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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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).
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
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.
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.
Follow Kate McDonald's road less traveled on NZ's South Island for an adventure-filled road-trip. From the East Coast to the wild West Coast, learn about past and present in small coastal towns
You could just check out the highlights of Northland: 90 Mile Beach, Waitangi Treaty Grounds, Waipoua Kauri Tree forest, and Hole in the Rock. But, if you’re ready for the adventure, indulge in these lesser-known experiences.