New Zealand Travel Highlights
I’ve been lucky enough to spend the last three years exploring New Zealand, the home I never really appreciated until I moved overseas. This is a collection of highlights from all of those road trips, hikes and weekends away. You’ll probably notice this list of New Zealand travel highlights skews towards the South Island a bit – that’s because I’ve spent most of my time there (and it’s by far the better island!).
Best Beach: Whale Bay, Northland
With thousands of kilometres of coastline, New Zealand is clearly blessed with countless great beaches. It’s hard to choose just one, but if I had to (which I kinda do for this post) I’d go for Whale Bay on the Tutukaka Coast, Northland. You can get a nice view of the beach from the track above, the sand is white, the water is clear, and it was deserted when we visited. It’s also the only New Zealand beach that I can ever remember swimming at, so that tipped it over the line for me.
Runners-up: Goat Bay, Abel Tasman National Park | St Clair Beach, Dunedin | Cannibal Bay, the Catlins
Best Coastline: Abel Tasman National Park
With the highest concentration of stunning beaches in New Zealand, Abel Tasman National Park is an easy choice for the best stretch of coastline in New Zealand. Apart from all the great beaches there are also plenty of viewpoints and lots of native trees. Being a national park, there’s hardly any development either. You can do the 3-5-day Abel Tasman Coastal Track or head there on a day walk instead – it’s only an hour or so from Nelson so it’s easy to visit.
Runners-up: Marlborough Sounds | Cape Reinga, Northland | Otago Peninsula, Dunedin
Best Waterfall: Marokopa Falls, Waitomo
For this one I decided to pick a waterfall that you could walk to (so none of the ones you can see from a distance in places like Fiordland National Park). Marokopa Falls only takes 5-10 minutes to walk to and the views-to-effort ratio is top-notch. You can get close this waterfall if you want, but you will get wet!
Runners-up: Devil’s Punchbowl Falls, Arthur’s Pass | Bridal Veil Falls, Raglan | Trident Falls, Franz Josef
Best Short Hike: Tasman Glacier, Mount Cook National Park
If you’re not especially fit or active (or just aren’t a fan of long walks), you’ll still find dozens of walks in New Zealand that fit your level. And just because they’re short doesn’t mean they’re any less scenic than the longer walks, especially in places like Mount Cook National Park. The Tasman Glacier Track takes around 60 – 90 minutes and there’s only one main uphill section. The views are incredible – you can see the lake, glacier and surrounding mountains from above (as well as some other small lakes along the way) and then head down to the lake edge for the best view of the lot.
Runners-up: Glenorchy Walkway, Queenstown | Benmore Peninsula Track, Waitaki Valley | Sandymount Track, Dunedin |
Best Day Hike: Gertrude Saddle, Fiordland National Park
You can only do the Gertrude Saddle Track in summer (it’s generally too dangerous until late December) and in good weather, but if you manage to strike the right conditions you’ll be raving about it for years. There is a huge variety of views on this track. First, you walk through the picturesque Gertrude Valley (just do this section if you want a nice short walk) and then you head up the hill past a waterfall, a black lake and then up to Gertrude Saddle itself with its amazing view towards Milford Sound.
Runners-up: Ben Lomond, Queenstown | Hooker Valley, Mount Cook National Park | Tongariro Crossing, Central North Island
Best Rock Formation: Pancake Rocks, Punakaiki
Being a land of fault lines and volcanoes, New Zealand has its fair share of surreal rock formations. My favourite is the Pancake Rocks on the West Coast of the South Island. There’s a short track which takes you to a series of viewpoints above the rocks – go at sunset for the best photos.
Runners-up: Moeraki Boulders, Coastal Otago | The Organ Pipes, Dunedin | Castle Hill, Canterbury High Country
Best Stretch of River: Hokitika Gorge, West Coast
This was a hard one to choose as there are many scenic stretches of river in New Zealand. Hokitika Gorge is unique though – just look at that water! You can see it from a short track which takes you above the gorge and then down to the edge of the river. On a nice, sunny day it’s one of the prettiest spots in New Zealand (watch out for the sand-flies though).
Runners-up: Pororari River, West Coast | The Blue Pools, Mount Aspiring National Park | Taieri Gorge, Dunedin
Best Lake: Lake Wakatipu
There are heaps of scenic lakes in New Zealand, most of which sit below mountains on the South Island. Lake Wakatipu would have to be my favourite, mostly because you can see it from so many angles. From the beach at Queenstown Bay (right in the heart of Queenstown) to the views of it from Ben Lomond and Queenstown Hill, to the scenic road to Glenorchy, you’ll never get sick of looking at Lake Wakatipu.
Runners-up: Lake Manapouri, Fiordland National Park | Lake Pukaki, Mount Cook | Lake Rotoiti, Nelson Lakes National Park
Most Scenic Mountain Road: The Road to Mount Cook
This is another tough one. There are some beautiful drives through the mountains in New Zealand, especially around Queenstown. The road to Mount Cook is probably the best of the lot though. You get awesome views of some of New Zealand’s tallest mountains and its bluest lake (Lake Pukaki) and there are plenty of places to pull over and take it all in.
Runners-up: Queenstown to Glenorchy | Hakatere-Potts Road, Canterbury High Country | The road to Lake Ohau, Canterbury High Country
Most Scenic Coastal Road: The Road to French Pass and Bulwer, Marlborough Sounds
It’s quite a long drive out to French Pass, and you have to eventually go back the way you came, but you’re not going to beat these coastal views anywhere in New Zealand (or very few places around the world). This road, part of which is gravel, takes you high above the Marlborough Sounds and there are heaps of places to stop and enjoy the views. French Pass is a highlight, but don’t skip the road to Bulwer – we were pretty much the only ones on that road when we visited, and it was one of our favourite New Zealand travel experiences.
