Being a Kiwi, it was about time to write a bit about my own country – New Zealand!
I am planning on writing plenty of in-depth travel guides on the top cities to visit, such as Auckland, Wellington and Queenstown, as well as a Lord of the Rings/Middle Earth post – being such a huge fan myself it’s inevitable.
This travel guide is an introduction and a brief overview for fellow travellers wanting to head to New Zealand for the first time.
For best things to do check out my post on 20 Must-do’s in New Zealand.
Let’s begin by clearing one thing up first:
It’s not the same as Australia!
Yes, people get us confused all the time and many think that we are a part of Australia (we’re not). Many also can’t tell the difference between a Kiwi and Aussie accent (there’s a big difference!). Our countries overall are very different.
New Zealand’s North Island is mostly pretty warm with nice beaches (sadly not as warm as Australia), while the scenery in the South Island more resembles Ireland (thanks to lashings of rain) or Canada in the Alpine regions.
Australia… is more than 28 times bigger than New Zealand! And you might hear about Australians a lot more – that’s because there’s 24 million of them, whereas there are only 4 million Kiwis.
70% of Australia is classed as a desert, so though there can be some small similarities between our countries’ landscapes in certain places, the differences are a lot more.
Those are just the beginnings of the many contrasts between our countries, but just know it’s comparable to calling America and Canada the same, or China and Japan.
My little spin on little New Zealand
We may be at the bottom of the world but New Zealand is a wonderful country to visit and definitely worth travelling that far for.
After exploring the world so far away for the first time – I came back and saw my country with whole new eyes.
I grew up here, so I always thought New Zealand was – well, boring. There’s nothing old and historical here and it’s so far from everywhere else. Not that I didn’t appreciate the stunning beauty of it – Queenstown when I saw it for the first time especially took my breath away.
I just mean, this is where I grew up and camping, bushwalks, going to the snow, road trips, beaches – were all a part of everyday life and I thought that was normal.
Little did I realise our small country was such a gem, because it had all these things – packed into one.
Everywhere you go in New Zealand you’re not far from stunning and picturesque landscapes. Our country really is a natural beauty with everything ranging from snow-capped mountains to white sandy beaches, native bush and forests, fresh springs and mud pools.
From any point in New Zealand, you are no further than 130 kilometres from the sea. It’s no wonder why I am so attracted to water and I simply can’t imagine those who have to travel hundreds and hundreds of miles to even see water.
I now know, since embarking on my travels and as amazing as this world is, there is nowhere quite like New Zealand and I am really appreciative and proud to be a Kiwi.
Perhaps when you think of New Zealand a few images may spring to mind – the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the All Blacks (our excellent rugby team), Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough (our biggest selling white wine) and lots and lots of sheep.
These are all quite fair images but there’s a whole lot more to our country than just that!
Firstly, many people may wonder: which is better to travel to – the North or the South Island? I would absolutely say both because they are so different to each other and you can’t really get a full ‘New Zealand’ experience doing just one.
If you have the time I would recommend starting from the top of the North and work your way down South.
The best way to travel New Zealand is by vehicle, whether a car, bus or campervan, as nature and beauty surrounds you everywhere. The varying landscapes are so different and interesting to see all throughout the country and travelling by land is the best way to see this.
You can easily hire a car or campervan, or an affordable bus line that I’ve used many times is Intercity Coachlines. There are many different tour companies offering Hop on Hop off style bus tours such a Stray Travel, Kiwi Experience and package tours like Wild Kiwi, Contiki and Intrepid.
If you’re from North America, New Zealand Vacations are a leading company with excellent customised vacation packages. They are New Zealand travel experts who can help you create your own dream self-driving itineraries. They offer constant support, experience and the best prices with local tourism operators.
You can also pick up internal flights relatively cheap enough if you book in advance.
Our two main flight carriers are Air New Zealand and Jet Star.
|Image credit: rankers.co.nz|
There are plenty of campgrounds in most places which is an affordable way to travel in New Zealand. You can book your own cabin, pitch a tent, park a camper van or even your car and use the facilities.
My family travelled around New Zealand this way when we were growing up. Every couple of years in the summer holidays we would either go down south or right up north.
Campgrounds are safe, usually in very good locations (on the lake, near the beach or city centre), basic but have everything you need – a big communal kitchen you can use, toilets and showers and often games and playgrounds for children.
There is, of course, Airbnb, plenty of budget hostels, motels and hotels – it all depends on your preferred style of travel and your budget.
New Zealand is great year round but the very best time to visit is during summer. This way you can enjoy swimming, camping, better weather and warm temperatures.
