Top 10 Best Places To Visit In New Zealand
Author Inspiring Journeys
Date 4 May 2023
Countries New Zealand
IN the months immediately before the COVID-19 crisis put a hold on travel, and those people with a penchant for promenading the planet were forced to pack away passports and hang out at home, hundreds of thousands of visitors were stepping onto New Zealand soil every month from destinations right around the planet.
That number plunged during the long weeks between April 2020 and the early days of 2022, but the tally is beginning to rebound with Stats NZ reporting the total of international arrivals is pushing back towards pre-pandemic numbers.
And it’s not hard to see why, with the Land of the Long White Cloud sitting high up on many a travel to-do list thanks to the seemingly-endless register of tourist attractions in New Zealand.
From Cape Reinga, at the unsheltered end of the Aupouri Peninsula, to the famous “bent-over trees” marking Slope Point on the South Island’s lowest latitude, and beyond to Stewart Island, travellers are spoiled for choice when it comes to filling an itinerary.
But where to start? How about New Zealand’s top ten most beautiful places?
TOP 5 ATTRACTIONS TO VISIT IN NEW ZEALAND'S NORTH ISLAND
Ask a Kiwi that hails from the North to name the country’s best island and they will likely divert to their home turf. But that’s justified because the landmass separating the Pacific Ocean and Tasman Sea is accommodates to both the capital city and biggest settlement as well as a swag of heritage hamlets and sweet settlements that welcome travellers with an authentic enthusiasm that defines this much-loved destination.
1. WAIHEKE ISLAND
Waiheke Island packs everything New Zealand has to offer into one sleepy but scenic 19km-long parcel of beautifully-bucolic property in the heart of Auckland's Hauraki Gulf, an easy 40-minute ride by ferry from Auckland's vibrant harbour.
The destination is home to one of the country's esteemed wine regions – with the two dozen boutique wineries dotted across the rolling hills producing cabernet sauvignon, merlot and malbec varieties that are being celebrated with the world's best bottles – and a culinary culture that makes mealtime magical.
But there's more to do than eat and drink with this destination home to an army of artists selling their wares from welcoming workshops and studios, beaches boasting long stretches of sand that are perfect for swimming when the weather is warm, scenic trails for cliff-top walking, and quiet coves for kayaking with friendly marine critters.
If you like … islands, you will love Rangitoto. Waiheke's neighbour in the Hauraki Gulf is the youngest and biggest of Auckland's 48 dormant volcanic cones, with the undeveloped address home to the world's largest pohutukawa forest and a network of hiking trails that make this an irresistible place to tramp.
The New Zealand capital – resting easily between the Cook Strait and Remutaka Range at the southern tip of the North Island – was christened "the coolest little capital in the world" by Lonely Planet thanks to the quirky, charismatic and contemporary charm bestowed by a population of 200,000 people.
There is something for everyone in this compact metropolis, from the urbane dining along Hannahs Laneway and Cuba Street's sophisticated coffee scene to the legendary legion of secret bars hidden through the CBD and boutique breweries in reinvigorated industrial spaces.
The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa is a world-class complex on the waterfront that accommodates thoughtful exhibitions telling fascinating tales of environment, art, heritage and history, while Zealandia Te Mara a Tane is a lush nature reserve that takes visitors back to the days before humans impacted Wellington.
If you like … compact cities, you will love Christchurch. The South Island address was devastated by an earthquake in 2011 and is stoically rebuilding to become a settlement that balances old-world charm, new-world attitude and the fresh energy of reconstruction to entice travellers with activities from punting on the Avon River to drinking in suave pop-up bars.
3. WAITOMO CAVES
While New Zealand boasts a modest headcount and uninhabited landscapes that promises the darkness for stellar star-gazing, there is one memorable light show that hides below the ground. The labyrinth of caves beneath the green hills of Waitomo, 50km from Hamilton, is home to a legion of glowworms that light up the subterranean gloom.
The most delightful way to explore the network of limestone formations, created more than 30 million years ago when the land sat at the bottom of the ocean, is to embark on a silent boat ride that drifts through the maze. A guide uses overhead lines to push the vessel along the course, moving only metres from the whimsical worms that sparkle when a chemical in their tiny tail reacts with oxygen, while sharing stories about a long history that includes more than just the illuminating inhabitants.
