Top Ten Things to See and Do in New Zealand
My half-sister Linda had married a New Zealander, Hamish, years ago and lived in an area called Kati Kati. I figured it would be foolish to travel that far and not drop by and pay her a visit. Besides not seeing them both for a looong time, they had two children, Tor and Bjorn whom I had never met. I’m not, and especially not seven years ago, a big fan of kids but I figured since they were my nephews it would do me good to meet them.
Interestingly enough, when I finally got my trip together, Hamish and Linda had moved down to Paekakariki, on the Kapiti Coast, a 45-minute train ride outside of Wellington. While they still had their place in Kati Kati, they rented a wee (and I do mean wee) house in this wee town in order to be close to Hamish’s work.
Hamish was the key grip for ALL of the Lord of The Rings Movies, which meant he basically worked from 1999-2003 on it. My sister and him are actually good friends with Peter Jackson and have worked as grips on almost all his films from Brain Dead to Heavenly Creatures to The Frighteners. I got to hear a LOT of gossip about the film and eventually got to visit the set itself. But that happened a few years later.
Anyway, to make this story short, I flew down to New Zealand, spent two weeks in Paekakariki and Wellington and two weeks during a Magic Bus tour of the South Island.
The country left such a lasting impact on me that even though I thoroughly enjoyed my five months in Australia afterwards, I still yearned for my time in NZ.
Fortunately, I was able to return to New Zealand three years later, as I arranged to attend the Auckland Institute of Technology and start my brilliant career in Communications. It was a three-year Bachelors but I only stayed for just over one year. Circumstance and fate led me back home to Canada.
What’s the point of all this? Well NZ made such an impression on me after two weeks that I returned years later with all intentions to move. That’s gotta mean it’s pretty special. Also, because I was somewhat of a “local,” for a year at least, I got to see and do some pretty amazing things, things that the average tourist wouldn’t know about.
So without further ado, here is Top Ten List of Things to See and Do in New Zealand:
1. Milford Sound – This goes without saying. No trip to New Zealand is complete without seeing this justifiably famous park. Yes, it might be a bit out of the way and a pain to get to, but it’s worth it. Just prepare for rain. Lots and lots of rain.
2. Lake Wanaka – Wanaka often gets overshadowed by its more famous neighbour, Queenstown, even though its scenery is just as stunning, its activities are just as mind-blowing and it’s less touristy. Its easy to get to and its location makes it a convenient base for exploring Makaroa (the Siberia Experience is highly recommended) and Queenstown.
3. Te Anua Located further south than Milford Sound, Te Anua is just as beautiful, made even more so thanks to its isolation and “off the beaten path” feel. It’s the starting point for exploring the remote Doubtful and Dusky sounds, houses the well-traversed Kepler and Routeburn tracks (known as the Walking Capital of the World) and a gorgeous lake just ripe for exploring.
4. The East Cape – The East Cape is the tiny eastern section of the South Island. It has the highest Maori influence of any place in the country and is dotted with down-to-earth and traditional towns. The surf-friendly city of Gisborne and the Art-Deco influenced structure of Napier provide a cosmopolitan twist among the capes verdant forest and fern-covered gullies.
5. The Otago Peninsula – This peninsula is conveniently located near the scenic and Scottish town of Dunedin (which literally means “little Edinburgh”). For all your wildlife needs, the Otago Peninsula is your one stop shop. Where else can you see sea lions up close, little blue penguins at your feet, big Hoiho penguins frolicking in green meadows with sheep and the mighty albatross? I highly recommend this tour company.
6. Punakaiki – A small settlement on the West Coast of the South Island, its mainly known as a quick bus stop to see the famous “Pancake Rocks.”
But aside from these Dali-esque, sea-scuplted formation, Punakaiki has lush rainforests, best seen by kayaking or walking up the Pororari River, and a wild, desolate wind-swept coast dotted with New Zealand’s only native palm tree, the Nikau Palm.
The area also boasts a wonderful backpackers.
7. Nelson – This happens to be my favourite city in the whole country. Aside from its small-town charm, huge array of quality hostels and encompassing scenery, its biggest draw is its location. It’s a great base for exploring the transcendent Nelson Lakes National Park and the lush Abel Tasman National Park. While Abel Tasman is a lot more visited and well-known than Nelson Lakes, they are both a hiker, kayaker and photographer’s paradise and crucial to any trip to the country.
8. The Alpine Tranzscenic Train Ride – Proclaimed the “Most Scenic Train Journey in the World” this four-hour train ride from Christchurch on the South Island’s East Coast to Greymouth on the West Coast passes through towering, tussocked peaks, isolated ranches and sub-tropical rainforest. Arthur’s Pass is the stop in the middle of the journey and well-worth spending a couple of days, no matter what the season. Staying at these cottages will make your stay extra memorable.
9. A weekend in the Marlborough Sounds – The Marlborough Sounds are what many people see upon their visit to the South Island…the Interislander ferry passes through them on route to terminal town of Picton. While most people pick up and go from there, my advice would be to plan for a couple of days in the sounds. Most of the accommodations in the sounds are wonderfully isolated, some accessible only by water taxi. This is an excellent place to recharge in the luxurious landscape whether it be kayaking among whales and seals or walking through the verdant hills.
10. Kaikoura – This South Island town is justifiably popular for its Whale Watching excursions, but it has other activities such as dolphin and seal swimming, shark diving, hiking and skiing that make it so much more than the best place to spot a Sperm Whale. A variety of good backpackers, wild shores and mild climate make this a great place to visit, rain or shine….but plan for rain ;)
As you can see, the majority of these places are in the South Island. This is just because the South Island is a lot more geographically diverse than the North Island. Where else can you go from palm-fringed beaches to glaciers in the course of a few hours?
If planning a trip to New Zealand, it is possible to see everything in a few weeks. But believe me, if you really want to get the best of it, plan for at least a month, get the BBH guide (rates the backpackers and hostels in NZ so you know when you are staying at an awesome place) and rent a car. The Kiwi Experience and Magic Bus tours are a great intro (Magic is a tad more respectable as the Kiwi Experience is generally full of drunk, shagging Brits...if you've come to NZ to do that I suggest you save your money and stay at home...or go to Amsterdam) but it can’t compare with the freedom of the open road.
Finally, after nearly 7 years, I am going back to New Zealand, a place where parts of my heart still remain after all these years. I am going for three weeks in December 2009 for my bestie's wedding and dragging my bf along with me, where we will spend a glorious week up North on the white sand beaches of Waiheke Island and Bay of Plenty and then two weeks touring the South Island in a campervan. Bliss!