2016's Best New Zealand Experiences

11 February 2016
Read Time: 6.8 mins

From centuries-old natural wonders to award-winning wineries, New Zealand is so diverse that you'll need more than one trip to see it all.

This year find time to explore New Zealand from north to south, and while you're at it, we recommend ticking off these incredible experiences. You'll only be disappointed if you don't.

1. Northland

Land of giants

The mystical Waipoua Forest is home to mighty Tane Mahuta (‘Lord of the Forest’), a sacred kauri tree 50 metres tall, and other colossal Maori ‘ancestors’ some 2,000 years old.

Join a Maori guide on a Footprints Waipoua day or night-time tour, or just stroll in from the car park and be amazed. Boardwalks take you around the trees without damaging the giants’ ancient feet.

Waipoua Forest The Waipoua Forest, with its verdant green feather-like ferns, is a nature lover's dream

If you like this, also try:

  • Watch two oceans collide at Cape Reinga, at the very top of the New Zealand, from where Maori spirits are said to depart for the underworld via a gnarled old pohutukawa tree.
  • The biggest tree in Rotorua’s Whakarewarewa Forest is a Californian redwood that’s around 72 metres tall and 1.7 metres in diameter. The redwoods cover just six hectares of the forest’s 5,600 hectares, but they’re awesome. Grab a map at the Redwoods Visitor Centre and walk or bike the forest's many scenic trails.

2. Auckland

City of volcanoes

Scope out this big and beautiful city from one of its 48 volcanic cones. Mount Eden, not far from the CBD, is the highest. Walk or drive up from Mt Eden Road for spectacular 360-degree views from the rim of its deep, grassy crater.

One Tree Hill is another city cone, rising from beautiful parkland that’s perfect for a picnic or family games. And kids will love exploring the tunnels and old gun emplacements on Maungauika (also known as North Head), Devonport.

Mt Eden Enjoy city views from the summit of Mount Eden

If you like this, also try:

  • Take a ferry to Rangitoto Island, Auckland’s iconic cone in the Hauraki Gulf and New Zealand’s youngest volcano. For an incredible view, walk through pohutukawa groves and past lava caves to the summit, or take the 4WD road train to the top.
  • The ferry to Waiheke Island (35 minutes) passes Rangitoto and other volcanic islands like Browns, Motuihe and Motutapu. Waiheke, though, is less volcano and more ‘Island of Wine’ – a place to indulge in a glass or three from one of Waiheke’s 30 wineries and maybe have a leisurely lunch at a vineyard restaurant overlooking the Hauraki Gulf.

3. Hamilton & Waikato

Middle Earth

A must for Lord of the Rings fans: a tour of Hobbiton Movie Set (aka The Shire) at Matamata, rebuilt for The Hobbit films. Visit Hobbit Holes, The Green Dragon Inn, The Mill and the Shire Store, where you can buy items handmade at Weta Studios.

Hobbiton Experiencing the oh-so-cute Hobbiton Movie Set near Matamata is very cool

If you like this, also try:

  • Join a star-studded cast of glow-worms as you float along underground streams, through high, echoing chambers and past weird limestone formations in the 50-kilometre underground labyrinth that is the Waitomo Caves. On Waitomo Adventures’ Lost World Tour you’ll abseil with a guide for 30 minutes into a deep cavern and make your way back to the surface through another spectacular dry cave.
  • For a bit of added fun at Waitomo Caves, pull on a wetsuit, grab an inner tube and join a Legendary Blackwater Rafting Company expedition through Ruakuri Cave.

4. Lake Taupo

In hot water

The Taupo and Rotorua region is a hotbed of geothermal activity, which is good news if you like soaking in pools heated by underground forces. ‘Take the waters’ in mineral-rich pools, said to have healing properties, at Wairakei Terraces.

Kids might prefer the big outdoor mineral pools, hydroslides and warm water playground at Taupo DeBretts Hot Springs and Pools – extra fun after dark!