If you like … caves, you will love Taupo. The Squeeze is an outdoor adventure based in Taupo – the North Island settlement beside an inland lake the size of Singapore – that sees those seeking an unexpected adventure clamber on, around and across boulders hidden in the bush to soak in rock pools fed by thermal springs.
4. WAITANGI TREATY GROUNDS
Take a deep dive into New Zealand history at Waitangi Treaty Grounds, the peaceful patch of parkland beside the Bay of Islands where the historic Treaty of Waitangi was signed in February 1840.
The Treaty is considered to be New Zealand's founding document – an agreement New Zealand Tourism describes as "a constitutional document that establishes and guides the relationships between the Crown in New Zealand and Maori" – signed by British consul William Hobson and 540 Maori chiefs hailing from right across the country.
While visitors to the Waitangi Treaty Grounds can wander historical structures and watch artists at work, the highlight is roaming the grounds with a descendant of a chief that signed the treaty and listening to their stories of heritage and observations about culture.
If you like …Maori history, you will love the Te Pa Tu Maori Experience. Those visiting this cultural community in Rotorua spend time with locals proudly passionate about their Maori culture, who share insights into their history and culture through storytelling and performances, with the highlight a celebration feast prepared in a traditional underground hangi oven.
5. HAWKES BAY
If two words describe Hawkes Bay on the North Island's sunny east coast they would be wine and country. After all, this region roughly halfway between Wellington and Rotorua is considered the spiritual home of the Kiwi wine industry with an innovative industry producing red varieties – most notably cabernet sauvignon, merlot and syrah – that are winning worldwide praise.
But limiting exploration to the 30-plus estates with cellar doors would be verging on the criminal, because there is so much more to do than sip vino.
Hawkes Bay boasts 200km of flat cycling trails that promise an easy way to explore away from the asphalt, an abundance of handsome Art Deco architecture in Napier and Hastings, and the mainland's largest colony of gannets at spectacular Cape Kidnappers.
If you like … wine, you will love Marlborough. The district crowning the South Island has flourished to become New Zealand's largest wine-growing region – there's now around 28,000ha under vine, with the first plants set into the alluvial gravel in the 1870s – and many of the 158 wineries dotted around Blenheim and Seddon boast cellar doors where visitors can sample the signature sauvignon blanc.
TOP 5 ATTRACTIONS TO VISIT IN NEW ZEALAND'S SOUTH ISLAND
From wild landscapes to world-famous wineries, and legendary landscapes that climb from the Southern Ocean waves breaking against the wind-blown coastline to jagged snow-capped peaks, the South Island starts with scenery and rolls through activities and attractions that entice every travel appetite.
1. STEWART ISLAND/RAKIURA
Stewart Island is the third largest of New Zealand's 600 islands, resting 30km from the coast in the Foveaux Strait, and is most easily accessed from the South Island's lowest locations with ferries departing Bluff and aircraft operating from Invercargill.
Around 85 per cent of the territory sits inside the Rakiura National Park – New Zealand's newest national park – which boasts 280km of hiking and walking tracks winding through predator-free landscapes as diverse as dense coastal rainforest, desolate granite mountains, freshwater wetlands, and long stretches of golden sand.
Rakiura means "land of the glowing sky", and this name couldn't be more appropriate with sprays of natural neon lights delivered by the Aurora Australis occasionally dancing across an after-dark dome and fierce sunsets painting the sky in dramatic hues that descend from fiery reds to the softest pastels.
If you like … sunsets, you will love The Remarkables. While this world-famous range that towers above Queenstown is best known for snow sports during the South Island's coldest months, but the warmer weeks of summer deliver a dreamlike display when days turn to night as the sun sinks below the serrated ridges on the western side of Lake Wakatipu.
2. ABEL TASMAN NATIONAL PARK
The Abel Tasman National Park is New Zealand's smallest national park, with the protected plot on the South Island's charming north coast home to one of the country's most agreeable multi-day hikes.
The Abel Tasman Coastal Track winds the 30km from Marahau to Wainui Inlet and meanders across golden beaches, past coves with water the colour of precious gems, beside cold crystal-clear streams, and through narrow valleys bursting with ferns.
