aoraki reserve, this facility is the southernmost planetarium in the world and incorporates a 126 seat theater to help visitors learn more about the fascinating night sky.

7)  Whale Watching Along the Coast
Few things in life offer a more majestic view than a whale cresting the surf and splashing back into the water. This display of grace and power helps make whale watching stand out as one of the best things to do in New Zealand. The coastal town of Kaikoura serves as the platform for some of the most exciting whale watching tours and expeditions. Originally, this area was the center of New Zealand's whaling industry. Today, the city stands as not only the meeting point of the coast and the Southern Alps, but one of the foremost whale watching outposts on the South Island.

whale watching new zealand

The primary type of whale to view in this area is the Sperm Whale. Although some of these specimens are easily viewed from the beaches, the real excitement begins on board a touring vessel. Naturally, passage on these ships should be booked well in advance, but once you are on board, you are in for an up close and personal view of some of the marine world's greatest offerings. Be prepared to get a little wet, and choppy seas are always an issue. Regardless of the setting, don't forget to bring your camera to capture a few lasting shots of some of nature's most wondrous creatures.

6)  Explore the Volcanic Mountains of the North Island
Deep in the heart of the North Island lies one of the best "tramps" found in New Zealand. Crossing over Mt. Tongariro and around Mt. Ngauruhoe is the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. This hiking destination offers a variety of events and natural wonders for those looking to get in touch with nature. As with any mountain hike, steep climbs and rocky outcroppings are part of the scenery. However, this is quickly overshadowed by the impressive volcanic earthworks and landscape. Some of the craters even contain brilliantly vivid lakes that add a unique touch to the strong red tones found in the range.

Emerald Lakes at the Tongariro Alpine Crossing

As noted by the New Zealand Department of Conservation, this range is truly one of a kind and thus deserves special status and protection. To maintain the range and trail for future generations, rangers and other conversationalists have made efforts to keep the park as pristine as possible. This means tailoring guided trails around the geothermal vents, as well as any other flora or fauna that may be disturbed by the incursions of human tourists and adventurers. Do keep in mind that portions of the range are still active, so planning your trip around safety considerations and precautions is always advised.

5)  Get Your Blood Flowing in Queenstown
If you are going to bill yourself as the "Adventure Capital of the World," you better have the attractions necessary to back up such a claim. In Queenstown, New Zealand, the city delivers on this proclamation. For adrenaline junkies and casual visitors alike, the city offers a wide variety of fast-paced and intense adventures and events. To start, paragliding, bungee jumping, skydiving and whitewater rafting are all offered by the city. However, these average adventure sports may be too tame for your liking.

paragliding queenstown new zealand

To combat this problem, the Queenstown kicks it up a notch. One of the most impressive things to do in this area is take a ride on the jet boat in Skippers Canyon. Gliding over the water, which falls to just a few inches in-depth at times, is a powerful jet boat. This boat navigates the narrow passageways of the canyon, leaving little room to spare between the rocky walls of the gorge. The ride lasts for approximately 30 minutes, so buckle down and be ready for a harrowing adventure.

queenstown downtown new zealand

If all of this sounds too daring for your mild tastes, Queenstown does offer a few selections for those that prefer a more relaxed vacation. The city offers local tours of the award-winning vineyards and distilleries, as well as many fine dining opportunities. You can even tour a vintage steamship and take photographs of this historic vehicle.

4)  Check out Rare Animals on the Otago Peninsula
New Zealand offers glaciers, volcanoes, sprawling rainforests, and seemingly endless beaches. Is it any wonder that this island nation has access to a considerable penguin population? On the Otago Peninsula, Yellow-Eyed Penguins build colonies and nests during the mating season. As noted on the Otago Peninsula's conservational website, these animals are few and are listed on the local endangered species registry.