Pohutu Geyser See Mother Nature at her best at Pohutu Geyser in Te Puia

If you like this, also try:

  • Hanmer Springs Thermal Pools and Spa (about a 1 hour and 45 minute drive from Christchurch) has 15 open-air mineral and sulphur pools, private indoor thermal pools, a superb day spa and a separate family fun area with waterslides, a ‘lazy river’ and a 15-metre-high Super Bowl ride.
  • Dig your own hot pool in the sand at Hot Water Beach on the Coromandel Peninsula. Two hours either side of low tide it’s awash with folk mining hot water to relax in. You can hire spades at the local shop.

5. Rotorua

Bubbling with Maori culture

Rotorua, with its boiling mud pools and explosive geysers, is also a hub of Maori arts and culture. Te Puia, five minutes from town in the Whakarewarewa Geothermal Valley, is home to the New Zealand Maori Arts and Crafts Institute, a live kiwi bird enclosure, the world-famous Pohutu Geyser and more than 500 geothermal attractions.

Rotorua mud bath Get down and dirty at one of Rotorua's blissful mud baths

If you like this, also try:

  • Walk down to Lake Rotomahana through native bush, past coloured lakes and steaming, sulphurous pools at Waimangu Volcanic Valley, between Rotorua and Taupo. Cruise on the lake above the legendary Pink and White Terraces that were drowned in the 1886 Mount Tarawera eruption.
  • Auckland Museum holds the finest collection of Maori and Pacific artefacts in the world, while in Wellington, the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa tells the story of New Zealand’s first people in its Mana Whenua exhibition.

More great NZ travel stories

The Heart Of Tradition

The Scenic Route

Eat Like A Local In New Zealand

6. Wellington

Walk of art

Stroll over artist Paratene Matchitt’s funky City to Sea pedestrian bridge to Wellington’s waterfront, which is dotted with striking wooden sculptures. For more great public art, you can do Wellington Sculpture Trust’s self-guided walks.

Solace of the Wind Max Patte's 'Solace of the Wind' is a favourite sculpture along Wellington's waterfront

If you like this, also try:

  • The Weta Cave in the Wellington suburb of Miramar is a fascinating window into the work and art of Oscar-winning Weta Workshop, famous for its special effects work on films like The Lord of the Rings, King Kong, Avatarand The Hobbit. You can also buy themed clothing, jewellery, handcrafted Gandalfs and Gollums, and other unique paraphernalia.
  • Follow the Brick Bay Sculpture Trail at Snells Beach, north of Auckland, where works by leading New Zealand artists surround a lovely lake. Later, relax over a glass of wine on the scenic winery’s deck.

7. Marlborough

Grape escape

New Zealand’s best-known wine region sits at the north-eastern edge of the South Island. Fly into Blenheim or take the scenic ferry ride from Wellington through the Marlborough Sounds to Picton. Either way, you’ve landed in wine buff’s heaven.

Marlborough’s sauvignon blanc is world renowned: “No region on earth can match the pungency of its best Sauvignon Blanc,” wrote great British wine writer Hugh Johnson.

But ‘savvy’ is not the only varietal produced by Marlborough’s 120-odd wineries. Join a guided tasting tour or grab a wine trail map and sniff out a brilliant red or white. If you’re here on February 13, 2016, the Marlborough Wine & Food Festival at Brancott Vineyard is an absolute must.

Marlborough winery Active types will love winery hopping via bike in Marlborough

If you like this, also try:

  • Food, wine, gorgeous scenery: what’s not to like about Hawke’s Bay? Wine guru Michael Cooper calls the North Island area “the aristocrat of New Zealand wine regions”; the first vines were planted by missionaries in 1851. Mission Estate at Taradale still produces fine wines (try the Jewelstone chardonnay or syrah) and at nearby Church Road there are winery tours, an underground wine museum and a welcoming cellar door.
  • Experience the boutique wineries around Matakana, north of Auckland. There’s also a bustling farmers’ market every Saturday morning in the town square. West of Auckland city, the areas of Kumeu, Henderson and Huapai boast some of the country’s oldest vineyards, while Clevedon, to the east of the city, is a premium wine district packed with rural charm.

