New Zealand is much more than Australia’s little brother -- it’s a star in its own right. The country is best known for its natural attractions, and the sheep famously outnumber the people (who are called Kiwis). But its major cities, Auckland and Wellington on the North Island, and Nelson, Queenstown and Christchurch on the South Island, make for nice stops.
New Zealand’s three islands are like three different worlds: the subtropical North Island, the generally much cooler South Island, and the even cooler Stewart Island to the far south, the smallest of the three.
Highlights of the Three Islands
North of Auckland on the North Island is the Bay of Islands, a subtropical paradise of green islands, turquoise waters, marine and bird life (including whales and penguins), and loads of water activities.
Touring New Zealand’s North Island
If you are visiting the North Island of New Zealand, there are a couple of key spots that are sure to be included on your itinerary.
5 Top North Island Attractions
1. Hobbiton - This permanent installation of the Hobbiton movie set is an ever popular attraction on the North Island of New Zealand. While it is touristy, the delightful whimsy of seeing Hobbiton in real life is enough to thrill even the most fair weather fan.
2. Rotorua - A popular destination for learning about Maori culture, Rotorua is also known for its geothermal activity. Similar to what you can encounter in Yellowstone National Park. Be prepared - the air is quite smelly!
3. Auckland - New Zealand’s largest urban area, Auckland is a great place for cultural events, art, theater, and great food. Be sure to visit the top of the Sky Tower for a 360 degree view of the city. And thrill seekers can find a popular bungy jumping spot at Auckland’s Harbor Bridge.
4. Hawkes Bay - This region in the Northeast of New Zealand’s North Island is famous for wine tasting, and this is definitely a must do when you visit. But much like the rest of New Zealand this small region packs a lot of adventures together, including beautiful coastal hikes and botanical gardens.
5. Waitomo Glowworm Caves - An otherworldly experience, these glowworm caves can be visited via a thrilling rafting trip (not advised if you want time to slow down and look up at the incredible light display!), walking tours, or boat tours. Be sure to go with a guide who can highlight the science behind the glowworms.
Touring New Zealand’s South Island
New Zealand’s South Island is the larger of the two, and home to some of the most beautiful landscapes you’ll ever see. Much of the South Island has been used in such films as Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia, and it doesn’t take much to understand its cinematic potential as you drive through.
Speaking of driving, this is a highly recommended mode of transport for the views, though expect some long drives on the South Island. There are many stretches of pure countryside with very few amenities in the way of restaurants or hotels.
Plus you will want to pull over now and again for short walks or hikes to viewing areas. Trust us - even if it adds a half hour, in New Zealand the signs to scenic viewpoints or unique natural phenomena don’t lie!
5 Top Attractions on New Zealand’s South Island
1. Queenstown - Without a doubt, one of the major hubs for adventure in New Zealand is Queenstown. The culture in Queenstown is a little touristy, it’s true - with seasonality affecting the tourist : local ratio fairly heavily.
However New Zealanders are welcoming and friendly so you’ll still get a great vibe from funky cafes and restaurants as you explore. Queenstown is the perfect base for day trips, as well as adventure activities including jet boating, bungy jumping, and paragliding.
2. Aoraki / Mount Cook - For an adventurous (but very manageable for kids and older travelers!) half day, consider a spectacular hike that takes you through a rugged glacial landscape to the base of Mount Cook. New Zealand’s highest peak, Mount Cook is also a popular destination for advanced climbers - it was here that Sir Edmund Hillary trained for Everest.
3. Milford Sound - Pictures or videos simply cannot do the stunning experience of Milford Sound justice. Mountains seemingly burst through the water, with no banks, covered with lush foliage. Waterfalls show themselves as you snake through the sound in your ferry, hearing various oohs and ahhs from around the boat as a certain vantage point reveals a new waterfall or wildlife sighting.
4. Fox Glacier - If glacier walking is on your bucket list, look no further than Fox Glacier. Here you can do everything from glacier walking to ice climbing, while taking in unbelievable views and learning from guides about the glacier’s natural history and movement.
