Highlights and Hidden Gems of New Zealand: Places You Can’t Miss
In case you haven’t been following along with my story (and I don’t blame you, half of the time I don’t even know where I am or what I’m doing, so I definitely don’t expect you to), I’ll give you a quick catch-up. My partner Hilary and I are currently living and working in New Zealand after moving from Canada in September of 2016. Our adventure started in Auckland and we travelled across the country for a few months from North to South before stopping in Wanaka where we’ve been living and working ever since.
After spending quite a bit of time in the country, I wanted to create a quick and compact resource for anyone that was either thinking of doing a similar long-term trip, or a quick trip filled with the best that the country has to offer. Either way, I hope that I can share some of the things that I’ve learned about New Zealand to help you plan your own adventure.
When I first came to New Zealand, there was so much that I didn’t know about the country and I had trouble finding a good resource with all of the cool things to see in the country. We didn’t do very much planning for the trip before arriving other than sorting out our visas and figuring out the important stuff. After all, we were coming to New Zealand from Canada for at least a year, so we thought we could just figure things out when we got here.
After arriving in Auckland and sorting out things like buying a vehicle, setting up bank accounts, getting phone plans, and applying for IRD numbers, we headed out to explore the country and were immediately overwhelmed by our options of where to go and what to see. Sometimes it’s fun to travel a country by just following your nose and seeing where you end up, but I wanted to make a quick list of my favourite places throughout New Zealand so that you had an idea of a few things to keep an eye out for. Lots of these places are well-mentioned and popular for a reason, but there are also some hidden gems that are less discovered that I wanted to share.
If you’re planning to travel to New Zealand, my hope is that you can use this list (and the map below) to figure out which places you want to see and then connect the dots between each place.
After spending just under a year in the country so far, we’ve been able to travel across the north and south islands and have spent a considerable amount of time living and working in Wanaka. We chose to spend most of our time near the bottom of the country because…well…it’s the most awesome! There is a ton to see throughout the whole country, but I think the combination of the mountains, fjords, glaciers, lakes, and coastline on the south island is unsurpassed.
So, here is my full list of awesome things to see in New Zealand, as well as a few hidden gems to keep things interesting:
The finger of land north is Auckland is called Northland. Lots of people tend to arrive in Auckland and head straight south from there, but there’s actually a lot of cool stuff to see in Northland. Some highlights for us were Snell’s Beach, Cooper’s Beach, The Mermaid Pools near Matapouri, 90 mile beach, and Whangarei Falls. You can also spend some time exploring the Bay of Islands and the Giant Kauri Tree (which we didn’t have time to check out).
One of my favourite things that we saw in the Northland area, however, was Waipu Caves. It was a little bit off of the beaten path but definitely worth it. I love exploring caves to begin with, and this one also had a really cool chamber filled with glow worms. It isn’t commercialized at all so it’s free to enter and you explore it at your own leisure. It is dark (I guess that goes without saying doesn’t it?) and muddy, but exploring it makes you feel like a kid in a strange new world. It’s awesome!
Bridal Veil Falls:
Bridal Veil Falls is a really cool spot to check out. There’s not much to see or do other than check out an impressive waterfall (definitely my favourite on the North Island) but as waterfalls go it’s tippity top. There’s a viewpoint at the top of the waterfall, another in the middle, and then another one at the bottom. It’s so convenient that it feels like it was planned.
If you’re in this area and have a bit of time, check out the nearby town of Raglan as well.
Te Mata Peak in Hawkes Bay:
The Hawkes Bay area of New Zealand is on the east coast of the North Island and is full of orchards and wineries. It also turns out that the small town of Hastings has an awesome farmers market so keep an eye out for that if you’re in the area.
But the real feature of this area is Te Mata peak. You can drive up to the peak and there are awesome views from the peak in all directions. There are also trails from from the peak that are great for either walking or mountain biking. We watched the sunset from the peak one night, then woke up early again the next morning for the sunrise. It’s definitely worth spending some time in the area if you can.
The Karangahake Gorge (just south of the popular Coromandel Peninsula) is bit of a hidden gem. I mean, it’s not really hidden given that there are signs directing you to it from miles around and it doesn’t require any top secret knowledge to be able to find it, but you know what I mean.
We happened to stumble across it because we were looking for somewhere to stop for lunch and pulled into the parking lot. The gorge itself is quite impressive and has high steep walls with a wide river flowing through the bottom. It was once a very active mining area and there are still tunnels and mine shafts that you can explore.
We walked around the gorge for a few hours checking out the tunnels, old mine buildings, and the sections of the railway track that still remain. There’s a lot to explore and I would absolutely recommend putting the Karangahake Gorge on your list of places to see in New Zealand.