8. Kaikoura

The call of nature

In New Zealand’s South Island town of Kaikoura you’re pretty much guaranteed to get close to a mighty sperm whale or two on a Whale Watch Kaikoura trip. Thanks to a three-kilometre-deep underwater canyon and ocean currents, Kaikoura is marine life heaven.

Encounter and/or swim with New Zealand fur seals and dusky dolphins. Buy fresh crayfish (koura) in local restaurants and at roadside ‘bins’.

Kaikoura dolphins Get up close and personal with beautiful marine life in Kaikoura

If you like this, also try:

  • See the world’s smallest penguins in their natural environment at the Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony as they waddle up a stony ramp back to their nests after a day out fishing. Oamaru also plays host to the rare yellow-eyed penguin.
  • Walk along paths ringing with birdsong on Tiritiri Matangi island, an open sanctuary in Auckland’s Hauraki Gulf. It’s a protected haven for dozens of feathery species and a brilliant day out for humans. Catch the 360 Discovery ferry from downtown Auckland. Take a picnic and swimmers.

9. Tekapo/Mt Cook

Heavens above

The skies above Lake Tekapo in the South Island’s Mackenzie District are so clear and free from light pollution they’ve been declared a gold standard Dark-Sky Reserve – one of a only a handful in the world.

Gaze in awe at the star-bright heavens from the Mt John Observatory on an Earth & Sky stargazing tour. Knowledgeable guides use powerful lasers to point out objects and constellations visible to the naked eye (“there goes the Space Station!”), while big telescopes are at hand for viewing amazing stuff like alien landscapes or the Trifid Nebula. Warm up in the Astro Cafe.

Lake Tekapo See into space under starry nights in Lake Tekapo

If you like this, also try:

  • Stop at Lake Pukaki, south of Tekapo, for a breathtaking view across the blue water to Mount Cook, New Zealand’s highest mountain at 3,724 metres. Then take the road up the mountain to The Hermitage Hotel for a drink, lunch or dinner – and wonderful alpine vistas. Better still, check in and make it your base for adventures like guided glacier and mountain walks, 4WD tours and scenic flights.
  • Take the TranzAlpine train from Christchurch to the West Coast through spectacular scenery to the coast’s glaciers, wild rivers and Punakaiki’s astonishing Pancake Rocks. In Greymouth, buy pounamu (greenstone), a Maori treasure found in certain South Island rivers and carved by local craftsmen. Make it a day trip, or check out overnight Scenic Escape packages with accommodation and activities.

10. Queenstown

Downhill thrills

Queenstown is an all-seasons resort, but from the end of June to early October skiers and snowboarders from around the world descend on the town to play and party. They have their pick of fields: Cardrona, The Remarkables, Treble Cone, Snow Park and the cross-country field, Snow Farm.

All have excellent facilities and shuttles run from Queenstown and Wanaka, on the other side of the Crown Range. The Queenstown Winter Festival at the end of June is a week-long party on and off the slopes and a brilliant way to kick off the season.

Queenstown skiing The pure alpine air at Treble Cone is just what you need to recharge your life

If you like this, also try:

  • The country’s biggest and busiest ski and snowboard area is Whakapapa, on the north-eastern slopes of Mount Ruapehu in the central North Island: 30 groomed intermediate trails, 24 black and black diamond runs and (thank goodness!) a large beginners area called Happy Valley. If the weather turns bad, Turoa ski field on the other side of the mountain is often in play.
  • If you like the idea of racing downhill at speed without the chilly white stuff, head for the Rotorua and climb into a Zorb. This nutty invention is a huge, hollow plastic ball and it simply rolls and bounces down a hill – with you inside. Tumble head over heels in a dry Zorb or go wet and slosh around with others on the way down. You’ll laugh till you cry.

Visit your local Flight Centre store or call 131 600 for more advice and the latest deals on travelling to New Zealand.

Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is a New Zealand-based freelance writer and editor who’s worked on newspapers, magazines and in radio around the world for ‘an embarrassingly long time’. He has been writing on travel for 25 years and when not swanning around the globe he lives with his wife on the northeast coast of the South Island.