New Zealand is a country that needs no introduction – its landscapes have at some point or another been ingrained into our minds either through films such as The Lord of The Rings trilogy and The Chronicles of Narnia or mere in our dreaming. But for those who plan to visit such a faraway land as New Zealand, it is necessary to have something more concrete than just a mental image to work with.
Since the majority of tourists coming to New Zealand are restricted by the three-month duration of a visitor visa, it is important to plan wisely in order to make the most out of the trip. In other words, to know what sparks one’s curiosity the most about the country so as to choose what places to visit and what to do in each place.
White-sand beaches with intrinsic rock formations, bodies of water that smell funny but look beautiful, day-long treks along volcanic mountains, immense beach-front glaciers, rowing through fjords surrounded by waterfalls and forests – these are all on the menu in a holiday trip to NZ.
Beginning with the more mild and populated North Island and running down to the tip of the wild and ragged South Island, below you find a list of the five best places to visit in New Zealand.
The Coromandel Peninsula & Cathedral Cove
Located on the North Island, about 170km from Auckland, the Coromandel Peninsula is among New Zealand’s most popular beach destinations, especially in high summer season when sunshine is plentiful. The region is covered by native forests and marine reserves, and although it offers many possibilities for organized tours, most of the tourists arriving in Coromandel seek the beaches of Hot Water Beach (where you can dig hot pools in the sand) and Cathedral Cove – a beach that stands out as a rock passage between two strips of sand that resembles the shape of a cathedral.
As the main attraction of the Coromandel Peninsula, Cathedral Cove is one of New Zealand’s most pervasive images and gained even more popularity after being the setting for the film The Chronicles of Narnia. The rock passage on the edge of this beautiful cove is cathedral-like and offers endless possibilities for beautiful photos. Every hour of the day and the tide, the scenery in the cove changes, which makes the ride ideal for a whole day, especially for those passionate about photography.
From the two sides of the passageway on the rock, there are sections of rocky sand that look like rockets about to rise in the middle of the sea. The sand of Cathedral Cove is white, the scenery breathtaking but the water, sadly, almost always cold. The most adventurous even dare to go for a dive, but hardly anyone remains in the sea for too long.
Rotorua & The Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland
The intense geothermal activity of the region around Rotorua attracts tourists eager for stunning scenery and the opportunity to witness such rare natural phenomena. Located on the Pacific Ring of Fire on the North Island of New Zealand, Rotorua offers a glimpse of nature’s soothing and active personalities, which comes in the form of beautiful landscapes and relaxing mud baths as well as geysers, acid lakes, and bubbling rivers. A great alternative for travellers who have a scientific interest and those who just want a unique experience in a natural thermal pool.
The Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland is one of the top destinations in Rotorua. This is the ideal destination for those who want to see up close the diverse phenomena caused by geothermal activity in the region – a result of the intense and long-lasting volcanic presence that makes this a surreal place. Within the park, you will be able to observe different processes such as the Lady Knox geyser (which erupts every day at 10.15), the Champagne Pool (with intense presence of sulphur and multicoloured tones), bubbling mud pools, acid lakes, streams with boiling water and lots of smoke coming out of the ground.
Visitors walk along well-marked routes that keep everyone safe. The biggest challenge is probably dealing with the acute and ubiquitous sulphur smell, but in spite of feeling a little nauseous, you are bound to leave in awe. It is hard not to be impressed by the strength that nature exerts in the Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland. The complete visit will take more or less four hours and it is best to in the morning to see the phenomenon of the erupting geyser.
In addition to geothermal activities, Rotorua is also known as one of the major diffusion centres of Maori culture in New Zealand. The region is one of the best to get in touch with the native people of the islands and learn about traditions such as the famous Haka dance. There are cultural centres that welcome tourists to try the typical Maori cuisine and watch dance and music shows.
And if your business is adrenaline, take advantage of the exuberant local nature – as in the Whakarewarewa Forest – for trekking, mountain biking, rafting, tree climbing parachuting and other adventure sports.
Lake Taupo & Tongariro National Park
The magnificent Taupo Lake, with 616 km² of area and depth of up to 186 meters, offers visitors wonderful views around the Taupo volcano. As the largest New Zealand lake in surface area, Taupo draws attention to the beautiful and imposing Huka Falls as well as geothermal activity which, much like with its neighbour Rotorua, is still very present in the region after hundreds of thousands of years intense volcanic action.
Lake Taupo is also the gateway for anyone planning to visit Tongariro National Park, where one of New Zealand’s most sought-after day trails – the Tongariro Alpine Crossing – sets off. The region around Lake Taupo and the Tongariro National Park can be explored by car, on boat trips, trekking and bike trails.
