It used to be you could count the clichéd images of New Zealand on one hand. One of the mighty All Blacks running the length of the pitch; lots of sheep and a few mountains. But with the release of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, the country gained much more exposure and quickly became the destination of choice for a new wave of travellers. And we’re not just talking about Ring geeks on the hunt for hobbits and orcs here.
It may merely look like a broken, upside-down Italy on the map, but New Zealand is quite simply one of the most beautiful countries in the world. It boasts mountain ranges that rapidly fill your memory cards, boiling hot geysers exploding into the air, vast glaciers, raging rivers that suck you down in a flash and then spit you out just as quick, and cities which are growing quicker than sightings of Lindsay Lohan making a tit of herself.
If you’ve seen The Lord of the Rings movies – and if you haven’t, customs won’t let you in – you’ll have an idea of the kind of country you’ll be visiting. And no, there weren’t many special effects to make Middle Earth look that good – it’s almost all natural.
The first thing that hits you is the power of the land. Nowhere are you more privy to the Earth’s ebbs and flows. Whether it’s through traditional Maori tales of gods moving mountains with thunderbolts, or just through plain old observation, you’re given a real sense of the Earth being a powerful, living thing.
Adventure and adrenalin are big in New Zealand. Whitewater raft down knee-trembling rapids, throw yourself off a 320m Sky Tower in the middle of a city, jump out of a plane while spooning a complete stranger and jetboat through a canyon, close enough to see the moss growing on the walls. Queenstown, on the South Island, is the place to be for all sorts of shenanigans. Short of inserting an IV of pure adrenalin into your arm, it’s where it’s at for excitement.
Between bustling Auckland and super-cool (in more ways than one) Wellington, the cities aren’t too bad either. However, you don’t go to New Zealand for the cities. From the beautiful Bay of Islands in the north to the stunning Fiordland National Park in the south, there’s a good chance you won’t have experienced or seen anything like it before.
Indeed, when it comes to jaw-dropping scenery, the country has an embarassment of riches. So, to help you pick where to go, after much debate, squabbles and icey stares, we came up with a list of our nine favourite places…
In a nutshell: A Valhalla for adrenalin junkies
Tell me more: 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, whitewater rafting and sledging, skiing, skydiving, paragliding and heaps more. Oh, we nearly forgot it’s the home of the bungy jump – 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.
In a nutshell: The ultimate urban fix
Tell me more: 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.
In a nutshell: Queenstown’s younger brother
Tell me more: 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…
In a nutshell: Conquering Mordor
Tell me more: The nine Great Walks are called great walks for a reason (well, apart from 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.
In a nutshellL: New Zealand’s Uluru
Tell me more: This is New Zealand’s 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.
Fox and Franz Josef Galciers
In a nutshell: The ice kingdoms beckon
Tell me more: 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. Many travellers rate this as 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.
In a nutshell: Wildlife wonderland
Tell me more: You can easily criticise New Zealand for a lack of truly interesting animals, especially compared to the crazy fauna here in Australia. 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.
In a nutshell: New Zealand’s iconic peak
Tell me more: 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.
In a nutshell: Geysers and culture
Tell me more: 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.
Photos: TNT, Getty, WikiCommons