Wild, windswept coasts, craft beer and excellent wine, adrenaline sports, and tranquil beaches make New Zealand a land of breathtaking adventure. This easygoing nation of fewer than 5 million people is bursting with unique natural treasures, and between the big-name destinations are pristine forests, lakes, rugged mountains, and isolated coastline. Get your urban fix along the waterfront of Wellington or the multicultural metropolis of Auckland, and then follow the locals’ cue—go surfing, swimming, downhill skiing, paragliding, kayaking, climbing, trekking (tramping), mountain biking, and more. New Zealand has rainforests, redwoods, geysers and mud baths, white sand beaches, crystal-clear rivers, and snow-capped mountains to explore. Heli-hike along the immense glaciers of Westland Tai Poutini National Park, or relax along a tranquil lake near Rotorua; learn about Māori traditions and enjoy a traditional hāngi meal, or kayak the forested coves of Abel Tasman National Park; sip wine in the Wairarapa region, or jet boat through narrow river gorges. No matter the pace you want to travel, New Zealand has the perfect adventure for you.
Tucked into the curve of Wellington Harbor on the southern tip of the North Island, the nation’s compact capital is packed with innovative restaurants, a burgeoning craft beer and café scene, and cultural sites galore. Forested hills dotted with Victorian style wooden homes surround the city and keep the heart of Wellington down along the waterfront—a bustling promenade, beaches, and working harbor—where you will also find some of the city’s best museums. Visit the incredible collection of paintings and animal specimens at the National Museum of New Zealand-Te Papa Tongarewa, and learn about cultural traditions like tā moko, the Māori art of tattooing. Relax in Courtenay Place cafes, climb the Mount Victoria Lookout for panoramic views and tranquil sunsets, or stroll through the native forests of the Wellington Botanic Gardens. An upbeat, vibrant city, Wellington is a the gateway to craggy, windswept coastline and the dynamic wine-producing Wairarapa region, which is laced with hiking trails and picturesque vineyards.
Arthur’s Pass National Park
Riddled with steep-sided gorges, alpine meadows, glacial valleys, and towering peaks, Arthur’s Pass National Park is a natural wonderland. A historical route traversed by Māori hunting parties, Arthur’s Pass became an essential link to Christchurch for gold-mining, timber, and coal operations, and is now home to fantastic hiking and is one of the most enchanting drives in New Zealand. Mountains hem the road through Arthur’s Pass as stunning views open up one after the other as you travel through the park; 6,500-foot peaks preside majestically over rugged valleys, dense forests, and braided rivers. The village at Arthur’s Pass is the starting point for a number of alpine hikes with incredible views, but if you have a day or three to spare, this phenomenal national park has many more hiking and mountain biking trails in store.
Auckland is a glittering international metropolis with more than 1.5 million people in the urban area, though it’s laid-back atmosphere makes it easy to forget you are in New Zealand’s largest city. Halfway up the wrinkled coast of the North Island’s jutting thumb, Auckland is spread out along a spectacular waterfront. At the heart of the city, the 1,082-foot Sky Tower commands the skyline and offers a vertiginous ride up to glorious sunset vistas. There is no shortage of fine restaurants and hip cafes, but the real charm of Auckland is its access to nature. Get out on the emerald waters and explore a few of the idyllic islands dotting the Hauraki Gulf, where you will find silky, white-sand beaches and a scattering of exceptional wineries. There are subtropical rainforests, marine reserves, thermal springs, and seemingly endless beaches, all within easy reach of the city—so join the locals and explore the outdoors.
Across the Firth of Thames and a world away from Auckland, the Coromandel Peninsula is a cornucopia of natural splendor. Sunbathed sandy beaches, abundant forest hiking trails, geothermal springs, and easy-going locals make this area a haven for outdoor activities—kayak, surf, swim, dive, hike, cycle, or spend a few lazy days basking in the sun. The west coast of the peninsula is known for its rugged shoreline, and the east for its sweeping stretches of sand. A scattering of pleasant fishing villages, small towns, and farms make the Coromandel Peninsula a pastoral paradise. Check out the thermal pools and art galleries of Hot Water Beach, the arching cavern of Cathedral Cove, or hike into the bush in Coromandel Forest Park. The Coromandel Peninsula is an enchanting region where every moment brings another amazing view.
