Even though they’re on the other side of the world, you’ve likely seen New Zealand’s mist-shrouded mountains and sweeping green landscapes on the big screen in the “Lord of the Rings” and “Hobbit” films. Many visitors are drawn here to follow in Frodo’s footsteps — but there’s much more to this remote Pacific nation than its jaw-dropping scenery or its starring role as Middle-earth.
Imagine yourself in a mountaintop observatory, gazing up at a sky strewn with stars, or walking along a beach at twilight in search of the elusive kiwi. Hoping to learn something new? Try working alongside a local chef to make a traditional Maori meal, or get an up-close sheep shearing demonstration during an overnight stay on a farm.
Click through our slideshow to explore these experiences and more — and to start planning a New Zealand adventure you’ll never forget.
Go Stargazing on Mt. John
New Zealand’s South Island is home to the largest International Dark Sky Reserve on the planet, covering more than 1,600 square miles. Hunt for shooting stars and take in the constellations of the southern sky through the powerful telescopes at the Mt. John Observatory in Tekapo. Earth & Sky offers a two-hour tour that brings stargazers in a bus up the mountain to take in some of the world’s clearest sky views. It can be chilly up there, so warm coats and hot chocolate are provided. There’s also an astrophotographer on hand to help you snap great pics of what you’re seeing. On cloudy nights when visibility is poor, you’ll get a behind-the-scenes tour of the observatory.
Big Sky Stargazing in Mount Cook and Skyline Stargazing in Queenstown are two additional options on other parts of the South Island.
Visit the Wildlife Capital
Tucked away in the southeastern part of New Zealand, just outside the city of Dunedin, is the windswept Otago Peninsula, where royal albatrosses wheel overhead and penguins waddle up the beach after a day spent fishing in the ocean. Walk down to Sandfly Bay and you just might find yourself sharing a beach with seals or sea lions basking in the sun. It’s not hard to see why this peninsula bills itself as the “Wildlife Capital of New Zealand.”
Don’t miss a stop at the Royal Albatross Centre at Taiaroa Head, one of the few places in the world where you can see this majestic bird — with a wingspan of nearly 10 feet — in its natural habitat. Nearby is Penguin Place, a reserve for endangered yellow-eyed penguins. A walking tour takes visitors into a system of trenches and hides where they can view the penguins from afar without disturbing them (bring your binoculars).
Advice from a Traveler Who’s Been There
Our Travels in New Zealand Part 2 by Mal Part
“We start with the Royal Northern Albatross — it’s the only breeding colony on the mainland anywhere in the world; other colonies are on deserted offshore islands around the world. … There are four Royal Northern Albatross on their nests — they are huge, and in flight have a 10-foot wingspan. We’re not very close, but it’s a privilege to get this close to such a unique and rare bird.” Read more!
Take a Food Tour in the Bush
Adventurous eaters can join a Maori chef for an overnight foraging excursion in the Taumarunui bush. You’ll fish for trout and eel, hunt for huhu grubs, and hike through the rain forest to gather pikopiko (fiddlehead ferns) and wood mushrooms. Back at the cabin where you’ll spend the night, chef Charles Royal explains how to transform these ingredients into a traditional Maori meal, cooked either over an open fire or in a hangi (earth oven). After dinner, gather around the fire for music and storytelling as night falls.
The Taumarunui bush tour runs between November and April. The two-day, one-night tour includes cabin accommodations, four-wheel-drive transportation to the cabin, food, beverages, cooking classes and all outdoor activities. See MaoriFood.com.
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Drive the Surf Highway
Without stops, it only takes about an hour and a half to drive New Zealand’s Surf Highway 45 from New Plymouth to Hawera — but this laid-back and remarkably scenic coastal road is worth lingering over. It’s famous first and foremost for its waves; spots like Fitzroy Beach and Kumara Patch draw surfers from all over New Zealand and beyond. (If you want to learn, try TaraWave Surf School in Oakura Beach.)
Beyond the breaks, Highway 45 offers relaxed beach towns, memorable views of the Tasman Sea and the looming peak of Mt. Taranaki, and a number of intriguing detours. Art enthusiasts can check out the avant-garde offerings at the Govett-Brewster gallery in New Plymouth, while hikers can wander the trails in Egmont National Park. The Cape Egmont Lighthouse and historic Maori fortress of Koru Pa are also worth a visit. See Taranaki.info for more ideas.
Experience Art in Queenstown
Often called the Adventure Capital of the World, Queenstown is best known for heart-pumping outdoor activities like bungee jumping, paragliding, jetboating, skiing and mountain biking. But Queenstown has plenty to offer even travelers who are more art lovers than adrenaline junkies.
