You’ve seen your friends’ photos, you’ve watched the Lord of the Rings
trilogy and you’re desperate to experience New Zealand
for yourself. But considering that the Land of the Long White Cloud is about the same size as the UK, how will you decide what to see?
Here’s our insider’s guide to Aotearoa’s must-see destinations, including some off-the-beaten track gems.
The greenhouse in the middle of the desert
Growing 500 tons of tomatoes, with no soil, in the middle of the desert, was only possible thanks to smart tech and a good support network.
Cape Reinga is the end of the road when it comes to the North Island — the only place further north is North Cape, which isn’t open to the public.
Stand beside the iconic Te Rerenga Wairua lighthouse on this rocky, windswept point and you’ll see where the Tasman Sea (between New Zealand and Australia) and the Pacific Ocean meet.
You’ll also be bearing witness to a sacred place in Maori culture. An 800-year-old pohutukawa tree at Cape Reinga is believed to be the last leaving place for spirits of dead Maori.
Legend has it that they leap from this tree into the ocean to begin their journey back to their ancestral homeland of Hawaiki.
Auckland: New Zealand’s biggest and most culturally diverse city.
Chris McLennan/Tourism New Zealand
There’s lots to see and do in New Zealand’s biggest and most culturally diverse city.
The ‘City of Sails’ sprawls around more than 40 volcanic cones and is surrounded by the island-strewn Hauraki Gulf.
Auckland has a metropolitan vibe, but it’s also blessed with bountiful beaches, parks and places to get away from it all.
When you need a break from the hustle and bustle, walk to the top of Maungakiekie (Mt Eden). Here, just 5km from the CBD, you will enjoy panoramic views from the city’s highest volcanic cone while sheep graze peacefully nearby.
Bonus trip: Make sure you include a trip to Waiheke Island — just 40 minutes from the terminal in Auckland -l- for a complete change of pace. Waiheke is home to idyllic beaches, bushwalking trails and 20-odd vineyards.
Lake Taupo + Tongariro National Park
A lake the size of Singapore? Check. Volcanoes? Check. Bubbling mud and steaming hot water pools? Check. Bleak, barren desert landscapes? Check.
Lake Taupo and its surrounding landscapes read like they’ve been purpose-built for a tourism brochure. The freshwater lake, which is the biggest in Australasia, is a vast caldera formed by a super-volcanic eruption some 26,000 years ago.
At the southern end, three mighty volcanoes (Mounts Ruapehu, Tongariro and Ngaruahoe) loom large. It’s no wonder that nearby Tongariro National Park (a World Heritage Area) was used as the backdrop for some of the most stunning scenes in the Lord of the Rings films.
Many visitors choose to base themselves in Taupo, the town on the lake’s northern shores. There’s no shortage of outdoor experiences on offer here, including fishing, mountain biking, skydiving, jet-boating and bungee jumping.
In winter months, all eyes are on the mountains. There are two fields on Mount Ruapehu (Whakapapa and Turoa) and plenty of apres-ski fun to be had in the small town of Ohakune.
Bonus trip: Get up close (okay, not too close!) with steaming mineral pools and bubbling mud at the Tokaanu Thermal Walk (near Turangi, 40 minutes from Taupo), then take a dip in the healing waters of the nearby geothermal hot pools to soothe away any travel-induced aches and pains.
Lake Waikaremoana + Te Urewera
Lake Waikaremoana boasts the largest protected tract of native forest in the North Island.
Remote and rugged Te Urewera is the largest protected tract of native forest in the North Island: Think dense, rugged bush, vast Lake Waikaremoana (formed more than 2000 years ago by a monumental landslide) and lots of potential for fishing, tramping, camping and hunting.
It’s home to the Ngati Tuhoe tribe (nicknamed ‘the Children of the Mist’) and most species of New Zealand’s native birds. If you’re looking for somewhere to completely switch off, this is it.
To exercise body as well as mind, consider hiking the complete Lake Waikaremoana Track.
This trail, one of New Zealand’s ‘Great Walks,’ traces the western side of the lake and takes around four days. Expect giant podocarp forests, remote beaches and incredible views. There are plenty of shorter hikes if you’re pressed for time.
Head west to experience the Taranaki region, one of the North Island’s best-kept secrets.
The perfectly symmetrical Mt Taranaki (a double for Japan’s Mount Fuji), located in Egmont National Park, is the optimum vantage point to take in the region’s lush, rolling countryside and black-sand coastline.
Prefer getting your feet wet? Taranaki’s famed ‘Surf Highway 45’ has a dozen world-class surf breaks, interspersed with pretty beaches, quaint rural towns and mountain views.
Don’t miss: New Plymouth’s Govett Brewster Art Gallery, New Zealand’s first contemporary art museum, is dedicated to internationally renowned modernist filmmaker and kinetic sculptor Len Lye.
The Govett Brewster Gallery is to New Plymouth what the Guggenheim is to Bilbao, a visual feast both inside and out.
New Zealand’s capital regularly features in lists of the world’s most livable cities.
Wellington is ridiculously pretty. Look out for quirky wooden homes perched on vertiginous slopes, lots of green space, mountain biking tracks, the award-winning bird sanctuary Zealandia and innumerable beaches.
It’s also home to Peter Jackson’s film empire (look for the ‘Wellywood’ sign as you fly in or drive across the Miramar Peninsula) and the extremely kid-friendly Te Papa Tongarewa Museum of New Zealand, the country’s national museum.
Wellington’s position at the base of the North Island, between the Tararua Ranges and Cook Strait, makes it the windiest city in the world. Prepare to be invigorated by northwesterly gusts and do as the locals do — wear a raincoat instead of carrying an umbrella when exploring.
Don’t miss: Head to Point Howard and the majestic Massey Memorial, a white marble mausoleum to former Prime Minister William Massey and his wife Christina, hidden high above Shelly Bay on the Miramar Peninsula.
Climb up through the bush to the memorial, or the gun emplacements above, for views of the distant mountains of the South Island.