Having lived in Australia for two years, I’m probably the only person in the world who didn’t visit New Zealand, considering I was so close. With that in mind, I asked Laura Oxley, the blogger behind She Who Wanders, to share with us what she considers to be the top things to do in New Zealand. So sit back and enjoy Laura’s tips and stories.
Maybe you’ve been dreaming of Middle Earth since the first time you saw The Hobbit, or maybe you love to hike and the thought of all those trails has you frothing to leave right away. Whatever the case might be New Zealand is always a good idea, and from the year I spent exploring all it has to offer I’ve put together a top 10 list of things not to miss on your Middle Earth adventure (in no particular order because everything is just as incredible as the last).
Top Things to Do in New Zealand
1- VISIT HOBBITON
What better way to get that real feeling of Middle Earth than stepping right into Bilbo Baggins‘ Hobbit hole?! When scouting for the movie, director Peter Jackson had a crew fly over some farmland in the town of Matamata a few hours south of Auckland on the North Island when they laid their eyes upon a beautiful piece of land.
The rest is pretty much history and now with the Hobbit movies complete the land is open daily for public tours, and even weddings for those die hard fans. The tours are led by staff who can school you in behind the scenes info on the films and show you all there is in Hobbiton. You’ll even have the chance to explore The Green Dragon & try some cider or beer masterfully crafted for the location specifically in the hopes of transporting you right into the movie alongside Sam and Frodo listening to tales of adventure from Gandalf.
2- PARASAILING IN PAIHIA
The Bay of Islands, known as the birthplace of New Zealand and home to one of the most action-packed adventure towns on the North Island. Whether it’s a kayak trip, sea doo trip or stand up paddle boarding the town of Paihia has so much to offer. That being said, one of the best ways to see all The Bay has to offer, including some of its 140+ islands is through the air. No, not via plane, better! By parasailing!
Home to a crew offering the highest parasail in the country at 12,00 ft, parasailing is absolutely one of the highlights of my year in New Zealand and something not to be missed. The crew give you the safety run down, strap you up and in less than a few minutes you’re cruising hundreds of feet in the air with your best adventure buddy taking in the scenes of one of the most beautiful places in the country.
3- ROAD TRIP UP TO CAPE REINGA
Have you ever been to the end of the world? Me neither, but Cape Reinga comes pretty close! The cape is the most Northerly part of New Zealand’s North Island & home to where the Pacific Ocean meets the Tasman creating an incredible clash. You can actually see the divide where they meet causing gorgeous waves. And if that’s not enough the road trip up from Paihia is lined with numerous stopping points along the way, including 90 Mile Beach where armed with a sledge, boogie board or even snowboard you can find yourself hitting the sand dunes like you would the slopes and cruising down towards the ocean.
The Puketi Kauri Forest is where you’ll find yourself, head turned upwards taking in the massive and graceful giant Kauri trees. If you don’t drive or would rather not, there are tonnes of tours leaving from Auckland or Paihia daily to take in these sights.
4- EXPLORE GEOTHERMAL ROTORUA
Less than 3 hours South of Auckland lies a gem of the North Island, don’t let the smell fool you that’s exactly why you should visit this amazing little town! The town is situated on a lake with the same name and is renowned for its geothermal activity. Home to mud pools, geysers, a living Maori village, a luge track & so much more, Rotorua has something to offer everyone!
One of the best ways to take in the geothermal beauty that is Rotorua is going to Whakarewarewa Valley. Now I know it’s quite a mouthful and sounds confusing to pronounce but this is where you’ll get a taste of real Maori culture by visiting a village that still uses the geothermal activity for all sorts of day to day activities. From washing clothing, cooking food & heating their homes the geysers provide essentials for all the families who live here.
With entry, you’ll be taken on a tour and given the history behind the village and the people who live there, experience a traditional Maori cultural dance & get to taste food that is cooked using the geothermal activity within. If that leaves you wanting more, be sure to check out the incredible redwood forest for the walking paths & mountain bike trails and even the incredible luge track where you and your friends/family can try your hand at one of the best ways to see the town from above, with a gondola ride to the top and racing each other to the bottom.
5- WETA WORKSHOP IN WELLINGTON
Continue all the way Southbound to the bottom of the North Island and you’ll find Windy Welly as I was informed. The capital of New Zealand and the second highest populated city in the country, and also a point of exit if you’re looking to take the ferry to the South Island to continue exploring. But, before you go be sure to embrace that inner (or outer) nerd of yours by stopping in at the WETA workshop.
You’ll need to book a tour to get inside the workshop itself, but the gift shop(aka Cave) is open to the public and from the road, you’ll be able to get a sense of what it’s got in store for you. Orcs surround the outside grounds as well as a multitude of other creatures born & shown by WETA designs. Husband and Wife time Tania & Richard are the two behind the conception of WETA designs and have brought to life some of the most incredible characters, from that of The Hobbit to The Adventures of Tin Tin and even Avatar (just to name a few).
On your tour through the workshop, a ridiculously talented artist/staff member will guide you through of the highlights of the space, the creations that have been built in that very room and the history behind WETA designs and all the projects they have been behind. It’s an incredible way to get behind the scenes of some of your all-time favourite films as well as get up close & personal with some insanely cool creatures.
6- BEN LOMOND SADDLE, QUEENSTOWN
The Adventure Capital of the World. Paragliding, Luging, Skydiving, Bungee Jumping, the list really is endless when it comes to adventure sports in Queenstown. But, if death-defying activities that terrify your mum & dad aren’t your cup of tea then I may have something you’ll enjoy. The Ben Lomond trail is one that my friend & I stumbled upon during our week in Queenstown but it definitely became the highlight (even though it kicked our butts).