Our warmest months are December, January and February. Any time between October and April is also great.
Travelling in winter, if you don’t mind the cold, is also very beautiful. The mountains are covered in snow and you can enjoy our awesome ski fields in both the North and South Island.
The biggest decision to make is deciding where to go! If you have the time I would say, go to as many places as you can.
For the top places and attractions to visit here is my small overview of our two main islands – the North and the South, and the main highlights of each:
The North Island is a great place to start, with Auckland being our biggest international airport. In the north, it is a lot warmer, with nicer beaches, more unique geothermal characteristics and Maori culture.
If you’re a city dweller then you will love Auckland. It is New Zealand’s largest and most populous city with over one-third of the population living there (over 1 million people). Auckland is based around two large harbours and is known as ‘the City of Sails’.
Centred in the middle is the iconic Sky Tower – our countries’ tallest structure that you can go up for stunning panoramic views of the city or even bungy jump off.
You can visit Waiheke Island – famous for its vineyards and wine-tasting.
Auckland is dotted with many beaches and large parks and is home to plenty of great food, art, culture and museums.
The Coromandel Peninsula is one of the most popular areas for Kiwis and tourists alike to visit during summer. The golden coastline with white sandy beaches, native forests and a laid-back vibe make Coromandel one of the best-loved holiday destinations in New Zealand.
The towns are small and quiet making it a great place to get away and unwind at the beach. There are plenty of great bush walks, glow worm caves and even a Hot Water Beach where you can dig your own hot pool at low tide.
Make sure to see Cathedral Cove while you’re there too, a famous picturesque cave.
|Enjoying kumara chips at the beach in Coromandel|
I thought I should mention at least one hotspot for Lord of the Rings fans out there! Matamata is a small country town that you can take as a day-trip from Auckland or Tauranga and Rotorua – it is less than a couple of hours away from each of those places.
Hobbiton is simply spectacular and a must-do if you’re a fan, and even if you’re not – my partner, for example, was surprised at how much he enjoyed the trip when I made him go with me.
You get taken around the whole area which is surprisingly large and immaculately maintained, and you finish off in The Green Dragon pub for a complimentary ‘Hobbity’ ale or cider. It’s a great way to spend a couple of hours and I highly recommend it.
Check out my Guide to visiting Hobbiton for more info.
Tauranga & Rotorua
Tauranga and Mount Maunganui is a great place to visit especially in the summer. There is a beautiful beach, large harbour and mountain (Mount Maunganui) that is half on land, half in water that you can walk around or climb to the top for stunning views.
I grew up in Tauranga and though there isn’t that much to do activities-wise, it is a great destination because of the large white sandy beach and it’s a popular spot for surfers.
Rotorua is one of New Zealand’s most popular places for tourists to visit. Only a 50-minute drive from Tauranga, Rotorua offers plenty of fun activities such as luging, zorbing, cultural Maori village experiences and shows, wildlife parks, hot pools, geothermal attractions such as Wai-O-Tapu and many more.
|Rotorua Luge track|
Taupo for New Zealanders is usually a stop-over place as you drive through, whether you’re going North from there to Auckland or South from there to Wellington for example.
It does offer some nice tourist attractions though and can be a good place to stop for a night or two.
It’s home to the great Lake Taupo – Australasia’s largest lake, plenty of geothermal activity walks, bungy jumping, the beautiful Huka Falls waterfall, great cafes and more.
|#LoveTaupo sign on the lakefront|
Tongariro National Park
Less than one and a half hours drive south from Taupo is Tongariro National Park – New Zealand’s oldest national park and a dual World Heritage site.
Here, nestled between ancient native forests and desert landscapes are three impressive volcanoes; Tongariro, Ngauruhoe and Ruapehu.
Mount Ruapehu is the North’s only place to ski and offers two excellent ski fields on the active volcano, Whakapapa and Turoa.
Treking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing is one of the world’s greatest hikes and a must-do if you have the time.
|Above the clouds on Whakapapa ski field|
|Emerland Lakes, Tongariro. Image credit: backpackerguide.nz|
Wellington is the capital city of New Zealand and is commonly known as ‘the smallest capital in the world.’ Many people wonder why Wellington is the capital when it is home to around only 200,000 people, whereas Auckland has over a million. That’s just where our parliament is centred and I think it’s a pretty cool capital in my opinion.
I lived in Wellington for 4 years before jetting off overseas and I enjoyed living there (it’s a lot more exciting that Tauranga and way less busy than Auckland).
The one thing I didn’t like so much was the weather. ‘Windy Wellington’ it is also commonly known as – was recently proved to be the windiest city in the world!
