After two years of being the poster child of Covid border closures, New Zealand has finally reopened to fully vaccinated holidaymakers from 60 nations. We can once again explore the dramatic landscapes of the Land of the Long White Cloud.
From island vineyard tours to stays in lakeside luxury lodges and even crowd-free skiing, here are 20 brilliant ways to experience New Zealand this year.
Heli hike on nice ice
Most classic New Zealand itineraries incorporate the Franz Josef glacier – it’s impressive to look up at this long, sparkling tongue that slips from the Southern Alps. But skimming over it by chopper, landing high up on the ice and cramponing across the glacier’s constantly shifting surface is even better. Expert guides will lead you over new crevasses, into caves and through dazzling blue-ice tunnels. Ice wall climbing, with expert tuition, is possible too.
Relive movie magic
New Zealand’s natural drama has famously attracted filmmakers – and will appeal to visitors as well. Fun tours of Hobbiton combine well with paddleboarding into glowworm caves, panning for gold, dolphin watching, fly-fishing and jet boating. Young film buffs will love a Weta Workshop, a creative studio in Wellington which was involved in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Here you can go behind the scenes of the Wellywood industry – from make-up to special effects – before sculpting your own monster.
Raise a glass to some world-class wine
From fruity pinot to refreshing sauvignon, New Zealand does wines exceedingly well. Only a quick ferry ride from Auckland, Waiheke – aka ‘Wine Island’ – is renowned for quality reds; a tasting tour in a classic car makes a classy day-trip. Alternatively, plot an oenological odyssey, combining Waiheke with wineries in Hawke’s Bay and Blenheim (where you can cycle between vines) as well as lesser-known producers in Central Otago; at Lake Tekapo, stay at a lodge run by wine buffs to learn about local tipples.
Tramp Tongariro and beyond
New Zealand’s Great Walks are excellent for keen, multi-day hikers but those wanting more laid-back, recreational rambling will find quality short trails too. For instance, the volcano-traversing Tongariro Alpine Crossing is often touted as the world’s best one-day walk. Combine this with other short tramps – the Pouakai Crossing (like Tongariro but without the crowds), goldminer’s Moonlight Trail, Waimangu Volcanic Valley, Abel Tasman coast and the Hooker Valley below Aoraki (Mt Cook) – for a gentler hiking journey.
Hit the road in a motorhome
It’s not necessarily cheaper to campervan around New Zealand than to stay in hotels, but it’s certainly appealing. Think empty highways, a sense of freedom and the chance to sleep amid A-list wilderness (the Department of Conservation runs 200-plus campsites). For on-the-road camaraderie, pre-booked sites and a big adventure, join the Caravan and Motorhome Club’s cavalcade, which will explore from the Bay of Islands to southerly Invercargill and all points between.
Sweet sleeps in luxury lodges
While it may promise freedom and fun, you don’t have to squeeze into a campervan to see New Zealand. Instead, self-drive between stylish boltholes set in beautiful locations. Boutique Fiordland Lodge is only a stone’s throw from Milford Sound, while secluded Solitaire Lodge sits right on Lake Tarawera – private in feel but perfectly placed for Rotorua’s geothermal shenanigans and Maori culture. Hidden away in the heart of Queen Charlotte Sound, the Bay of Many Coves is the base for wine lovers. From the lodge (accessible by water taxi), you can head out on walks, vineyard tours and peaceful paddles.
Sail Doubtful Sound
Deep in Fiordland, dramatic Doubtful Sound is larger, wider and more remote than much-photographed Milford. An overnight voyage on its peaceful, peak-flanked waters has a proper wilderness feel; hop into kayaks or small tenders for deeper exploration and look out for fur seals, dolphins and penguins, too. Those with more time could spend a week aboard the Milford Wanderer, delving into five of the country’s most isolated and pristine inlets, rich in wildlife and explorer history.
Spot the wild isle’s native critters
Some unique animals call this country home. On a wildlife-themed self-drive of the South Island, you can tick off plenty. Start with hiking and birding around Abel Tasman National Park before searching for whales off Kaikoura. Akaroa is penguin paradise (yellow-eyed, blue and loads of little penguins can be seen) while walks on the offbeat Otago Peninsula might reveal albatross and New Zealand sea lion. The remote Catlins coast is renowned for rare mohua birds; from here, you can sail to Stewart Island for the best chance of seeing kiwi in the wild.
Paddle in the city
Rangitoto Island is an Auckland icon: rising from the Hauraki Gulf, in sight of the city’s skyscrapers, it’s the biggest of the urban area’s 48 volcanic cones, and home to the world’s largest pohutukawa forest. Ferries zip there in 25 minutes but more exhilarating is to kayak across. Paddle by day, looking for dolphins and penguins en route, or wait until late afternoon to hike to the island’s summit where you can watch the sun set, have a barbie on the beach, and then paddle back in the dark, towards the city’s glittering lights.
Everestian endeavours across the Southern Alps
New Zealand legend Sir Edmund Hillary learned his crampon craft in the snowy Southern Alps. A centre in Aoraki Mount Cook Village remembers his achievements, but better is to get out amid the mountains. Try a wilderness tramp – dubbed ‘the best trek not in any New Zealand guidebook’ – that wends between high peaks and remote lakes, including a night in a backcountry hut and a wild heli-hike, deep into the Siberia Valley.
