I came to New Zealand to see the beauty so many told me about. Now I’m living here temporarily, waiting for the world to reopen. I’ve been fortunate to experience the wonders of both islands, and the culture, at a deeper level. Here are some amazing experiences that ought to be on your New Zealand bucket list.
I strongly recommend going to the North Island. Everyone recommends the South Island. It’s astoundingly beautiful, but if you prefer quieter, more authentic towns and experiences, the North Island is for you. It also has fewer tourists and more temperate weather.
1. Take The Weta Workshop Tour
Whether or not you’re a fan of The Hobbit, the Weta Workshop should be at the top of your North Island bucket list. The first thing you’ll do is take photos with the giant ogres outside. You can then choose from several tours; I chose the workshop tour. I was impressed by the number of well-known movies for which the Weta Cave has supplied props, costumes, and more.
Photos aren’t allowed on most of the tour, so you’ll literally have to see the place for yourself. Check out the gift shop with miniatures of beloved movie characters, and if you have the time, consider the Miniature Effects Tour.
2. Explore Wellington’s Gardens And Museums
In just a few hours in Wellington, you can walk from downtown to waterfront to quaint small town. I stayed in Karori, a 10-minute bus ride from the center.
The Wellington Cable Car offers beautiful views of the city and a free museum where you can learn about the city’s past. It’s right next to the Wellington Gardens, which provides a glorious walk through nature and plenty of places to sit and enjoy it. Another great place to spend a few hours is Zealandia, where you’ll see many of the local birds and fauna and learn about New Zealand’s efforts to bring its wildlife back from the brink of extinction.
Your visit to Wellington wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the Te Papa museum. It’s relatively small but full of fascinating exhibits highlighting the evolution of New Zealand, the country’s wildlife, and Maori culture.
3. Learn About Maori Culture In Rotorua
Though touristy, Rotorua has a lot of character. Get off the main street, and you’ll find the restaurant area, which is fun to walk around day or night and has food options that fit most budgets. Beyond the main street is the bay, complete with seagulls and various boat rides offering everything from a cruise with cocktails to a visit to Mokoia Island.
Rotorua is known for its hot springs and mud baths. You can splurge and go to Hell’s Gate, but I opted for a budget experience at Polynesian Spa, which I loved. There are several alkaline and acidic pools. I’d never heard of an acidic pool, but I found that its claim to help with aches, pains, and joint issues was true! Even if the relief lasted only a day, it was wonderful.
Even better than the springs is the chance to learn about Maori culture. There are evening tours that bring you to a banquet designed for tourists. I chose the experience focused on everyday Maori life at Whakarewarewa, the living Maori village. I spent a half day learning about Maori customs, starting with a village tour. After a walk around the shops, I enjoyed a lunch of corn cooked in their thermal baths.
My favorite part was walking the trails that surrounded the town, where I found myself almost alone in nature and viewing more thermal pools.
4. Discover Kerikeri’s Natural Beauty
This town took me by surprise. The downtown area is small. If you go anywhere two or three times, you’ll feel like you have friends in town. There are five waterfalls, a beautiful inlet, and some wonderful hiking opportunities. Not to be missed is Wharepuke, which offers a restaurant, art gallery, and a nature walk where you can get lost in the variety of plants and birds. You can also enjoy a day tour of Cape Reinga and 90-Mile Beach.
5. Home Base In Paihia
Though Paihia is touristy, it makes a good base from which to see nearby sites, and it has a beach. You can take a cruise around the Bay of Islands. You’ll see the famous Hole In The Rock and get to walk around on one of the beautiful islands. If you don’t see dolphins, you get a ticket to come back and repeat the tour, free of charge. You can also visit the Waitangi treaty grounds and the town of Russell across the bay.
6. Look For Bulls In Bulls
Even if you’re not a cow and bull fan like I am, make a quick stop in the town of Bulls on your way to or from Wellington. If you take the bus, you’ll have a rest stop here. Bulls is full of clever bull puns, as well as statues of bulls that are fun to find. There’s even a T-shirt unique to the town.
