Can you keep a secret?
We can't! Sign up below to receive free insider tips, in-depth travel guides and itineraries with our weekly newsletter.
Last Updated: April 2018
The greatest danger of visiting New Zealand is not wanting to leave. In no time at all, you’ll fall in love with the country’s diverse landscapes, endless trails, exceptional wine and friendly people.
Ultimately, it’s New Zealand’s scenery that’ll leave the most indelible impression. Some environments feel enchanted, while others bleak. Each landscape seems to sing a unique song, whisper a different story, and ask a new question.
And so, New Zealand is best discovered on foot. From multi-day hikes to short walks, there are no shortage of hiking options. There’s also a network of backcountry huts at your disposal. Some require online booking ahead of time, while others are first come first serve. If you’re interested in hiking one of the famous Great Walks (e.g. Milford Sound Track, Routeburn Track), we urge you to plan ahead. Due to their popularity, you must secure your overnight spot(s) well in advance of your hiking date.
We traveled throughout New Zealand for three months (mid-January to mid-April). Our choice of transport was a converted minivan. Camping allowed us maximum flexibility, since we could plan around bad weather and change our plans easily.
Official Name: New Zealand. Aotearoa is the Māori name for New Zealand.
Government: Constitutional Monarchy. New Zealand’s head of State is the Sovereign, Queen Elizabeth II of New Zealand. The Governor-General is the Queen’s representative in New Zealand.
Regions: New Zealand is divided into 53 districts.
Population: 4.7 million
Language: English, Māori and New Zealand Sign Language
Currency: New Zealand Dollar
Tipping Etiquette: Tipping isn’t customary, or expected in restaurants, taxis, or spas. Tipping tour guides and hotel staff is more common.
Water Quality: Excellent.
Kāore te kumara e kōrero mō tōna ake reka
The kumara (sweet potato) does not say how sweet he is
The Department of Conservation (DOC) manages a network of 950 mountain huts. That means you can hike hut to hut in NZ’s pristine wilderness, or enjoy a single overnight hike. Many of these huts are first come first serve, while others have a booking system in place. We stayed in five huts during our trip and loved each experience. The benefit of staying in a remote mountain hut is that you don’t have to carry up your own camping gear. You also get to meet fellow hiking enthusiasts from all over the world. At the French Ridge Hut, we met a Czech couple in their 70s who shared their love of travel, which they explained could only develop after the Velvet Revolution.
The DOC huts vary in size, cost and appliances. Prices range from 15 NSD (not serviced backcountry huts) to 65 NSD (great walk huts). We usually paid 25-35 NSD per person. Some huts are managed by a volunteer warden. The wardens collect money (or confirm booking), communicate the weather forecast, and help visitors figure out their hiking options.
We’ve included our favorite overnight hikes in our New Zealand Hiking Guide.
The appropriately named Goblin Forest is located in Egmont National Park (Taranaki). It’s a lush rainforest characterized by twisted kamahi and Hall’s totara trees festooned with moss. The forest floor is carpeted with ferns and moss, creating an entirely green environment. The effect of seeing sunlight filter through the mossy canopy is nothing short of mesmerizing. You feel like you’ve entered another realm.
To experience the Goblin Forest, head to the Dawson Falls Visitor Centre. There’s an easy loop hike that takes you into the forest and to the Willies Pools and Dawson Falls. If you’re interested in experiencing the Pouakai Range (outstanding views of Mount Taranaki on a clear day), consider hiking the Mangorei Track (accessible from Mangorei Road). You’ll hike through the goblin forest for 2 hours before emerging into stunted tussock land.
Hawke’s Bay is a region on the east coast of the North Island. If you’re a food and wine lover, this region should be at the very top of your list. As the oldest and second largest wine-producing region in New Zealand, some of the countries finest wines are produced here. Stand out varietals are Chardonnay and Viognier. Apart from the quality of the wine, it was the welcoming atmosphere of the wineries that we really loved.
We recommend wandering between cellar doors and doing as much tasting as you’re able. But, we also highly recommend dining at the wineries. Many wineries have adjoined restaurants that specialize in new-concept food, elevating New Zealand cuisine to an art. Our best meals in NZ were at these wineries.
A few ideas to get you started:
Kiwis know how to go to the movies. Imagine dining on a cheese platter during a film. Or, envision eating freshly baked cookies during the intermission of a movie. How about sipping on a glass of wine by a fireplace before a screening. These are real movie-going experiences in New Zealand.
We absolutely loved the unique charm of NZ movie theaters. They were all small, intimate, licensed (serve beer and wine), and featured great food. Here are our absolute favorite cinemas:
If you love alpine trails, the South Island will entice you with its many mountain ranges and peak trails. It would take a few lifetimes to summit all of the mountains, but you can definitely tackle a few. Here are a few notable peak tramps in the Southern Alps:
Learn more about these hikes in our NZ Hiking Guide.
From the flightless kiwi to the notorious kea, New Zealand is full of unique and melodious birds. You don’t need binoculars or a penchant for spotting birds to see them. You’ll encounter them on forest trails, on rocky pinnacles, and on the side of the road. Many of New Zealand’s birds are endangered and the country is fighting an uphill battle to protect their diminishing populations. On trails, you’ll see a series of pest traps and signs signifying the presence of 1080 (sodium fluoroacetate). Through these methods the DOC is trying to control introduced pests (possums, rats and stoats) that pose a threat to native birds and plants.
If you want to see Gannets, go to Cape Kidnappers (North Island) from early November to late February. Cape Kidnappers is home to four gannet colonies, where an estimated total of 15,700 gannets live. They nest in close proximity to one another, so you’ll see hundreds of birds soaring around the colonies, guarding their chicks and displaying unique “partner” behavior.
The kea is the world’s only alpine parrot. These intelligent creatures live in the alpine regions of the South Island. You won’t find keas, but they will find you. If you’re hiking to peaks and along ridges in the Southern Alps, keas will spot you and come say hi (at least in our experience). Make sure your belongings and food are tucked away, because they’re not shy about stealing. We encountered keas at the Ben Lomond Summit, at Avalanche Peak, French Ridge and in the Remarkables.
Martinborough is a sunny wine village in the Wairarapa wine region. It has a laid back, casual vibe that makes wine tasting here so enjoyable. Wairarapa is like the Anderson Valley of California. Martinborough itself is a charming town surrounded by 20 wineries. It’s flat, so hopping on a bike is a good option for getting between tasting rooms. The region is renowned for its pinot noir, but also produces excellent pinot gris and gewürztraminer. We’re going to say something controversial – we like Martinborough’s sauvignon blanc far more than Marlborough’s. It’s less acidic, a bit rounder and perhaps a touch sweeter.
A few places to visit:
Tongariro National Park is New Zealand’s oldest national park and home to three active volcanoes: Ruapehu, Ngauruhoe, and Tongariro. No visit to the North Island is complete without hiking through the park. The most popular track is the Tongariro Alpine Crossing (definitely a must do), but there are countless other trails to explore. These tramps are fair weather hikes. We recommend monitoring the weather forecast closely using MetService.
If you love wine, consider structuring your trip around NZ’s major wine regions. The classic wine trail begins in Hawke’s Bay, winds through Wairarapa (Martinborough) and Wellington, and ends in Marlborough (South Island). The other major South Island wine regions include Waipara Valley and Central Otago.
If you want to experience the best of the North Island, read our Three Week North Island Itinerary.
If you want to experience the best of the South Island, we recommend following this route. Read our full 4 Week South Island Itinerary.
Send this to a friend