You can wander independently through the city’s art galleries, including Artbay Gallery, which features contemporary art from around New Zealand, and Toi o Tahuna Gallery, which hosts changing exhibitions in a downtown location. If you want a more personalized experience, Black ZQN can organize an art tour in the Otago region that’s customized for your interests.
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Stay on a Working Farm
Though Kiwis are no longer outnumbered 20 to one by their sheep (the ratio is more like seven to one these days), New Zealand is still sprinkled liberally with farms — and many of them welcome overnight guests. Your farmstay might include a sheep-shearing demonstration, a chance to feed a baby goat, a walk around the pasture or a home-cooked meal in the farmers’ kitchen. Accommodations range from rustic, budget-friendly cottages to ultra-lavish lodges.
Farmstays are available in nearly every region of New Zealand. To find them, visit TrueNZ.co.nz, RuralHolidays.co.nz or the accommodation section of NewZealand.com.
Search for Kiwi Birds on Stewart Island
The flightless, nocturnal kiwi bird is an icon of New Zealand — and yet it’s almost impossible to spot one in person. Sure, you can see them in captivity at places like Queenstown’s Kiwi Birdlife Park, but if you want to catch sight of one in the wild, your best bet is to visit remote Stewart Island. Located off the southern coast of the South Island, with a population of just 400 hardy souls, Stewart Island offers a glimpse of New Zealand’s wild side. About 85 percent of the island is covered by Rakiura National Park, which makes a welcoming home for some 15,000 kiwi birds (as well as numerous other rare bird species).
Bravo Adventure Cruises takes visitors on a twilight boat ride to an area where the birds often gather to feed; the excursion lasts four hours. For a longer and more active trip, try a one- or two-night package from Ruggedy Range™ Wilderness Experience. These trips involve 10 to 15 miles of easy walking per day through wetlands, beaches and manuka scrub, with accommodations at backcountry huts.
Climb a Dormant Volcano in Auckland
Many first-time visitors to Auckland don’t realize that New Zealand’s largest city is built on an active volcanic field, encompassing some 48 volcanoes. Fortunately for the locals, they’re all dormant — at least for now. The one that erupted most recently (between 500 and 600 years ago) is Rangitoto, one of Auckland’s most iconic landmarks. Its 850-foot cone rises from the sea to create an island just off the coast, visible from many parts of the city.
Hop aboard a Fullers ferry for a 25-minute ride to the island, where a hiking path through trees and lava fields brings you to the summit in about an hour. Once at the top, you can walk around the crater rim or simply enjoy the views of downtown Auckland. While you can do the hike independently, Fullers also offers a Rangitoto Island Volcanic Explorer Tour, which includes the ferry ride and an educational driving tour of the island. Bonus: The tour takes you most of the way up the volcano, leaving you just a short walk away from the summit.
Advice from a Traveler Who’s Been There
Our Travels in New Zealand Part 1 by Mal Part
“We have a ‘thing’ about tall buildings so, after the [Auckland] city tour, we head for the Sky Tower, NZ’s tallest building (and the tallest in the Southern Hemisphere we’re told). There are great views over the whole city, including the rather picturesque harbour area, and right out to the airport.” Read more!
Experience Maori Life in Kaikoura
No visit to New Zealand would be complete without time spent learning about the Maori culture. And while the Auckland Museum and Wellington’s Te Papa are good starting places, the best way to learn about the Maori is from the Maori themselves. Skip the chintzy Maori tourist villages; instead, spend part of your day with a Maori guide who will take you on a journey through the stories and places that have shaped Maori life. For instance, on Maori Tours’ half-day tour in Kaikoura, a guide brings participants to visit ancient kauri trees to learn about how the Maori have traditionally used trees and plants for food and medicine.
TIME Unlimited Tours offers a few Maori-led excursions in the Auckland area, with a couple including a traditional cultural performance.
Bike the Otago Central Rail Trail
Bike through old train tunnels and across wooden bridges, explore old mining towns, and enjoy expansive mountain views along the Otago Central Rail Trail. This 93-mile track was once a 19th-century rail line between Clyde and Middlemarch, but today it’s a popular path for biking, walking and even horseback riding. To complete the whole trail by bike typically takes three to five days, depending on how fast you ride and how many detours you make. Travel during the summer months (December through February) for the warmest weather and longest days, or during autumn (March and April) to see the region’s spectacular foliage.
While a reasonable level of fitness is required, the trail doesn’t have any major hills and is suitable for most bikers. If you’re not up for the whole route, you can sample part of it in a half- or full-day ride; the Poolburn Gorge area is one popular choice. Shebikeshebikes can arrange bike rentals, day trips, accommodations and full-route packages.
