Super Seven - North Island
Cape Reinga Despite the lengthy drive from the main cities, Cape Reinga is worth going the distance to visit. Described as "The ultimate northern New Zealand experience" and one that won't disappoint. You'll see the northern tip of the country where the Tasman Sea meets the Pacific Ocean. There's a scenic coastal walk with beautiful clifftop views en route prior to reaching the lighthouse and a cool coordinate signpost. This spot also has spiritual significance and regarded as a sacred site of the Maori, as it's where their spirits head on the final journey. Depending on the amount of time you have, you can also hike down into one of the bays and relax on the beach.
Bay of Islands
A 3 hour drive north of Auckland and easy to combine with Cape Reinga, you can reach the picturesque spot called "Bay of Islands". The coastal town to use as a base is Paihia, which is a small quaint place with some notable attractions itself. The number one excursion is the half day "Hole in the Rock Dolphin Cruise" which departs from Paihia Wharf every morning and afternoon. You'll get to see the beautiful coastline, wild dolphins, sail through the rock itself, and take a stop at one of the beach islands for some hiking and bird watching.
For Paihia itself, you can stroll along the waterfront where there's many shops and restaurants, as well as some beautiful beach spots to relax. There's also a beautiful stone-made church called St Pauls Anglican Church. Within a 10 minute drive, you can also reach Haruru Falls. The waterfall itself is only 5 meters high, but you do have the option to reach it via an organised kayak tour.
Putting it out there from the start, this place is still an enjoyable stop even if you're not a fan of the movies. The popularity of New Zealand as a whole, has risen dramatically since the Lord of the Rings franchise began in the early 2000's with many movie locations dotted around the country. The ultimate stop for fans is definitely Hobbiton, and this is your chance to visit the shire yourself. Organised tours depart every 30 minutes throughout the day where you'll take a walking route through the shire ending at the Green Dragon pub for a beer. As of December 2023, the tour has been enhanced to include a visit inside one of the hobbit houses with a replica internal set up from the movie. The photo opportunities on this tour are superb!
Note: When in the Green Dragon, see if you can locate the wooden chair signed by Sean Astin himself!
The small town of Rotorua set on the namesake lake is renowned for its geothermal activity and offers plenty to see. The many sights include geysers, bubbling mud pools, and sulphur lakes. To maximise time, you can visit establishments such as Waiotapu Thermal Wonderland where you'll be able to see a range of different spots all within close proximity of each other whilst strolling along a boardwalk. Many of the thermal lakes have been turned into mini spa facilities on an entrance fee basis, so be aware that this isn't quite the raw outdoor experience you're perhaps used to in other countries.
Aside from the geothermal sights, Rotorua is also famed for its white water rafting. The Kaituna rafting location is only a 20 minute drive from Rotorua and comes with a "world class" reputation from its peers. The highlight is being able to experience Tutea Falls, which is the highest commercially rafted waterfall in the world at 7 meters. I booked this experience via Kaituna Rafting because they're locally operated, well priced and offer quality photos of the whole experience.
A less-visited wildlife spot within an hours drive of Auckland is the Muriwai Gannet Colony, which is located next to a beautiful beach that's popular with surfers. This seems to be one of the lesser-known spots in the country, but definitely deserves a visit. Next to the car park, there's a short walking track that leads to a viewing platform where you'll be able to see approximately 1,200 pairs of gannets nesting. Out to sea, there's two further vertical-sided islands where you'll see more nesting. For drone owners, you can get some incredible footage of the gannets here, as well as the beach itself. Timing is important, as the nesting happen from August to March each year.
In my personal opinion, Wellington was definitely the best city on the north island. Yes, the nickname of "The Windy City" is accurate, but that doesn't detract from what it offers visitors. The city has a pleasant waterfront with the iconic Wellington sign on display, which can be followed up by a visit to Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. It's free entry, spread across multiple floors, very informative, and often regarded as the best museum in the country. Other notable sites are the Wellington Cable Car, Beehive Building, and the City Gallery with the iconic "Quasi" hand perched on top of the building.
There's one stop just outside of the city called Zeelandia, which is the world's first fully fenced eco sanctuary and home to some incredibly unique birds. I feel that best value is taking one of the organised tours on offer so you're with an expert to point out the wildlife along the route.
Despite being one of the major cities in the country, I was a little disappointed with what Auckland had to offer. At 328 metres tall, the Sky Tower is the tallest tower in the Southern Hemisphere, so that fact alone makes it a worthy stop. Adrenaline junkies do have the option to jump off the observation platform on a cable.
