If you’ve ever heard the adage about visiting Oceania “Spend half the time you think you’ll need in Australia and double in New Zealand,” you’re likely speaking with an outdoor enthusiast. Obviously, you could spend a lifetime exploring these islands, but no matter how long your stay, you owe it to yourself to try at least a few of these incredible outdoor activities.
1. Sky Tower
August 2022 marks 25 years since the Sky Tower opened in Auckland. Confirm your tickets online or in person to ascend 51 flights in this Space Needle-type structure and take a walk along the exterior path. After all, your instructor will inform you, “It’s the same width as the sidewalk below.” Trust me when I tell you that makes it no less terrifying. You could bungie jump if you’d rather take a different plunge. But if you trust the equipment and follow the instructions, you’ll have awesome 360-degree views of the islands and scenery around Auckland.
2. America’s Cup Yacht Racing
Head to the Waitemata Harbor and climb aboard one of the two yachts that have raced in the America’s Cup. Along the harbor, you’ll race — each crew playing a part — around the island and against each other. A chance to pull the lines, steer, or sit back and enjoy the company makes this a trip to remember.
If you drive from Auckland, the first two experiences are between Auckland and Rotorua, so consider that in your navigation. Otherwise, backtrack for a tour.
3. Waitomo Glowworms
Glowworms light up caves in Australia and New Zealand, with the abundance here in Rotorua and in the Bay of Islands. Here, you can inner tube through this eerily-lit path and hear the history. If you miss them here, visit the cave in the Bay of Islands which offers a walk-through experience.
Built after the second set of movies, the Alexander Farms location is now a living theme park complete with tiny Hobbit homes and a working farm. Co-owned by the farmer and the Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson, you can only enter the property on a confirmed tour.
5. Maori Dinner And Cultural Experience
This not-to-be-missed opportunity takes busloads full of travelers to experience life in a Maori Village. You’ll have the chance to view how the Maori people lived and hear tales of their culture and beliefs. You’ll also grow to appreciate the war-like greetings exchanged between the man — yes, it’s always a man — in your group and the chief of the Maori. I was saddened to hear the Maori people are now considered “extinct” as there is no documented 100-percent Maori female alive, but the culture remains strong.
They’ll show you how food was cooked in deep pits and then share the feast with you. Their dances and stories, music and legends were amongst the most meaningful of our journey.
6. Visit Black Swans
Walk around the sulfur-smelling downtown and visit the playground by the lake to see a bank of black swans on land become a wedge as they take to the air. They’re remarkably adapted to people. If they’re a bit skittish, spend some time on the swings and they’ll calm down.
7. Mount Victoria
The hills over the harbor were used in The Lord of the Rings. Look from Mount Victoria, a particularly narrow and curvy drive from the city, and see how Peter Jackson used his home country in so many ways for his series of JRR Tolkien movies. The green space here created by the colonial New Zealand Company in 1841 is used by locals, tourists, and movie directors alike. Allow 90 minutes to walk the 2.9-mile loop.
8. Botanical Gardens
Whether you ascend on foot, bus, car, or funicular, the Wellington Botanic Gardens offers lovely green space in this busy city. The round-trip funicular ride is surprisingly affordable. The spectacular views from in and around the gardens allow insight to ongoing preservation work. Better still, the Carter Observatory offers programs at Space Place to explore New Zealand’s contributions to astronomy.
Take the Cook Strait Ferry from Wellington to Picton or vice versa, just be sure to book in the proper direction. For privacy and comfort, book a stateroom to rest, relax, and recharge during the crossing.
Everything in this corner of the country seems to create healthy, happy people. The recognized artist colony capital, visit golden beaches and farmers markets, cycle or kayak on these sunny shores, and learn that a weekend is not enough.