The Tongariro Crossing is a spectacular walk to do in New Zealand. It takes you up and over a pass between several volcanoes and you walk beside funky coloured lakes and craters. It can get crazy busy throughout the summer so if you can time it to do the walk early in the spring or towards the fall you might have less people crowding the trail.
It’s around 20 km’s long and is totally worth doing because it is so unique and takes you through some really interesting terrain. Because it’s not a loop, it also means that you never see the same thing twice throughout the walk. This does however mean that you either need to arrange a shuttle or hitch-hike, but I have some info that might help you out in a post that I wrote about our time on the walk (click the link below to find out more).
Elephant Rock and the Three Sisters:
I hate to be the bearer of bad news in telling you that the elephant rock was destroyed in the earthquake of 2016, but someone had to tell you I guess. Not to rub it in or anything, but in case you didn’t know, the Elephant Rock was a giant sandstone formation that was in the perfect shape of an elephant. It is now just a giant sandstone formation.
But fear not, all hope isn’t lost. Even though the last elephant of New Zealand has left the island (I mean really, an elephant just looked out of place in New Zealand anyways) this section of beach is still worth visiting. There are three other rock pillars called the three sisters, as well as other caves, arches, and cool rock formations to check out. So, the elephant rock was definitely cool to see but it was only one of the many cool things to see in this spot, so don’t go crossing it off of your list quite yet.
On the very northern tip of the South Island is a place called Wharariki Beach. There are quite a few photos taken on this beach of a rock formation that sits just off of the shore that has a big hole in the middle of it. This definitely makes for some cool photos, but there is a lot more to explore here as well like hills of sand, caves and tide pools.
It’s a bit of a long drive from any major areas but worth making the trip out.
Along the west coast of the South Island is a spot with a bunch of weird rock pillars that look like stacks of pancakes. This is itself is quite cool, but the real highlight here would have to be the surge pools and blow holes.
It doesn’t cost anything to enter and there is a trail that wraps around through the rocks and lets you look down into the surge pools. It’s best to visit at high tide as the water is the most rambunctious in the tide pools and it gets pushed up through the holes in the rock which creates the blow holes.
Arthur’s Pass is a crossing on New Zealand’s south island that cuts across the middle of the island from Greymouth on the west coast, to Christchurch on the east coast. The pass itself isn’t super spectacular and is really just a steep road, but along the section of road from Greymouth to Christchurch, there is some really awesome stuff to see. So, if you’re planning on visiting the south island of New Zealand, make sure that you plan to drive this section of road at some point.
Some of the things to make sure that you see in this area are Castle Hill and Devil’s Punchbowl Falls (both mentioned in more detail below) as well as cave stream.
Castle Hill has to be one of my all time favourite places in New Zealand. It’s a popular place for rock climbing and bouldering as it’s basically just a field filled with gigantic rocks. It’s hard to describe the scale of the place or how cool it is to walk around and explore, so you’ll just have to take my word on that one and hopefully the photos give you some indication.
When we stopped at Castle Hill, we spent several hours and could have spent even more time exploring paths, taking photos, and climbing up and around rocks.
Devil’s Punchbowl Falls:
If you love tall, streamy waterfalls, then you should check out Devil’s Punchbowl. It’s right by Arthur’s Pass and is only a quick walk to the viewing platform. There’s also a small path around the bottom of the platform that goes all the way to the base of the waterfall so that you can look into the pool that the falls tumble into.
Lake Tekapo with the Lupins:
Lake Tekapo itself is quite cool to see, but if you can manage to visit this area around November and December, you’ll find the shores of the lake covered with colourful Lupins. This isn’t the only place in New Zealand that you would find these flowers, but it seems to be where they are the most abundant and the contrast between the blue lake, the surrounding yellow hills, and the pink and purple flowers is pretty stunning.
Along the shores of Lake Tekapo is also where you’ll find the Church of the Good Shepherd which is cool the check out.
Mount Cook National Park:
The Mount Cook National Park is a great place to get your dose of New Zealand’s Southern Alps and take in some glacial lakes, rivers, and snow capped peaks (including Mount Cook itself, which is NZ’s highest mountain).
First off, the road into Mount Cook is worth mentioning. You drive along the shore of Lake Pukaki with the intimidating mountains in the distance growing ever closer. This is a drive that you shouldn’t rush as the views are spectacular and there are lots of places to stop to take in the views and get some photos. The most iconic place to stop is Peter’s Lookout, but there are also many others where the road leads into the distance with the mountains looming in the backdrop.
There are also some awesome walks in Mount Cook such as Sealy Tarns and the Hooker Valley Track. These are both several hours, but for something shorter and quicker, walking to Tasman Lake is really awesome (make sure that you go to the viewpoint as well as the mouth of the river).