Ride the Otago Rail Trail
In the past decade New Zealand’s famed Great Walks have been joined by 22 Great Rides, a 2,500-kilometre signposted network of magnificent, multi-day, mostly off-road cycle trails. These include everything from the easy Te Ara Ahi route, rich in Maori history, to the testing singletrack of the Old Ghost Road. The Otago Central Rail Trail, the country’s original Great Ride, is a beaut: 152 kilometres of flat, traffic-free cycling via mountainous countryside, restored bridges and tunnels, old mining sites and welcoming wineries and cafés.
Get multi-active in Abel Tasman
Fringing the northern edge of South Island, Abel Tasman National Park is where turquoise waters meet golden sands, native forest and colonial history – and the sun shines more than anywhere else in New Zealand. Ancestors of the Wilson family first settled here in 1841. Eight generations on, the Wilsons now run trips between their beachfront lodges within the park, combining sea kayaking, hiking, swimming and boat rides with home-cooked food, wine and stories.
Super scuba the Poor Knights
New Zealand offers an immense variety of diving, from wrecks and kelp forests to sub-tropical reefs. The Poor Knights Marine Reserve, off North Island’s north coast, is one of the warmest spots, and truly world-class. Head for the Blue MaoMao Arch site, where huge schools of blue maomao mingle with kingfish, snapper and nudibranchs; in summer, manta rays, turtles and orca might be seen. Combine this with other North Island dives including the Bay of Islands, Cathedral Cove and the wreck of the Rainbow Warrior.
Hit a great new walk
This year marks the 30th anniversary of New Zealand’s Great Walks collection. To celebrate, another trail is being admitted to this esteemed club. The Tuatapere Hump Ridge Track Walk (officially opening late 2022) is a 61-kilometre loop through South Island’s Fiordland, combining wild coast, native forest, sub-alpine ranges and dramatic old viaducts. For the greatest insight into the area’s flora, fauna and pioneer history, tackle it with a local guide, beginning with a helicopter flight and staying at backcountry lodges en route.
See by sea
Few cruise ships circumnavigate New Zealand, but they do sail in from Australia. You can combine these two long-haul favourites that have been out of reach for so long by setting off from Sydney. Detour to Tasmania, then surge across the Tasman Sea to approach New Zealand like an old-school explorer. The first ports of call are Milford, Doubtful and Dusky Sounds – a terrific trio, whose waterfalls and wildlife are best seen by boat. It’s then on to historic Dunedin and Akaroa (where penguins might be seen), the wineries and walking trails of Marlborough and Art Deco Napier before docking in buzzy Auckland.
Ski an off-piste playground
The Southern Hemisphere offers skiing when the Northern Hemisphere is bathing in the summer sun (the season runs June-October). The resort of Treble Cone, near Wanaka, is good. Even better is the crowd-free alpine ski camp, higher up, where days are spent remote ski-touring and nights are spent gazing up in the Southern Hemisphere’s only dark sky reserve. Combine that with carving pristine tracks from heli-access-only Minaret Station, flying over glaciers, and even landing on remote beaches, fishing for crayfish, and then eating the spoils – a kiwi twist on après ski.
Explore the living earth of Te Urewera
In 2014 the status of Te Urewera changed: no longer a national park, this rare North Island wilderness of indigenous rainforest is now legally recognised as a living being. The local Tuhoe guides of Maori-owned Te Urewera Treks lead walks here, including one-day loops through a river canyon (home to Hineruarangi, guardian of the Whirinaki valley) and planting hikes, which aim to restore denuded areas with native rimu, totara and matai trees. Also possible is the four-day Lake Waikaremoana ‘Great Walk’, which traces the lakeshore, via isolated beaches, backcountry huts, giant podocarps and Maori legends.
Watery, wild wonders
Sitting between snow peaks and the Pacific, Kaikoura is one of the only places where sperm whales can be seen year-round, as well as dolphins (all year too). Orca can be spotted December-March, humpbacks June-July and occasionally even a mighty blue. Boat trips on hydrophone-equipped catamarans run most days. Alternatively, pull on some neoprene and jump in for the most magical marine encounter: snorkelling with the playful resident fur seals.
Join the bird bonanza on Kapiti Island
It’s not easy to spot wild kiwi. Stewart Island is your best bet but, if you’re not heading that way, Kapiti Island – a nature sanctuary and marine reserve accessible from Wellington – is a good option. Visitor numbers are limited, giving Kapiti an exclusive feel. With a local guide, learn about the Maori, who’ve inhabited this island for centuries; kayak and snorkel the protected waters; and stay overnight in a safari tent, cabin or classic ‘bach’ bungalow for the chance to see endemic birdlife including bellbirds, takahe, parakeets, weka and, perhaps, little spotted kiwi.
Make the most of finally leaving Australia’s shores by contrasting New Zealand with a side-trip in the South Pacific. After hopping around the Bay of Islands, raising a glass or three of Hawke’s Bay’s finest and going full-throttle in adventure capital Queenstown (try mountain biking, rafting and kayaking), jet to the Cook Islands to laze on white-sand beaches and go diving and snorkelling.