As a travel writer, the question you get asked most often is ‘what’s your favorite place?’ And when it comes to New Zealand, the answer is invariable ‘everywhere’. This is a destination packed with highlights, and every city, town and village has a story to share and something special within its grasp. So putting together a definitive list of the ten must-dos was no mean feat. However, here are ten exceptional experiences that should be on the radar for every first-time visitor.
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1. Reach for the horizon from Sky Tower in Auckland
It may surprise you to learn that Sky Tower has only been a part of the Auckland skyline since 1994, and it’s quite hard to imagine the city without it! Sky Tower is the tallest structure in the Southern Hemisphere (pipping the Gold Coast’s Q1 by five meters) and that means you’re assured of mind-blowing views. Every tourist in town heads up to the observation deck, but if you want to set yourself apart, consider taking a stroll around the outside of the tower with SkyWalk, or take the high road back to ground level with SkyJump. Even walking across the glass floor tiles of the observation deck is quite a challenge!
2. Cruise the sublime Bay of Islands
New Zealand’s Northland region covers much of the North Island above Auckland, and regional capital Whangarei makes a great base for road tripping to sublime highlights like the Waipoua Kauri Forest, Ninety Mile Beach and Cape Reinga. But for many visitors, the jewel in the region’s crown is the shimmering Bay of Islands. This aqueous wonderland beguiles travelers with its myriad waterways, and getting out on a boat during your visit is a must. Fullers Great Sights’ Hole in the Rock Cruise will have you saying g’day to resident dolphins (and even the occasional whale), before cruising through a sea cave on Motukokako Island. The cruise departs from Paihia, which is just an hour’s drive from Whangarei.
Need a place to stay? Comfort Hotel Flames Whangarei offers a fabulous location overlooking Whangarei Harbour, and adjoining rooms that are ideal for accommodating families. For those looking to escape the hustle and bustle of the city, head to Quality Hotel Oceans Tutukaka on the Northland east coast. It’s just 30 minutes by car from Whangarei and features stylish accommodation options with a coastal vibe.
3. Admire the might of the Huka Falls
Many of mother nature’s most stunning sights are on display in New Zealand, but few are as dramatic as the Huka Falls outside Taupo. Here, some 250,000 liters of foaming water are forced through a 15-meter-wide channel of volcanic rock every second, before plunging 10 meters-or-so into the Waikato River. It’s an exhilarating sight, and one of the most photographed natural attractions in the country. Take a boat cruise up close to the falls and feel the spray tingling on your skin.
Need a place to stay? Quality Suites Huka Falls offers a tranquil stay just a few minutes’ drives from the Taupo town center and Huka Falls.
4. Feel the power beneath Te Puia in Rotorua
Geothermal goings-on is synonymous with New Zealand’s North Island and Rotorua in the Bay of Plenty region has long attracted curious visitors with its sulfurous natural wonders, ranging from bubbling mud pools and steaming vents to gushing geysers that burst forth from the depths when the pressure dictates. Rotorua is also an important center for Māori culture, and you can experience the complete package at Te Puia. It encompasses a valley packed with geothermal wonders, a kiwi sanctuary, and the New Zealand Māori Arts and Crafts Institute (which seeks to preserve traditional art forms and cultural heritage). All in all, prepare to be amazed!
Need a place to stay? Located on the northern side of Taupo, Quality Suites Huka Falls is less than an hour’s drive from Te Puia. Then head back to Taupo for easy access to its array of restaurants and cafes.
5. Learn the history of Art Deco architecture in Napier
In February 1931, the Hawke’s Bay region of New Zealand was rocked by an earthquake measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale. It flattened the city centers of Napier and Hastings and resulted in the loss of more than 250 lives. But from the utter devastation rose what would become one of the world’s most celebrated centers of Art Deco architecture. Today thousands of visitors flock to Napier to take in its exquisite collection of boxy edifices, alongside an array of buildings in other popular styles from the era, including Spanish Mission, the Prairie Style, Stripped Classical, and the International Style (which arose in Germany). Recognizing the value of its trove of stunning architecture, the city formed an Art Deco Trust in 1985. It offers an array of guided walking tours, alongside a self-guided option.
