I am sorely tempted to tell you – in the words of Taylor Swift — to never, ever, ever … go to New Zealand. The stunning beauty of the place and friendliness of its people may be the world’s worst kept secret.
Word is definitely out about the beautiful scenery, the awesome hiking and the friendliness of the locals, leading to spikes in tourism, especially in the gorgeous national parks. Yet, despite its popularity with young trekkers as well as busloads of tourists who often explore no further than roadside lookouts, the land of the long white cloud continues to feel unspoiled, partly because it is so remote and sparsely populated.
If you do get a chance to go, it’s always a good idea to ask friends to share itineraries and tips about the best places to go and best times to get there. That’s what we’ve done for you below. Thanks to friends Judy Wright of Judy’s Chickens and Melinda Balser for sharing their notes and tips.
My husband Tom and I traveled with Active Adventures, a Queenstown-based company. We had a wonderful trip with fabulous guides and would definitely recommend it. But it is also possible to have a perfectly lovely time with a more flexible plan, as Judy and Melinda did.
We each flew via Air New Zealand out of San Francisco. Scheduling a 24-hour stopover on the California coast can provide a cushion to acclimate to the time change and take a break from the long journey.
Before your arrival in New Zealand, take note of the seasons, which are opposite ours in the United States. We arrived in early February on Waitangi Day, a national commemoration akin to our Columbus Day when the founding treaty between Great Britain and the indigenous people, the Maori, was signed. It’s a day to celebrate Maori culture and, for many, to hit the summer beaches one more time before school starts.
We recommend flying into Auckland and taking domestic flights wherever you want to go from there. Upon arrival in Auckland, no need to take the shuttle between the international and domestic terminal if you are heading to another city as it’s a “wee 10-minute walk” with a roller bag.
If you have a few days to spend in the Auckland area upon arrival, Melinda recommends taking a ferry boat to Waiheke Island and the Delamore Lodge. Amazing tracks (the Kiwi word for trails) around the perimeter of the island feature stunning cliffs with amazing views.
Upon arrival, Judy’s family checked in to the Sky City Hotel, then enjoyed lunch at Miss Clawdy in Auckland and dinner at Ortolana, which has a hip front terrace. They also explored the Kitekite Track, about an hour outside of Auckland, which follows Glen Esk Stream up to a scenic three-tiered waterfall.
More highlights and favorites:
Christchurch and Canterbury
This is where we started our South Island trip. This area suffered a devastating earthquake in 2011. Cliffs crashed into the ocean and houses with them. It is worth seeing how the town is rising from the ashes. The centerpiece is an aged stone church, Christchurch Cathedral, that stands broken but unbowed at the city center. There are those who think it should be torn down and rebuilt, while others are fighting for its complete restoration. The nearby Botanic Gardens are spectacular, particularly the central rose garden. Hit up the Farmers’ Market on Saturday morning for a great breakfast at the porridge food truck. Or enjoy sunsets of pink, indigo and green along Sumner Beach outside of town. Don’t miss Taylors Mistake – a hike along the cliffs with spectacular ocean views.
Aoraki Mount Cook National Park
Check out the helicopter tours that (weather permitting) allow you to land directly on a glacier and explore ice caves formed by the glacier. The Hooker Valley Track features views of the mountains and glaciers in the distance with aqua blue glacial rivers flowing beneath as you pass over on suspension bridges. You may need to reserve hotels here far in advance — it is one of the most visited parks in New Zealand.
We took the Red Tarns Track up more than 2,000 steps built into the hillside to the ridge above Mueller Glacier where we could see Mount Cook, the Hooker Glacier and the Tasman Glacier. It was foggy when we arrived but when the clouds parted – WOW! On the way down, we could see icebergs floating in the alpine lakes below and the moraine – the earth and stones carried and deposited by the glacier.
Located in Fjordland National Park, this has to be one of the world’s most incredible spots. Melinda’s family took a boat ride in Milford Sound and afterward stayed at the gorgeous Fjordland Lodge. We were in a lovely mountain view chalet at The Milford Sound Lodge. During our kayak trip in the Sound, we saw dolphins and seals playing, miles-long waterfalls skittering down the mountains and glaciers tucked among the mountain ranges. As we navigated the passage into Fjordland, alpine parrots pecked at our shuttle bus and peered at us curiously. (Every minute in New Zealand feels like a Disney movie. Even the songbirds, with no natural predators due to centuries of geographic isolation, are friendly and peer at visitors curiously from the footpaths.)