9. Fox And Franz Josef Glaciers
For great hikes and views, take the time to visit these two glaciers in the middle of the South Island. Franz Josef, the more popular by far, has multiple trails to hike in and out to the glacier. Fox Glacier provides more of a “drive-thru” experience where you can pull to the designated spot, jump out for your photo opportunity, and continue on your way. Cell phone reception is spotty here, so make your housing reservations well in advance.
Queenstown is used as the jumping off point for many outdoor adventures as well as having many water and winter sports an easy ride from downtown.
10. Milford Sound
An early morning bus tour takes you to Milford Sound Marina where you’ll board a boat that takes you along this incredible waterway. You’ll be amazed at how much it reminds you of the United States’ Puget Sound but with higher and faster flowing waterfalls. Spot seals basking in the sun or family members caught in the waterfall spray.
If you’ve got the budget-busting $1,500 to spend, consider a helicopter ride home. It’s faster than the bus and allows you to land on a glacier. Do yourself the favor of arranging it in advance for a more economical alternative.
11. The Remarkables
Peter Jackson used this mountain range so often in The Lord of the Rings that the locals took to calling them the “Expandables.” His use of perspective made them bigger or smaller as the film required. They’re a great place for hikes or ski trips, depending on the season. They’re also where you can take a tour and go panning for gold. You may find a few flakes or a small chunk of gold.
12. Avon River Punting
Plan to stay at an AirBnB as there are still not as many hotel rooms available for tourism in this Garden City. When we were there, it wasn’t possible to explore inside the cathedral due to earthquake damage. We took a package tour that included the trolley-like tram, the gondola, and punting on the Avon River — where you glide along the center city green space in a slow and peaceful experience away from the daily hustle and bustle.
The majestic views of the Southern Alps from the Christchurch Gondola Ride is worthy of your time at least once. From Mount Cavendish, you’ll see the Canterbury Plains as well as the city and harbor from the summit at 1,460 feet.
14. The White Chairs
This white chair monument to the 185 people that perished in the 2011 earthquake may be the most gloomy memorial in the country. It takes some effort to find, but spend a few minutes walking around the exhibit, one for each person, from baby chair to wheelchair. It’s heartbreaking.
While the Cadbury Factory operating plant has relocated to Melbourne, there’s still more to see in Dunedin.
15. The Beaches
The windswept beaches of Dunedin are recognized as some of the most gorgeous in the country, and that’s saying something.
16. Steepest Street In The World
I’m not sure why it’s located here, but I can tell you Baldwin Street is a difficult climb. Guinness Book of World Records confirmed the title officially in 2020. At 1,150 feet long and a grade up to 34.8 percent, this cul-de-sac ends on Signal Hill. Stop regularly when walking up the hill to avoid feeling short-winded and to stretch your calves. You’ll be amazed at the angle the curb appears compared to the houses.
The location we thought we’d call home, we had to stop to see the house I’d arranged to rent in 2010.
17. Best Surfing Beach
The walk along the shore showed us why this is considered one of the best surfing beaches in the country.
18. White Island
An offshore volcano, this self-sustaining island continues to experience volcanic eruptions today.
Bay Of Islands
Stay at the California Kiwis AirBnB for 5 days or more and receive trips on a yacht. But take the day tours in the north.
19. 90-Mile Beach
Like Washington state, this “90-mile beach” is considered part of New Zealand’s highway system. What makes it remarkable is it’s only 62 miles long. You may be surprised by an albatross, a drug bust, or remarkable views.
20. Sandboarding Down Sand Dunes
Our driver pulled out boogie boards and invited us to climb up the 12-story sand dunes for a quick ride down. It’s a workout to get up the dune. Lay on your belly, speed headfirst down the dune, and descend in about a minute.
21. Cape Reinga Lighthouse
A beautiful lighthouse on what seems to be the end of the world, you’ll meet people from around the globe climbing down these paths.
22. Yacht Races
If you’re lucky enough to live like a local, take advantage of the Wednesday yacht races. Whether you’re an expert sailor or along as ballast, you and your host may be surprised to find a win!
Be sure to read up on New Zealand before your next trip: