Majestic snow-capped mountains, sparkling turquoise lakes, lush forests, sprawling wildflower fields … New Zealand is a collection of stunning diverse landscapes, each one more magnificent than the last.
It's impossible to see it all in just one visit, so it's important to know the best. Here are our favourites, renowned for their beauty, size or another stunning aspect that sets them apart from anything else in the world.
Tongariro National Park
New Zealand’s oldest national park is also one of its most diverse – close to 80,000 hectares of gob-smacking beauty. Jagged mountains flank rolling alpine meadows that seem to stretch to the horizon, vivid aqua-green lakes shimmer amid camel browns and dusty greys – it’s an assemblage of stunning landscapes, each one wildly different from the others.
Tongariro National Park was awarded UNESCO Dual World Heritage in 1993, an acknowledgement recognising both the area’s important Maori cultural associations and its natural beauty.
It is also home to the three active volcanoes – Mt Ruapehu (North Island’s largest mountain), Mt Ngauruhoe (New Zealand’s youngest volcano) and Mt Tongariro (famous for the 19.4-kilometre Tongariro Alpine Crossing, renowned as one of the greatest day treks in the world).
Fringed by Mt John and the Southern Alps, the azure blue water of Lake Tekapo attracts visitors from far and wide. The lake gets its remarkable colour because of fine glacial rock-flour hovering in the lake and looks almost mystical set against a backdrop of soaring snow-capped mountains.
Photographers come in droves, but so do adventure enthusiasts, as there’s plenty to do. During the warmer months hiking, fishing, kayaking, horse riding and mountain biking are popular, while in the wintertime skiing, snowboarding and ice skating take precedence.
One of New Zealand’s most-visited destinations, the fjord of Milford Sound on the South Island is a tapestry of everything dramatic – massive rain-drenched granite bluffs, toothy cliffs draped with fast-flowing waterfalls (it’s the wettest populated area in the country) and a mist that rarely lifts, causing that magical ethereal effect.
Most visitors need at least a few hours to just gawk, but there are plenty of tour options too, including scenic flights, bus and boat trips, kayaking and trekking. Visitors can also enjoy the unforgettable 53-kilometre Milford Track walk, renowned as the ‘finest walk in the world’.
Visitors cite the Maori rock carvings at Mine Bay as one of Lake Taupo’s most outstanding attractions – and rightly so. The 10-metre-tall artworks are only accessible by water, so joining a boat cruise or kayaking to the unique artworks is the best way to get up close and personal.
Although the carvings look like early Maori relics, they’re not that ancient at all. After extensive training with Maori elders, Maori artist-carver Matahi Whakataka-Brightwell (with the help of four assistants) created the dramatic artworks over four summers in the 1970s.
Just 20 minutes southeast of Rotorua, Wai-O-Tapu, meaning Sacred Waters, is a wonderland of geothermal activity.
Voted as one of the 20 Most Surreal Places in the World, the area has been sculptured by volcanic activity thousands of years in the making. From geysers and bubbling mud to the spectacular colours of the world famous Champagne Pool, this is a must visit!
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New Zealand’s smallest national park (and also New Zealand’s only coastal national park) is the opposite of small when it comes to holiday experiences. Sightseers can trek, cruise, sail, kayak or simply relax in the sun and take in the impressive vistas.
The Abel Tasman Coast Track, one of the New Zealand Department of Conservation’s nine Great Walks, is a very popular expedition where hikers traverse 60-kilometres of rugged beaches and coastal forest terrain over the course of three to five days – wildlife sightings (blue penguins, fur seals and dolphins to name a few) are usually part of the deal.
Welcome to New Zealand’s greatest underground playground! World famous for the thousands of tiny Arachnocampa luminosas (a glowworm species unique to New Zealand), the underground amble along the Waitomo River through the caves is unforgettable – there’s something truly magical about gazing at the galaxy of glowworms that are speckled throughout, not to mention the dramatic rock formations.
The caves are also a great base for underground escapades. Adrenalin junkies can try their hand at cave abseiling (called rappelling), go on an underground eco-tour, or even black-water raft their way through the incredibly stunning cavern complex.
The Coromandel is a pocket of bush-and-beach paradise, just one-and-a-half-hour’s drive from Auckland. Here visitors relax in warm thermal pools, swim and surf on the many idyllic beaches, cycle, trek, fish, cruise… the list goes on!
The locals follow ‘Coromandel time’, a nod to the peninsula’s laid-back lifestyle (visitors get used to it pretty quickly, too). A short walk from Hahei Beach (about two hours return), Cathedral Cove is one of the most picturesque spots in the region.
It’s here visitors will find Te Hoho, a large pumice breccia rock segment that has been sculpted into a dramatic shape by wind and water over the centuries. The surrounding Cathedral Cove Marine Reserve is a watery paradise for snorkellers and divers, packed with vibrant sea life.
Sir Edmund Hillary honed his climbing skills on Mt Cook (New Zealand’s highest mountain), before his successful endeavour on Mt Everest. Although most visitors don’t climb Mt Cook, the Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park is home to some of the best alpine hikes in the country.
There are plenty of leisurely walks that weave their way through sprawling wildflower fields and native bushland. Of course there are some serious ascends too (the park is home to 23 peaks over 3,000 metres high) for those who prefer their hikes on an incline.
For marine life encounters, the enchanting and picturesque seaside settlement of Kaikoura is the place to travel to. In fact, it’s one of the best places in the world for whale watching with plenty of giant sperm whale sightings year round.
Visitors to this South Island wildlife paradise can also see dusky dolphins, native sea birds and many other interesting species of marine life on a daily basis; touring by boat, flight or by land. With wetsuits provided, visitors can even join the playful dusky dolphins and cute fur seals in their natural ocean environment.