We fell in love with New Zealand on our first trip in 2003 and have been lucky enough to return a number of times (to the amazement/annoyance of friends who think we’re crazy, and want us to stop carrying on about how great it is).
New Zealand is filled with stunning scenery, nature, and wildlife – it’s impossible to see everything in one trip and you shouldn’t try. You can successfully visit NZ in 1-2 weeks, though more time is obviously better.
There’s no denying that it’s an incredibly long journey to get to NZ, but it’s very much worth the effort. Though tickets are expensive in terms of dollars or miles, we’ve found NZ to be an affordable destination once you get there since many of the best attractions/scenery are free.
Remember that seasons are the opposite of those in the Northern Hemisphere. The US winter is a great time to visit (with longer daylight hours and warmer temperatures), though you can have a good trip to NZ any time of year.
What follows are some recommendations based on our travels. Even after a number of trips, we have yet to see more than half of the country….
For a more complete guide we highly recommend the NZ Frenzy series by Scott Cook. He’s even more passionate about NZ than we are….and has tons of secret/off-the beaten track finds and suggestions for avoiding crowds. Reading his books will make you want to go to NZ even more. You can find lots of useful online content and photos at https://nzfrenzynorth.wordpress.com/ and https://nzfrenzysouth.wordpress.com/
Don’t make the mistake of spending too much time in Auckland or only going to the North Island. While Auckland is pleasant enough, cities aren’t the reason to visit NZ. In our opinion, many of the best attractions in the country are in the South Island.
Taking a gondola in Queenstown
Travel within NZ
We highly encourage you to rent a car – it’s the best way to get around. Don’t be intimidated by driving on the opposite side – driving is fairly easy and there’s hardly any traffic outside of a few city centers. Flights from Auckland to the South Island are fairly inexpensive now that Jetstar has expanded their service.
For flights on Air New Zealand, visit airnewzealand.co.nz rather than airnewzealand.com because fares are often lower for the same flights. Also check out Grabseat offers from Air New Zealand – discount fares on select routes and dates.
South Island Highlights
Nelson and Abel Tasman (Top of the South Island)
Here you’ll find great weather, beaches, and scenery.
Tahunanui Beach is one of our favorites in all of New Zealand. It’s very family-friendly and offers a wide array of activities, including stand up paddle boarding (SUP) and paddle board yoga, playgrounds, mini golf, zoo, train ride, go karts, and more.
Two other highly recommended beaches in the Nelson area are Rabbit Island and Cable Bay. We also enjoyed several beautiful days of hiking in Nelson Lakes and Abel Tasman National Parks.
For lodgings, we can’t say enough good things about the Wheelhouse Inn – hilltop apartments with out-of-this world views and a very friendly host named Ralph. You could easily spend a week in the Nelson/Abel Tasman area.
Dunedin is a college town with a lively coffee house/cafe scene. The best part of Dunedin is the outdoors/scenery/beaches. Here you can get up close with penguins, albatross, and other wildlife. There’s a nightly penguin viewing at the Royal Albatross Center. Rafts of little blue penguins waddle onto the beach daily at dusk.
Tunnel Beach is our favorite hike in the Dunedin area, a challenging 45 minute walk (part of which is through a tunnel) to a beach with spectacular views.
Other local activities include Taieri Gorge scenic train rides, Cadbury chocolate factory, Baldwin Street (the steepest street in the world), and the botanical garden.
For lodgings we highly recommend the Hotel St. Clair, a comfortable and modern hotel situated directly across from the beach. It has free access to a salt water pool, playground, and coffee shop around the corner. You could easily spend a week in Dunedin (especially if you use it as a base to visit the Catlins)
The Catlins are a scenic, off-the-beaten-track region 1-2 hours south of Dunedin that we only briefly explored. Here we went to Nugget Point which, like everywhere else, has amazing scenery and ocean views. We saw dozens of seals in the water from above as well as a few penguins.
