New Zealand is one of the most beautiful countries on the planet. It is home to mountain ranges, fiords, beautiful lakes, and rivers all surrounded by the ocean! When we were planning our year-long trip around the world, I knew I wanted to spend at least a full month exploring the mountains and coast lines that New Zealand offers. Here is my list of 10 things that are unique to New Zealand and must not be missed!
For the people who like seeing places on a map, like I do, here’s a map version of the list:
1. Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park
The South Island of New Zealand is home to many beautiful natural landscapes. One of the best regions is Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park. Mount Cook is the tallest mountain in all of New Zealand. To get there you drive along a long, beautiful lake with panoramic views of the surrounding mountains. When you arrive, there are a few hikes to see around the National Park. Hooker Valley Track is the perfect hike to see Mt. Cook. It is not too strenuous and takes about 3 hours to complete. If you’re looking for a more advanced hike, I would suggest the Sealy Tarns Track to get spectacular panoramic views of the National Park and Mount Cook. One fair warning- it is about 2 hours of 2,200 stairs going straight up! It’s a difficult hike, but definitely worth the views at the top!
Travel Tip: Stay at the White Horse Hill Campsite for a few nights to really enjoy the region. Be sure to stay up late to see the magnificent night sky of the region.
2. Fiordland National Park
The second National Park on this list is the Fiordland National Park, which is also on the South Island of New Zealand. This National Park is full of stunning Fiords, or also called Sounds. The two most popular Sounds to visit are Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound. While we were visiting, we took a boat cruise for a few hours around the famous Milford Sound with Mitre Peak. This company is great because they own the smallest type of boat compared to the other companies. This is an advantage because it can bring you up close to the surrounding nature. We saw seals, dolphins, and plenty of waterfalls! When we return, we will definitely be visiting Doubtful Sound.
Travel Tip: If you are renting a campervan, you can drive to Milford Sound all by yourself! No need to purchase a tour all the way from Queenstown nor spend all day in a car.
3. Swimming with Dolphins in Kaikoura
New Zealand has some of the best nature conserving practices in the world, which makes all of their landscapes extremely pure. Only a few companies have been given permission to allow tourists to swim with wild dolphins. Each of these companies have strict rules about how many people can go each day and how long the tourists are allowed to be in the water. The dolphins are not fed and the interaction is up to the dolphins themselves. That being said, we had once in a lifetime experience swimming with dolphins in Kaikoura, New Zealand. We were dropped off in the middle of the pod of dolphins and had amazing interaction time with the dolphins! It was a blast!
Swimming with wild dolphins was definitely a highlight of our time in New Zealand. If you are interested in learning more about my experience swimming with the wild Dusky Dolphins of Kaikoura, you can read more here.
4. Abel Tasman National Park
A third stunning National Park of New Zealand on the South Island is Abel Tasman National Park. This National Park has a ton of sandy beaches and coastal hiking trails. There is so much to do in this area; you can go whale-watching, kayaking, hiking, swimming at the many beaches and more! The activities are endless! It is a beautiful region that you’ll never want to leave.
Travel tip: Visit Wharariki Beach nearby for a spectacular sunset and fun sand dunes!
5. Hike the Tongaririo Alpine Crossing
If you’re up for a big adventure, the Tongariro Alpine Crossing on the North Island of New Zealand is considered one of the best single day hikes in the world. The region is a dual World Heritage Site: one for the cultural significance and one for its outstanding natural features. This hike is 12 miles long and has more than 2,500 feet of elevation change. It takes around 6-8 hours to complete. It has spectacular views, but this isn’t for the faint of heart. This was definitely a challenging hike. The crossing also features perfect views of Mount Doom from Lord of the Rings.
6. Nugget Point
On the South Island, just a bit South of Dunedin, is Nugget Point. This is a beautifully scenic point with a lighthouse on a cliff overlooking the ocean. The drive alone from Dunedin to Nugget Point is sensational; it goes along the ocean and beaches to bring you to the point. It is a dramatic landscape that includes cliffs, rocks popping out of the ocean, and beautiful beaches. If you are there at the right time of year, you can even see penguins!
Travel Tip: Stay at Purakaunui Bay Campsite nearby. It was one of our favorite New Zealand campsites!
7. Moekai Boulders
This one is a little odd, but the Moeraki Boulders on the South Island are very unique to New Zealand. They are perfect sphere boulders laying on the beach. It is said that these boulders developed between 65 to 13 million years ago! There are about 50 of these boulders lying all along the stretch of beach. Some are as big as 6 feet across! It is free to visit and hang out with these unique rocks.
Travel Tip: Come back for sunrise to get a beautiful, quiet morning with the boulders. There will be a lot less tourists and just a handful of photographers with their tripods capturing the morning glow.
While not everyone loves The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings movies and books, visiting Hobbiton is a requirement for New Zealand. It is a part of New Zealand’s culture now. Hobbiton is located on the North Island, only a few hours from Auckland, but you can find different filming locations all around the country. The tour is such a fun and unique experience. You receive fun information about how they created this one of kind world.
On the tour they also serve you the specialty beer and cider that you can only get at Hobbiton! The tour is a half-day where you can get behind the scenes and pretend to be a Hobbit for a while!
9. White Water Rafting near Rotorua
On the North Island of New Zealand, just outside of Rotorua, is the highest, commercially rafted waterfall in the world. We went with Kaitiaki Adventures and had a blast! They teach you all of the commands and how to paddle together while you go down each waterfall. The company is very respectful of the local customs. It also has safety stops to let anyone out if they do not want to go over the big waterfalls. It was a little bit scary at first, since I have never been white water rafting, but I would definitely go back and do it again! It was such a fun experience!
If there is one town you want to hang out in for a while, make it Queenstown! This place is surrounded by mountains and has every type of activity you can think of. It is called The Adventure Capital of the World for a reason. From skydiving, bungee jumping, and hang-gliding to mountain biking and water sports- any activity you want to do, it is in Queenstown! We chose a less extreme (and cheaper) thrill of going on the Skyline Luge above Queenstown and had a blast!
What is amazing about Queenstown is that while there are many, many tourists in the small city center, in about a 10 minute drive, you can be peacefully in the mountains somewhere hiking about.
Travel Tip: Stay at the nearby Moke Lake Campsite. It about 15 minutes outside the city and surrounded by beautiful mountains and a lake which offers great hiking trails.
Those are my top 10 must-sees while visiting New Zealand! I hope you have a great trip! Let me know if you have any questions below. 🙂
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