North Island

In a nutshell Maori culture, cosmopolitan cities and volcanic splendour.

Did you know? Auckland has more than 50 volcanic cones in the region.

Top spots Bay of Islands, Cape Reinga, Rotorua, Taupo, Tongariro National Park, Napier, Wellington.

New Zealand’s two main islands are distinctly different. The North offers subtropical rainforest and beaches, hissing and bubbling volcanic regions, accessible Maori culture, cosmopolitan cityscapes and, it goes without saying, some superlative-defying scenery.

Auckland is New Zealand’s largest urban sprawl and most travellers start here. Set between two large harbours, the City of Sails is fat on culture from all different walks of life. As well as a lively nocturnal scene and a vast selection of multicultural eateries, it’s not shy on scare-yourself-stupid adrenaline activities. The 328m Sky Tower allows great views over the city, as well as the opportunity to perform the 192m ‘Sky Jump’, while you can both climb and bungee from the Auckland Harbour Bridge.

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Heading into Northland, the Bay of Islands attracts plenty of visitors. With quiet coves, soft sandy beaches, sparkling waters, boisterous dolphins and an interesting history, you can see why. From Paihia, you can swim with dolphins, tour the islands by boat or indulge in many a water sport. Further up, at Matauri Bay, you can dive on the bombed Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior. Ninety Mile Beach offers good walking tracks and campsites, as well as stunning beach views edged by the pine forest that covers most of the western side of the peninsula.

At Cape Reinga, the country’s northernmost point, you can watch the Tasman Sea and the Pacific Ocean collide before sand-boarding on the giant dunes.

South and east of Auckland, the Coromandel boasts dense scenic bushland, superb unspoilt beaches, great surf and some pretty, placid townships. As well as the opportunity to make your own bone carving and the Coromandel coastal walk, the famous Hot Water Beach has visitors dig their own hole in the sand to sit in a deliciously warm personalised bath.

Heading south, the Waitomo Caves are one of New Zealand’s natural marvels, offering a variety of adventure, from some serious caving, climbing and abseiling to black-water rafting and caverns endlessly twinkling with glowworms. The oh-so English rolling hills of Matamata are home to the only piece of The Lord Of The Rings set still standing, the idyllic Hobbiton.

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The heavy sulphur smell of Rotorua is unavoidable, but quick to get used to at the North Island’s tourist capital. The drawcards are its famous Maori interactive cultural performances, its lake and geothermal attractions, including bubbling mud pools and geysers, plus natural hot springs and mud baths. The famous Pohutu geyser ejaculates hot water 30m up into the air.

Taupo has ample beauty and bare-knuckle rides in equal measure. Nestled amid the mountains and by a stunning, serene lake, the town has the country’s most picturesque bungee, over an idyllic river, plus jet-boating and skydiving facilities.

The World Heritage-listed Tongariro National Park has action aplenty year-round. As well as two snowfields operating in winter, in summer the Tongariro Crossing is rightly billed as the country’s best day walk. Through the lavic moonscapes and the heart of Mordor, it’s like being on another planet.

The more adventurous can climb Mt Ruapehu, a live volcano otherwise known as Mt Doom. It’s an exhausting scramble to the summit, but the 360° views are incredible. Out east, it’s possible to climb Mt Taranaki, another live volcano, and return to civilisation in one challenging day.

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In the summer, the beaches are as good as any in the country and the tramping elsewhere in Egmont National Park is superb. Locals boast you can ski and surf here in the same day. Another wonderful freak of the natural world is Whakaari (or White Island). This 200,000-year-old isle is made up of three volcanic peaks – one of which is the country’s most active – and the island incessantly hisses and spits steam like some seriously angry Tolkien-esque monster.

The East Cape is a long way off the beaten track and the drive itself is narrow and winding, but it’s worth it. Climb the East Cape lighthouse at Te Araroa and be the first person in the world to see the sunrise that day or just marvel at the scenery.
Boasting more vineyards in the region than Bordeaux, wine from the Hawkes Bay region has won several international awards and is generally inexpensive.

Napier is a beautiful seaside town famous for its Art Deco buildings. With more cafés per head than New York, you could say they like a cuppa in New Zealand’s capital, Wellington. Set around a beautiful harbour at the foot of North Island, this is easily the country’s most appealing city. Nightlife and the food scene are excellent, while music and other artistic endeavours are also bountiful. It’s a great spot to relax and stock up on urban refinement before strapping on the backpack in preparation for the South Island’s unrivalled splendour.

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South Island

In a nutshell Is this what heaven looks like, Daddy?

Did you know? The west coast glaciers move so fast that when a plane crashed 3.5km from the bottom, it made it down in just six and-a-half years.

Top spots Marlborough Sounds, Abel Tasman National Park, Franz Josef and Fox glaciers, Mt Cook, Wanaka, Queenstown, Milford Sound and Fiordland National Park.

While the North Island certainly has its charms, ask the locals where you should go in New Zealand and nine out of 10 will direct you to the South Island. While the north is spectacular enough, its southern sibling boasts the lion’s share of all that makes the country so outstanding.

