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Lake Wanaka and Mt. Aspiring, New Zealand

New Zealand: A wilderness guide

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25 January 2019 by Claire Benktander

Combine enormous mountains, remote fjords, white-sand shores and colossal glaciers and you’re met with a taste of the spectacular landscapes that New Zealand has to offer.

Surf a tropical beach one day and hike a mountain pass the next – the relative proximity of New Zealand’s landscapes and ease of travel highlights its deserved position as one of the world’s best wilderness destinations and means much of it can be explored in a single trip. Whether you’re cruising a remote sound, skiing the Remarkables mountain range, kayaking the white-sand shores of Abel Tasman or heli-hiking unique glaciers, the world-class heights that New Zealand’s film-star landscapes reach will satisfy even the most seasoned of adventurers.

The Remarkables from Matakauri Lodge near Queenstown

The Remarkables from Matakauri Lodge near Queenstown

Head to the North Island and you’ll find rugged coastline framed by verdant mountains, as well as the famous Bay of Islands, one of New Zealand’s most renowned landscapes. Here, vistas and beaches frame over 140 subtropical forested inlets, comprised of sights like the enormous waterfalls of Haruru, pretty bays and cliffs of Urupukapuka Island and sweeping coastal views of Kerikeri. A night walk through Kerikeri’s Puketi Forest greets walkers with bird song that changes at sunset – watch as bats fly overhead and even spot a kiwi. This is one of the Bay of Islands’ most spectacular displays of nature, with 15,000 hectares of magnificent kauri trees, legendary for the indigenous Maori, that can live to up to 3000 years old. The Kawiti Caves are another reason visitors flock here – at night the spectacular glow worms light up the shadowy caves.

Bay of Islands, North Island

Bay of Islands, North Island

New Zealand’s North Island boasts an unexpectedly large number of turquoise water-framed white beaches, such as the island of Waiheke. A quick hop over from Auckland, it’s best explored with its many walking tracks (with perhaps a stop or two via a vineyard to sample that famous New Zealand grape), a boat dipping into coves and shores, or even with a scooter, stopping off for swims along the way. It’s also home to the Hauraki Gulf where stunning scenery emerges around every corner, from the Hauraki Rail Trail cycle route to the powerful rapids of gorges and waterfalls. The spectacular Karangahake Gorge is most notable, lying at the base of the Coromandel Range following the old railway, where visitors can trek or cycle the abundance of trails that frame the area.

Hauraki rail trail, North Island

Hauraki rail trail, North Island

Rotorua, set on the eponymous lake in the centre of the North Island, is New Zealand's most famous geothermal region, steeped in indigenous history, with geysers, hot springs and volcanic mineral pools at every turn. It’s also home to Whirinaki Rainforest, one of the world’s last remaining great temperate rainforests, which provides opportunity for hiking over dramatic canyons, exploring ancient tree species and witnessing mighty waterfalls. Some of country's most diverse geothermal activity lies here due to its location on the Pacific Ring of Fire – don’t miss a visit to the vast Pohutu Geyser and striking Waimangu Volcanic Valley, where forests frame huge hot water lakes, mud pools and natural hot springs.

Rotorua, North Island

Rotorua, North Island

The wonderful Abel Tasman National Park comprises the sunny tip of the South Island, all pristine waterways, verdant wetlands and ancient forests. The national park is vast and perfectly explored with kayaking, hiking and sailing, and its eponymous Coast Track is one of New Zealand’s most popular hikes, wonderfully paired with sampling the produce of some of the world’s best vineyards. Head across the national park via boat along white beaches and turquoise bays, before trekking along trails where you’ll stop to marvel at waterfalls and lagoons.

Abel Tasman National Park, South Island

Abel Tasman National Park, South Island

For wildlife, it’s hard to beat the town of Kaikoura on the west coast of the South Island, the whale watching capital of New Zealand. Boat trips hug coastlines that in winter frame snow-capped peaks along with seasonal orcas, whilst summer brings migratory humpbacks. Walk along forest canopies to sweeping views of the Seaward Mountains and Mangamaunu Bay, and at the end of the day sample some wonderful seafood for which this area is known, particularly crayfish.

Humpback whale, Kaikoura, South Island

Humpback whale, Kaikoura, South Island

Glaciers are almost synonymous with New Zealand’s natural landscapes, and they’re not only colossal, but unique – they’re the world’s largest glaciers that lie so close to the coast, and lie side by side with rainforest. They’re wonderfully reached via train through farmlands, viaducts across the snow-covered Southern Alps and coastal forest, before reaching Greymouth for doorstep access to the Fox and Franz Josef glaciers. These enormous bodies of ice plunge from nearly 3000m high in the Southern Alps, flowing ten times quicker than most. A guided hike or a helicopter tour is a wonderful way to take in the glacial expanse, before you begin your descent to a snow landing and explore. New Zealand’s tallest mountain, Mount Cook, is another base for exploring some of the country’s largest glaciers, such as Tasman, which takes the title at a depth of 600 metres.

Hiking in Mt. Cook National Park

Hiking in Mt. Cook National Park

It's the self-styled ‘adventure capital of New Zealand’, and for good reason. Queensland is an endless outdoor playground, explored with hikes and excursions in the heart of the Southern Alps, home to the iconic Milford Sound. Every season rewards visitors with a variety of activities, from skiing the snow-capped Remarkables mountain range to kayaking crystal clear Lake Wakatipu. Flora and fauna exist in abundance here, seen in forest walks with magnificent lake and mountain views. Discover the stunning waters of Dart River, framed by rugged forest, with boat trips, and hike the Mount Aspiring National Park or Routeburn Track to pass primeval woodland, grand alpine meadows, meandering streams and majestic snowy mountains.

Mount Aspiring National Park, South Island

Mount Aspiring National Park, South Island

All of these places and more can be explored with our Wilderness Highlights of New Zealand itinerary. 

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