Making the Most of New Zealand – My Top 10 Best Things To Do

I was lucky enough to spend a month in this beautiful country, travelling every day and with wonderful people. I will always remember it as one of the most awe inspiring places I’ve ever been, and I am forever grateful that I got to experience the best of the best. However, not everyone has so much time to spare, so for future travellers on a budget or a short break, these are my ten best bits. Don’t worry if you’ve only got time to visit one of the islands, you’ll find five suggestions for the North, and five for the South!

North Island

1. The Best of the Outdoors – Beaches of the Coromandel Peninsula

Okay, I’m already cheating, because this involves not one, but two of my favourite destinations. However, the stunning white rock formations and turquoise waters of Cathedral Cove are only a short drive away from the Hot Water Beach. If you’re based in or starting from Auckland, there are day tours that will incorporate both. If you’re going by yourself, don’t forget to bring a shovel so that you can dig your own spa in the sand! The Coromandel has even more to offer than this, too, if you want to spend a few days relaxing on the beach, or taking a glass-bottomed Kayak around the coastline. Just remember that the sun is very, very strong in New Zealand, so look after your skin!

Cathedral Cove
Standing under the archway at Cathedral Cove

2. The Traditional Tourist – Hobbiton

Is it an obvious option? Yes. It’s the most popular tourist destination in the whole country. Is it worth the visit? Of course! Something like 30% of the people who visit the place haven’t seen any of the films in the franchise, and even less have read the books. The appeal of being able to walk around a famous film set, however, and a charming one at that, never fails. There’s plenty of time to explore this incredible set, with all the attention to detail that you could possibly want. There are a couple of lovely surprises for both well-informed visitors and those new to the scene, and if you want to listen to the tour guide, you’ll get some fascinating facts as well as the option to try and fit into some of the houses! If you’re still being reluctantly dragged along for the ride, you’ve at least got the free beer to look forward to in The Green Dragon at the end. The pale ale, dark ale and cider are all a unique brew and brand. Don’t forget your ID!

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Can you see Bag End?

3. Unique to New Zealand – Rotorua

New Zealand has geothermal activity seemingly everywhere, if the numerous spas are anything to go by. The best way to experience all of this in one go is to visit Rotorua. The city itself is right next to a stunning lake, and also ideal for accessing nearby marvels including Wai-O-Taupo Thermal Wonderland, the Pohutu Geyser and Maimnagu Volcanic Valley. If wandering around volcanoes and mud pools ins’t enough for you, the area also offers numerous scenic walks, bike rides and even river rafting. The geothermally heated pools of the Polynesian Spa can also be found a short walk from the city centre, if you want to experience the power of the earth first hand. Campers, be warned – you might wake up to find that the bottom of your tent is strangely warm!

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The boardwalk and Champagne Pool at Wai-O-Taupo

4. For The Adventurous – Black Water Rafting in the Glowworm Caves

Even for those less adventurous among us, the Waitomo Glowworm caves are well worth a visit! It is possible to do short walks and tours into the caves, but by far the best way to experience them is in a black rubber ring and a wetsuit. Yep, you heard that right – time to get wet! There are backpackers rates available for this two to three hour tour, and it’s well worth it. If you’re worrying about missing the full explanation with this option, fear not. Your guide will be able to give you the low-down on the glowworms as well as making sure you’re all safe and having fun. Not only do you get to explore deeper into the caves like this, to places unreachable on foot, you get to float on your back underneath the caverns full of tiny glowing bugs. Add to that the splashes, shocks and slides that you’ve got the wetsuit for, and you’ve got a trip that covers everything!

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Make a splash (and get the camera wet)! Photo Credit: The Legendary Black Water Rafting co.

5. Off the Beaten Track – Ninety Mile Beach to Cape Reinga

It might be a fairly well-known tourist destination, but the northernmost point of the North Island is one of the quieter places I visited. Most people seem to make it as far as the Bay of Islands, and get stuck. Well, no more! Ninety Mile Beach (which is really only about 50 miles long, go figure) is the only beach in the world that is also a registered highway. Driving along the sand is not an experience to be forgotten, although if you’re doing it by yourself and not with a tour, be very wary of the safety warnings. Sand and rising tides are not good for vehicles. While you’re up there, Cape Reinga is also well worth the visit. Not only is it of incredible cultural importance to the Moari people, and thus a fantastic opportunity to educate yourself about the indigenous culture, it’s also the point where the Pacific Ocean and Tasman Sea meet. Looking for that perfect travel photo? This is where you’ll get it. The dunes in this area are also perfect for one of the stranger sports in New Zealand – sand boarding! If you can face the long trek to the top of the dunes with your board, the feeling of whizzing down the slope is incomparable. Like skiing, but warm, and on your stomach. Actually, not like skiing at all, but you get the idea. Slopes, speed, adrenaline. People not following instructions and ending up in the bushes. What more could you possibly want?

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The point where the Pacific Ocean and Tasman Sea meet. In windier weather, the waves that mark the division are particularly dramatic!

South Island

1. The Best of the Outdoors – Routeburn Track

This three-day trek requires some good luck. The track is prone to heavy rain, and is often closed due to landslides. However, it’s only opened when it’s absolutely safe, so if you get the chance to head up there, grab it with both hands! The view is well worth the risk of getting a bit wet. This is where I took some of my favourite and most dramatic pictures of the South Island – choosing just one to post was a nightmare! True to New Zealand spirit, it’s also littered with some of the friendliest people you’ll ever meet. The route incorporates a few optional summits, several stunning waterfalls, and some truly incredible views of valleys and ridges. Rainforest, rivers and alpine tundra are all areas you will pass through, and for the more well-off or less experienced trekkers, guided tours are also available. Be careful though – even self-guided walkers have to book their place in advance, as the huts have limited bed space and wardens need to keep track of trekkers for safety reasons.

