New Zealand may be dwarfed by its grand Australian neighbor down under, but it offers a dizzying array of diversity in a compact area there’s no cause for an inferiority complex. From cosmopolitan cities to breathtaking nature, indigenous culture to adrenalin-fueled activities, this small but multifaceted country offers visitors so many tempting options within its borders you can’t possibly squeeze it all in. Spanning the North and South Islands, here’s a hobbit-free shortlist of cool Kiwi highlights to help you hone in on your must-dos.
1. Go Tramping
So stunningly scenic are the nature trails within New Zealand, the Kiwis have coined their own word for hiking. Whether you do a day-walk or a multi-day trek, you just have to get out there and tramp. The South Island has some of the top trails, including the world-renowned Milford Track, Routeburn Track and Abel Tasman Coastal Track. A series of well-maintained backcountry huts make longer excursions comfortable (advanced booking may be required). On the North Island, volcanic alpine tramping around Tongariro Crossing is not to be missed.
2. Watch Whales
The nutrient-rich waters near Kaikoura make it a marine-life mecca. Sperm whales, orcas, dolphins and fur seals are year-round residents and migrating humpbacks, pilots and blue whales often pass by. It’s one of the best whale-watching spots in the world, and local tour boats boast a 95% chance of a close encounter these magnificent creatures. The area is often dubbed the Serengeti of the South Pacific as it makes for an incredible photo-safari, but be sure you put the camera down sometimes and just be humbled in the presence of these graceful giants.
3. Get An Adrenalin Rush
Queenstown is the exhilarating adventure capital of the South Island, if not the world. It’s the birthplace of cliff-bobbing bungee jumping and speed-spinning jetboats, and there are endless thrill-seeker activities to scare you silly while putting a smile on your face too. White water rafting, luge runs, zip lining, canyoning, paragliding, river surfing and more is there to push you out of your comfort zone and stretch your limits. Head to Rotorua in the North island to zorb, another quirky Kiwi invention where you roll down a hill in a giant inflatable orb. Don’t ask why, just do it.
4. Explore the Fiords
Rukdyard Kipling call the Milford Sound the 8th Wonder of the World, and that’s an understatement. It’s widely considered to be the most scenic spot in all of New Zealand, where mountain and ocean meet through a long and narrow cleft in the coastline. Hop a boat and be wowed through the 10 mile passage to the open sea, with mighty Mitre Peak looming in the distance. Better yet, take a kayak and explore the Sound in silence, making friends with dolphins, seals and penguins along the way. There are endless hikes and opportunities to worship nature in Fiordland.
5. Climb a Glacier
It’s not often you find an frigid glacier in a temperate rainforest near sea level, but that’s just one of the many reasons New Zealand is out of this world. Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers, on west coast of the South Island, offer some spectacular glacier walks, eco-tours, heli-flights and other frosty adventures down an solid icy river millions of years in the making. A guided hike, complete with pick axe in hand and crampons on feet, will keep you safely on track as you explore the scenic remnant of the Ice Age.
6. Hangi Out With the Maoris
The indigenous culture of New Zealand is strong and proud, and one of the best ways to immerse yourself in it is through a Maori haka performance and traditional hangi feast. First, you’ll be greeted with a hongi, a traditional nose touch that welcomes you as a friend. The meal is steam-cooked over hot stones in an earth-oven dug into the ground, which gives the meats, vegetables and herbs a distinctive succulence and smoky twang. The traditional foot-stomping, chest-beating, tongue-wagging song, dance and war cry is presented by tatooed performers. The Rotarua area has several opportunities to enjoy a Maori cultural experience which will give you a deeper understanding of the land they call Aotearoa, Land of the Long White Cloud.
7. Go Geothermal
The Rotorua region is also the place to explore the bubbling mud, stinky hot pools, sulphur steam vents and gushing geysers of this volcanically active land. Check out the Waimangu Volcanic Valley, Hell’s Gate or Wai-O-Tapu Geothermal Wonderland for an unforgettable (and pungent!) eco-experience, including fizzy Champagne Pools, Lady Knox geyser, steamy streams and hot waterfalls.
8. Float Through Glowworm Grotto
The Glowworm Grotto is a labyrinth of caves near Waitomo on the North Island, and the only place on earth where these tiny bioluminescent creatures live. Officially called Arachnocampa luminosa, the sight of a thousand twinkling blue-green sparks decorating the dark cavern is a dazzling experience not to be missed. You can take a boat trip, float on an inner tube or even abseil through these magical fairy-lit caves.
9. Free-fall From a Plane
Not to be upstaged by the South Island’s Queenstown action, the North Island’s Taupo area has become an adventure playground too. All the Kiwi classics like bungee jumping, jetboating and white water rafting are on offer here, but what really sets it apart is its skydiving opportunities. Taupo is considered one of the best places in the world to skydive, as you jump 15,000 feet with a birds-eye view over majestic mountains, volatile volcanoes, lush forests and pristine lakes. It’s the most scenic landscape imaginable – if you can manage to keep your eyes open through the plummeting rush.
Even if you’re not usually the birdwatcher type, the avian wonders of New Zealand will make you reach for the binoculars. For starters, visit Steward Island for one of the best chances to spot the rare, endemic, flightless Kiwi bird in its natural habitat. Head to the Otago Penisula near Dunedin to get up close to a penguin nesting area. You can also visit the only mainland colony of albatross in the world. There are plenty of eco-tour operators in the area that let you observe these amazing birds in a responsible manner.