Otago Peninsula South Island New Zealand

Additionally, the peninsula offers more than just an excellent opportunity to see these intriguing creatures. The highest point of the coastal region, Harbour Cone, measures in at 315 meters in height. Aside from the breathtaking views of this area, which CNN listed as one of the "10 most romantic places to propose," another rare animal makes its home among the cliffs. The Otago Peninsula Trust, a conservational group, lists this location as the only location in the world to see a mainland colony of Royal Albatross. If bird watching is one of your favorite hobbies, the Otago Peninsula is a must visit location.

3)  Discover the Many Sides of Wellington
Not to be outdone by Queenstown, Wellington lists itself as the "Capital of Cool" on its website. With the amount of events and activities offered within the city limits, it is easy to see why the citizens of this region believe the hype. Wine and food tours, cable car rides, an observatory, botanical gardens, and numerous other impressive attractions, Wellington has earned the right to stand as one of the premier tourist locations in New Zealand. However, the city's ties to the global film industry are what really set it apart from its contemporaries.

Wellington New Zealand

As the home of Peter Jackson, it is no surprise that the beauty of New Zealand was incorporated into the Lord of the Rings series of films. As a lasting reminder for these critically acclaimed movies, the city offers several tours and guided trips through the locations used in the films. Some areas even have set pieces and markers in place to guide your adventure into the cinematographic process. Just be wary of all of the trolls and orcs lurking around each corner.

If elves, magic, and the locations that brought them to life aren't really that appealing, more athletic endeavors are also offered in Wellington. The city's rugby team, the Wellington Lions, offer a full schedule of highly competitive games. Additionally, a FIFA World Cup qualifier match, featuring New Zealand's national team "The All-Whites," is scheduled for November, 2013 in Wellington. If you are looking for world-class sporting events, Wellington is your destination.

2)  Enjoy a Natural Bath in the Hot Pools
If you are looking for a relaxing and enjoyable dip in the thermal pools in Welcome Flats, prepare to do work. As noted on the official web page for the springs, the nearest road is over seven hours away. This means that reaching the springs requires an arduous hike through the Westland National Park. However, the reward is highly desirable. A relaxing evening in the hot water, which is found in four large pools, as well as the beautiful local environment create the end to the perfect hiker's vacation.

New Zealand National Forest
New Zealand National Forest

Before booking your trip, make sure you take note of the park's rules, regulations, and warnings. Weather in this area can change suddenly and drastically, leading to flooding and other hazards. Additionally, swimming in the pools during the day is not advisable due to the sand flies found in the area. Before committing to the trip, consider a guide and bring enough food and clothes to last you in the event of inclement weather.

1)  Explore the Great Barrier Island
Although most people assume that the only things to do that are worthwhile occur on the North and South Island, this isn't necessarily true. On New Zealand's fourth largest island, the Great Barrier Island, resides a naturalist's paradise. Located 90 kilometers north of Auckland, this landmass is home to many of the vanities associated with modern life. Fine dining, golf, and other activities can be found in droves. However, it is the isolated parts of the island that make it a true destination.

Great Barrier Island New Zealand

With numerous cottages and lodges scattered around the coast, you can get back in touch with the land that is considered the last frontier in New Zealand before reaching the great blue abyss that is the Pacific Ocean. These offerings range from isolated one room huts to more luxurious and modernized outposts. Depending on your intentions, finding the right lodging is just a few clicks away on the island's official site. Once you have made your reservations, it is time to pack away all that you need to live a few days or weeks of coastal life. Fishing, kayaking, surfing, and all other manner of marine events are right at your fingertips when staying in a seaside cottage.

Southern Alps
Southern Alps New Zealand

New Zealand is often forgotten by global tourists and vacationers. Although Australia is right next door, and substantially larger, this island nation offers a considerable amount of attractions for the visitor who is looking for a different type of adventure. Depending on your hobbies, cities like Queenstown cater to those looking for an adrenaline rush. Others, like Wellington offer a deeper glimpse into the workings of the film industry and other modern venues. If you are looking to take a break outside the city limits, consider all of the natural wonder found on the North and South Islands. Glaciers moving through rainforests, volcanic pathways, coastal outposts, and hot springs are just a few of the many marvels offered by the local landscape. Regardless of your passion, New Zealand is sure to have something that suits your vacation needs.





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