If you want to save your strength you can ride the gondola from the town site up to a part of the trail and continue onwards from there. Or if you’re feeling ambitious, you can hike up from town (which is what we did), when you get to the gondola you’ll continue onwards & upwards. The trails are incredibly well marked and you’ll soon see the Ben Lomond track signs and know you’re headed in the right direction.
On your way up, be sure to stop (and catch your breath) but also look backwards down the way you’ve just come & marvel at the incredible view. The track should take 2.5-3 hours return depending on your speed & photo op stops but it will be all worth it when you finally crush the last steep incline and get to look out over Queenstown at almost 2000 meters above the town. Relax & enjoy the views as much as you can before you head back down & treat yourself to that gondola ride back to town for a cold pint (you deserve it) & revel in your accomplishment!
7- DISCOVER DUNEDIN
The second largest city on the South Island and a place I myself never planned to visit, but with a last minute change in plans I wound up spending several days here and loving every minute of it. The city is ripe with culture, food, art & some incredible views.
Best known for being home to the steepest street in the World, Baldwin Street is something not to miss. Whether you’re ambitious enough to test your feet at walking up or just want to get a view of the street that at only 350 meters can take 10+ minutes to walk up because of the vertical incline. In my opinion, the best way to explore Dunedin is by foot.
Take off downtown for the day and scope out all the incredible architecture and history in the buildings. Feeling more like The UK than New Zealand with all the impressive universities and heritage buildings it definitely leaves you feeling like you’ve stepped into a Harry Potter-esque world. And once you’ve gotten your fill of the city & all the food/drink it has on offer get those tramping boots out and head towards the coastline where you’ll be surprised that such beauty and nature lives so close to such history and architecture. And if you’ve still got steam left, as well as time for the rest of your trip, be sure not to miss Lanarch Castle, the only Castle in New Zealand.
The view from the top where the “castle lies” is sure to impress any of its visitors and another spot to make you feel like you’ve stepped into another world.
8- THE CATLINS
This stretch of coastline can easily be reached on a day trip out of Invercargill or Balclutha. Whichever direction you come from you’ll be sure to be nothing short of stunned by the views that await you. Ruggedly beautiful and sparsely populated, the Catlins coast attracts sea lions as well as seals & most famous, the yellow-eyed penguins that reside on the rocky shores. One of the most highly sought out places as you tour the coast is Nugget Point where you’ll get a stunning view of the peninsula with a lighthouse at the end. This is also somewhere to be on the lookout for sea lions.
When I visited this particular spot we were lucky enough to find the beach lined with sleeping sea lions & even got the opportunity to see 2 wrestling down the beach. While there are numerous highlights along the way, several stand outs I highly recommend stopping to see include; Purakaunui Falls, some of the most photographed falls on the South Island, Curio Bay a spot where turquoise waters meet white washed cliffs leaving you to think you could just be in Ireland and Roaring Bay, a natural habitat for yellow-eyed penguins.
9- MOUNT COOK
Hands up if you love the mountains! Alright, so I’m assuming everyone raised their hands because how can you not love the mountains?! Okay, I digress, even if it’s just my love affair talking here Mount Cook was my absolute favourite place on the South Island & for good reason. As soon as you arrive you will instantly feel like the smallest creature on Earth because of how close the mountains are to you here. Aoraki or Cloud Piercer as it was originally named, is the highest mountain in the whole country, coming in at nearly 12, 300 feet.
Even if you aren’t an expert climber you’ll have plenty of trails to choose from, all of which are basically right out your front door no matter what style of accommodation you book (luxury hotels, hostels & campsites are all available in the town). One of the most frequented trails includes the Hooker Valley Track which takes you from the of Mount Cook village in a 5km roundtrip trail.
One of the most scenic and getting you right up close to Mount Cook itself and is the closest you’ll get on a walking trail. You’ll be able to spot glaciers (no matter what time of year you visit) from here and see just what makes this village so impressive. The Tasman Glacier is my second recommendation for your time in Mount Cook. There are several options (which depend on the season you visit) to get you up close in personal with the glaciers including jet boat tours and heli-skiing, but if you’re on a budget you can definitely drive out and look at them from the shores as well.
10- MILFORD SOUND
Claiming to be New Zealand’s Number 1 tourist attraction, this is a place that should absolutely NOT be missed by anyone. Running inland about 15 km from the Tasman sea, the Fiordland National Park is best experienced on the water (in my opinion). Only a few hours drive from Queenstown it’s a solid day trip, which you should book ahead as it does tend to attract a fair few people after all. While adventures generally tend to be more fun with the sun shining, seeing Milford sound in the rain is nothing to be disappointed about.
On the day of our cruise through the sound, we were gifted with mist & rain creating an other Worldly experience and producing dozens of “new” waterfalls that may not exist if it weren’t for the rain. You’ll be gifted with incredible views heading out into Milford Sound from the dock and each turn will surprise you with lush vegetation, incredible natural waterfalls and you may even get lucky and spot from local wildlife; seals, penguins, dolphins & even humpback whales have been known to call the sound home. So keep your eyes peeled, bundle up & disregard the rain as an “unlucky” moment. You’ll be glad you did when you’re face to face with a waterfall!
Laura is a self-proclaimed wanderluster extraordinaire who has spent the last 6 years exploring the world & her own backyard. From working in a little beach town on Australia’s East Coast, to sliding down an active volcano in Nicaragua, climbing up 1400 vertical wooden steps in Hawaii to sailing thousands of feet in the air behind a boat on New Zealand’s North Island. There is so much of the world she has yet to see, so many people she has yet to meet & she has no plans to stop exploring anytime soon. Follow Laura on her blog She Who Wanders.
*All photos by Laura Oxley.