5. Abel Tasman National Park - In the northern region of the South Island, near the delightful town of Nelson, the Abel Tasman park is the perfect stop for all ages looking for an outdoorsy travel time. You can hike the coastal track or take the the calm and protected ocean waters for a kayaking trip - keep an eye out for dolphins!
Touring New Zealand’s Stewart Island
Often thought of as part of the South Island, Stewart Island is the third largest island of New Zealand. 85 percent national parkland and another center of outdoor activities, it is rarely visited, comparitively - a great destination for travelers who truly want to get away from it all.
Top Activities on Stewart Island
1. Bird Watching - Because Stewart Island is almost entirely national park, the wildlife viewing opportunities are second to none. Birders especially will be astounded by the diversity in bird species - the most diverse in all of New Zealand.
From multiple penguin species to dozens of petrels, the bird life on Stewart Island is incredible. There are 150 miles of hiking trails throughout the island, offering plenty of viewing opportunities.
2. Fishing - There are many unique opportunities for fishing on Stewart Island, namely hopping aboard a commercial fishing boat and assisting with bringing in the catch of the day. Don’t worry, you won’t have to contribute everything you catch - but you will learn the entire process from catch to cleaning. Private fishing outings are also an option, just make sure you follow all rules and regulations carefully.
3. Sea Kayaking - See Stewart Island from the water as you take to the ocean in a sea kayak. These excursions are not for the faint of heart - requiring at least some upper body strength to navigate the waves. This is a great way to observe marine life and enjoy an invigorating active day before a well deserved beer and meal after you head back to shore.
While many Kiwis are descended from Britons, there is also a substantial indigenous population of Maoris, often easily recognizable by elaborate facial tattoos. Maori culture had suffered considerably until recent years, but its language and arts are now being revived. Some New Zealand tours place a priority on exploring Maori life.
You may be surprised to encounter a number of Turkish, Vietnamese and other ethnic restaurants in cities like Nelson and Wellington, but New Zealand has attracted a number of immigrants from around the world, adding to a growing cosmopolitan atmosphere. But you’ll still find plenty of lamb stew, fish and chips, and other British-style dishes.
Whether you’d like your New Zealand guided trip to be one of challenging mountainous tracks like Milford and Routeburn or rappelling deep into remote caverns and scaling volcanoes, or a more leisurely tour that takes you walking through glow worm caves and on Milford Sound cruise boats, you can weigh all your best options for a Kiwi vacation on Stride.
Top Adventure Activities in New Zealand
New Zealand and Australia are both known as some of the best places on earth to get your adrenaline fix on a tour. From bungy jumping, to zip lining, to surfing, there is a wide range of high intensity activities to get involved in.
If you love adventure, here are the 8 best and most thrilling excursions to take on while in New Zealand.
Whitewater Rafting -- If you combine New Zealand’s many mountains with a bit of rain, the result is some of the best white water you could hope for. You can raft in New Zealand year round, so you can work rafting into any vacation you go on.
Jet Boating -- Jet boating was invented by a farmer who was trying to find a way to travel as quickly as possible in a shallow body of water. The result is a jet engine strapped to a boat, and the most thrilling river ride you will ever take.
Skydiving -- New Zealand is the capital of skydiving, and you can do it all over. Although this may seem extremely dangerous, New Zealand has some of the most rigorous skydiving safety rules, so don’t be afraid, and take a (literal) leap of faith!
Ziplining -- There are a wide variety of zip line courses in New Zealand, from those with ocean views to those high up in the mountains.
Spelunking -- Believe it or not, caving in New Zealand can also be a verifiable adventure. Whether you decide to raft on the “black rapids” of an underground river, or walk over dark, gaping chasms.
Bungy Jumping -- The world’s first commercial bungy jump was built in New Zealand, so if you had to pick one adventure activity, this would be it.
Paragliding -- Paragliding was also invented in New Zealand, and is a great combination of a quick thrill (jumping off a cliff and getting caught in the wind is sure to get your heart racing, but you will soon be able to relax and enjoy the views while gently coasting in the sky.
Canyoning -- going canyoning doesn’t mean just hiking up canyons. If your tour includes canyoning, expect to be jumping off cliffs into deepwater pools and rappelling down waterfalls, amongst other things.