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Top 10 Places to See in New Zealand
Beautiful New Zealand
It's difficult to choose one top place to see in New Zealand. After all, it is considered to be one of the most beautiful countries in the world. It is one of the most popular countries for tourists to travel to. Last year, I had the chance to visit it and I now understand where this reputation comes from. Filled with mountains, valleys, lakes, and of course, sheep, New Zealand's beauty is constant.
I've put together a list of my top places to see when visiting New Zealand, ranging from the top of the north island to the bottom of the south island. These are just a few of the wonderful places to see, but I think they're among the best of what New Zealand has to offer.
If you travel to New Zealand, make sure to visit as many of these places as you can!
All images are author's own unless otherwise credited.
1. Te Anu Glowworm Caves
An Unforgettable Experience
As much as I loved every aspect of New Zealand, I would have to put the Glowworm Caves in Te Anau on the south island at the top of my list. Unique to New Zealand and Australia, glowworms are a must see on your trip. They are magical and truly a wonderous miracle of nature.
To reach the Te Anau Glowworm Caves, you travel from the town, by boat, across Lake Te Anau. The ride got a little rough on our trip, but it was exceptionally windy. If you get motion sick, I recommend some ginger ale (or ginger beer, which is the New Zealand and Australia equivalent). Upon reaching the opposite shore, you are placed into groups to see the caves. (This site must be seen on a guided tour.)
The caves are very young, so you will not see the typical stalactites and stalagmites of other, older caves, However, they are still impressive, especially if caves are a relatively new experience for you. As you travel through the cave, you will begin to see a few glowworms dotting the ceiling. If you are lucky, you will see the threads they hang from the ceiling to catch bugs. The threads also glow and are quite the spectacular site. The walk through the cave is just as fantastic as the glow worms cavern, so make sure to take it all in.
When you reach the end of the accessible part of the cave, you will be put into a small rowboat to travel to the place where the glowworms live. This part of the tour is entirely dark and when you reach the cavern with the glowworms, it's a unique experience, to say the least. There are hundreds of them on the ceiling, making you feel like you're floating under a starry night sky.
The overall experience of the Te Anau Glowworm caves is incomparable to anything else. It was one of the best nights of the trip. I had the chance to go to the Waitomo Caves, too, and while they were stunning, I felt that the caves were more impressive than the glowworms. In Te Anau, the glowworm cavern was entirely dark, only the glowworms lighting it up. In Waitomo, the glowworms lived close to the outside, so there was some sunlight filtering in, somewhat drowning out the experience.
If you have the time, you should do both, but if you need to choose, I recommend Te Anau. The only drawback is that photography inside of the caves (in both Te Anau and Waitomo) is not allowed, but it is worth it anyway.
New Zealand Guide Book
The Lonely Planet is famous for providing excellent guide books. Both engaging and informative, this guide book is a must have for anyone planning a trip to wonderful New Zealand. There's tons to see and do on both the north and south islands and since it's so far to travel, you want to be sure not to miss anything! Even if you're doing some research online, a guide book is something that can't quite be replicated on the internet. It's full of useful facts and recommendations about the best places to visit and, unlike websites, it's all in one neat little package!
An Explosive Town
Rotorua is a small town of only 70,000 people and is a significant tourist town. However, it doesn't have the feel of most tourist towns. It feels just like a small town but with tons to do.
You can easily spend a week in Rotorua and never run out of things to do. Between spectacular volcanic activity and nearby nature walks, to local wildlife habitats, there's a myriad of options that will please any visitor. If your travel time is more limited, though, make sure you take in the volcanic sites since they are unique to the area.
There are several day tours you can take. Rotorua Day Trips has an extensive list of options, including several tours that include volcanic and geothermal sites. This tour is the one I took and is a great way to see many sites if you are pressed for time. It was run by a local Maori man who was both extremely knowledgeable about the area and fluent in Maori. Hearing him speak the language was a real treat. He made sure we saw the best sites and didn't rush us if we wanted more time somewhere.
