I’ve seen a fair bit of New Zealand over the past five years, more than most Kiwis it seems. Here are ten of my favourite experiences so far and some tips for them…
Was on my to visit list for a long time and lived up to expectations. There’s not many places in the world with active volcanoes just off shore that can be easily (and safely) visited. Like Rotorua on steroids with all sorts of weird and wonderful colours and smells. Also some unexpected history with sulphur miners living on the island for a number of years until they came to a grisly end…
Tips: If you can afford it go for the helicopter option, and time it to avoid the crowd that arrive looking a little sea sick from the boat option. You get the whole island to yourself and its a pretty cool helicopter ride over Moutohora Island on route
My favourite Great Walk (of the six I’ve done, see here for how the others compare) thanks to spectacular sights along the whole track, better weather than the Milford Track and being relatively short (32km) so can be done easily in 2-3 days. NZ is all about the outdoors, and this is about as good as it gets.
Tips: Book early as it is justifiably one of the most popular Great Walks. If you’ve got the time and energy can be combined with the Kepler Track as if you start from Routeburn Shelter (transport from Queenstown) you’ll finish at the Divide, close to Te Anau where the Kepler starts from
Central Otago Rail Trail
Pretty much the perfect combination of stunning scenery, exercise (150km-176km depending on route taken), history, good food and local hospitality. Very well maintained and set up to be done over 3-5 days, usually from Clyde to Middlemarch. I did it through shebikeshebikes who were fab, organised everything including taking luggage between accommodation, nice to not cycle without a bag on my back for once!
Tips: March is the best time to go for autumn colours and less wind (though therefore the most popular time of year). Christmas is good with the flowers in bloom adding colour. Also between Clyde and Alexandra I’d recommend taking the 150th Anniversary Trail rather than the Rail Trail. Beautiful cycle along by the Clyde River though it is a little more off road than the Rail Trail, more fun!
As spectacular as Milford Sound itself the road goes through the heart of Fjordland (literally in the case of the tunnel) to connect Te Anau with Milford. Look out for the Mirror Lakes (live up to their name), The Chasm, and the bridge at start of the Hollyford Track. Of course once you’re in Milford it’d be rude not to take a boat out through the sound (though its actually a fjord).
Tips: Fill up with supplies and petrol at Te Anau as there’s not much man made between there and Milford…
Tongariro Alpine Crossing
Not a Great Walk (that’ll be the Tongaririo Northern Circuit) but pretty much the best of one in a 19.4km one day walk, the Tongaririo Alpine Crossing lives up to its reputation as one of the best one day walks in the world. Feel like a Hobbit making your way up Devil’s Staircase (where Mordor was filmed) before heading across the crater of an extinct volcano, down past the Emerald Lakes (aptly named) and past (or up if you’re feeling energetic and weather permitting) Mount Ngauruhoe, on through tussock and finishing in bush.
Tips: Be prepared with food, water, layers and waterproof clothing. It can be done in trainers, shorts and a t-shirt but the weather can (and often does) change very quickly. Having done it (or parts of it via the Tongariro Northern Circuit) three times now I’m always amazed at what people think is appropriate to wear / take for a pretty tough 20km tramp
West Coast Glaciers
Another example of a New Zealand speciality, amazing locations which are easier (and safer) to get to than pretty much anywhere else in the world (once you’ve gotten to NZ that is) but are relatively quiet (particularly out of the tourist season of January to March), also applies to volcanoes, multi-day walks (few other places have a hut system like NZ) and adventure sports. Hard to choose between them, Franz Josef is busier but has better ice caves than Fox but they’re sufficiently varied to warrant visiting both. The companies that operate on the glaciers have quite different approaches, something to consider. Franz Josef is very much about following set routes caved out each day across the glacier, whereas the Fox guides will take you where you’d like to go as long as its safe.
Tips: Only go onto the glaciers as part of a guided tour, people have died going independently, also if you have hiking boots wear them as they’ll probably be more comfortable than the ones provided
Auckland Half Marathon
Unlike pretty much every other major city bridge in the world (Golden Gate, Brooklyn, Sydney Harbour) the Auckland Harbour Bridge is cars only (shows where Kiwi priorities are). The Auckland Half Marathon (and Marathon if that sort of things appeals) is a great way to appreciate the views without crashing into someone. Having done seven of them (Auckland four times), Half Marathons are quite an experience. Erie at the start with the footsteps of hundreds or thousands of people echoing around quiet streets, the ever increasing questioning of why one is doing it until about two mins after the finish when the question is when is the next one, and the question of what do to with the rest of the day having finished it by 9am.
Tips: Stay in Devonport if you can, avoids getting the ferry at some ridiculous time in the morning. Also noticed this year that the Quarter Marathon now goes over the bridge, starting at Akoranga Bus Station and finishing at Victoria Park which is a somewhat easier option. Would also recommend the Onehunga and Orewa Half Marathons as cheap, fast and scenic runs in Auckland
Connells Bay Sculpture Park
What do you do if you’re Kiwis who made millions from investing in West End musicals in the 80s? Obvious answer if you’re John and Jo Gow is to buy a beautiful part of Waiheke Island and commission Kiwi artists to create artwork specific to the site. Guided tours give you background to the amazing works of art that have been created.
Tips: Be organised as you’ll need to book in advance
Coastal Pacific Train Journey
Less well known than the other three scenic train journeys in NZ (Northern Explorer from Auckland to Wellington, TranzAlpine from Christchurch to Greymouth return, and the Taieri Gorge Railway from Dunedin) but arguably more scenic. Runs from Picton to Christchurch, mostly along by the coast offering stunning views, and plenty of seal spotting opportunities.
Tips: Take advantage of the open air carriage to take photos without annoying glass reflections, great example of a common sense Kiwi approach to health and safety, just don’t put anything outside of the carriage!
Ten times the size of Milford Sound with far fewer boats (not that Milford Sound is exactly busy, visit Halong Bay in Vietnam to see what Milford Sound would be like if NZ wasn’t a long way from anywhere…), Doubtful Sound is as beautiful and has more wildlife. If you’re lucky you’ll see the largest dolphins in the world, the smallest penguins (therefore not easy to see!) and sea lions. The whole trip there and back is an experience as well, boat across Lake Manapouri, over the most expensive piece of road in NZ, and drive 2km underground to the Manapouri Hydroelectric Power Station. Pretty much the perfect day out.
Tips: Doable but a very long day from Queenstown, better done based out of Te Anau