Probably the most touristy area we visited, but a great jumping off point for adventures in the area. We made the poor decision to go canyoning on a day when the water was high, which is basically like whitewater rafting without a boat. It is not an activity I would recommend for people who qualify for AARP cards. It might be just as enjoyable to take a speedboat out into the harbor, a rafting trip (in a boat with a guide) or a ride up the gondola to see the spectacular view. Melinda and family enjoyed an ATV ride through the forest. It’s important to get tips for where to eat in Queenstown as some places are just meh. Judy recommends the Vudu Cafe for breakfast or lunch, and Rata or The Bunker for dinner.
Along the road between Queenstown and the lakeside mountain village of Wanaka is Kawarau Bridge, the birthplace of commercial bungy jumping and now a historic landmark. Check out Judy’s blog post for more. We stopped and looked but didn’t take the plunge.
A wonderful place to explore lakeside shops, or rent bicycles for a spin along clear blue Lake Hawea, where many of the rich and famous have homes. Oprah, Mindy Kaling and Reese Witherspoon were filming a movie in the area when we visited.
For the more adventurous among you, taking a hut to hut trek in New Zealand affords the opportunity to explore absolutely stunning wilderness areas. Most treks require advance reservations but if you really want to see the back country, have the fitness to hike through some difficult climbs and the cheerfulness to sleep on mats side by side in backcountry huts, then I encourage you to check into it.
For our hut to hut trek along the Angelus Track, we spent the night in Murchison, then set off from Lake Rotoiti and climbed Mount Robert via the Lakeside and Angelus huts. The walk across Robert’s Ridge, at times hopping from boulder to boulder, was breathtaking. Fog can sometimes set in, obscuring the view, but we were lucky enough to enjoy a clear day without much snow on the ground. Our hike ended in an alpine meadow with views of the terrain we had just traversed — a highlight of the trip.
The water is so clean in the mountains that we were able to drink directly from the mountain streams at higher elevations, reducing the need to carry large amounts of water on the hikes.
Note: If you travel to New Zealand in the summer, especially in the popular Milford Sound area, you will need a good raincoat, quick-dry pants, bug spray and itch cream. The sand flies in the damp regions are vicious. But, trust me, it’s worth it for the incredible scenery. It wouldn’t hurt to carry some blister bandages, too, as your feet will get wet. A kindly doctor gave me some with the brand name Compeed on the trail, and they were a lifesaver.
The North Island is where much of the filming for Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit took place, so many of you may be familiar with the gorgeous scenery. We didn’t travel to the North Island, but Judy and Melinda did.
If you’re traveling toward Wellington, the nation’s capital, make sure to stop at Café Mirabelle in Carterton for a gourmet meal. You might consider touring a local farm that is open to visitors along the way and stopping by the Wool Shed sheep shearing museum. Once in Wellington, visit Zealandia, an ecosanctuary that houses native animals that were there when islanders first came. Don’t miss the Parliament building for lessons in earthquake-safe rebuilding.
In this area, Melinda recommends Huka Falls and the adjacent Huka Lodge, a beautiful, elegant (but expensive) lodge where Queen Elizabeth stays when she visits. Book your helicopter flights and jet boat rides in advance as this area is one of the most visited in New Zealand, and for good reason.
Golfers might enjoy the Kauri Cliffs Lodge with gorgeous beaches and views and superb hikes nearby.
Judy recommends exploring the wine country around Hawkes Bay near Hastings and Napier. In addition to its vineyards, the area is known for its appreciation of natural, non-GMO foods. Enjoy a fabulous meal at the Mission Estate Winery. Stop off in Napier to see a town that transformed itself after a 1931 earthquake into a mecca for Art Deco-style architecture
Te Pouahi Reserve
For these last recommendations, I checked in with my friend Lisa O’Donnell from Boston, who I met on the South Island trip. She went on to the North Island and she especially enjoyed this historic spot where the Maori first arrived in New Zealand. Her group sand-boarded down the dunes into the water and hiked in the Puketi Forest to see the few remaining ancient Kauri trees at dusk.
This lovely island was once home to whale carcass processing but now features lovely hikes in the Manawahuna Scenic Reserve through forests and along cliffs by the Tasman Sea. A highlight for Lisa’s trip was an unscheduled swim in a little cove while waiting for a water taxi. Three curious seals swam over to hang out with their group.
Wonderful moments like these happen all the time in New Zealand if one manages to stay flexible. The exceptional beauty of the place is created by constantly shifting terrain. (We weren’t able to visit the area around Marlborough wine country due to a recent road cave-in.) If you’re adaptable and open to new experiences, you will have an enjoyable time – there are wonderful sights around every corner!
All photography by Jennifer Johnston unless otherwise noted.
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