Nevertheless, it is a really cool place to visit and it’s a compact city bursting with creative talent, art and culture, cool cafes, great coffee and craft beer, and my favourite thing about it – it’s our little ‘Wellywood.’
Home to Sir Peter Jackson, this is the base where The Lord of the Rings trilogy was filmed and there are plenty of attractions around Wellington where you can visit and see locations such as the Weta Cave.
(Stay tuned for a more in-depth post about LOTR tourism in NZ coming soon!).
|Bucket Fountain on Cuba Street, Wellington|
The South Island is home to only one-quarter of the population in New Zealand – so as you can imagine, it’s a lot more quiet and peaceful. There is a different sense to this island, there are wide open spaces with the enormous mountainous spine running through the middle of it (the Southern Alps). It’s a great opportunity to get away from it all.
Nelson is the sunniest region in New Zealand, located at the top of the South Island. If you are travelling by car and have crossed the Cook Strait by ferry, it’s a great place to stop over. It’s known for its local arts and crafts stores and art galleries.
It’s also a popular base for nearby caving sights, vineyards and Abel Tasman National Park – a famous protected area with stunning coastal hiking trails and great kayaking spots.
Nelson has it all with golden sandy beaches, untouched forests, rugged mountains and a great summery holiday feeling about the town.
|Image credit: from winenelson.co.nz|
Kaikoura is a small but scenic town located on the East Coast of the South Island.
It is hugged by beautiful snow-capped mountains and its special attraction is mammal encounters – whales, fur seals and dolphins live permanently in the coastal waters.
Whale watching trips leave the town several times a day with a great sighting success rate, you can swim with the dolphins and the local seal colony is always entertaining.
Kaikoura is a great place to stop if you are driving from Blenheim to Christchurch or vice versa.
|Kaikoura. Image credit: rankers.co.nz|
Guest paragraph: Juliette from Snorkels to Snow has kindly offered to write a piece for Christchurch. Her blog is amazing and you should definitely check it out.[Side Note: If you didn’t know – on 22/02/11 Christchurch was badly damaged by a magnitude 6.3 earthquake. It tragically killed 185 people, injured thousands and destroyed much of the CBD.]
|The colourful Re:Start Mall. Image credit: australiandesignreview.com|
The West Coast is one of the more remote and sparsely populated areas – it seems like a million miles from civilisation, but it offers some of New Zealand’s most wild and natural beauty and landscapes.
There are countless opportunities for hiking and mountaineering in the South Island, and the West Coast is a great base for that. Close by you have Mount Aspiring National Park, Mount Cook, Fox Glacier and Franz Josef Glacier.
Some great little towns to stay on the West Coast include Hokitika, Greymouth and Westport. There are many activities on offer such as glacier walks, jet boating, kayaking, old mining towns and of course the rugged beaches and stretch of coastline.
|Fox Glacier. Image credit: thousandwonders.net|
When people ask me where to go in New Zealand I say you have to go to Queenstown!
It is my favourite place in New Zealand and it is absolutely magical. It reminds me of a slice of Switzerland. For much of the year, the surrounding Alps are snow-capped and the lake is a stunning mixture of blues.
Queenstown is known as the ‘adventure capital of New Zealand.’ It is home to bungy jumping, jet boating, paragliding, white water rafting, luging, you name it. You can find these activities all throughout the country but everything is here compacted into one small town.
The scenery is simply incredible. In winter the whole town turns into a winter wonderland, the streets are filled with snow, the ski fields are the best in New Zealand, it’s like a ski resort town in Canada.
From Queenstown, you can take many day-trips or overnighters to other great nearby places such as Wanaka, Te Anau, Glenorchy, Fiordland National Park where you can cruise through the Milford Sound and many more.
|View from the top of the Gondolas overlooking Lake Wakatipu|
|A boat cruise through Milford Sounds|
|Shotover Jet- one of Queenstown’s top adrenaline attractions|
|As well as Bungy jumping! I jumped off this ledge!|
|Beautiful snow-capped Southern Alps (and this was in November!)|
|The incredible view from Roy’s Peak overlooking Lake Wanaka is what dreams are made of.
Image credit: riverrun.co.nz
There certainly is a lot to see and do packed into one small country.
I put together a rough map of the places I have mentioned so you can see where they are located on each island.
I hope that I’ve given you some insight into my lovely home country. Feel free to leave me a comment if you want to add anything or ask any questions.
For more ideas on what to do head to my post on 20 Must-Do’s in New Zealand and stay tuned for plenty more New Zealand posts heading your way soon.
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