New Zealand is one of my favourite countries because it has so much glorious and varied landscape to explore. I’ve been on holiday twice here, once in the winter (July) for two weeks and once in the summer (January) for two weeks. The winter was crisp and offered lovely views of the snowy peaks, the summer gave us the chance to laze by the lakes and catch some rays. It’s impossible to experience everything this country has to offer at once unless you go for 5-6 weeks with a big budget, it may be small but its packed full of wonders.
In this post you will find a guide to my favourite places to visit in New Zealand, in addition to information about accommodation, getting around and other useful bits and bobs. Use it to help you plan your trip or as inspiration before making an enquiry with me to help you plan out the perfect itinerary.
The Bay of Islands is a subtropical wonderland of beautiful beaches and islands worth spending a few days on if you’re here to relax. For those of you looking for the adventurous side of New Zealand, the best bits are further south.
Auckland is an up and coming capital with a burgeoning culinary scene and plenty of trendy bars to explore. Ponsonby neighbourhood was a particular favourite of ours, as was the harbour area.
The Coromandel has some beautiful beaches and coastal walks. My favourite was Cathedral Cove, visited on a lovely walk through several cute beaches. Not far from here you’ll find hot water beach, probably the most unique beach in the world where you can dig your own jacuzzi at low tide thanks to the thermal activity underneath. Bring a spade!
Rotorua is home to many geothermal parks where you can witness some of the most spectacular and unique scenery in the world. Bubbling sulphur cauldrons and mysterious mud that cracks through the surface of the earth. It’s also the perfect place for visiting thermal baths after a long day of walking.
Lake Taupo is a great adventure sports hub that is cheaper than its South Island counterpart, Queenstown. The lake is perfect for kayaking and water skiing, and the town makes a great base for exploring the mountain ranges for amazing trekking like the Tongarario Crossing. It is on this trek that you can catch a glimpse of Mount Ngauruhoe a.k.a “Mount Doom” – Lord of the Rings fans know what I’m talking about here -It’s an incredible and active volcano but you have to be blessed with good weather to do the crossing and see the peak.
Wellington is a culturally rich city with a fascinating interactive museum, Te Papa. Theres plenty of other museums, boutiques, restaurants and galleries to keep you entertained here.
Waitomo Glow Worm Caves are a real sight to behold, a huge network of caves where its possible to witness the glowing worms above your head. Thankfully there’s no cameras allowed in the caves so you have to see it to believe it, and there’s be no iPads spoiling the view.
If you’re into Lord of the Rings then you can visit Hobbiton!
The South Island
Kaikoura is a beautiful coastal town on a peninsular and its the best place to see whales and swim with dolphins. Tours are well organised here and worth every penny. Whale watch from a plane (the cheaper option) or a boat (slightly more expensive but more intimate) and be aware the swimming with dolphins must be booked a few months in advance. There is fantastic trekking around this area as well.
Marlborough is an excellent wine region in the north where you can do many tastings and also see the beautiful Marlborough sounds if you head to Picton. The drive up here from Kaikoura is beautiful and offers the chance to see sea lion colonies.
The Fiordland National park is home to some of the most stunning coastal scenery in the world, similar to Marlborough but bigger and more majestic. Head to Doubtful sound for a calmer and quieter experience, or Milford Sound which is more frequented by tourists. They are both in the south, and make sure you have good weather before spending money on a tour here. Apologies I couldn’t find any blue sky photos for these places, you have to be really lucky to get those!
Abel Tasman is excellent for trekking and lovely walks in lush green forests and secluded beaches. There’s plenty of adventure to be had here including kayaking and other water sports, or relax with some mild treks and beach bumming.
The west coast of the south island is known for its gorgeous landscape including the Pancake Rocks and many wild beaches. Driving here through the middle of the island will take you through Arthur’s pass or Lewis Pass which are both stunning and deserve to be taken slowly to soak up the views.
Many people visit Franz Josef Glacier or Fox Glacier on their NZ trip but I personally wouldn’t bother. I went 5 years ago and hiked on it which was amazing, and then went back this January and you wouldn’t believe how much it has receded. It’s not worth the time, but they won’t tell you that as they still have to make money from this attraction. Instead of the hiking tours of days gone by, its heli-tours which are far more expensive, but a good shout if you want to ride a helicopter! If you’re interested in glaciers you must go to Patagonia, but if I were you I wouldn’t waste your time on this trip, there’s so much more to see here.
Queenstown is the number one adventure capital of the world with plenty of outrageous activities one offer. It’s also a beautiful lakeside town and the jumping off point for skiing in the winter. It’s a fun party town too, but that’s by NZ standards so it’s still pretty chilled. There’s plenty of late at night karaoke and fancy dress opportunities in town, so bring your glad rags. The food is, well, massive. Check out Ferg Burger and Fat Badger’s pizza if this intrigues you. Work it all off by doing a skydive 😉
Lake Wanaka is a more chilled out lakeside town with plenty of adventure sports to do which certainly makes it a good rival to Queenstown. Theres also some gorgeous trekking to do here, Mount Aspiring being the most noteworthy. Check out the top reasons to visit here. The drive here from the west coast is also insanely beautiful with waterfalls and other surprises along the way.
When to go
High season is from December to March, weather is mild here and gets quite hot in the north but there’s always the chance of rain so don’t come unprepared. The low season is June to August, it can get really cold in the south but days can still be clear. I actually had more blue skies when I visited in July compared to my trip in January, if you don’t mind the cold it’s great as accommodation is cheaper and winter sports are available too. Shoulder seasons (April, May and August to November) are also cheaper, less busy and you can get discounts for many attractions.
It doesn’t come cheap here, so many people choose to camp for about $15 per night or rent a camper van. If that’s not your cup of tea, hostel dorms cost around $20-30 NZD per person per night, or hostel doubles around $50-75. Hotels range from about $60-90 per night. Booking is essential in high season.
Hiring a car is the most comfortable option and gives you the freedom to explore at your own pace and stop whenever you want. Trust me you’ll want to, around every corner there seems to be another perfect picture waiting to be taken. Camper vans are also popular but probably not as comfortable as a car, definitely the cheapest travel option as it doubles as your accommodation. If you prefer not to drive there are great bus services that go across the countermand give you the flexibility of a hop on hop off service, choose wisely though as companies like Kiwi Experience are geared towards young gap year party crowds so you need to know whether its your type of ride or not! Hitch hiking is also very popular here but of course, far less reliable.
Other bits and bobs
Using a currency card is a great way to avoid charges for taking money out abroad, I used We Swap and found it be very easy to use with great rates. You load money using an app and swap it to a variety of currencies with preferential rates if you do it 7 days in advance, but still good rates if you need the money immediately.
Eating out here is delicious but cooking will save you a lot of money, if you’re keen to do this look out for hostels with good facilities.
When you get to the airport pick up a copy of the New Zealand Arrival magazine, its packed full of discount coupons that can save you up to 25% on top attractions like the Waitomo caves, or some 2 for 1 offers. The AA magazines for each area are also packed full of good tips and places to stop off on your journeys.