West Coast – Hokitika/Greymouth/Pancake Rock (Punakaiki)
One of the top regional attractions is Pancake Rock (Punakaiki), impressive sea views and blowholes that are best viewed at high tide. Hokitika is a charming little town with picturesque mountains in the background and a beach littered with drift wood that some beach-goers make into art structures.
It’s also worth checking out the Hokitika Gorge walk, which includes a swingbridge over rapids with stunning bright blue waters. We went cave tubing In Greymouth (when we were younger and more adventurous). It was fun, but squeezing through small underground tunnels can make you claustrophobic.
Franz Josef/Fox Glaciers/Lake Matheson (aka mirror lake)
The glaciers at Franz Josef and Fox are majestic. You’re able to walk right up to the glaciers. There’s also a scenic hike around Lake Matheson – snow clad mountains are visible in the background and reflected in the lake. Unfortunately, it was raining and foggy the day we were there, so we couldn’t see the postcard view firsthand.
Queenstown is the adventure capital of New Zealand and one of the few places that can be crowded with tourists. There’s a wide array of fun things to do here, some crazy and dangerous like skydiving and bungee jumping (which was invented here).
One of the activities we most enjoyed was a gondola to the top of a mountain – again with amazing views. From there, we luged down the mountain, which was fun (especially for our kids). We visited Queenstown in the summer, but it’s worth mentioning that Queenstown has great skiing and a plethora of winter activities too.
Wanaka is a low-key, lakeside town 1-hour outside of Queenstown with many of the same types of attractions and scenery, but fewer crowds (which is why we prefer it to Queenstown).
Future South Island Trip To Do List
– Swimming with dolphins and whale watching in Kaikoura
– Spending more time in the Catlins
– Exploring Milford Sound
North Island Highlights
Hot Water Beach and Cathedral Cove
Hot Water Beach features natural hot springs that bubble up from under the sand during low tide. People come with shovels and dig little pools which are heated from under the ground.
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Cathedral Cove is yet another spectacular beach with a picturesque archway (following a 30-40 minute hike).
These two activities will be among the highlights of your trip. We recommend staying at the Hot Water Beach Bed and Breakfast which is run by Trevor and Gayle. They’re friendly and happy to give suggestions about places to stay and things to do in NZ.
Rotorua is the thermal capital of New Zealand. The town offers many fun activities as well as good tourist infrastructure, but crowds (by NZ standards). In some ways, we found Rotorua to be a North Island version of Queenstown. We were surprised to learn that some people now refer to Rotorua as “RotoVegas”.
In Rotorua we visited a number of hot pools/mud baths. The one we enjoyed most was the Polynesian Spa. Interestingly, NZ Frenzy (which we purchased after visiting Rotorua) suggests that some of the best hot springs are free and not commercially operated.
Aside from going to hot springs, the activity we most enjoyed here was zorbing, which is rolling down a hill in a big rubber ball. It sounds scary, but was fun and very safe. There’s also a gondola with great views and a luge to the bottom – similar to Queenstown.
Other recommended North Island locations
Piha: Beautiful dark sand beach about 1 hour outside of Auckland. This beach is featured in the movie the Piano.
Waiheke: A tropical island that’s a 40 minute ferry ride outside of Auckland. Waiheke has nice scenery, beaches, and vineyards/wine.
A few miscalleneous notes
Almost every town has a full service indoor pool you can visit inexpensively (typically $2-$3). Most have wave pools, hot tubs, water slides, swimming lanes, etc. These are a great option for rainy days or whenever you need a low key activity for your kids.
Be sure to try some of the local produce, including:
-Greengages: Similar to plums, but sweeter
-Feijoa: Also known as pineapple guava. Check out feijoa flavored ice cream, snacks, and drinks
And of course, kiwis….though oddly, depending on the season you visit, the kiwis you find may actually be imported from Italy, and not locally grown.
Hopefully this gives you a taste of some of New Zealand’s highlights.
The most important decision you make will be to go to NZ. Whatever you choose to do there, you can’t go wrong….
A note from Leana
First of all, huge thanks to Seth for this amazing write-up! Readers, stay tuned for tips on best mileage award redemptions to New Zealand, as I do my own research in hopes of making a visit there a reality.