The complete course takes five days to complete at a comfortable pace but there are ample half-day hikes with locals recommending autumn and spring as the best seasons for trouble-free tramping because the sky is reliably blue, the tracks uncluttered, and day-time temperatures hovering in the Goldilocks zone.
If you like … hiking, you will love the Marlborough Sounds. Nearby Queen Charlotte Sound – in the South Island's north, between the Abel Tasman National Park and Cook Strait – is one of New Zealand's hidden gems with the spectacular Queen Charlotte Track an 80km course that traverses the terrain beside hidden bays and concealed coves.
The South Island's battered east coast is home to quaint Kaikoura, with this hamlet that offers genuine small-town hospitality nestled between the majestic Seaward Kaikoura Range and deep Pacific Ocean blue to make it the perfect place for wildlife encounters of the maritime variety.
Kaikoura's biggest claim to fame is offering easy meetings with the local populations of marine mammals and whale-watching trips depart several times a day during the months of the annual migration, the rocky coast north of town is the place to watch comical colonies of fur seals, and dolphin spotting is best combined with seaside strolling.
The village also comes up trumps at mealtime when beach-side shacks, main street cafes and fine-dining restaurants serve up the freshest of seafood – kai means food, koura means crayfish, so there are no prizes for guessing the most obvious main course – with Nin's Bin the spot locals recommend for an authentic experience.
If you like … dolphins, you will love Akaroa. The graceful Banks Peninsula is famous for the petite and playful Hector dolphins – classified as the world's smallest and rarest dolphins – which inhabit the protected harbour beyond Akaroa, an easy 90-minute drive from downtown Christchurch.
Credit: Kyle Mulinder
4. MILFORD SOUND/PIOPIOTAHI
A Scotsman named Donald Sutherland was the first European to call Milford Sound home, with the former soldier and prospector deciding to put down roots during an 1877 voyage along the South Island's uninhabited south-west coast.
Donald knew a good thing when he saw it, and a little over a century later the famous Fiordland feature was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site with legions of travellers venturing into the country's deep south to take on the challenging Milford Track or cruise in the shadows of towering peaks that plunge into the still mirror-like water.
Kayaking, diving or flightseeing trips are other options for exploring Milford Sound from above, on and below the surface while a visit to the underwater observatory at Harrison Cove offers the opportunity to see the black coral and delicate anemones without getting wet.
If you like … boat rides, you will love Queenstown. The TSS Earnslaw – the elegant bygone vessel known as The Lady of the Lake – was launched in the same year as Titanic and now spends her days nonchalantly chugging across Lake Wakatipu's picture-perfect aquamarine to Walter Peak High Country Farm.
5. TRAVELLING BY TRAIN
If you were to compose a list of the things Kiwis do well, trains would be near the top with riding the rails in one of the three scenic tourist trains traversing the North and South islands a relaxing way to take in some of the country's legendary landscapes.
The Northern Explorer is a day-long trip between Auckland and Wellington that navigates the North Island's spine to pass destinations like Hamilton and Tongariro National Park, and the Coastal Pacific follows the South Island's east coast to frame the epic ocean and mountain views between Christchurch and the Marlborough Sounds.
But perhaps the most famous is the TranzAlpine Train – the world-renowned route across the heart of the South Island from Christchurch to Greymouth – that makes the coast-to-coast crossing from the windswept Canterbury Plains to the Southern Alps in just five hours.
If you like … trains, you will love Dunedin. The South Island community is home to the Dunedin Railway with The Seasider travelling beside Otago Harbour to the coastline beyond Port Chalmers, The Victorian making the journey to historic Oamaru, and The Islander negotiating the scenic Taieri River Gorge in the tracks of the early pioneers that darted into the region during the Otago Gold rush.
PLACES TO VISIT IN NEW ZEALAND WITH INSPIRING JOURNEYS
Inspiring Journeys currently boasts an inventory of five hosted holidays taking in destinations around New Zealand, with The Long White Cloud the most comprehensive expedition allocating 19 days to discovering the destinations on both islands that sit between Milford Sound and Auckland.
For travellers seeking to spend a little less time on the road Inspiring New Zealand is a nine-day itinerary that relies on plane rides to sightsee spots on both the North and South islands, while Southern Drift and The Endless Shores focus attention on just one island or the other.