New Zealand is slowly becoming one of the most popular travel destinations in the world. If you can bare the long flight down and endure crazy weather, the two islands will greet you with some of the most beautiful scenery and best coffee you will ever have.
1. Diving in the Poor Knights Islands
One of our first stops was to the Northland area of New Zealand to go diving. We chose Yukon Dive because they were a smaller operator than Dive! Tutukaka, but we found that the experience was very similar to a large diving company. The Poor Knights are supposed to be one of the top sites in the world and while I had a great time, I didn't feel like it was as good as everyone says it is. There was nice visibility because the water is much colder than around the Caribbean and Southeast Asia. There wasn't a ton of larger wildlife - mostly small fish. The kelp was absolutely beautiful though and it was worth it just to dive in a different environment like that.
2. Mount Maunganui
We accidentally stumbled on Mount Maunganui because weather issues that delayed our travel plans. This day turned out to be one of my favorites from the entire trip. Mount Maunganui is very popular amongst Kiwis as a vacation destination, but we didn't see too many foreign tourists there. For those who have been to the coast of California, Mount Maunganui feels like a less hippie version of Santa Cruz. It has the same chill vibe with a younger crowd and beach-type restaurants, without Cheech and Chong. We hiked up Mauao, the large hill in the town before enjoying lunch/snacks at the many cafes in town.
3. White Island Volcano Tour
One of the most unique experience we went on (and the most expensive!) was the White Island Volcano Tour. This tour was absolutely worth the money for me even though I've been to the volcanoes in Hawaii (Volcanoes National Park). The company takes you out on a large boat, stopping to see dolphins along the way, before touring around the active volcano. Breathing was uncomfortable even with the masks and candy they give you, but it was so worth it. It also feels like a 2+1 trip because you pay for the volcano but you get a free dolphin cruise.
4. Fly-Fishing in Taupo
On our way around Rotorua, we stumbled upon Taupo. We had zero plans when we arrived and were debating between a few things. We ended up choosing fly-fishing because it's not something we can do easily in Boston, especially in the middle of winter. There are many fly-fishing guides in Taupo, and we ended up going down the official town list until someone could take us last minute.
5. Hiking Tongariro Crossing
Tongariro Crossing is probably the most famous day-hike in New Zealand. It is one of the only big hiking draws for visitors to come to North Island. While the hike was amazing, I would set expectations before coming. You're not going to have your life changed as Lonely Planet suggests, but it is a beautiful hike and well-worth the trip if you're in North Island already.
We never saw any kiwis in the wild while we were traveling in New Zealand. There aren't that many left in the wild, and they are nocturnal animals. We knew we would have to stop at a zoo somewhere to see the kiwis. We took a 3 day stop in Wellington to unwind and do laundry after over 2 weeks of traveling. Along the way, we explored the many cafes in Te Aro and Cuba Street, visited the Wellington Zoo for kiwis, hiked up to Mount Victoria Lookout, and lounged in Oriental Bay. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed Wellington and would highly recommend it to anyone traveling to New Zealand (skip Auckland!).
7. Aoraki/Mount Cook and Lake Tekapo
The Lake Tekapo and Pukaki region is where things started getting very touristy for us. There was a bit of culture shock coming into South Island because in the North Island, we really felt like we were just slowly traveling around the island. I didn't feel like we were ever part of the masses. With that said, there are some beautiful places around Lake Tekapo and Lake Pukaki to set up a hammock and relax by the lake all day. New Zealand summers never get truly that hot, and the water was too cold for me personally to swim. The best part of this region though was making the trip up to Mount Cook for my favorite hike in New Zealand, the Mueller Hut hike.
8. Swimming with Seals in Kaikoura
Kaikoura was one of the areas that was badly damaged by the earthquake late last year. The highway out of Kaikoura is still under construction, and that has caused a significant drop in tourism. We knew we wanted to go there to help support the town and because of the Seal Swim adventure. This adventure is the one I keep telling my friends over and over again. The seals were playful and curious, jumping into the water anytime we swam past them. For a place to stay, check out the eco-friendly PurePods to disconnect for a few days.
9. Wine Tasting in Blenheim
We stopped by Blenheim to put some real people clothes on and enjoy good food and wine. Instead of taxi-ing around, we chose the Bike 2 Wine self-guided bike tour where we stopped by 4 wineries. They picked us up at our Airbnb and provided everyone with a map and short description of the nearby wineries. Sauvignon Blanc is the most popular type of wine here, but we did enjoy some (not overly sweet) Roses and even olive oil!
10. Kayaking and Hiking in Abel Tasman
I cannot recommend Abel Tasman enough. We had been through some rough weather in South Island and were in desperate need of some sunshine. After spending a nice day in Nelson, we went over to Marahau to kick off our kayaking and overnight hiking adventure in Abel Tasman. Beware of sandflies!
Wanaka was my favorite outdoorsy town in New Zealand. It doesn't have the craziness of Queenstown, but there is just as much to do. We had big aspirations for our time in Wanaka but because the town was so lovely, we spent much of it hanging around the pier and at cafes. The two must-do's in Wanaka are the Roy's Peak hike and going to the Wanaka Tree after dark to stargaze. If I were to live in New Zealand, Wanaka would be it.
12. Queenstown for the Routeburn Track
We chose the Routeburn Track over Milford because we thought it would be more of a hiking adventure and less of a tourist trap. Although we heard great things about Milford, the benefits of Routeburn include less crowds, more ragged peaks, and zero sandflies. After dealing with sandflies at Copland Track, I know how much they can ruin an experience. A few sandflies here and there are fine and manageable, but things get very uncomfortable once your sandfly bite count is at 80. Queenstown was a big letdown for me though. It is the Las Vegas of New Zealand, without the clubs and pool parties. It felt very fake and developed, although the area it surrounds is incredibly beautiful. Expect to bump shoulders with tourists and see signs for ridiculously overpriced helicopter tours.