After spending four weeks traveling around the South and North Islands of New Zealand, it’s a bit overwhelming to look back on it all and try to come up with a list of favourite moments or places, but here is my best attempt at selecting our New Zealand Trip Highlights. We drove over 5,000 kms in total and visited such an incredible variety of places. I plan on expanding on a few of these spots with future blog posts also, since one picture alone is really not enough to pay justice to them. There is so much more beyond each photo below! But please enjoy this teaser for now.
New Zealand Trip Highlights – South Island:
1) Kayaking in Abel Tasman National Park
Any kayaker worth their salt has dreamed about dipping a paddle into the silky aqua waters and strolling the golden sand shores of Abel Tasman National Park, located on the north coast of New Zealand’s South Island. Our day on the water and exploring the numerous beaches here was everything we had dreamed of.
2) Milford Sound Boat Tour
People come from all over the world to marvel at the iconic landscape that is Milford Sound, tucked away in the remote Fiordlands area on the South Island’s West Coast. Click Here to see more from Milford.
3) The Drive to Aoraki / Mount Cook
New Zealand’s highest peak, Aoraki / Mount Cook is incredibly imposing on the landscape surrounding it, commanding the utmost awe from all who lay eyes on her.
4) Aoraki / Mount Cook and the Hooker Lake Icebergs
An early morning hike (translation: tramp in Kiwi-speak) along the Hooker Valley Track brought numerous rewards. Low crowds, cool temps, and this incredible scene which we shared with only a handful of fellow trampers.
5) Nugget Point Lighthouse
Located on the remote southern reaches of New Zealand’s South Island, Nugget Point makes for a scenic photo stop with panoramic views over the South Pacific Ocean where you might get lucky by spotting some marine life below.
6) Moira Gate Arch, Oparara Basin
There’s nothing quite like a 40 Million year old limestone cave to make you feel insignificant, and in awe of the persistent and unrelenting power of water.
7) Akaroa and Banks Peninsula
The epic drive along the Banks Peninsula Summit Road was thrilling to say the least, and the failed French attempt at colonizing New Zealand hold-over that is Akaroa comes complete with French bakeries and Tricolour Flag adorned store-fronts. Perfect for a stroll on a hot summer day.
8) Moeraki Boulders
These bizarre dinosaur egg-looking rocks are revealed each time the tide retreats, leaving a smooth sand canvas.
9) Seeing this rare and endangered Yellow Eyed Penguin in the wild
I never expected to see one of these cute fellas, but we got lucky. We arrived at the viewing hide near Nugget Point where a group of young German tourists had been waiting for 90 minutes to catch a glimpse of one. This was only the second one they had spotted, and they were kind enough to point it out to us. These wee fellas spend the day in the ocean hunting, then return shortly before sunset to feed their babies in their nests in the sand dunes. They surf in off the waves and waddle awkwardly onto the shore where they sit and preen for a bit before making their way to the nest out of sight. It was in that brief window of time that we happened to arrive and grab this photo. Incredible to see in the wild.
10) Franz Josef Glacier
Glaciers are pretty cool. And there are several in New Zealand, but this is the closest we got to one. Some people enjoy taking helicopters, buses or ATV’s to get onto the glaciers, whereas I prefer to see them from a safe distance on foot. Each to their own.
11) Omarama Clay Cliffs, the Ahuriri River, Wild Lupins, and Fly Fishing
This location is actually on private land that you have to pay $5 to enter and we just went there on a whim when we saw a sign for it on the highway. The location was awesome in it’s own right, but meeting up with a couple from Seattle who were doing some fly fishing was really cool. They had this entire area of the river valley to themselves along with their little baby, and Buddy was slaying the trout. These are the moments you never plan for, that always end up being the most memorable. Doesn’t this picture make you want to go fishing?
12) Lake Matheson with Mount Cook and Mount Tasman Reflected
Located near the Fox Glacier on New Zealand’s South Island, this is a beautiful short loop hike where Lake Matheson reflects the peaks of Mount Cook and Mount Tasman in its still waters.
13) Punakaiki Pancake Rocks
If cool geological formations rock your boat, this will be a great stop to make along the South Island’s West Coast highway. If being swarmed by hundreds of tourists that may or may not have the same respect for your personal space as you would like doesn’t, you may want to give it a wide berth. It’s right off the main highway and doesn’t take long to walk through. Try to time it outside peak tour bus times if you want a more peaceful experience.
14) Wanaka (the Town and the Lake)
Wanaka is a hip little town in central South Island that’s showing obvious signs of pressure from the incredible increase in tourism the area has experienced in recent years. The stunning Southern Alps provide a striking backdrop to the gorgeous turquoise lakes near by.
New Zealand Trip Highlights – North Island:
15) Te Mata Peak
Over looking the North Island’s vast region of Hawe’s Bay, Te Mata Peak is a perfect spot for a sunset pic-nic. In true Kiwi fashion, a sketchy single track road takes you to the summit parking lot. There you’ll find a variety of viewpoints to admire the 360 degree vistas.
16) The Southern Cross over Castle Rock
Star gazing through the crystal clear night skies of New Zealand was really moving. There’s something quite unique not just in the visibility of the southern hemisphere constellations like Southern Cross (Crux) , but I noticed the skies seemed bluer than blue, and this was true in my night sky photos as well as my day photos. Maybe it’s a side effect of NZ’s diminished ozone protection?
Napier was destroyed by a massive earthquake in 1931 and rebuilt in the Art Deco style of the time whitch is still prominent today. It feels like taking a step back in time, and the waterfront is so breathtaking.
18) Rotorua Thermal Pools
We opted “out” of the Roto-Vegas style geothermal attractions that charge an arm, a leg, and your first born in order to see some naturally occurring Earth steam. Instead, we strolled through this pungent park for free. On a recent trip to Iceland, we also saw incredibly dramatic geothermal features in multiple locations free of charge.
19) Boat Tour to White Island
We did splurge on this adventure, which was a guided boat tour in the Bay of Plenty to visit New Zealand’s most active cone volcano on Whakaari / White Island with White Island Tours. In addition to hiking around the volcano itself, we got to see a super-pod of dolphins feeding with gannets on the way there which was a delight for passengers and crew.
20) Pōhutukawa Trees, aka New Zealand Christmas Trees
The final leg of our trip took us to the Coromandel Peninsula before making our way to Auckland for our flight home. The coast of the Coromandel was ablaze with the crimson blooms of the Pōhutukawa, or “New Zealand Christmas Trees” as they are known. The red flowers peak in mid-Dec just in time for Christmas. Quite the send-off, New Zealand!
21) Cathedral Cove, Coromandel Peninsula
One of the absolute highlights of our trip was our visit to Cathedral Cove, where we spent the evening walking the beach and exploring the massive arch cave. We even cooked our supper here, enjoyed some wine and waited for sunset before being the last two souls to hike the trail back out in the dark.
We definitely saw a lot of amazing places during our 4 week stay in New Zealand, but as with any trip there were a number of destinations on our list that we didn’t make it to for one reason or another. It’s never possible to see everything, this much I have learned. Plus, you always want to leave a few spots for the next trip.