Franz Josef & Fox Glaciers
Sitting midway along the South Island’s Tasman Sea coast, Westland Tai Poutini National Park hosts a bricolage of stunning landscapes from rainforest and wetlands along the coast to soaring, snow-capped 10,000-foot peaks. The powdery-blue Franz Josef and Fox glaciers are perched in the northwestern region of the park, and offer some thrilling possibilities for adventure—walk to the terminus of one of these glaciers and hear the ancient ice groaning as it constantly shifts; go on a guided heli-hike where you are dropped off on the glacier by helicopter; or stay aloft and take in the ethereal sight of these icy leviathans from above. Descending from the Southern Alps to meet temperate rainforest only 1,000 feet above sea level, these colossal mountains of ice are an awe-inspiring sight. Though the glaciers are the crowning jewels of the park, there are numerous hiking trails, coastal lagoons, great bird-watching opportunities, and picturesque lakes where you can kayak or paddle board.
A mystical fiord engulfed by sheer cliffs and imposing mountains on the southwestern coast of the South Island, Milford Sound is absolutely enchanting. It’s one of New Zealand’s most popular destinations so you are unlikely to find much solitude here, but you will share an unforgettable experience with travelers from around the world. Journey to the sound on foot by way of the scenic Milford Track, spending three or four nights in hiking huts along the way, go kayaking, or join a boat tour that will take you under the spray of cascading waterfalls—a multitude of falls pour into the sound after periods of rain, of which there are many. The mountains that wrap their way around the narrow fiord seem to launch themselves from its dark waters—front and center, Mitre Peak rises 5,551 feet above the sound. Visiting Milford Sound is a must before continuing your journey along the west coast and exploring some of New Zealand’s other hidden treasures.
Located on Tasman Bay on the northern tip of the South Island, Nelson has a vibrant art scene to bolster its impressive array of natural treasures. The city’s waterfront is an outdoor playground with a long sandy beach, dunes, grassy parks, and restaurants and cafes galore. Nelson is a great base to explore nearby national parks—go on a sea kayaking expedition along the stone archways, coves, and headlands of Abel Tasman National Park’s granite coast, tramp through the coastal palm forests, or along the Heaphy Track of Kahurangi. Abundant seabirds and penguins make their homes along the coast and you can find some of New Zealand’s other native species, like tui and great spotted kiwi, in the national parks. White-water kayaking, rafting and networks of caves offer adrenaline-packed adventures, and regional vineyards and sun-drenched beaches provide a more arcadian atmosphere.
Bungee jumping, skydiving, paragliding, canyoning, rafting, climbing, downhill skiing, and the list goes on and on in the city touted as the adventure capital of the world. Queenstown is painted picture-perfectly along the shores of the South Island’s Lake Wakatipu, with the spectacular Southern Alps as its backdrop. With only 30,000 people, Queenstown is indeed a town, but it thrums with cosmopolitan flair. Action packed days of heli-biking or abseiling off a craggy cliff-face are tempered by excellent restaurants and cafes back in town. Spend a more low-key day kayaking or taking a boat tour on the lake, indulge in sampling the regions fine wines at local vineyards, or a play a couple of rounds of golf.
As you travel into the area, the sulphur tinged air of Rotorua offers a distinct aromatic hint of the geothermal wonders that this area holds in store. Situated along the shores of the North Island’s Lake Rotorua, the city is a gateway to a full New Zealand-style spread of outdoor activities. An extensive network of mountain biking trails—for all skill levels—sits right on the edge of downtown in the magical Redwoods-Whakarewarewa Forest. There is white-water rafting for thrill seekers and 18 crystalline lakes to kayak, paddle board, or enjoy a relaxing lakeside spa or mud-bath. Part of the Taupo Volcanic Zone, the region around Rotorua is a surreal landscape of bubbling mud pools, volcanic lakes, steaming fumaroles, and colorful sinter terraces. Visit the jetting geysers of Te Puia and the thermal springs of Whakarewarewa and learn about the Māori arts of carving and flax weaving—stay for a traditional dance performance and a hāngi, a steam-cooked meal that is sure to be a highlight. And for Lord of the Rings aficionados, you can tour the Hobbiton movie set that brought the legendary Tolkien books to life on the big screen.
West Coast of the South Island
Pressed between the Southern Alps and the Tasman Sea, the South Island’s west coast is a landscape of transcendent beauty. Once home to European settlers striving to make their fortunes on timber, coal, and gold, the few Coasters who remain along this sparsely populated stretch of the island are a self-reliant and relentlessly good-humored crowd. Fill up your tank and turn off the main road to the north of Paparoa National Park, and head up to the tiny trekking town of Karamea to delve into Kahurangi National Park for some short tramps or longer hikes through majestic forest. Journey up to the area around the 35 million-year-old Oparara Basin and explore hidden limestone arches and caverns. Take in some of the main acts on the coast—the Franz Josef and Fox glaciers, Milford Sound, and Punakaiki Pancake Rocks and Blowholes—each uniquely magnificent, and remember to savor the solitude of the in-between places that are the essence of New Zealand’s rugged charm.