Need a place to stay? Enjoy Art Deco-era accommodation at the Econo Lodge Napier, which has two award-winning on-site restaurants. Quality Inn Napier is located in the heart of the city, within easy reach of popular sights and attractions, restaurants, cafes and bars.
6. Unpack the box of treasures at Te Papa in Wellington
As the nation’s capital, Wellington has plenty to offer culture lovers, but the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa (known simply as ‘Te Papa’, which loosely translates as ‘treasure box’) should be at the top of the to-do list. Located on the waterfront, the museum’s collection of artworks and artifacts is vast and you’d need to spend a week to really do it justice. General entry is free, but it’s worth investing in tickets for a couple of the excellent daily guided tours (which can be booked online). They’re fantastic value and a great way to break the collection down into chewable chunks. Challenge your perception of Māori cultural heritage in the contemporary art halls.
Need a place to stay? Quality Hotel The Angus in Lower Hutt offers an idyllic alternative to staying in the busy heart of Wellington, and you’ll enjoy complimentary parking and Wi-Fi.
7. Grape-graze in the Marlborough wine region
The Marlborough region needs no introduction to wine lovers. This corner of the South Island is responsible for around three-quarters of the country’s wine production, and if you’re partial to a sav blanc (which accounts for 80+ percent of the fruit grown), pinot noir, chardonnay or sparkling, you can’t go wrong in this neck of the New Zealand woods. The secret is the maritime climate of warm to hot days, and colder than average nights, which gives rise to the region’s signature crisp finish. With 150 plus wineries in operation, many with attached eateries, deciding where to sip and sup can be tricky. Book a day trip with Na Clachan Wine Tours and put yourself in the hands of the experts.
Need a place to stay? There are plenty of wineries within easy reach of the Quality Hotel Marlborough, and you can walk to the Blenheim town center with ease.
8. Go punting in Christchurch and dolphin spotting in Akaroa
While a vibrant new Christchurch has emerged over the past decade, some links with the past remain as strong as ever. Punting on the Avon River has long been a tradition in the city and hugely popular with visitors. Sit back, relax and enjoy as your punter, in boater and braces, propels you along this picturesque waterway as it meanders through the Christchurch Botanic Gardens. It’s also well worth taking to the water on a dolphin-spotting cruise from nearby Akaroa to see the famously diminutive but sadly endangered Hector’s dolphins.
Need a place to stay? Browse Christchurch accommodation options
9. Admire mighty Mount Cook
New Zealand’s South Island is not short of stunning natural landscapes, and Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park would certainly make the short-list for the most beautiful. Framed by around 3,000 soaring peaks, at 3,754 meters Mount Cook itself is the highest mountain in the country and is famed for having been the training ground for Sir Edmund Hillary’s Everest climb – a point in history celebrated at the Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre in the Mount Cook Village. While accomplished climbers will be in their element, anyone of a reasonable fitness level can get a taste of this alpine wonderland by doing one of the short walks that fan out from the village.
Need a place to stay? While it’s best explored over a couple of days, if you’re short on time, Mount Cook National Park can be done as a day trip from Christchurch. Get an early start and be prepared to make plenty of stops along the way to soak up the epic vistas!
10. Take a walk on the wild side of Stewart Island
Situated at the southernmost extremity of the South Island, Subantarctic Stewart Island is virtually all designated national park and a nature lover’s paradise. Home to the famous Rakiura Great Walk (32 kilometers and generally done over the course of three days), there are actually some 300 kilometers of walking tracks that traverse the island’s wide variety of landscapes and ecosystems. The island’s one and only town, Oban, is accessible by air from Invercargill or by ferry from Bluff.
Need a place to stay? Invercargill’s Comfort Inn Tayesta offers a selection of comfortable studios, and one and two-bedroom apartment-style accommodation options, just a three-minute drive from the CBD.