A tour of a Maori village is also at the top of the list, especially since these include a show and dinner. It's a great way to experience the culture firsthand. For animal lovers, the Agrodome, Paradise Valley Springs Wildlife Park, and Rainbow Springs Kiwi Wildlife Park are all fantastic options for getting up close to the other locals. I didn't get time to see the Kiwi Wildlife Park and it is one of my biggest regrets about the trip because I didn't get to see a live kiwi bird anywhere else. If you have time, tour both parks. The Paradise Valley is small and doesn't take much time. However, it doesn't have kiwi birds, so if you have to choose, choose Rainbow Springs.
A car is definitely an asset in Rotorua, especially for the further out sites, however, since it is a tourist town, there are other options if you are not planning to rent a car. Grumpy's is a local taxi service that will take you to any local spot for a fair price and will usually offer some great advice at the same time--the drivers were fantastic. There are also city buses that run daily.
The main catch with Rotorua is the smell of sulphur that fills the air. It is perfectly safe, caused by the nearby volcanic activity rather than pollution. It does take some getting used to, but after a day most people stop noticing it. Don't let it deter you from visiting the city as it is truly one of the best places in New Zealand. When you are travelling through the country, make sure you plan a few days in Rotorua.
Rotorua PicturesClick thumbnail to view full-size
This locale is a bit different since it is specific to the Lord of the Rings movies. For me, it was a big deal because the first half of my time in New Zealand was actually spent on a Lord of the Rings tour. As such, not everyone will agree that this is a top attraction. However, even if you aren't a massive fan of the movies, if you enjoyed them, Hobbiton is still well worth a visit.
My friend and I joined our Lord of the Rings tour a few days into it. The group had already gone to Hobbiton and we spent a great deal of time listening to them rave about it. It hadn't been really high on my "to see" list, so I wasn't terribly disappointed at missing it, though I have to admit that their stories were making me a little jealous. Either way, I already had a full, planned itinerary, so I accepted that I wouldn't be going. Then a glitch in that itinerary happened where I suddenly had the possibility of an open day. I was convinced by my new friends that I should go to Hobbiton, and in the end, I relented. Believe me, I haven't regretted it for a second. Aside from the sheer gorgeousness of it, I have to admit I get a bit of a thrill every time I watch the movies and can say "I've been there!"
Hobbiton is located on a farm about an hour drive from Rotorua (you can get picked up in town for a tour-easy!). The farm itself is gorgeous with rolling green hills dotted with sheep. The tour bus takes you to the part of the farm where the movie set was built (and never taken down) and if you're a fan, the scenery starts to become very familiar. Hobbit holes line the hills, pathways leading you from home to home. There are signs pointing you to various locations, such as East Farthing, and small hobbit tools are laid out on the front lawns. The Green Dragon and The Mill can be seen across a small lake and, of course, the party tree stands tall at the bottom of the hills.
If you go to New Zealand as a fan of the movies, Hobitton is an absolute must see.
Hobbiton Photos - See The Shire!Click thumbnail to view full-size
Red Carpet Tours
Tour Middle Earth
One of the main reasons I wanted to go to New Zealand was the see some of the filming sites of the Lord of the Rings movies. If you're thinking along the same lines, the absolute best way to do this is through Red Carpet Tours. . They are the top Lord of the Rings tour company in the country. Operating for over a decade, they have revised, tweaked, and perfected the itinerary to create a magical and all encompassing experience for their guests.
With permission to visit private filming sites, it's impossible to match what Red Carpet Tours can offer. It is also a small, family run company and your guides are just as passionate about the films and books as you are. They make sure to show you some of the non-movie related sites, too, of course! Check out the full tours here . If you have the time, definitely do the 14 day tour, but the 10 day tour is fantastic, too.
Take a Look at Red Carpet Tours - See what it's all about
This clip from the early days of Red Carpet Tours gives you an idea of what it's all about. They have stayed true to their vision and truely offer a fan run experience in Middle Earth.
New Zealand Jewelry
Some wonderful and unique jewelry comes out of New Zealand. Most of their jewelry is based on Maori symbols. The Koru is the fern frond and represents new life and new beginnings. The fish hook (worn by Phil Koegon on The Amazing Race) is a symbol of prosperity and provision. The figure eight is a symbol of eternity and the path or life. When doubled, it represents infinity. Here are just a few of the beautiful pieces of New Zealand jewelry.