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The labyrinth of waterways that forms Marlborough Sounds offers some of the country’s best eco-tourism attractions, like dolphin-spotting. Envied nationwide for its climate and lifestyle, Nelson is a laidback coastal town with numerous vineyards and seductive beaches within easy reach. A major South Island attraction, the Abel Tasman National Park houses one of New Zealand’s favourite walkways, following a tranquil coastal path through lush native forest and around beautiful, golden, sandy bays. As well as walking the track, you can go swimming with seals or paddle around the bays in kayaks.

Further west, the alternative crowd have found a good home in Takaka, Golden Bay, transforming the town into something of an artistic shrine. The tourists haven’t found Golden Bay yet and the locals, you suspect, are happy about that. Here you can visit caves and one of the most pure freshwater springs in the world. Farewell Spit is the world’s largest natural sandbar, home to some humungous sand dunes, which continue to move north, and some amazing birdlife.

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Marine wonders

In the north-east, gorgeous Kaikoura, replete with snow-topped mountains dropping into the moody sea, is a marine life wonder world. Attracted by the abundance of food found off the continental shelf a kilometre offshore, unique topography has made Kaikoura arguably the prime whale-spotting location in the world. The dolphin swimming here is also highly praised and reliable. Fur seal colonies bask on the rocks of the tiny peninsula and you can dive, snorkel and kayak with the inquisitive giant slugs, or simply take a walk and watch them wallowing in the sun. The remarkable albatross visits here and there’s also shark diving.

So English in feel Cambridge could sue, Christchurch is the main urban centre for the South Island. ‘The Garden City’ is set in one of the driest and flattest areas of New Zealand, known as the Canterbury Plains. You can take a punt down the river or listen to the eccentric rantings of a (pre-Lord Of The Rings) wizard in the town’s main square. A drive south meanders across the vast Canterbury Plains and onto the foothills of the Southern Alps, providing some of New Zealand’s most stunning panoramas. Lake Tekapo is a superb picnic spot offering snow-tipped peaks guarding a massive glacial lake.

For serious mountaineering and mesmerising views of some handsome peaks, you can’t beat Mt Cook National Park, another World Heritage-listed area. The tallest mountain in Australasia is Aoraki/Mt Cook at 3754m. You can stay overnight in a mountain hut, surrounded by magical snowcapped peaks. And let’s not forget one of the biggest glaciers outside the Himalayas, the Tasman Glacier. Plan to have your ‘finding yourself spiritually’ moment here.

The west coast of New Zealand is a spectacular drive perched on the western flank of the Southern Alps, meeting rugged cliffs and windswept beaches aplenty. The Pancake Rocks of Punakaiki are worth a visit, as is Hokitika, as good a spot as any for some white-water rafting, and you can take time out to design your own jade pendant.

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Thrill-seeking aplenty

The coast’s main attractions are the alluring Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers. Take a guided day walk and get happily lost in the crevasses and canyons of an ice kingdom labyrinth or take a helicopter ride to the top, then skydive over them. Set by another huge lake and with the snowtipped peaks in the background, Wanaka is a small yet gorgeous location. Often compared to Queenstown 20 years ago, you can do pretty much every adrenaline activity here bar a bungee.

If New Zealand is the adrenaline capital of the world, then Queenstown is where the king of thrill-seeking would sit on his throne. People flock from all over the world to enjoy the outdoor activities available in this mountainous expanse. With jet-boating, skydiving, skiing, canyoning, hang-gliding, numerous and varied bungee jumps (from a parachute, a platform, a bridge, a canyon swing, etc), white-water rafting and white-water sledging, your adrenaline glands will soon be crying out for mercy. This is prime Lord Of The Rings territory, too.

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Round the corner of the regal Lake Wakatipu is tiny Glenorchy, a relatively secluded town ideal as a launchpad for many of the spectacular walking tracks in the area. And just when you think the world doesn’t get any more beautiful, there’s World Heritage-listed Fiordland National Park and, in particular, the much-photographed Milford Sound.

Because of the extraordinary amount of rain that falls in this area, Milford Sound is a majestic collage of mossy bushland, plunging peaks, ubiquitous fairytale waterfalls and long tracts of dark water, fed on all sides by myriad waterfalls. Take a boat cruise or kayak with dolphins and seals. It’s a dreamy, mysterious place that can’t fail to leave an impression. Very slightly less dramatic, Doubtful Sound is much larger, though less accessible.

New Zealand’s unfairly ignored third largest island, Stewart Island, is well worth a visit, too, especially for some peace and quiet, kiwi-spotting and another excellent tramping track. The vast majority of the isle is uninhabited, swamped with dense bushland.

Lastly, Dunedin, a university town and originally a Scottish settlement, offers Edwardian and Victorian architecture, an exciting nocturnal scene and access to the Otago Peninsula. There you can often spy rare yellow-eyed penguins, fur seals, whales, dolphins, orcas, and albatross.



Photo: John McGill, Getty