I’ve travelled to New Zealand on assignment at least half a dozen times and authored two books on this unique destination. I’ve just returned from my most recent trip, and continue to find new and wonderful places previously missed. For travellers, a major draw is the number of different landscapes and travel experiences condensed into a relatively small area. It also leads to an unusual question whenever anyone asks about my thoughts on their travel plans: I always ask “Where are you from?” For example, if you are from Australia or California, you’re probably keen to see the glaciers and mountains of the South Island. If you’re from Canada, going out of your way to see these same landscapes, and you’ll be most interested in the North Island. That said, there are three main areas of interest for everyone: Auckland, one of the world’s most beautifully located cities; the geothermal heartland of Rotorua for its Maori history and bubbling geysers; and Southland, which is remote but worthwhile reaching for its ocean-meets-forest beauty. To give you a better idea of New Zealand’s layout, following is a regional breakdown of the country and why you may want to visit each area:
If it’s been a few years since you’ve touched down in Auckland, be prepared to be amazed. Instead of picking up a rental car and zooming off into classic New Zealand scenery, you’ll want to spend some time in the country’s largest and most dynamic city. Perched on a magnificent harbor, museums and performing arts facilities beckon the culturally minded, while parks, islands, and a mass of waterways appeal to the more energetic.
Within easy reach of Auckland, the northern reaches of the North Island have lots of sunshine, endless beaches, and lots of opportunities for watersports. The epicenter of the touristy action is the Bay of Islands, where azure waters and uninhabited islands combine to create the perfect place to go cruising. The region also boasts an interesting natural and human history, with the chance of seeing kiwis (birds), exploring an ancient kauri forest, and visiting the site of the treaty signing that created the seed of a nation.
Waikato, Coromandel, and the Bay of Plenty
Originally settled by Maori, the central section of the North Island lies directly below Auckland and within easy day-tripping distance. In the west is the Waikato, a rich farming district with the city of Hamilton at its heart and attractions such as New Zealand’s premier surf spot and the underground maze of Waitomo Caves. East of Hamilton is the Coromandel Peninsula, which was once the site of a gold rush but is now sparsely settled and attractive for its forested mountain range and a seemingly endless stretch of bays and beaches.
As the name suggests, this is a thermally active region and one that you shouldn’t miss. It is one of the most concentrated and active thermal regions in the world, with the city of Rotorua on top of most of the action. Here, you are invited to explore many of the most active areas, soak in hot pools, and explore the lunarlike setting of Mount Tarawera. South from Rotorua is Taupo, where the blue waters of Lake Taupo fill an ancient crater. Continuing south is the volcanic wilderness of Tongariro National Park.
Eastland and Hawke’s Bay
The eastern portion of the North Island is dominated by unspoiled scenery that merges native forest with a wildly beautiful coastline. The drive around the East Cape is a great way to experience the way New Zealand was before the tourism boom. Gisborne is a prosperous yet laidback city, the northern extent of a region laced by vineyards and sheep farms. To the south is the art deco hub of Napier, sandwiched between the forested wilderness of Te Urewera National Park and the beautiful beaches lining the Pacific Ocean.
Taranaki and the West
Dominated by a postcard-perfect volcano rising from a patchwork of farmland, this region stretches from black-sand beaches fronting the Tasman Sea to the almost impenetrable forests of the North Island’s west-central interior. For outdoor-lovers, the Taranaki volcano and surrounding Egmont National Park should be the focus of your time. Garden-lovers will be in their element around the port city of New Plymouth while history buffs will appreciate the classic colonial architecture and restored paddlesteamers in the river city of Wanganui.
Wellington and the Lower North Island
Through wilderness reserves, passing vineyards, and along golden beaches, all roads lead south to Wellington, New Zealand’s capital. Set around a magnificent harbor at the tip of the South Island, here you’ll find the magnificent Museum of New Zealand, steep streets lined with beautifully restored buildings, and a choice of accommodations to suit all budgets. But beyond the obvious, you also find a thriving cultural scene, an amazing array of caf<\#142>s and restaurants, and sophisticated attitude like nowhere else in the country.
Marlborough and the Northwest
From the gateway of Picton, the wonders of New Zealand’s South Island beckon in all directions. Two hikes–the Queen Charlotte Track and the Abel Tasman Coastal Track–are the main draw for nature-loving visitors. Although it takes multiple days to walk these trails, day hikers use water taxis to zoom from one spot to another and upscale lodges along the way provide a luxurious break from the trail. And when you’ve finished walking, there are wonderful wineries, an abundance of whales, golden beaches, and abundant birdlife.
In the West Coast, visit the coal-mining and fishing center of Westport, a seal colony at Tauranga Bay, the amazing rock formations of Paparoa National Park, and the historic gold-mining town of Hokitika. Stop along the highway for a spot of trout fishing in one of several major rivers, or take a photography break at one of the many small lakes that reflect distant snowcapped peaks in their mirror-still waters, then push on south to the lush rainforests and mighty glaciers of rugged Westland Tai Poutini National Park.
Christchurch and Canterbury
Although devastated by recent earthquakes, the picturesque city of Christchurch retains an abundance of charms, including Victorian-era buildings, extensive parkland, and the beautiful Avon River winding through town, but it also has its own distinct personality–and lots to see and do, from an ultramodern art gallery to the world’s largest Antarctic museum to a nearby village whose French origins shine through. From Christchurch, a patchwork of green spreads west to the snowcapped Southern Alps and Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park.
Like Canterbury to the north, Otago spreads from the Pacific Ocean west to the Southern Alps. The region is anchored by Dunedin, a bustling city filled with historic attractions and modern conveniences. On Dunedin’s doorstep, you can marvel at albatrosses, watch penguins, and take a rail trip though a valley uninterrupted by roads. Inland is Queenstown, one of the world’s most exciting resort towns. Here, you can go bungy jumping, try jetboating, explore the historic streets of Arrowtown, and then relax at a luxurious accommodation.
After leaving the commercialism of Queenstown behind you, the wilderness of Southland beckons. Much of the region is protected by Fiordland National Park, which encompasses famously scenic Doubtful and Milford Sounds and is well known for its long-distance hikes such as the Routeburn and Milford Tracks. Stewart Island is one of the best places in the country to see kiwi birds in the wild, while the Catlins has an amazing concentration of wildlife that is accessible to everyone.