You've also got Albert Park and Auckland Botanic Garden that are nice spots for a pleasant for a stroll. There's also a handful of museums in the city, but none of notable interest or on the same level as Wellington in my opinion.
Super Seven - South Island
Abel Tasman National Park
The smallest National Park in the country, but Abel Tasman has a good balance of relaxation and adventure. You can use Sea Shuttles from the coastal town of Kaiteriteri to the National Park itself. For hikers, I'd recommend the coastal walk from Tonga Quarry to Awaroa Lodge which passes along a beautiful forest trail and some stunning beaches. From a wildlife perspective, you can see New Zealand fur seals lounge on the rocks around the edge of Tonga Island, as well as plenty of bird species whilst on land. Keep your eyes open for Split Apple Rock which is a geological rock formation just off the coast.
Franz Josef is a hospitable town serves the glacier of the same name. The glacier is a World Heritage Site and rightfully so, as it's spectacularly beautiful. The main excursion here is the heli-hike which enables you to get up close and hike along the actual glacier, but as I can sadly verify, this is very weather dependent and can often result in cancellations. There's a handful of observation decks within a 10 minute drive of the town with simple boardwalk tracks where you can view the glacier, albeit from a distance.
For adrenaline junkies, I would highly recommend a skydive here, as Skydive Franz Josef & Fox Glacier is rated in the top 9 places to skydive globally by Red Bull. You can even jump from a height of 18,000 feet, which is unheard of in many areas of the world. The views are mind blowing with Franz Josef Glacier on display, as well as glacier lakes, and the unobstructed coastline. I've done plenty of skydives globally, but this one for sure is close to the top of the list.
Sat on the shore of the islands Lake Wakatipu is the bustling resort town of Queenstown. There's plenty to see and do, as well as it being a convenient location to explore elsewhere. Skyline Queenstown is a gondola ride that takes you high up above the city offering panoramic views from an observation platform, along with the usual restaurant, coffee shop, and souvenir stores. If you're the active type, there's also mountain bike trails and go karting available. For shoppers, Queenstown Mall is in the heart of the town and can be combined with a nice picturesque walk along the lake before finishing the afternoon at the iconic Fergburger.
Just outside of the city, you have Kawarau Bridge which is home to the first ever commercial bungee jump in the world. It's not the biggest, but it's literally the founding father across the entire world. You can combine this with a visit to the historic Arrowtown, which was founded during the gold rush back in the 1860's.
Often topping the list as the most visited tourist attraction in the country is Milford Sound, and deservedly so. Driving is the most common way to visit, but I chose the flight excursion from Queenstown Airport and was not disappointed. The flight itself is very picturesque and a photographers delight as you'll pass by fjords, snow-capped mountains, glacier-carved valleys, crater lakes, and even beaches. I felt like I'd conquered Milford Sound before I'd even arrived! There's a small aiport runway wedged between the fjords which is used as the entry point, prior to hopping on a short 10 minute bus ride to the ferry departure point.
The boat ride then takes you into the heart of Fiordland National Park where you'll have fjords on either side with cascading waterfalls down into the sea. The sheer size of the fjords is what surprised me the most! At the end of the day, it's difficult to decide if the scenic flight or the boat cruise was the top highlight, so at least this excursion gives you the opportunity to do both.
The tallest mountain in the country and also the original playground for Sir Edmund Hillary is Mount Cook. The region has 23 peaks over 3,000 metres, with the ideal spot to use as a base being Aoraki/Mt Cook Village. The driving route along State Highway 80 offers some spectacular views en route, where you'll literally be stopping the car every 5 minutes at the many observation points.
The two "do not miss" activities in the region are the Hooker Valley Track and Glacier Explorers. The Hooker Valley Track is is a walking trail offering great views of Mount Cook, and the glacier lake from various vantage points. It's a straightforward 3 hour return trip hike across flat terrain that crosses over three suspension bridges. The Glacier Explorers excursion gives you a completely different perspective of the region, as you're actually on a small speedboat heading across Abe Tasman Lake, where you get unobstructed views of the countries largest glacier whilst you weave in and out of floating icebergs.
There's a visitor centre in Mt Cook village which doubles up as a small museum where there's helpful staff who can answer any questions related to your visit. The nearby Hermitage Hotel is where majority of the excursions depart from and is also home to the Sir Edmund Hillary Museum, which gives a fascinating insight of the first man to conquer Everest.