Runners-up: Dunedin to Oamaru (the scenic route) | Great Coast Road, West Coast | Tutukaka Coast / Karikari Peninsula, Northland
Best Town: Russel, Bay of Islands
This was a real toss up between Russel and Oamaru, but I thought I better give a bit more representation to the North Island. Russel is a former New Zealand capital city and is full of history. It’s also in the Bay of Islands, so you know there are some great views lurking nearby. Walk up Flagstaff Hill and you’ll see them!
Runners-up: Oamaru, North Otago | Arrowtown (near Queenstown) | Picton, Marlborough Sounds
Best City: Dunedin
Dunedin has everything you want from a travel destination. It’s home to some of the best beaches in New Zealand, some of its most scenic stretches of coastline (where you’ll find heaps of wildlife) and its best collection of old buildings. The city centre is compact and easy to explore, but you’ll want to get out onto the Otago Peninsula as well as the other side of the harbour (Port Chalmers, Heyward Point) where you’ll find plenty of hikes, viewpoints and beaches. Dunedin also features two waterfalls, lots of city viewpoints, New Zealand’s best street art and the Octagon, surely New Zealand’s best “town square” (obviously not a square though).
Best Boat Trip: Doubtful Sound, Fiordland National Park
You’ve heard of Milford Sound, but did you know there’s another sound nearby which is even better. OK, neither of them are technically “sounds” (they’re fiords), but that doesn’t matter. Doubtful Sound is similar to Milford Sound, only it’s bigger and has a far greater variety of views. You’ll need to take a tour to see it, which first starts with a boat trip across Lake Manapouri (a contender for the best lake in New Zealand). You then take a bus ride over to Doubtful Sound and start the journey – it’s expensive but New Zealand scenery doesn’t get any better than this — it’s easily one of my top five New Zealand travel highlights.
Runners-up: Bay of Islands cruise | Boat Trips in the Marlborough Sounds | Dolphin Spotting in Akaroa
Best Place to See Wildlife: The Otago Coastline
The Otago Coastline, stretching from Oamaru down to the Catlins, is the place to go to see New Zealand’s water-based wildlife. You can see penguins (little blue penguins and yellow-eyed penguins) in a few places, including Oamaru, Dunedin and the Catlins. You might also spot some dolphins in the Catlins (in Curio Bay, which is technically Southland, but it’s basically the same area) as well as sea lions and fur seals in a few different places. You can also see albatross in Dunedin and lots of native birds in the forests.
Runners-up: Kaikoura (whales, dolphins, seals) | Southern Alps (kea, a unique mountain parrot) | Akaroa (tiny dolphins)
Most Surreal Scenery: Waiotapu (Rotorua)
The geothermal area in the central North Island (mostly close to Rotorua) is where you’ll find some of the most surreal scenery in New Zealand. For brightly coloured pools you can’t beat Waiotapu — it’ll cost you to visit but it’s definitely worth it. The Champagne Pool is the highlight — such an interesting piece of nature!
Runners-up: Tongariro Crossing, Central North Island | Lake Pukaki (on a good day) | Moeraki Boulders, Coastal Otago
Best Place You’ve Probably Never Heard of: Hakatere Conservation Park
Popular mountain areas in New Zealand include Queenstown, Wanaka, Mount Cook and Lake Tekapo, but there’s another area nearby which gets far less attention. Hakatere Conservation Park (also known as the Ashburton Lakes) features lots of small lakes and some incredible mountain views. It’s best to go in winter when there is snow on the hills. There are a few walks in the area, including Mount Sunday, one of the best Lord of the Rings filming locations in New Zealand.
Runners-up: Timaru (I’d better give a mention to my place of birth) | Waitaki Valley | Nelson Lakes National Park
Best Lord of the Rings Filming Location: Mount Doom (Mount Ngauruhoe)
This volcano in the central North Island played a key role in the Lord of the Rings movies. It has an interesting red colour to it at the top and you’ll get the best views of it from the Tongariro Crossing, one of the best day hikes in New Zealand.
Best Burger: Fergburger, Queenstown
If you’re into burgers as much as I am you won’t want to leave Queenstown without trying a burger from Fergburger. You’ll probably have to line up for at least 10-15 minutes (probably more) for the honour, but they really are the best burgers in New Zealand. I’ve tried most of the them over the years and they’re all good. Eating a Fergburger at Queenstown Bay (just a couple of minutes’ walk away) is an awesome New Zealand travel experience.
Runners-up: ReBurger, Dunedin | Burgerfuel (various locations) | Burger Culture, Nelson
Best Pie: Fairlie Bakehouse
Pies are the perfect on the go snack or meal. You’ll most likely eat them while travelling from place to place (petrol station pies are a go to for us) but they can also be a bit more gourmet. The pies at Fairlie Bakehouse are just that – the roast pork pie (with crackling) was amazing. As for petrol station pies, you can’t go past a Jimmy’s mince and cheese pie. You’ll mostly find these in the lower South Island – so take advantage when you can!
Runners-up: I can’t think of three other pies right now — definitely eat a Jimmy’s mince and cheese pie though!
Are you planning a trip to New Zealand? Check out my other posts (I’ve written over 40 now) or head on over to my other blog, See the South Island, where I’ve written close to 200 posts on New Zealand’s South Island. Also, let me know your New Zealand travel highlights in the comments below!
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