When we go to Mount Cook, we usually stay in the campground at the end of road, but there is also a very small village which has a hostel and a few hotels.
New Zealand has a super impressive hut network and nearly anywhere you find yourself in the backcountry, you will likely be near some sort of hut. Brewster Hut is one of the more modern huts and is located in the Haast Pass area of the South Island.
The trail to Brewster Hut starts near Fantail Falls (which is also a great spot to take some photos) and it’s a steep (but quite short) climb to the hut through an ancient beech forest that is really beautiful but quite tough. Let’s not even talk about the descent back down…
The hut, however, is awesome and sitting on the sundeck outside of the hut, you have panoramic views of the mountains and valleys all around. From the hut, you can climb up to the top of Mount Armstrong which makes a great sunrise trip. On our trip to Brewster Hut, we watched the sunset, and then caught the sunrise the next morning on top of Mount Armstrong. It was pretty fantastic and would be my recommendation.
Climb Isthmus Peak:
You might have heard of a hike in Wanaka called Roy’s Peak which has become Insta-Famous (I think that means famous on Instagram, I’m not really sure but I’m just trying to keep up with the trends). Roy’s Peak is definitely a great hike and offers some pretty amazing views, but I would have to argue that the views from Isthmus might be even better. It’s about 40 minutes from Wanaka but isn’t nearly as popular as Roy’s Peak, and yet the views are absolutely amazing. The peak sits on a piece of land in between Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea and once you get near the top you can get views of both lakes. If you’re looking for an alternative hike to Roy’s Peak that’s a bit less travelled or as an additional hike to do in the area then Isthmus is a must.
St Bathans and Blue Lake:
This spot is quite cool, but might not be a must-see if you’re short on time. If you happen to be nearby and can spare an hour to make the detour off of the main road, this might be a cool stop to make.
St Bathans is an old mining town and blue lake is a man-made lake from the mining operations. There is an old hotel that’s cool and then a walking trail around the lake. The landscape here is really interesting and the colour of the lake with the white hues of the surrounding landscape is quite unique.
The Moeraki Boulders are probably on nearly every list of things to see in New Zealand, but I thought I’d include it anyways. If you can make it to the boulders for a sunrise, you definitely won’t be disappointed.
And in case you don’t know, the Moeraki Boulders are a bunch of perfectly round rocks that look like a bunch of deathstars scattered across a section of beach just north of Dunedin.
While you’re in this area, you can also swing out to the lighthouse just south from the boulders where there’s a seal colony and if you’re lucky and there early enough in the morning, you might see some penguins.
The Catlins is a Forest Park located along the very southern shore of New Zealand. For some reason, it’s often overlooked by people visiting New Zealand, but I think it’s a really incredible place. You should spend at least 2 days through the Catlins to see everything without rushing, and if you can fit it in, you’ll see some amazing coastline, waterfalls, beaches, lighthouses, and maybe even some marine life.
Some things to keep an eye out for are the Nugget Point Lighthouse, McLean falls, The Lost Gypsy Gallery, Purakaunui Falls, and Tunnel Hill.
It wouldn’t quite be a list of things to see in New Zealand if I didn’t include Milford Sound. But Milford Sound is popular and famous for a very good reason as it’s a really stunning place. Besides seeing Milford Sound itself (either by cruise, airplane, or kayak) there are tons of other things to do and see.
You can hike to different lakes, check out waterfalls, or just stop at the different roadside pullouts to take in the views of the surrounding valleys and forests. It’s really one of those places that you just have to see for yourself to really understand how phenomenal it is.
Glenorchy and Mount Alfred:
The town of Glenorchy is literally at the end of the road. It’s a small town just past Queenstown at the end of Lake Wakatipu which sits at the mouth of several large valleys. The mountains in Glenorchy is some of the most impressive in New Zealand and one of the best ways to take in this scenery is by climbing Mount Alfred.
Mount Alfred isn’t the tallest or most impressive mountain, but it’s directly in the middle of everything and by climbing it you get awesome views all around. There has been some track damage due to a heavy snowfall in the last year or two, so it takes a bit longer to climb than usual, but it’s absolutely worth doing still.
And in Glenorchy itself, you can check out the old Glenorchy Wharf as well as the lagoon walk. Or if you have more time, you can do the Routeburn track which is one of New Zealand’s Great Walks which starts near Glenorchy.
It’s hard to sum up a country as awesome and varied as New Zealand in a short post, but I hope this has given you a few ideas of places to check out. Even now, I could keep adding to this list, but in the interest of keeping it concise I’ll leave it at that.
New Zealand is the kind of place where you’re bound to have your own adventures, even if they aren’t completely planned. So make sure that you see the highlights, but also keep an open mind and enjoy all of the moments in between.