Go Behind the Scenes in Wellywood
Move over, Hollywood and Bollywood — Wellington has become the latest cinema capital following the towering success of the “Lord of the Rings” and “Hobbit” franchises. Director Peter Jackson drew on landscapes across New Zealand to create his epic vision of Middle-earth, but Wellington, Jackson’s home town, was the center of the action. The first stop for any movie buff should be the Weta Cave, where you can get a behind-the-scenes tour of the workshop of Jackson’s special effects company. Weta Workshop produced props, costumes, sets and more for the “Lord of the Rings” movies, as well as other films.
For true LOTR fans, the Weta Cave is just the beginning. Adventure Safari offers several movie tours in the Wellington area; the full-day Ultimate Movie Tour includes stops in the filming locations for Rivendell, the Gardens of Isengard, Helms Deep and more. (It also stops at the aforementioned Weta Cave.)
Advice from a Traveler Who’s Been There
The Magic of Hobbiton Shire by Deborah DeNard
“This was to be the magical trip, a once in a lifetime adventure to the Shire of Hobbiton, tucked away in the hills of New Zealand’s Matamata with spectacular views of Kaimai Ranges. The Hobbiton Movie Set and Farm Tour was going to be our chance to experience the real Middle-earth, having only heard what lay ahead I was leaving my imagination to do the rest.” Read more!
Swim with Rare Dolphins in Akaroa
Found only in New Zealand, the Hector’s dolphin is the world’s smallest dolphin species. The average adult is just 4 – 4.5 feet long and weighs about 100 pounds. You can meet one up close and in person in Akaroa, on the coast of the South Island. Black Cat Cruises offers a two-hour Dolphin Experience that gives animal lovers the chance to jump in the water and swim with these friendly creatures. You’ll put on a wetsuit and set off into Akaroa Harbour in a heated, covered catamaran; hot showers and drinks are offered after you get out of the water.
The company has successful swims on more than 80 percent of its cruises, but if the dolphins are calving, feeding or otherwise uninterested in interacting, you’ll get a partial refund. Cruises run all year and carry just 12 people per sailing, so advance booking is recommended.
Advice from a Traveler Who’s Been There
Fantastic Cruise to Australia/New Zealand by Carmen Critchlow
“We took the Harbor Wildlife Nature cruise and the highlight of this trip was undoubtedly the sighting of one of the world’s smallest and rarest dolphins, the Hector’s dolphin. We saw many of them and they were frolicking around the boat. The captain of the cruise stayed around for quite a while, so many pictures were taken.” Read more!
Uncover a Buried Village in Rotorua
It’s one thing to join the throngs visiting the bubbly hot springs that sour the air of Rotorua on New Zealand’s North Island; it’s quite another to see evidence of the power that thermal activity can have. At the 12-acre Te Wairoa village, visitors can see firsthand the destruction left behind by the 1886 eruption of Mt. Tarawera. Buried by volcanic ash, many of the village’s structures have been well preserved, offering a unique look at how Maori and European New Zealanders lived together in the 19th century.
Visitors can tour the museum, which houses a large collection of excavated objects, and trace a walking path dotted by excavated buildings and Maori whares (dwellings), all while guides tell of the night the volcano rained fire, killing 150 people.
Advice from a Traveler Who’s Been There
Our Travels in New Zealand Part 3 by Mal Part
“Rotorua is a BIG place, and NZ’s top tourist spot — almost every traveller stops by and visits the thermal parks and Maori sites. Rotorua has the highest density of Maoris, and several ‘tribes’ have their bases in and around the town. There are several Maori villages, plenty of Maori shops and craft outlets, and you can partake of a Maori hangi (feast of meat cooked with very hot stones in a pit filled with earth).” Read more!
Best Time to Go to New Zealand
New Zealand’s seasons are opposite those in the Northern Hemisphere, so for summer sunshine and the warmest possible temperatures, you’ll want to travel from December through February. Note that many Kiwis travel then as well, so be prepared for crowds in the most popular tourist areas. Spring and fall are the less crowded shoulder seasons; you’ll find cooler temperatures, lower prices and a greater chance of rain. Winter may be chilly for sightseers, but it’s paradise for skiers, especially on the mountainous South Island; you can hit the slopes from mid-June through mid-October.
New Zealand on a Budget
Airfare to New Zealand will take a big chomp out of your vacation budget, and the outdoor adventures the country is known for — like whale watching, glacier hiking, kayaking and bungee jumping — can be pricey. Fortunately, you can save a few coins on accommodations. There’s a network of motels, campgrounds, holiday parks and hostels (known as “backpackers”) throughout the country, offering basic lodging at affordable prices. To reduce your food budget, get a place with a kitchen and cook for yourself.
–written by Sarah Schlichter and Dori Saltzman