7. Get A Look At Local Life In Picton
I thought that Picton was just a stopping point to catch the ferry to Wellington, but it has a lot of charm and is worth two or three days. There’s a beautiful harbor and some hiking paths that wind through the woods. You could explore the town of Nelson and do a wine tour.
Don’t leave without taking a tour of Marlborough Sound on the mailboat. Even if you’ve seen Milford Sound, this is a more intimate tour, because you’ll get to see the locals getting their mail, giving their dogs treats, and going about their business. It provides a neat glimpse of local life.
8. Take The Train From Christchurch To Picton
The train is a great way to get some amazing views of the east coast. There’s an open viewing car, allowing for fabulous photos and a fresh-air experience of the landscape you pass. You’ll pass right by ongoing repair work due to the recent earthquake. The train is relaxing, comfortable, and a wonderful way to take in some beautiful sights. It’s impressive, too, how much the land changes from start to finish.
9. Enjoy A Variety Of Activities In Queenstown
When I headed to Queenstown, I expected to find an overly touristy town. Instead, I regretted not having more time there. It’s pleasant, there are tons of activities, and you could spend hours enjoying the town center.
A highlight is the gondola, which will provide some of the most beautiful views of New Zealand you’ll ever see. If you walk to it, you’ll get your workout for the day, as it’s straight uphill. You can take a go-kart when you get to the top.
Next door is an animal sanctuary starring kiwi birds. If you go in the late afternoon, you’ll pay half price. There’s also a dinner cruise you can go on and a farm you can visit.
The other local highlight is Arrowtown. It’s roughly a 15-minute drive from Queenstown. A former Gold Rush town rich in history, Arrowtown is also home to a Chinese settlement that will give you insight into the history of the Chinese in New Zealand.
10. Relax At Lake Tekapo
Lake Tekapo may be the most beautiful lake I’ve ever seen. Its color in the sun will force you to sit down and stare. The night sky -- especially on a clear night with no moon -- is spectacular, complete with a small church for perfect photos.
Make sure to get to the hot springs. While not as hyped as those at Rotorua, they’re the perfect way to spend a couple of hours relaxing. You can add on the sauna and steam room for a treat. There are two hiking trails next to the hot springs that allow you to see more of the beauty of this area.
The town itself is touristy, and some dining options will disappoint you. Ask the locals where to go, and they’ll all recommend Kohan. The food is fabulous, but you’ll need to make a reservation.
11. Appreciate The Beauty Of Milford Sound
You can’t go to New Zealand without going to Milford Sound. Though I found Halong Bay in Vietnam more impressive, the tour of Milford Sound is outstanding. Because of road damage from flooding earlier this year, the tour had been accessible only by bus convoy. However, the route was reopened to all traffic at the end of March 2020. You can travel from Queenstown (or Te Anau, which is closer and less expensive).
The journey between mountains is spectacular, as are the mirror lakes you’ll see. If it’s raining, you’ll see more waterfalls in the Sound. If it’s sunny, you’ll appreciate how the blue sky highlights everything around you.
If you have the time and budget, Doubtful Sound should also be on your list. You can go for the day or overnight.
12. Sample The Lamb And Mussels
I was more impressed with the wine in Europe and South America than the wine in New Zealand. New Zealand's food, however, is delicious. Two dishes you must try are lamb and greenshell mussels.
I’m accustomed to lamb chops, so when I saw lamb rump on menus, I wasn’t sure whether it was worth trying. Thankfully, I gave in -- New Zealand lamb is tender, low in fat, and cooked to perfection.
The other surprisingly delicious dish is mussels. They’re fatter and meatier than any I’ve tried, yet tender and delicious. I might like them even more than the lamb.
What To Know Before You Go
New Zealand is expensive. Book tours through the Bookme website or app to save money. Take the bus, and if you know your route, calculate whether it’s cheaper to buy separate tickets or invest in the FlexiPass. Airbnbs are much cheaper than hotels (and even sometimes hostels). To save on food, either book places with included breakfast or consider a supermarket meal or sandwich once a day.
For more tips on visiting New Zealand, see this piece.