New Zealand is a pair of large islands east of Australia. The country is known for its dramatic scenery and for extreme sports. The North Island is noted for its thermal features and its indigenous population, the Maori. The south is virtually divided by the Southern Alps, a north-south mountain range which is popular with skiers and hikers. The country’s isolation has produced a variety of strange and unusual wildlife, but the most prominent characteristic of the people is their love of adventure. New Zealand is the world’s capital for dangerous sporting activities.
Below is my ranking of the major New Zealand travel sights. A photo album will follow in September.
1. Rotorua Thermal Area, North Island
The Rotorua Thermal Area, North Island, New Zealand, is the most popular tourist attraction on the North Island. The gateway for an exploration of this area is the city of Rotorua, which lies approximately 100 miles (160 kilometers) southeast of Auckland (see below).
The most visited thermal area, also noted for its up-close-and-personal look at the Maori culture, another significant tourist draw of this region, is Te Whakarewarewa. This sight offers a Maori Village to explore as well as access to the thermal area. The other side of the complex features the Maori Arts and Crafts Institute in which visitors can observe tribal people working on their native crafts. Within the thermal area, be sure to catch an eruption of Pohutu, the largest geyser in this section. Te Whakarewarewa is only about 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) from the city center.
Other thermal areas in the vicinity of Rotorua include Hells Gate, with its thermal waterfall, about 16 kilometers (10 miles) from the city, Waimangu, about 25 kilometers (15 miles) south of the city, where visitors can walk down a Volcanic Valley with many thermal features to Lake Rotomahana (Warm Lake). A half hour boat trip on the lake takes visitors to the Pink Terraces and the White Terraces (the original ones were buried by an 1886 volcanic eruption). Another thermal area near Rotorua is Waiotapu, which is highlighted by a boiling Champagne Pool and the Lady Knox Geyser whose eruptions are both regular (10:15 AM) and lengthy (approximately 1 hour), as well as many other interesting thermal features.
There are numerous other thermal areas within a day’s ride of Rotorua, as well as many other types of activities available in the immediate vicinity, especially, ever present in New Zealand, activities designed for thrill-seekers and adventurers.
A convenient (approximately 90 km or 50 miles) excursion from Rotorua is to drive southwest to the town of Taupo, located on New Zealand’s largest lake, Lake Taupe (actually the caldera of a volcano which has filled with water). Here the visitor will find more thermal areas, such as Craters of the Moon and Orakei Korako, as well as the lovely Huka Falls and Wairakei Park.
Another possible excursion is much farther (150 km or 85 miles) but involves a very different and supremely interesting experience. The Waitomo Caves, particularly Glowworm Cave, are a unique places, featuring, besides the usual cave geology (stalactites and stalagmites), an underground river trip, surrounded by the tiny lights produced by the larva of the fungus gnat. The experience is surreal.
Another interesting excursion involves a drive of about 140 miles (260 kilometers) to the coastal city of Napier, perhaps the art-deco capital of the world, with more buildings from this period than anywhere else in the world. The reason for this is that, in 1931, the existing city was totally annihilated by an earthquake and subsequent fire, so that it had to be completely rebuilt. The reconstruction took place within a few years, at a time when art-deco architecture was the rage.
2. Queenstown, South Island
Queenstown, South Island, New Zealand, is the world’s capital for adventure and thrill-seeking activities. It is also a beautiful community, located on picturesque Lake Wakatipu with some of New Zealand’s highest and most photogenic mountains looming around it.
The city is very pedestrian-friendly although many of the streets away from the lake climb steeply up the slopes. A favorite activity is to take the Skyline Gondola, which, though expensive, rewards the investment with beautiful views of the city, lake, and the Remarkables and Eyre Mountains.
There is also a film available, at a venue fairly close to the gondola terminal, called Kiwi Magic, which showcases New Zealand’s spectacular scenery.
Other attractions in town, besides walking The Mall, the main shopping and pedestrian-only street, include strolling through the Queenstown Gardens and/or along the lakeshore, as well as visiting museums and nature parks.
But the focus is on adventuring. Some of the activities available include Bungy-jumping, Jet-boating, River-surfing, Paragliding, Canyon-swinging, Sky-diving, and many more. Of course, all of these activities are relatively expensive, but this is Queenstown.
From Queenstown, tourists can access some of New Zealand’s more remote and more spectacular national parks, Fjordland to the southwest, and Mount Aspiring, Westland/Tai Poutini, and Mount Cook (264 km/164 mi) to the northwest.
3. Tongariro National Park, North Island
Tongariro National Park, North Island, New Zealand, is one of the premier national parks in a country that is extremely proud of its conservation efforts. The park’s existence began in an effort to preserve three volcanic mountains (Tongariro, Ngauruhoe, and Ruapehu) which are sacred to the Maori people. All three volcanoes are still considered active although only Ruapehu has erupted in the recent past.
A number of major walks, or treks, are available through the park. Most take several days although the most popular, Tongariro Crossing is billed as a one day “track”.
There are also numerous shorter walks which are available from various points along the park boundary, which access lakes, rivers, waterfalls and other features of the park. The exertion required is often rewarded with fantastic views.
For the visitor who loves driving, and prefers not to indulge in lengthy and sometimes strenuous walks, a series of roads encircle the park and make for a great driving tour. The “Desert Road”, a section of Highway 1 which travels along the eastern border of the park, is especially scenic.
4. Dunedin, South Island
Dunedin, South Island, New Zealand, is an elegant city. Its past wealth, associated with the discovery of gold there in the mid-1800’s, brought prosperity to its residents and there are still many examples of Victorian homes and architecture throughout the city and into its suburbs (the municipal chambers, found on the Octagon, the city’s center, are a perfect example).
Self-guided walking tours and maps are available at the Visitor Centre. Other attractions in the city include the Botanic Gardens, several breweries and museums, and the Olveston House, a turn-of-the-century mansion.
Dunedin, however, is probably most popular because of its proximity to the Otago Peninsula, which features some of the most unique wildlife in all of New Zealand. Here visitors can see a Yellow-eyed Penguin Colony, available only by guided tour from Penguin Place, near the outer edge of the peninsula. There is also a Northern Royal Albatross Colony which can be seen, again by guided tour only, at Taiaroa Head, at the very tip of the peninsula. There are also other wildlife encounters which are available.
Besides wildlife, the peninsula offers Larnach Castle, the fabulous estate of a rich merchant, only 15 kilometers (8 miles) from the center of town.
5. Auckland, North Island
Auckland, North Island, New Zealand, is the typical entry point for international travelers into New Zealand. The city is located in the northern part of the North Island and is set picturesquely on the coast in an area which contains many islands and many volcanoes.
One of the best views of the city can be obtained at the Skytower, part of a casino and entertainment complex known as Sky City. Taking the rapid elevator to the ultimate observation platform provides spectacular 360o panoramas.
The main artery of the city is Queen Street, which has numerous places to explore but be sure to wander through the waterfront area for a true appreciation of Auckland. Visitors are also encouraged to venture into the suburbs, especially Devonport, across the harbor from the city, and Parnell, for a more complete experience.
Another must-do activity involves a harbor cruise. Numerous ferries are available, as well as private companies. The most popular cruises include stops at Devonport and at least one of the Hauraki Gulf islands, such as Rangitoto and/or Waiheke.
Keep in mind that the city is located above a geological “hot spot” and that, like San Francisco in the US, residents are keenly aware of the ever-present danger of an earthquake or other seismic disturbance.
An extremely worthwhile excursion from Auckland is to travel north of the city to the Bay of Islands, where visitors can take in some of New Zealand’s most breathtaking coastal scenery.
6. Christchurch, South Island
Christchurch, South Island, New Zealand, is the major hub of the central part of South Island and a destination in itself because of its lovely and well-manicured gardens, and its harkening back to jolly old England. The center of this thoroughly walkable city is Cathedral Square dominated by the Christ Church Cathedral. The fit can climb the 133 steps up to the viewing platform for a wonderful view of the city.
Winding through the city is the Avon River, and, reminiscent of Oxford or Cambridge, visitors are encouraged to punt or be punted along the river. On the west side, within Hagley Park, are the Botanic Gardens which offer quiet and picturesque strolls. Further west are the suburbs which are also noted for their immaculately maintained gardens.