It's inevitable. You'll come. Or your sister will. Maybe your Aunt or your in-laws. Perhaps it will be your honeymoon destination. Whoever it is, you will contact me and ask me where to go.
You will have come to the right place. I love sharing my travel experiences, especially those that I've had here in New Zealand. So after a dozen or so requests, here are my top five tips if you or some one you kind of sort of know is coming to New Zealand.
1. Three weeks is the ideal length of time for a holiday.
It might be a small country but it doesn't mean you should short change yourself on time. If you're making the effort to fly around the world to get here, make sure you have enough time to enjoy what this country has to offer. Because unless you really love it (likely) and have no shortage of cash (unlikely), you'll probably never be back.
It doesn't help that the country's best sites are speckled all across the country and there is no high speed rail or even high speed motorways to speak of. Get ready for 80km country roads and windy switchbacks. When you do have wide-open glorious roads, you'll find yourself wanting to pull over and snap some pics. So allow yourself some extra time to get to where you're going safety and with some time to stop and smell the roses along the way.
And I know the common refrain, “But we’re going to Australia too…" or “We only have two weeks of holidays”. I get it. Australia is often the main lure of the South Pacific and some people can’t take more than three weeks a year. If that’s the case, think about nixing the detour to New Zealand this time and instead make it the focus of a future trip. If your chances of travelling to the South Pacific again are limited, then we can make a short stop work but if you're asking my opinion, give NZ a fair go.
2. Make time for wine.
There's no shortage of the stuff here and I'd recommend several boozy stops along the way. While there are five key wine regions in the country (Central Otago, Marlborough, Hawkes Bay, Martinborough, and Waiheke), personal favourites (in order) are Waiheke, Martinborough and Central Otago.
Do-it-Yourself or formal tour?
Some wine regions are easier to experience on your own than others. Some have great private and public transport options or geographical ease of cycling from one cellar door to another. If for some strange reason you don’t have me as your personal guide (as evidenced above), you should not only question our friendship but also consider certain wine regions over others.
If you are going on your own, I'd recommend visits to Waiheke Island and Martinborough as they both make it almost too easy to visit several wineries in a day without signing up to a tour. I also love Marlborough and Central Otago but without a local mate to tour you around like I did, you'll have to book a tour or have a designate driver.
I’ve done both formal wine tours and do-it-yourself tours in most regions and for different reasons, I’ve loved them both. Obviously the DIY tours are cheaper and allow you to go with the flow. If you’re on a tour you’ll have a set schedule to follow but if you’re doing your own thing, you can stay as little or as long as you like. Unfortunately, the need for a designated driver is a real drag on the experience, either way you look at it. You either need to kill someone’s enjoyment or hangout with someone who is not (nearly) as tipsy as you. It is a wine tour after all! If public transport or cheap and cheerful hop on, hop off busses are an option (as on Waiheke), choose it every time. They are the best of both worlds.
Where the wineries are spread far apart or separated by ginormous hills preventing an enjoyable cycle in a pretty frock, opt for a tour. I have always really enjoyed the formal wine tours. In some places, I have even done the same one several times. It takes all the stress, planning and need for a designated driver out of the equation. It’s also great opportunity to learn much more about the region, meet other travellers or a handsome tour guide (which apparently is a thing for me).
Whichever way you go about it, you’ll have a great time. And should you buy too much wine to take home, I’m happy to keep it for you.
3. North and South.
Going to only one island is like a mimosa without champaign, a PB&J without the Jelly or a #tenyearphotochallenge without the old photo. To really appreciate the Southern Alps, you have to see the rolling fields of the north. To appreciate the beaches of the north, you also need to experience the deep, green, rainy fiords of the south. Spend a day walking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. Venture to Te Anau and take in Milford Sound. Take a day trip up to Paihia and do a boat tour around the Bay of Islands. Stop for coffee in the cute Aarowtown and take a drive to the beautiful Glenorchy. There is a variety of things to do on both islands. It really just comes down to how much time you have and what you’re most interested in doing.
4. Be ready for four seasons.
Much of this country is emerald green for a reason. It gets a lot of rain. And despite a forecast full of rain, you will also get sunshine. Skin-scorching sunshine. So don't forget your sunscreen. There is less o-zone over New Zealand and far less pollution to protect you. A minimum of SPF 50 is the usual here. As my friend Graeme was once told and then told me, “Using 30 is like having sex with a condom full of holes.”. It’s just asking for trouble. Most bars with outdoor patios have a huge jug of sunscreen on the bar for use - a nice touch but given the cost of sunscreen here, giving it out for free is also a frightening reminder of how harsh the sun can be.
5. Find your inner adventurer.
Have you ever considered jumping off a bridge? How about hiking through the wilderness for a few days solo? Maybe you've always wanted to get thrown into a canyon while sitting on a tricycle? No? We'll now's the time to reevaluate what you want from this life. Is it to arrive at the end of it all in one piece or do you want to arrive breathless, shouting "what a ride?!"
If it's the latter, New Zealand is the place for you.
Not only were adventure sports born here but with millions flocking here annually to take part, you can bet the safety standards are top notch. If the great outdoors are more your thing but bears, snakes and life-threatening spiders aren’t high on your “must see list” - you will love this country. Bats are the only native land mammal and birds are by far the most dominant species. New Zealand will feel relatively empty for most. Besides a pesky possum battle being fought here - some 30 million at last count - you won’t spot a squirrel, raccoon, skunk, or much of anything else. The only think you need to be weary of here is the Kiwi bloke.
Are you a scuba diver or keen to learn?
