New Zealand is a small but beautiful country in the South Pacific. It also happens to be my home country, so I have all sorts of great tips for visiting here! Unfortunately many people don’t make it to New Zealand because of its relatively isolated location in the South Pacific. Its closest neighbours are Australia and the Pacific Islands, but to get to America or Europe you are looking at a 15hr+ flight. For this reason, when you get here you really do want to make the most of your trip.
Where to go
New Zealand is a diverse country so where you choose to go ultimately depends on what you’re interested in and how long you have. For good reason most international visitors usually choose to spend a majority of their time in the South Island. Known for its beautiful landscapes – lakes, beaches, deserts, snow-capped mountains… the South Island has got it all! It is here that much of the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films that New Zealand because famous for were filmed. The largest city in the South Island is Christchurch, but many visitors choose to fly direct to Queenstown, which is the adventure capital of New Zealand (and perhaps even the world!).
The largest city in the North Island (and New Zealand as a whole) is Auckland. This is where the country’s main international airport is located. From here you can either stay in the city or, to truly experience New Zealand, go on a road trip!
To get between the two main islands there is a ferry between Wellington and Picton. Crossing the Cook Strait, the ferry sails through the picturesque Marlborough Sounds and you can also take your vehicle on board. Depending on the weather just be prepared for a bumpy ride! Book through either the Interislander or BlueBridge.
Due to its beautiful scenery and small size New Zealand is a country best explored overland. The best way to do this is to hire a car, which can get quite expensive. Alternatively, if you are here for a longer period of say a month or more then it may even work out as more economical to buy a cheap car in New Zealand and then sell it at the end of your trip. The best way to do this is to visit TradeMe, which is New Zealand’s version of eBay.
The cheapest way to get around New Zealand is to catch the bus. The two main companies are InterCity and the Naked Bus, which both have pretty good national networks. The Naked Bus is more popular with the backpacker crowd and sometimes offers NZD$1 fares to those who book far enough in advance. They also offer discounted multi-passes. If you take the bus it does take a bit longer to get from A to B, but if you break up the journey enough then this won’t be an issue.
Catching a train through New Zealand is a wonderful, scenic way to see the country’s landscapes, but unfortunately can be a bit pricey and will probably set you back even more than the cost of a flight between the main centres. The main route through the North Island is on the Northern Explorer and in the South Island you can take the Coastal Pacific (September – May), and the truly stunning TranzAlpine, which passes through the beautiful Southern Alps mountain range and is one of the world’s great train journeys.
New Zealand is a safe country and the people are very friendly so give hitchhiking a try!
Places to visit
This is New Zealand’s largest and most diverse city and will probably be the port that you fly into. Spend a couple of days here walking around the waterfront, the city centre and Karangahape and Ponsonby Road’s, and maybe even go up the Sky Tower for a birds-eye view of the city.
Northland and the Bay of Islands
Northland and the Bay of Islands are located to the north of Auckland, right at the tip of New Zealand. This sub-tropical region hosts beautiful white sand beaches, stunning forests, huge sand dunes and picturesque islands that are great for diving. Check out 90 mile beach, swim with the dolphins, and go to Waipoua Forest to stand among giant (and I mean GIANT) kauri trees believed to be up to 3000 years old. Also visit the town of Waitiangi for a bit of insight into New Zealand’s native culture history. This is where the controversial Treaty of Waitangi was signed in 1840 by representatives of the British Crown and native Maori chiefs.
Approximately 1-2 hours out of Auckland is the beautiful Coromandel Peninsula, which is known for its beautiful beaches, coastal scenery and great surfing. Be sure to visit Cathedral Cove in Hahei, and Hot Water Beach in Mercury Bay. Hot Water Beach gets its name from the underground hot springs that are located beneath the sand. When the tide is low it is possible to dig a hole into the sand to create your very own hot pool. So cool!
Rotorua is a fun town, known for its geothermal activity and, for better or worse, the sulphur smell that comes with it. Visit here for insight into New Zealand’s native Maori culture, the natural hot springs, and the Buried Village of Te Wairoa. If you’re game enough then Rotorua also has some of the best white water rafting rapids in the world and is also the home of Zorbing.
Pro budget tip: Instead of paying NZD$40+ for admission, visit one of Rotorua’s free natural hot pools, such as the stunning Kerosene Creek, which is 35km south of the city, just off State Highway 5.
Located next to the large Lake Taupo, this city is also known for adventure and water sports. Go skydiving or bungy jumping, or just chill out by the lake or in a boat. Free and cheap activities worth checking out include Huka Falls and the Craters of the Moon geyser walk.
Just south of Taupo this park is the home to some of the North Islands biggest mountains (Mount Ruapehu, Mount Ngarahoe and Mount Tongariro) in addition to some of its best ski slopes. Book in advance to do the epic Tongariro Crossing walk, which will give you some breathtaking views.
Napier / Hawke’s Bay
Located in the Hawke’s Bay region, Napier is a funky little town that was hit by a massive earthquake in the 1930s and rebuilt in art deco style. While you’re here also check out a few of the many great vineyards that can be found in this popular wine growing region.