Day 13 Routeburn Flats
The view from the descent. The Routeburn Flats Hut is just visible on the edge of the valley floor.

2. The Traditional Tourist Spot – Milford Sound Cruise

Mitre Peak of Milford Sound (which, by the way, is not a Sound, but a Fjord) is easily one of the most immediately recognisable sights of New Zealand. It’s stunning, certainly, but it’s far from all that the sound has to offer. After rain, the waterfalls in the Fjord number in their hundreds, and floating in the shadows of sheer cliffs as tall as these is nothing to be sniffed at. Kayak tours are available for the more adventurous, but in my opinion, a cruise is the way to go. Not only are you sheltered, with access to hot drinks and muffins if it rains (which it does, a lot), but the cruise will take you all the way out to the Tasman Sea and back. This gives you the opportunity to keep an eye out for seals, or less common, bottlenose dolphins. We were lucky enough to see both! What’s more, if you want to feel the raw power of nature, you will also have the chance to stand under a waterfall. One thing worth mentioning – I wouldn’t recommend taking a tour from Queenstown. The adventure capital of New Zealand sells tours like this for a steep price, but if you hire a car or a van you can take the incredible drive through Fiordland at your own pace, as well as knocking a hefty chunk off the price tag!

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Looking across Milford Sound from the boat

3. Unique to New Zealand – Abel Tasman National Park

The Abel Tasman is famous for all the right reasons. If you’re looking for somewhere to stop for an extended time, this is the place to do it. The white sands, blue waters and green islands of the national park are home to some pretty exotic and rare wildlife, and right at the top of the South Island, they also get the best weather. There are numerous public beaches along the coast, all of which can be reached either by car or water taxi. Day trips available include sailing, kayaking, snorkelling, diving, paddle boarding, canyoning, horse riding, and various other activities. Watching the sun set over the low tide, staying up to see the stars in an area almost completely free from light pollution, or even just taking time to wander up and down the beaches are all highly recommended things you can do for free. For more serious walkers, the Abel Tasman Coastal Path offers incredible views over a three day trek. Not sure where to stay? Hunt down the world’s only youth hostel on a boat. Yes, you read that right. A backpacker’s lodge boat. Seeing as I get seasick, someone else is going to have to check that one out for me.

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Canyoning off Anchorage Beach. Photo Credit: Abel Tasman Canyons

4. For the Adventurous – Ice Climbing on the Fox Glacier

This is the ultimate chance to cross something epic off your bucket list; ice climbing on a real glacier. Now I was a geography student for several years, and I always found the sheer power of glaciers astounding. Standing on one was something I will never forget. There are many ways to get up close and personal with the glacier in cheaper ways, including simply walking to it from the valley, but the hiking and ice climbing options both included a helicopter ride to get up onto the glacier. That, in itself, is an experience worth having. You’re pretty much guaranteed epic views, as the helicopters can only fly in good conditions, and approach the glacier from the bottom. It’s an awesome sight, in the most traditional sense of the word. You only get a sense of the sheer size of the thing from up in the air. Honestly, being handed an ice axe was a pretty exciting moment, but landing on the ice with that piddly little thing in my hand, I felt very small in the face of this monster of ice. Anyway, childhood dream realised, once you’re actually on the glacier, you have the chance to explore a series of its features. Caves, crawl spaces, pools and waterfalls change on an almost daily basis due to the consistent movement of the ice, which means no two people will ever have exactly the same experience. If you get the chance to climb, too, you might be able to abseil down inside a crevasse and attempt to climb your way out. I did get stuck (obviously), but I must admit, there’s nothing quite like being swallowed by a glacier. This might have been the highlight of the entire trip for me.

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Climbing out of a crevasse, having nearly touched the bottom!

5. Off the Beaten Track – Chinese Gardens in Dunedin

This is a particularly unusual one. Go all the way to new Zealand… to go to a Chinese Garden? Well, I’ve never been one to turn down an opportunity. There are only three authentic Chinese Gardens outside of China, and this is one of them. Authenticity is key, and the garden itself was designed and constructed in Shanghai before being deconstructed, moved and rebuilt in Dunedin. It’s actually a pretty incredible experience. Despite being in the middle of the city (right next to the museum), it’s a little oasis of calm. There are student rates, but it’s not an expensive side-track anyway, a ticket coming it at about NZ$9 (if I remember correctly). I would highly recommend taking the free audioguide tour – you can take your time about exploring, and find out a little more about the shape and design of the garden as you go. There’s also a tea house! It makes a perfect break from some of the more intense activities on the list.

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Photo Credit: TripAdvisor (my camera was broken at this point)

And there you have it! My top ten recommended things to do in New Zealand. I had to omit many more of my favourite places from this, but suffice it to say that one of the charms of New Zealand is how untouched and unexpected it is. Even if you do all your research, New Zealand will surprise you. It’s an incredibly unique place, and home to experiences that can be found nowhere else in the world.

I would highly recommend it as a destination for backpackers and solo travellers. It’s surprisingly easy to get around and to meet people, and there is just so much to do and so many lovely people making their way around the country too. My trip to New Zealand would have been nothing without the people I met along the way. Whether I spent the whole month with them or just hours, they were all a huge part of my experience. Hotels won’t do that for you – so get out there and explore!

Featured image credit: Millie Easterbrook

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