The Tongariro National Park is famous for harbouring three active volcanoes and Tongariro Alpine Crossing, considered the best day trail in New Zealand. With over 19 km of trekking, the Alpine Crossing offers a wide diversity of landscapes for travellers, who on one day can see alpine and volcanic scenery, glacial valleys, smoking holes, petrified lava and emerald-coloured lakes formed into the craters of volcanic eruptions of the past. A visual spectacle that is worth every kilometre of the climb, with the bonus of being surrounded by Ruapehu, Ngauruhoe and Tongariro volcanoes. The route ends at the top of Mangatepopo Valley.
In order to carry out the entire Tongariro Alpine Crossing, it is necessary to start early, between 7am or 8am. Since the weather is quite unstable in the area, it is advisable to check the forecast before heading out. Likewise, ask the Tongariro National Park Visitor Centre about the visibility at the top of the trail before beginning the trek; if the weather is very cloudy, not much will be seen and the hike will lose much of its grace. It is worth mentioning that it is not necessary to hire guides to make the trip, but if you feel insecure, be sure to do so and climb more peacefully.
Fox Glacier & Franz Josef Glacier
The incredible formation of glaciers bordering the Tasman Sea is the great highlight of the Westland Tai Poutini National Park, located on the West Coast of South Island New Zealand. Close to the sand of the beach arise the spectacular Fox Glacier and the Franz Josef Glacier. The scenery is somewhat surreal, especially for those who arrive by road and were driving along the coast just a few minutes before.
The two glaciers are among the easiest to visit in the world and are a must-see for anyone who makes to New Zealand’s south. The two galleries are fed by the Southern Alps and are found with a dense temperate forest located only 300 meters from the sea. In the same day, the glaciers move up to four meters and, with a little luck, it is possible to hear the noise of the ice on the move.
You will only need a day to visit both glaciers on foot. Still, it is highly advisable to stay a little longer in the region to enjoy other attractions, such as Lake Matheson – one of the most photographed in the country and offering beautiful views Mount Cook. The glacier region is also pleasing with several day trip alternatives that allow for different experiences, from glacier trails, overflights and ice climbing.
In less than a fifteen minutes walk from the parking lot it is already possible to see Franz Josef Glacier up ahead. The gallery of Franz Josef has 29 km² of ice area and reaches 10 km in length, the lowest point being only 300 meters from the sea. The first point of observation is easily accessible by foot and, thus making it a much-visited and often busy section. If you are up for a closer look, keep following the route on a 45-minute, signposted walk through rock formations, streams and waterfalls of de-icing water to get to the nearest point of the Franz Josef. On sunny days, there may even be a bit of traffic jam during the walk. It is worth mentioning that walking access to the Franz Josef Glacier is free.
Overall, the Franz Josef Glacier is an excellent choice for those who need to choose just one of the glaciers to visit. Other options to get to know these ice formations even more closely is ice trekking and climbing on the glacier. Tours access the glacier by helicopter flight and after landing, tourists are guided into icy caves and ridges.
Fiordland & Milford Sound
The dramatic scenery surrounding Fiordland is impossible not to fall in love with. Classified since 1990 as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO and located in the Southwest of the South Island of New Zealand, Fiordland National Park is among the most remote and vast regions of the country. With landscapes that encompass forests, snowy peaks, fjords, crystalline lakes and beautiful waterfalls, Fiordland is the paradise for both trail lovers and tourists who prefer the convenience of walking to with easy access. Regardless of preference, everyone is able to get in touch with amazing scenery – such as the Milford Sound fjords.
Milford Sound, a fjord with 16km of extension to the sea, is the only one accessible by road, making it the most visited of Fiordland National Park and one of New Zealand’s most popular and famous attractions. Although the road leads to the edge of the fjord, it is on the cruise ride through the waters between the mountains that you can perceive all the immensity of the place. The nature that surrounds the Milford Sound often drops the jaws of tourists; the rocky walls are imposing and the waterfalls, which multiply and intensify in rainy days, reach up to one hundred meters in height. Depending on the day, you may even see seals and dolphins swimming in the dark, mirror-like, mysterious waters of Milford Sound.
The best way to experience Milford Sound up close is to actually go through the fjord. The most popular and sought-after tourist tour is the boat cruise, which crosses the water between the coves and shows very closely all the nature that covers this magical scenery of New Zealand. The cruise can be done during the day or at night, with the opportunity to sleep on the boat and wake up in the middle of the fjord. There are several companies that offer different boat itineraries.
For those who prefer a more intimate alternative, you can go on a kayak ride through the waters of Milford Sound. The tour allows you to come up even closer to the rocky walls and some of the waterfalls that enrich the landscape. Still, if your business is not water, it is also possible to organise helicopter tours and see Fiordland from an entirely different, bird-like angle.