If you’ve already got your Open Water or more, head to Tutukaka, three hours north of Auckland. From there, you’ll hop on board a boat to the Poor Knights, arguably the best place to dive in New Zealand. You’ll travel for nearly an hour to a former outcrop of a super volcano that erupted about 5 million years ago. It won’t be like South East Asia as the water is much colder down there - a balmy 22 degrees in the peak of summer - but it still will be stunning. Huge drops, beautiful colours, lots of fish including Kingys and snappers, sting rays, eels, nudibranch and more. I love coming up here a few times a year. I pitch a tent at the local campground, dive by day and sip beer by night.
If wrecks are more your thing, head further north to Paihia and dive the Rainbow Warrior or Canterbury. Both have been purpose sunk for scuba divers but the former has a history steeped in politics, crime and terrorism.
If I’ve learned anything while travelling, you only live once and the best memories are made doing something outside of your comfort zone. So push the limits, do something that scares you, and make the most of your trip to New Zealand. It’s unlikely you’ll be back here anytime soon.
So, where to go?
Here's my list and a few pics of my of top spots / things to do.
Cape Reinga - at the very top of the North Island. It's a long drive but on a clear day you can see where the Tasman and Pacific oceans meet. Along the way you can surf down sand dunes and stop for some of the best “fush and chips” in the country.
Paihia (Bay of Islands) - take a boat tour through the Hole in a Rock or dive a wreck
Auckland - hike up a few of the many volcanos that the city is built around. Mt Eden and Cornwall Park are my favourites but if you take a 20 minute ferry ride you can also walk up the volcanic remains on Rangitoto Island.
Waiheke Island - a 35 minute ferry ride from Auckland leads you to a day filled with amazing wines. Sit out on the patio enjoying the views and the live DJ at Stonyridge, enjoy a quieter spot sitting amongst the vines at the oldest vineyard on the island at Goldie’s, treat yourself to an oyster shot (fresh oyster in a shot glass topped with cold sauvignon blanc) at Kennedy Hill and finish the day with a platter and all the Auckland views at Cable Bay.
Tongariro Alpine Crossing - stay at the base at Tongariro National Park YHA backpackers (4.5 hour drive from Auckland) and head to the start of the track by 7am the next day - 19kms of beautiful scenery awaits. Upon return, crash for a mid-afternoon nap, then tuck in for a glass of wine and comfort food at the pub next door.
Wellington - keep your fingers crossed for a sunny and not so windy day. Head up Victoria Hill to see out over the bay before finding a local spot back in town for a beer - I enjoy Mac’s on the waterfront or venture into the CBD to find more chill and less touristy breweries Hayday or Rogue and Vagabond. If it’s rainy, go to Te Papa, NZ's national museum. It’s free and it’s known to have amazing special exhibits. On my visit, the Terracotta Warriors and Gallipoli exhibit (First world war campaign in what is now Turkey by Kiwis and Aussies) blew my mind.
Coromandel - if you have a weekend, find an Air BnB bach in Pauanui, Hahei or Whitianga. Pack a bag and make your way to the nearest beach. There are many so good luck choosing. For an interesting adventure, get a spade and go to Hot Water Beach two hours before or after low tide. Once at the beach (you can rent spades here as well for $10), dig a hot tub for you and your mates. If you get there late, you’ll be testing the holes already dug by tourists a plenty, Goldilocks style - too hot, too cold, just right. Watch the tide roll in. Afterwards, park your car in Hahei (there is a car park) and do the Cathedral Cove walk. It will take you about an hour each way but it’s relatively easy and well worth it. Bring your togs for a dip.
Christchurch - Earthquake epicentre of New Zealand. While you might go to visit a city for what it offers, those who go to Christchurch these days go to see what’s missing. And it’s a lot. A city tour via red bus is the perfect way to situate yourself and get a quick primer on why the city is the way that is. You’ll really only need a full day in Christchurch so after the bus tour, meander around and stop in at any one of the many cafes that offer tasty coffee and delicious scones, snacks and other treats. My favourites are C1 Espresso and Unknown Chapter. After a restful sleep, set out for your next destination.
Wanaka - Winter or summer, it’s worth a few days. If you’re there in the winter, bring your skis or snowboard. The nearby Cardrona “ski fields” are a great way to spend a few days. I’m not sure why they call them “fields” but name aside, this former Whistler skier managed to have a great time out on the slopes. Your Apres Ski can be at Hotel Cardrona - one of the oldest mining hotels in the country - or on one of the Main Street patios of Wanaka looking out over the lake and enjoying the last of the sunshine. If you’re in Wanaka for summer - you’re in for a treat. Roy’s Peak is the place to be if you’ve got good weather. It is my favourite one-day hike in all of New Zealand. It’s a bit of a slog but the views are well worth it and they improve as you make your way up, encouraging you up every last switchback. By the time you reach the top - you’ll either be in the clouds or looking out onto Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawera. All up, it takes about 6 hours return. Say hello to the sheep and the Wanaka Tree on your way back down.
Glenorchy - There’s not much at the end of the line but the journey to get there is stunning. It’s just a morning’s drive there and back. Stop for plenty of photos and reward yourself with a tasty and very NZ - trip flat white - when you get there.
Queenstown - what do I say about this beast? It’s a cute town with all the city luxuries. It’s a terrific hub to many other better places. It’s the adventure capital of NZ - jetboating, skydiving, bungee jumping, it’s all here. It’s also the tourist capital in my opinion, for better or for worse. Consider a walk up Queenstown Hill, a hike up Ben Lomond, a ride up the gondola, a kayak down the lake, a tour of the Otago wine valley, or a slide down in the luge. The best thing you can do is leave and head to Te Anau. From this sleepy little village you can visit the stunning Milford Sound, kayak in the misty Doubtful Sound, or hike Kepler or Routeburn. What’s for certain, there are more options than you have time for.