Often referred to as the Adventure Capital of New Zealand, Queenstown is an absolute top site when visiting New Zealand. "Adventure Capital" is a more than appropriate term, as there are so many choices of adrenaline pumping activities. Just outside of the city is the World Home of Bungy where commercial bungy jumping began in 1988. There is also a bungy jumping option in the city itself, but why not do both? There are also flying fox and canyon swing adventures.
There are certainly less extreme options, of course. At the Skyline Gondola hill (in the city and easily accessible) you can try your hand at ziplining. It's the activity I chose and it's a great option for anyone wanting a thrill without too much danger. There are two options to choose from: a 4 line Moa tour and a 6 line Kea tour. The Kea tour finishes with a 30 story, 70km/hour line that takes you by stunning scenery.
If the adrenaline addicts still aren't satisfied, try skydiving, paragliding, or hang gliding. There's no better way to take in the beauty of the area than by seeing it from the air.The tricky part is making sure you don't land in the lake-we saw one guy come awfully close! If you're not so sure about trying it, it's also a lot of fun to watch others do it from the ground. At any given point in time, you can watch the sky and find people soaring through the air.
Even if adventure is not your cup of tea, there's lots to do in Queenstown. From boat rides to nature walks to shopping, it's impossible to get bored! And as the icing on the cake, the city is simply gorgeous. Be sure to ride the gondola to the top of the Skyline Gondola Hill to take in the view. You can see part of it in the picture above.
View from the top of the Skyline Gondola Hill
Adventure or Scenery? - What's your preference?
When people travel to New Zealand, it is often for one of two reasons: adventure or scenery (or sometimes both, of course!). There can be no arguement that this incredible country offers extensive opportunities to experience both of these.
What is your perfect New Zealand vacation all about?
Adventure! I'm all about the adreneline.
Sheep are everywhere in New Zealand. In fact, there are more sheep in the country than there are people! And of course, with sheep come lambs. I've collected videos of some of the cutest lambs (and sheep) out there. There's really no such thing as enough of your daily dose of cuteness, so take a look through the collection.
One particular adorable lamb seems to think that dogs are for friends rather than for keeping the sheep in line. The dog doesn't seem to mind, though. It looks like quite the sweet friendship between the two cuddly animals.
5. Auckland Skytower
A Panoramic View
Of course, The Auckland Skytower is similar to towers in other cities, but that doesn't mean it's not worth going to! No matter how many skytowers you travel to, they are always unique because the view changes at each one. The panoramic view of Auckland from the top of this 328 metre tower is breathtaking and despite the fact that I've been to the top of the CN tower in Toronto and the Sydney Skytower, it doesn't take away from the view in Auckland.
If you're feeling adventurous, you can try the Sky Jump. From 192 metres, leap off the skytower and enjoy the exhilarating ride to the ground. Or, for a slightly less extreme option, try the Sky Walk, where you will walk around the tower's pergola while safely attached via body harness.
Once you've descended (inside or outside the tower!) a fantastic gift shop waits at the bottom. There is quite a few movie paraphernalia for various movies shot in New Zealand, including some life sized statues you can have your picture taken with.
Tourism in New Zealand
One of the most popular travel destinations
Tourism is a critical part of New Zealand's economy and in fact recently became its biggest export. With over 2 million visitors a year, all parts of the country thrive on this industry. Approximately 10% of New Zealanders are employed in the tourism industry, accounting for about 180,000 full time jobs.There is some concern about long-term continued tourism growth because of environmental concerns, however it is expected that the industry will continue to grow for the forseeable future.
It's easy to see why it is such a popular destination. While it is rather far away for any visitors (except Australians--it's actually quite convenient for them!), the journey is well rewarded. With gorgeous, lucsious landscapes and a wide range of adventure activities, anyone can easily fill a couple weeks of an itinerary. It's also a developed country and is considered very safe, even for those travelling alone. (Now, if you decide to bungy jump, that might be another story!) New Zealand Air is also considered to be a top-notch airline.
6. Te Papa
The Wellington Musuem
Located in Wellington, the capital of New Zealand, The Te Papa Museum is a great place to visit if you want to learn more about the countries culture and history. Some exhibits do require an admission fee, but most of the museum is free, which is a nice perk for anyone travelling on a budget. Guided tours are also available. From information and displays about Maori culture, to the natural wonders of New Zealand, to recent and current pop culture, there are hours of displays to explore. Among the highlights are a life sized reconstruction of the extinct Moa and the skeleton of a giant squid.
