10 of the Most Incredible Experiences in New Zealand

Those of you up in the northern hemisphere might have Norway and Iceland, but New Zealand’s hectic tramping trails, 3,000m+ mountain peaks, epic geothermal wonders, and top-notch lakes to kayak are well worth the long-haul flight.

1. Explore Fiordland Beyond Milford Sound

Sure, the gateway to Milford Sound looks great from the rocky foreshore, but imagine kayaking beneath tumbling waterfalls and finding seals perched on boulders deep inside the channels of the sounds?

Don’t just take a day-cruise, instead, if you’ve got a hire car stop off along Milford Road to check out these less-crowded highlights. Stop to take in Lake Marian after a three-hour return, 1.5mi (2.4km) hike, park up at The Divide for a walk up Key Summit (three hours, 2.11mi/3.4km), or take a short trip to The Chasm (20min, 400m) to see the narrow gorge with the Cleddau River thundering through.

Better yet, if you’ve got more time (and a little more budget) head to Doubtful Sound. This part of Fiordland is much larger than Milford, so you’ll need at least a few days to make the most of the region.

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2. Kiwi Birds and Kayaks on Stewart Island

If you’re looking for a real sense of isolation, look no further (well, it’s pretty far) than Stewart Island, tucked away at the southernmost end of the country.

This is an ideal destination for nature lovers and adventure seekers, and one of the best places to see the elusive Kiwi bird. Here, the endangered national icon outnumbers human residents (400 humans to roughly 13,000 Kiwi birds).

At dusk, kayak along Stewart Island’s peaceful bays. The island’s southerly position means late, lingering sunsets and sunrises in summer – be sure to visit around December–February.

Horseshoe Bay, Stewart Island. Photo credit: Juliette Siversten

3. Experience Geothermal Wonders at Lake Taupo

While Rotorua is considered New Zealand’s geothermal capital, smaller Taupo is worth a visit for those of you looking for fewer crowds. Situated on Lake Taupo – the crater of a super volcano – the whole town looks toward the snow-capped peaks of three active volcanoes, Tongariro, Ruapehu, and Ngauruhoe.

Dip your toes into the layers of volcanic pumice on Lake Taupo’s shoreline and feel hot water seeping below your feet. Or, head to the hot waterfall of Otumuheke Stream at Spa Park, where locals submerge themselves with a cold beer in hand, watching the swirling Waikato River. The stream mixes with cool river water, so there’s a temperature to suit everyone.

Swinging beside Lake Taupo. Photo credit: Liz Carlson

4. Take on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing

An adventure on the North Island would be incomplete without hiking this famous alpine crossing. In just one day you'll weave your way near three volcanoes: Tongariro, Ruapehu, and Ngauruhoe – which you might recognize from The Lord of the Rings.

Challenges on the 12.5mi (20km) hike include the 'devil's staircase' and sclippery scree slopes, but you'll be rewarded with incredible turquoise sulphur lakes and a volcanic moonscape. Keep in mind (like everywhere else in New Zealand) weather can be temperamental, so come prepared with waterproof clothing and layers.

Tongariro Alpine Crossing. Photo credit: Liz Carlson

5. Visit Sacred Cape Reinga

Get your own vehicle and camping gear to see Northland, and give yourself at least four or five days to take it all in.  Catch a sunset from Cape Reinga, where the ancient pohutukawa tree stands, and – so the legend goes – spirits take the leap to go back to their ancestral home.

It’s a six-hour drive north of Auckland on route nr1, so be sure to stop in at remote bays, like Spirits Bay and Matai Bay, along the way.

On your way back, go sandboarding at Te Paki Sand Dunes. Hold on tight to your boogie board, because you’re not stopping until you hit the bottom.

Cape Reinga. Photo credit: Martina Grossi

6. Unwind at Piha and the Waitakere Ranges

West of Auckland lies the Waitakere Ranges (the Waitaks, in local speak). Start your adventure with a drive to Piha (pronounced Pee-ha), arguably New Zealand’s most beautiful beach. Don’t let any weather put you off. If it’s sunny, great. If not, even better. Piha is a driftwood-strewn, black-sand beach with thundering surf – it’s best in wet, windy weather.

Take the Kitekite track to Kitekite Falls. The bush (forest) in this area is beautiful, studded with nikau palms, fern fronds, and native birds, and the falls at the end of the track are worth the walk.

Escape the crowds at one of the stunning, but seldom-visited beaches nearby – Anawhata is the best of the bunch. It’s a steep (but well-maintained) walk from the carpark down to the beach, and you’ll likely be the only people there.

7. Lake Wanaka and Hawea

A short drive past the bright turquoise waters of Lake Dunstan brings you to Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea, where you find yourself at the edge of the stunning, snow-capped Southern Alps.

Although Wanaka is a must stop for many tourists on their journey through the South Island, if you look beyond ‘that Wanaka tree’ and Roy’s Peak, the surrounding National Parks and Conservation Areas can easily pull you away from queues of photographers and tourists. Some quieter alternatives to Roy’s Peak, are Isthmus Peak and Breast Hill, both of which have equally bewildering views.

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8. Hike to the Base of New Zealand’s Highest Mountain

One of the easiest and best day-hikes would have to be the Hooker Valley Track. Winding its way from White Horse Hill campsite to the glacial lake at the foot of Mount Cook, you’ll be surrounded by happy hikers as you walk along high suspension bridges and wooden walkways.

Aim to start the hike an hour before sunrise or sunset to be rewarded with fairy-floss colored skies and fewer crowds, and pack a snack to enjoy while watching the icebergs bobbing around the lake (unless you’re there in winter when it’s totally frozen over).

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9. Hut to Hut Hikes and DOCs Campsites

New Zealand’s Department of Conservation (DOC) manages over 200 campsites and over 950 huts. Book your sites in advance if you’re traveling during peak season (October–April), and know the huts vary in amenities, but most have a big bunk bed and a wood-burning stove.

To really get into the tramping spirit, lace up your hiking boots, pack clothing to suit all weather conditions (New Zealand’s weather is temperamental), and study the trails you plan to tackle.

If the South Island is your destination, be sure to try Gillespies Pass, the Kepler Track, or the Routeburn. If it’s the Noth Island you’re tramping, check out Tongariro Alpine Crossing, Rangitoto Summit, and the Putangirua Pinnacles.

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10. Hire a Campervan to Make the Most of it

Getting a hire car is a great way to see the sights yourself. But, spending a little extra to hire a campervan (once you consider the money saved on accommodation) makes complete sense. Campsites aren’t expensive, especially if you aim to go for the free DOCs sites – despite limited facilities, they’ve got the ultimate views.

Don’t just follow the well-known West Coast on the South Island or Auckland to Wellington, ask around when you arrive to get advice from those that know best – the locals will deliver when it comes to secret coves and quiet lake-side campsites.

Pulling over for a rest on a South Island road trip. Photo credit: Marijane Soilis

What's at the top of your list of things to see and do in New Zealand?

Want to know more about New Zealand? Check out our podcast. We talk world-class diving, blood-pumping adrenalin, and road-tripping in a camper van.

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