4 July 2018 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 helihiking unique glaciers, the world-class heights that New Zealand’s film-star landscapes reach will satisfy even the most seasoned of adventurers.
1. Bay of Islands
Head to the tip of the North Island and you’ll find the subtropical delights of the Bay of Islands. Here, golden beaches fringe over 140 forested islets, and highlights include the enormous waterfalls of Haruru, the pretty bays and cliffs of Urupukapuka Island and sweeping coastal views from Kerikeri. A night walk through the Puketi Forest enchants with bird song that changes at sunset while bats swoop over a forest floor home to the flightless North Island brown kiwi. Part of Maui legend, this is one of the Bay of Islands’ most spectacular displays of nature. As are the Kawiti Caves, whose kaarsts and stalactites are eerily lit by spectacular glow worm displays.
The sub-tropical Bay of Islands
2. Hauraki Gulf
The North Island’s stunning Hauraki Gulf boasts sparkling seas and an unexpectedly large number of white-sand beaches, not least those on the island of Waiheke. A short ferry hop away from Auckland, it’s a place best explored via its many walking tracks, with perhaps a stop at a vineyard or two to sample that famous New Zealand wine. Alternatively, head out by boat, dipping into secluded coves and sandy shores, or take it all in by bike, stopping off for swims along the way. It's a region of stunning scenery, 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, it follows the old railway line and invites visitors to trek or cycle the abundance of trails that criss-cross the area.
Sweeping bays characterise the coast of Waiheke Island
3. Geothermal wonders
Rotorua, in the volcanic centre of the North Island, is New Zealand's most famous geothermal region, with geysers, hot springs and mineral pools at every turn. It’s also home to the Whirinaki Rainforest, one of the world’s last remaining great temperate rainforests, which provides endless opportunities for hiking over dramatic canyons, exploring ancient forests and witnessing mighty waterfalls. Be sure not to miss the vast Pohutu Geyser and striking Waimangu Volcanic Valley, where forests frame huge hot-water lakes, bubbling mud pools and natural hot springs.
The volcanic landscapes at Rotorua
4. Abel Tasman
At the South Island’s often-sunny northern tip, this national park is all pristine waterways, verdant wetlands, ancient forests and gold-sand curves. It’s a vast region, perfect for kayaking and sailing, while stunning walks include the Coast Track, one of New Zealand’s most popular hikes. Head across the national park by boat to relax on dazzling beaches and to dip into turquoise seas before trekking along trails to mavel at waterfalls and lagoons.
Golden beaches at Abel Tasman National Park
5. Kaikoura & the East Coast
For wildlife spotting, it’s hard to beat the town of Kaikoura on the South Island’s pretty east coast, New Zealand’s whale-watching capital. Boat trips hug a coastline framed by snow-capped peaks which look down on pods of orcas in winter and migratory humpbacks in summer. And, inland, there are hikes through lush forests to sweeping views of the Seaward Mountains and Mangamaunu Bay. At day’s end, celebrate with some freshly caught seafood – the crayfish is a particular highlight – washed down by a glass of the local sauvignon blanc.
A pod of dolphins at Kaikoura
6. Mountains & glaciers
New Zealand’s Southern Alps are spectacular, a range whose icy peaks, sweeping valleys, creaking glaciers and impossibly blue lakes are as synonymous with the country as the All-Blacks rugby team. The highest mountain of them all, Aoraki (Mt Cook) is a near-4,000-metre-high goliath, whose surrounding national park is home to some of New Zealand’s most spectacular walks. Likewise, the Mount Aspiring National Park, home to the world-renowned Routeburn Track, one of the nine Great Walks of New Zealand. Meanwhile, plunging almost 3000m from high in the Southern Alps to almost sea level, the Fox and Franz Josef glaciers are the most accessible of their kind anywhere in New Zealand. Navigate their icy expanse on guided terminal hikes, or take to the air on a thrilling helicopter ride to see it all from above.
Mt Cook (left), is New Zealand's highest peak
7. Fiordland National Park
A scenic drive from New Zealand’s adventure capital, Queenstown, the small town of Te Anau acts as gateway to perhaps the country’s best-known wilderness region – Fiordland National Park. Here, the glassy waters of Milford and Doubtful sound welcome visitors with some of the country’s most spectacular landscapes. Explore sparkling waters on luxury cruises as you look out for playful dolphins and waterfalls cascading down from impossibly steep cliffs.
Explore Milford Sound on a luxury overnight cruise
All of these regions and more can be explored with our Wilderness Highlights of New Zealand itinerary.