Wanaka Perhaps the biggest surprise on my visit to the country was the town of Wanaka. It's certainly not a hidden gem, but it simply exceeded what I was expecting. The town itself is pleasant to stroll around with a clear walking path along the lake, which actually has 645 etched historical tiles noting significant events that took place both in New Zealand and around the world. Wanaka Lake is also home to the most popular tree in the country that's actually called "That Wanaka Tree". It's one solitary tree approx 30 metres from land and seems to thrive, despite the isolated location in the lake itself. Wanaka also has what I would regard as one of the best half day hikes I've ever done in the form of Roys Peak. Only a 5 minute drive from Wanaka town to the start point where there's a car park and toilet facilities. The hike itself is straightforward via a zigzagged trail which leads to a stunning panoramic viewpoint across the lake and Wanaka region. I'd allocate 4-5 hours for the round trip, which then gives ample time for photo opportunities and a spot of lunch. There's plenty of sheep en route, but no water filling facilities.
One of the lesser visited towns on the south island is Kaikoura, which is a coastal town known for its abundant wildlife. The town itself isn't anything special with just one main street lined with shops, cafes, and food joints, but the wildlife aspect definitely didn't disappoint. From land, there's various spots where you can view the Kaikoura seal colony, but majority of the excursions are water based. You can take a kayak tour around the Kaikoura Peninsula and also head out on a boat for a whale watching tour. However, there's one attractions which seems to be very unique to this region, which is Dolphin Encounter. During this excursion, you have the opportunity to get into the ocean and swim with the acrobatic Dusky Dolphins in their own natural environment. Nobody is quite sure why the Dusky Dolphins are so interactive, so that part remains a mystery. You'll be given a dry suit to keep warm and a mask and snorkel set to get maximum value of the encounter. I can honestly say that the volume of dolphins was in the hundreds. There's also many spectators on board the boat who simply come along to admire the acrobatic display from the deck. I would definitely recommend booking in advance, as this activity fills up weeks in advance during the peak season of October to May.
Accommodation Advice - North Island
For the north island, I actually want to recommend a small hotel chain that have multiple locations in all your typical tourist places and they go by the name Bella Vista Motels. The chain is locally owned and operated, and have a good understanding of the facilities that travellers require. Their buildings all go by the same design, same interior, same facilities, and are easily recognisable. There's 27 in total, which are spread across both islands. I used the network multiple times and was very happy in regard to my key points of location, cost, and facilities (including free parking). You can check out their complete network here.
Accommodation Advice - South Island
My top pick on the south island is Absoloot Hostel in Queenstown. Yes it's a hostel, but they offer private rooms with en-suite bathroom, so there's options for every type of traveller. The location is in the heart of the town with many rooms offering views across Lake Wakatipu. There's so many worthwhile sights and restaurants within walking distance, which makes it a perfect base for short visits. The WiFi is more than capable to handle remote working requirements and there's also the ability to book excursions directly from reception. Worth noting that there's no restaurant inside the hostel, but there's many options within walking distance.
Food Factor - North Island
In the town of Rotorua, there's a Mexican restaurant in the centre called El Mexicano Zapata. This wasn't my original plan to eat here, but when I walked past and saw the sign "The best Mexican outside of Mexico" it instantly caught my attention (great marketing). Having been to Mexico multiple times, I can honestly say that the restaurant slogan could well be accurate. Offering an extensive menu of many popular Mexican dishes, as well as multiple options for vegetarians, all at a very reasonable price makes this place a winner. Very rare that I repeat a restaurant during my travels, but I went here more than once during my stay and can recommend the chicken enchiladas and the vegetarian burrito. In recent months, it's taken the top spot as number one restaurant in Rotorua, ahead of some rather expensively priced rivals, which is very pleasing to see.
Food Factor - South Island
My food recommendation on the south island is actually regarded as a global phenomenon in the burger community. Fergburger in Queenstown will have a queue lining up outside the door from morning until night, but it's so worth it. In my opinion, it's hands down the best burger I've ever eat. The location is in the heart of the town centre and isn't a large venue at all. There's minimal seat, so you may find that a take out order is your best option. There's American CNN newspaper article cut outs on the wall, as well as celebrity faces, so this is a place that's definitely got plenty of global hype over the years. Even the fries that accompany the burger are fantastic! Many will struggle to understand the fuss, considering it's "just a burger" so pop down and try it for yourself.
There's no notable guide to mention, as the country is very easy and straightforward to navigate around. You'll find that many excursions can be booked online ahead of your trip or even via the multiple tourist booths in each town. One thing I would absolutely recommend is car rental, which is something I looked into extensively given the fact my trip was a month long journey. From my research, the best priced company for a pick up from Auckland Airport on arrival was Alamo.
If you're intending to use the inter-island ferry service between north and south, I'd also recommend booking this in advance, as I was very surprised at how limited the availability was. The company I used for this was Bluebridge Cook Straight Ferries.