Tongariro Northern Circuit: Conquering Mordor
The nine Great Walks are called great walks for a reason (well, apart form the Whanganui River Journey, which is actually a kayak trip). So all of them come highly recommended, especially those in the Fiordland region. But Tongariro National Park is arguably the most unique: all live volcanoes and semi-desert, hissing sulphur, bizarrely coloured pools and post-apocalyptic landscapes – it’s no wonder so much of Mordor was filmed here for those films.
The Northern Circuit can be done at a comfortable pace in three days, but if you don’t have time, and even if you only do one tramp in New Zealand, make it the Tongariro Crossing (part of the Northern Circuit). It takes just one day and it’s like walking on Mars.
Queenstown: Valhalla for adrenalin junkies
With its giant lake and charismatic mountains, Queenstown is gorgeous in its own right. But sitting back to relax is difficult in a town offering so many mentalist adrenalin mega hits. Jetboating, white water rafting and sledging, skiing, skydiving, paragliding and heaps more.
Oh, we nearly forgot it’s the home of the bungy jump – there are three here, plus two canyon swings – so go nuts! You’ll have to change your undies so often, it’s not even worth wearing any. Plus, there’s a plethora of Lord of the Rings sites, the best nightlife in the bottom half of the South Island (bar Dunedin) and even some half-decent wineries nearby. Oh, and it really is stunning, not least round the corner at gorgeous Glenorchy.
Wanaka: Queenstown’s younger brother
Only an hour from Queenstown is its younger, smaller, more softly-spoken, equally attractive brother. Its more famous sibling can be too hectic for some and Wanaka is the perfect antidote. It has almost all that Queenstown has: wineries, wonderful scenery, including the stunning Mount Aspiring National Park (good for mountaineering, tramping, etc), ski fields, great mountain biking, superlative skydiving, jetboating, must-do canyoning, Lord of the Rings lark… It really is a very spoilt part of New Zealand, if not the world. Silly name though, innit? Bit too close to wan…
Mt Cook National Park: New Zealand’s dashing iconic peak
As long as the clouds haven’t hooded its handsome looks, which they often do, your first full sighting of Mt Cook should stop you in your tracks. Despite being small by world standards, New Zealand’s highest is one dashing mountain. Think gleaming black rock and glistening snow reaching skywards like a natural cathedral, with a vast glacial lake spreading a striking blue-green out in front of it.
Its beauty is only intensified by its sense of danger; professional mountaineers die every year trying to conquer this technically difficult peak. A drive into the Mount Cook village, along the lakeside, will be accompanied by the unerring sounds of avalanches and we defy you not to stop and take photos more than once.
If you’re not much of a mountaineer, there are several short walks in the area, all yielding good mountain and/or glacier views. If you have time, we strongly recommend the painful but highly rewarding four-hour climb to stay overnight in the Mueller Hut (book at DOC).
Skydiving: Until now you haven’t lived
It goes a little bit like this: “Ha ha, of course I’m brave enough to needlessly jump out of a perfectly good plane. I’m no whimp. And it’s so cheap, too. Here’s the money. Oh hell, but, what if…? Ah, too late. No, I’m not nervous? Not me, noooowayjose. Oh, it’s only a very small plan isn’t it. And you’re going to strap yourself to me? Yuk. Oh feck, we’re quite high up now. What a profoundly beautiful country. I’m glad you’re strapped to me, quiet calm man. Oh, the door’s open. Move towards it? Are you mad? But… No, no thanks. Okay, I’m a big snivelling whimp! I… I…I…woooohooooothisisthebestfuckingfeelingintheworld betterthanallthedrugsi’veeverhadandallthegreatsex andallthegreatsexongreatdrug sandicanflyi’mabiiiiiirrrrrrrdddddd!”
Honestly, you haven’t lived…
Wellington: The ultimate urban fix
New Zealand’s most attractive city, the picturesque capital is awash with cafés and culture. With green hills reaching up behind it and the shimmering harbour below it, it’s almost like a mini Rio de Janeiro (ahem, albeit with wind and rain instead of sun and beaches). The Windy City has festivals aplenty, day-stealing museums, and good nightlife.
Try to give it two-three days, but even if it’s just one we recommend you: get up early to climb Mt Wellington, score some top nosh in one of the many appetising cafés, get lost in the excellent Te Papa museum, another café, the Karori Wildlife Sanctuary, then the seal colony round at Red Rocks, café/restaurant, then hit the town’s many bars, music venues and theatres. Live it like you love it. Or something.
Milford Sound: New Zealand’s Uluru
This is arguably New Zealand’s Uluru; it’s certainly the most photographed attraction. Half the visual pleasure is garnered on the journey to Milford Sound; winding roads plunge into dense, moss-plastered woodland, snake along plunging drops and pass waterfalls crashing to the floor from way up somewhere.
Then a boat trip edges out onto the water, home to dolphins and New Zealand fur seals, and looking like an ant by the immense Mitre Peak. And onwards to the open sea, passing all sorts of wonderful waterfalls; some twist in the air, others thunder from impossible heights. If you can afford it, a scenic flight around here is a wondrous experience.
Rotorua: Geysers and culture
Some say it smells of rotten eggs, others of the beginning of time, but the intense sulphuric activity means it certainly smells. But you get used to it surprisingly quickly.
Rotorua is a great place to swot up on Maori culture, with various performances and attractions around town. Don’t miss seeing a haka and try to chow down on a hangi while you’re there. Then there are geysers and bubbling mud pools to admire and a spa pool or mud bath to relax in later. Great place to unwind and get culturally savvy.
Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers: The ice kingdoms beckon
New Zealand has roughly a trillion glaciers, but these two alluring colossal ice tongues are the most accessible. It can be like stepping into a different world as your crampons first grip the ice and you proceed to crunch your way through an ice labyrinth of caves, frozen walls and crevasses.
A travel buddy of TNT’s rated this the best thing they did in the country. If you have the cash to splash, a helicopter trip to land near the top of the glacier is unforgettable. Also, many people make the glacial-sized error of speeding down the west coast and not stopping to peruse a little, in Hokitika, Greymouth and the pancake rocks of Punakaiki so drive slowly to admire the wonderful coastline. Lonely Planet rate it as one of the world’s top 10 roadtrips.
Kaikoura: Wildlife wonderland
You can easily criticise New Zealand for a lack of truly interesting animals, especially compared to the crazy fauna across the Tasman Sea. But get into the wet stuff and it’s another matter entirely. Due to a quirk in the seabed, Kaikoura is a hot spot for whales, dolphins and seals.
You can take a boat cruise to watch whales, at least three species call in, all year round. And the much-underrated seal swims (or dives) are excellent, when the water has good visibility. Plus, there’s dolphin swimming too – go on, make ‘em bitterly jealous at home.
Photos: Thinkstock, Getty