Why visit NZ?
Friends and family sometimes say to us that they’d love to visit NZ but don’t know where to start or what to do.
We totally get this. While Lonely Planet, TripAdvisor and other guides are useful, they can be a bit overwhelming.
This first article is the sales pitch. Why would you want to come here, what are the highlight destinations. If it inspires you to make plans, it has done its job!
Later articles will cover the nitty gritty of getting here and around, add some more notes on places we’ve been or want to go, and add some useful info about the place that they don’t tell you on the plane.
So why would I want to visit?
It’s exotic, yet the distances aren’t vast. From our home in Christchurch we can be on the beach in half an hour’s drive, up in the high country in an hour, skiing in 1½ hours, or temperate rainforest in 3 hours.
It’s breathtakingly beautiful. As a relatively recently formed landmass (in geological terms, at least!) the geographical features tend to be a bit more pronounced than you might be used to. The landscape is necessarily three-dimensional; here, one tends to just accept the landscape and work with it, rather than try to overly sculpt it.
It’s an adventure. It’s the home of the Great Walks and the place where bungee jumping was invented; NZ has a well-earned reputation for adventurous activities. Even if that isn’t quite your cup of tea, there are a huge number of activities of varying degrees of strenuousness, or you could content yourself with a road trip and drink in the scenery.
Ready to go? Buckle up, this is going to be fun!
This is the nearest thing we’ve got to a list of “must-see”s. Of course, your tastes might not match ours, so this is necessarily a wide list. We suggest you see what takes your fancy and use your picks as a skeleton to base an itinerary around. There’s plenty to do that isn’t on this list; later articles will touch on more, or you might care to browse the guidebooks.
West Coast / Fiordland
- Milford Sound (pictured above). This is probably NZ’s most famous tourist destination. If you want breathtaking beauty, look no further. It’s a fiord, deep in the remote (largely uninhabited) Fiordland region. The standard way to visit involves a day trip from Te Anau or Queenstown with a cruise on the Sound over lunch, or you can catch a flight if the weather is suitable. It’s a long day, particularly from Queenstown, but the road trip is itself amazing. While you can drive yourself, it’s not for the faint-hearted; much better to take a package trip, sit back and enjoy. Don’t even consider driving if the weather is bad.
- Glaciers (Fox and Franz Josef). These are on the West Coast road. It’s very rare to find glaciers so close to sea level at this latitude, so a thriving tourist industry has grown up around them. You can view these from a distance, but they’re incredible close-up. Guides will take you onto the ice for a walk (as of 2016, this requires a helicopter ride and moderate or better fitness). For the more intrepid there are longer walks and ice climbing options available.
- Doubtful Sound cruise. These overnight packages start in Manapouri or Te Anau and really highlight how remote Fiordland is; there’s a boat trip and a coach trip before you actually get to the Sound.
- Stewart Island is a bit off the beaten track, but could be worth the trip if you’re interested in the local bird life. It’s something of a sanctuary for kiwi, kakapo and other endangered native birds which get a much better deal, away from the introduced species which are sadly too abundant on the two main islands. Access via Invercargill, by air or sea.
- Akaroa is an old French village in the middle of the volcanic caldera called Banks Peninsula. It’s a little over an hour’s drive from Christchurch. There are a few tourist activities (swim with dolphins, cruise on a classic sailing yacht) amidst the stunning setting.
- Marlborough Sounds. Right up at the north end of the South Island lies a somewhat fractal set of sounds. They are idyllic; if you enjoy scenic boat tours this might be the place for you (we recommend the mailboat trip). There are countless wineries in this neck of the woods and you could easily spend an entire holiday touring and tasting; the area is also popular with campers and backpackers.
- Mount Cook is a particularly picturesque mountain and national park, with glaciers, boat trips and more. It’s where Sir Edmund Hillary trained. Sky-watchers might want to visit the Lake Tekapo International Dark Sky Reserve.
- Paihia / Bay of Islands / Far North district. We’re getting into sub-tropical climate here, making for a domestic tourist hotspot. It’s beautiful, historical, and has some fun oddities (we enjoyed the Cape Reinga bus trip).
- Coromandel Peninsula. This is where Aucklanders come to relax (3 hours drive, or take the bus). It’s particularly pretty.
- White Island. NZ’s most active volcano, it is an island, visitable as a day trip from Whakatane.
- Napier. This one is for architecture nuts. The town was almost completely razed by the 1931 Hawkes Bay earthquake and rebuilt in Art Deco style.
- Mount Taranaki. An almost perfect conical volcano, often used as a double for Fuji-san. Really beautiful.
- Hobbiton movie set. LOTR fans probably want to check this out; it was built for the LOTR films, returned to pristine state, rebuilt for the Hobbit films then left. It’s on a farm near Matamata; you can drive there (2.5 hours from Auckland) or take one of the numerous tourist bus trip packages.
- Ruapehu/Tongariro/Ngauruhoe. An active volcanic complex in the Central Plateau, very desolate. Ngauruhoe was used as the setting for Mount Doom in the LOTR films. The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is a particularly well regarded day walk; there are multiple ski fields up there, and in the summer you can take a sightseeing chairlift ride from the Whakapapa ski area.
- Glow-worms. Magical in their own way. There are places to see these all over the shop, if only you know where to look. Here are but a few; we’ve done the Te Anau trip. We are also aware of a free glow-worm dell in Hokitika and there are undoubtedly many more.
- Adventure activities. Practically every accommodation provider in the country has a rack full of leaflets and the ability to make bookings on your behalf (of course, they make a commission on the sale). Queenstown is a particular hotspot, but don’t fall for the notion that that’s the only place they happen. Wherever you are, if you want something adventurous, there’s probably an opportunity within reach.
- LOTR filming locations. Hobbiton is the big touristy setup which has been left in place since the Hobbit films, but there are plenty of other locations. Our NZ road atlas even has them marked.
- Great mountain drives. NZ has oodles of these, even on the main state highways. Just make sure you and your vehicle are up to the challenge before tackling them! (See the Driving notes.)
- The great outdoors! Kiwis love their outdoors time.
- There are walking and hiking (“tramping”) trails everywhere. The Great Walks are particularly noteworthy, see http://www.doc.govt.nz/parks-and-recreation/things-to-do/walking-and-tramping/great-walks/map/ though be aware you need to book some of them well in advance.
- Kiwis love camping. There are holiday parks and serviced camp sites all over the country.
- If you plan to bring your own boots or camping kit, see the notes about Biosecurity.
- Campervanning is a popular way to see the country at your own pace without needing to advance book accommodation. It works out a bit more expensive than motels, but you may prefer the flexibility.
- The cities. Let’s face it, nobody comes here just for the cities, but they’re worth a mention when it comes to macro-planning. You might want to plan a few days’ decompression after the long flight before starting a road trip. And our cities are not without their attractions; just that they likely won’t make your trip.
The next article will cover getting to NZ and getting around.