Named by the Lonely Planet in 2011 as the “Coolest Little Capital in the World”, Wellington is a beautiful little city. This city has a laid-back and alternative vibe and some of the best coffee in the world. For more information check out my list of 19 free and cheap things to do in Wellington.
The Marlborough Sounds
Located at the very top of the South Island, the Marlborough Sounds are best seen by boat. Fortunately, the Interislander and BlueBridge passenger ferries crossing the Cook Strait between Wellington and Picton travel through this area so you don’t need to pay an arm and a leg to get out here. This area also has a number of popular treks, such as the 4-5 day Queen Charlotte Walkway.
Abel Tasman National Park
This stunning park is full of golden sands and nice, secluded beach spots. Walk the 3-5 day Abel Tasman Coast Track or just do one of its sections as a day walk.
Golden Bay Peninsula
At the very northern tip of the South Island on the western side lies Golden Bay. As its name accurately suggests, this peninsula is full of beaches with gorgeous golden sands. If you can manage to tear yourself away from the beach be sure to traverse the sand dunes at Farewell Spit, check out the sacred Te Waikoropupu Springs, stop by the Ngarua Caves and, if you’re up for an adventure, abseil into the depths of Harwoods Hole.
Previously known as the Garden City, unfortunately Christchurch is now better known for the devastating earthquake that hit the city in 2011, killing 185 people and destroying many of the buildings. Although much of the centre of the city is still in shambles, it is being progressively revitalised with some really interesting street art and public art installations. While you’re there check out the Cardboard Cathedral, which was created to temporarily replace the city’s well known Cathedral that got destroyed. Also see the hauntingly beautiful ‘185 chairs’ memorial and the new Re:Start mall made out of shipping containers to house some of the shops that were deemed unsafe following the earthquakes.
Mount Cook in the Southern Alps is the tallest mountain in New Zealand. Up close it is simply stunning. There is also only one way to drive there and this is one of the most beautiful drives I have ever done. When you get there you can spend a bit of money and go glacier kayaking or get a charter plane or helicopter to fly you around the area. Alternatively, if you’re cheap like us then there are plenty of amazing hikes of varying lengths and difficulty that will allow you to see more of the mountain.
This stunning lake town offers views of Mount Cook against the beautiful blue Lake Tekapo. Get some amazing photos of the Church of the Good Shepherd next to the lake and at night climb to the top of Jack’s Hill to see one of the best views of the night sky you will ever see. Lake Tekapo is one of only 8 places in the world designated as an international dark sky reserve, meaning the view of the stars is truly amazing because it isn’t obstructed by surrounding light.
Queenstown is the adventure capital of New Zealand (and probably even the world). Go bungy jumping, skydiving, or take a leap of faith on the giant Nevis swing. Jet boating, skiing, snowboarding… name any adventure activity and Queenstown is 99 per cent likely to have it. For those that are a bit more timid, Queenstown also has plenty of laidback, scenic activities to take part in as well. Just go there and enjoy the views!
About an hour out of Queenstown is Wanaka, which is another major skiing and snowboarding destination. Against the backdrop of Lake Wanaka and the mountains this is also a very beautiful location.
Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers
Walk or fly to these beautiful glaciers, which are on the west side of the South Island. Although these glaciers have receded rather a lot due to global warming, these glaciers are still a magnificent sight.
Milford Sound, Fiordland National Park
Although remote, Milford Sound is truly breathtaking and should be on the list of anyone visiting the South Island. Either do the 4 day Milford Track, touted by Rudyard Kipling as the “most beautiful walk in the world”, or get a day or overnight cruise through the Sound. If you have time then also check out the nearby Doubtful Sound.
New Zealand on a Budget
Unfortunately New Zealand is an expensive country that will put a massive dent in your pocket if you do a lot of tours and activities and eat out often. Fortunately, if you follow the below advice, you can also do travel this fine country very cheaply.
– Go freedom camping – In New Zealand there are a number of designated camping spots where you can pitch a tent for free. Although basic, these sites usually have long drop toilets, picnic tables, and rubbish bins, and are often located near rivers or lakes you can bathe in. Check out the Camping Our Way website for information on freedom camping locations across the country.
– Sleep in a hostel dorm bed for about NZD$20 per night
– Go Couchsurfing
– Sleep in your car or hire a car from Escape, Jucy or Spaceship that comes with sleeping facilities
Food and drink
– Unfortunately, eating out in New Zealand is expensive, so if you want to really save money on food and drink you will need to get your food from the supermarket or local vege market / fruit stall and cook up your own meals.
– If you do choose to eat out then Asian food or takeaway food is usually the cheapest option. New Zealand does amazing fish and chips that will feed two people for about NZ$10. Also look out for lunchtime or dinner specials at pubs, etc. on the quieter nights of the week.
– Buy a bottle of wine from the supermarket and share it with friends instead of going to a bar. You can get excellent New Zealand wines from the supie for around $10 a bottle. For a delicious wine get a bottle of Marlborough sauvignon blanc or Central Otago pinot noir.
– Get a Naked Bus multi-pass discount
– Book buses, trains and planes as far in advance as possible
– Get outdoors! New Zealand is known for its natural beauty and seeing that won’t cost you a thing…
Have you been to New Zealand before or are you planning to visit there in the future? Tell me all about it in the comments section below. 🙂