7. Buried Village
Nearly a hundred and thirty years ago, Mount Tarawera erupted, burying the nearby village of Te Wairoa under ash, mud, and rock. More the 150 people were killed in the eruption and the Pink and White Terraces, which would have been one of the Natural Wonders of the World, were destroyed. The village has since been unburied and you can now tour what remains. The history at this site is quite remarkable and is a unique attraction to the area. It is located just outside of Rotorua, making it another reason to visit the city. In addition, there is a beautiful nature walk where the Wairere waterfall waits to be discovered. Wairere is enchanting-don't miss this side trail if you visit!
Waterfall at Buried Village
Another view of the gorgeous waterfall
New Zealand National Symbols
Every country has symbols that people associate with them more than with any other place. However, often these symbols are still found in other countries. For example, Canada's national animal is the beaver, but the beaver of course is found in other places. New Zealand, on the other hand, has several symbols that are entirely unique to the country. Not all of the symbols are official, but they are widely accepted as national symbols.
- National Bird: the kiwi (The kiwi is also the national symbol of New Zealand.)
- National Sport: rugby
- National Food: there is no single official national dish. However, the traditional Maori form of cooking, called Hangi, is popular. This is when food is wrapped and slowly cooked underground by using hot rocks. Pavlova, a meringue desert, is also a traditional New Zealand favourite.
- National Flower: the Kowhai
8. Cathedral Cove
A Natural Wonder
Located in the Coromandel Peninsula on the north island, Cathedral Cove is a beautiful beach. It's a favourite spot for tourists, yet it is expansive enough that it doesn't feel crowded. From the top of the hill where the parking lot is located, it's about a 45 minute walk to the bottom (and the water), but it's an easy trek with a great deal of beauty in its own right. The beach is gorgeous with natural rock formations and a small waterfall. The real attraction, of course, is the beach's namesake. Dividing the beach in half is a giant rock archway that resembles a cathedral. The natural beauty of the area is unrivalled. It's easy to want to stay on the beach for hours, so I would highly recommend bringing a picnic lunch. The day I was there, the water was a little rough for swimming, but there is a washroom on the beach level, so you can always bring a bathing suit with you just in case! Regardless of swimming, Cathedral Cove is a must see place if you are in the area.
Cathedral Cove Pictures - Photographer's delightClick thumbnail to view full-size
Air New Zealand Safety Video - Find the Moa!
The first time I saw a safety video for Air New Zealand I didn't know what to think. Most airline safety videos are a bit dull and it's easy to tune them out. Air New Zealand, on the other hand, has found a way to engage their passengers so they can really communicate the safety rules. The airline has many versions of their safety videos; here's my favourite, which was originally aired as part of a contest to win a trip. Bear Grylls takes passengers through the spectacular New Zealand countryside as he guides them through the safety rules. Featured in the video is the Moa, an extinct bird much like an emu or ostrich. How many times can you spot the Moa?
Have you Been to New Zealand?
Have you travelled to New Zealand?
9. Fox Glacier
A Force to be Reckoned With
My last two locations are ones which I unfortunately didn't make it to on my trip, but which are high on my list for next time. The Fox Glacier is a stunning example of nature and it's awesome power. Currently advancing at about 1 metre per week, it is continuing to shape New Zealand's terrain. It's located on the western coast of the south island in Westland Tai Pourtini National Park. The Franz Josef Glacier is located in the same park; the two glaciers are among the most accessible in the world. They are also two of the only glaciers to end in rainforest.
10. Bay of Islands
A Water Lover's Haven
Located in the very northern part of the north island, the Bay of Islands is a popular tourist spot. While I didn't have time to make it this far, it was very tempting and I nearly chose it over a couple of other options when I was planning my trip. Boat trips that tour the 144 islands are a popular option for visitors, along with sailing and fishing. If you'd rather relax, there's also beaches where you can work on your tan. While all of these are wonderful options, the reason I was so tempted to go the Bay of Islands was the opportunity to swim with dolphins. There are a few options for whale and dolphin watching in the bay and several cruises offer the chance to swim with the dolphins. Of course, this is never a guarantee since they are wild creatures, but some cruise lines offer very high success rates. Kaikoura is another location (on the south island, this time) where you can swim with dolphins.