New Zealand is one of my favorite destinations.
I’ve hiked along the Milford Track and through Abel Tasman National Park, marveled at gorgeous valleys and mountains that served as dramatic backdrops for the “Lord of the Rings” saga, made my way through an eerie glowworm cave, cruised through ice blue narrow passages of Milford Sound, enjoyed the urban amenities of Auckland and Wellington, and dined on lamb, lamb, and more lamb (though there’s much more to the diverse Kiwi cuisine — I just like lamb).
The country consists of three main islands: North, South, and Stewart (the latter is much smaller), and climate can range from warm and tropical in the north to cold and wintry in the south. Don’t forget that the seasons are reversed in the Southern Hemisphere, so beautiful Fjordland in the far south can get icy during Northern Hemisphere summers.
Yes, it takes a while to get there from the U.S. or Europe — from just about anywhere, really, except Australia and some other Pacific islands — and may require a stopover or two if you can’t tolerate 14-hour flights.
But — especially if you love sheer scenic beauty, outdoor activities, and friendly people — New Zealand deserves to rank near the top of baby boomer bucket lists.
So I was pleased to hear from Kiwi writer Harper Reid who wanted to write about her home country, from enjoying its food and wine to trekking through national parks and everything in between. Here’s her guide to the best that New Zealand has to offer:
By Harper Reid
New Zealand’s wealth of magical landscapes, friendly cities, and a wide range of hikes for all ability levels make it an enticing destination for baby boomers. Here are some things to know to help you plan your escape.
You’ll first need to consider your mode of transport.
Hiring a car is the best way to get around if you’re planning to create your own itinerary, since the country’s public transport systems can be difficult to navigate unless you are already familiar with them, and many destinations outside the major cities aren’t accessible by train.
If you’d rather take a tour, you’ll find plenty of companies catering to folks 50 and up. But even if you choose a tour, look for some of the following highlights when surveying itineraries:
In the North Island:
Explore food and water activities in Auckland
The lovely City of Sails boasts gorgeous waterfronts, with a dining scene to match.
Pop into one of the cafes, eateries, or restaurants in the city – featuring fresh local produce and delicious dishes inspired from cuisines from all over the world; Auckland has a large multicultural population.
If you’re looking for some of the best views in the city, enjoy a meal up in the clouds at the Orbit revolving restaurant in Auckland’s Sky Tower, then check out the Auckland War Memorial
Museum for a dose of natural history and world war artifacts.
If you’re interested in wildlife, you won’t want to miss Auckland Zoo or Kelly Tarlton’s SEA LIFE aquarium, both of which are packed with fascinating animals from land and sea.
To finish up your time in Auckland, head to Devonport by ferry and climb Mount Victoria for spectacular views of the city from afar.
Explore the Bay of Islands
The Bay of Islands, several hours north of Auckland, is the perfect hub for sailing, relaxing on the beach, or simply taking the time to unwind.
It’s also home to plenty of cultural activities: New Zealand’s famous Treaty of Waitangi was signed here, and the Treaty Grounds remain a significant site to New Zealanders. Visitors can take part in a traditional Maori hangi and watch a cultural performance, or simply stroll around the grounds and learn about New Zealand’s history.
Experience culture and Kiwi hospitality in Rotorua
When you first enter Rotorua, you may notice the pungent smell of sulphur drifting through the town – it’s from the intense geothermal activity in the area.
But don’t let this put you off visiting. After a few minutes, your nose will get used to the harmless smell, and you’ll be able to explore Rotorua with enthusiasm — along with having a soak in its medicinal hot pools.
For a bite to eat, visit Eat Streat, where you’ll find plenty of restaurants serving food from all over the world.
If you’re after a bit of adventure, take a ride on the Luge (if you aren’t able to make it to Rotorua, there’s another one in Queenstown). Or go for a drive to Hobbiton to explore Lord of the Rings movie sets — it’s only about an hour away.
Discover history and great cafes in Wellington
New Zealand’s capital city is famous for, among many other things, the Beehive parliamentary building and the stunning Te Papa National Museum. Te Papa offers visitors a fascinating insight into the history and culture of the country, and is a must-see for anyone new to New Zealand.
Wellington is also arguably the best place in New Zealand to find a good brew – the coffee scene is second to none, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a badly made flat white here. Stroll along the waterfront to soak in the atmosphere of this little capital, and enjoy a great coffee (or two) along the way. (Editor’s note: a “flat white” — espresso with less milk than a latte and less foam than a cappuccino — is a favorite here.)
If you enjoyed the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings trilogies, you will find a treasure trove of exciting behind-the-scenes filmmaking and production tours from Weta Workshop – the studio that produced the amazing props, costumes and special effects for the famous film adaptations of Tolkien’s stories.
In the South Island:
Take a Cruise on Milford Sound
If the beauty of Milford Sound in the country’s Fjordland region allures you, but you don’t want to tackle four days hiking along the world-renowned Milford Track, you could opt for a shorter guided walk combined with a cruise.
Taking a boat ride allows you to see the most spectacular sea-level views of the Sound possible – while walking for half a day in addition to your cruise will ensure that you have the complete Milford Sound experience.
If you choose to hike on your own, always check for warnings or advisories before you set off, as adverse weather conditions can be dangerous.
Queenstown, one of New Zealand’s most popular destinations, is a haven for adventure seekers, nature lovers, and more.
Whether you’d like to hike around the picturesque lake, admire the greenery at the botanical gardens, enjoy one of the city’s famed burgers at Fergburger, or race your partner down a hill while admiring spectacular views (by way of the Queenstown Luge), you can do it here.
You can find plenty of other places worth visiting just a car ride away, too: try Arrowtown to get a feel of the country’s gold mining history or Glenorchy for relaxing walking trails away from the energy of the city.
Find true Kiwi ingenuity in Christchurch
New Zealand’s third biggest city, Christchurch, is located in the middle of the country’s South Island, and rivals Auckland and Wellington when it comes to great cafes and green spaces (don’t miss the exciting shops in the Container Village).
Although much of the city was devastated by a 6.2 magnitude earthquake in 2011, the people of Christchurch have improvised by creating landmarks such as the Cardboard Cathedral, a makeshift structure designed to serve the city’s Anglican population in lieu of the original cathedral, which was partially destroyed in the earthquake.
The popularity of the Cardboard Cathedral highlights the resilience of the city’s residents, who remain friendly, optimistic, and welcoming despite the tragedy their city suffered in 2011.
Explore the wonderful natural beauty of Nelson
Come in the summer, and you can find gorgeous orchards as well as incredible beaches, which you’ll sometimes have all to yourself.
If you visit in the spring, you can go on a hike or a gentle walk at Miyazu Garden, which celebrates Nelson’s relationship with its sister city of Miyazu in Japan.
If your trip is in the winter, you can take a vineyard tour to warm yourself up. This peaceful town at the foot of mountains on Tasman Bay is the perfect place to enjoy nature without having to head too far into the wilderness.
If you plan on visiting in winter or taking an overnight hike at any time of the year, bundle up warmly as the weather can get very cold.
Visit Abel Tasman National Park
The New Zealand government actively encourages everyone living and visiting the country to make time to enjoy its amazing scenic walks, so why not plan your own?
The Great Walks of New Zealand are the most popular, and they include the Abel Tasman Coast Track, which is a great place to start.
This walk, in the picturesque Abel Tasman National Park, takes roughly three to five days, and you can stay in huts along the way, provided you book in advance. Vegetation is lush and tropical and you may spot wildlife on your trek.
Before setting off, always check on Council websites for weather warnings and closures due to conditions like Kauri tree dieback disease (which human contact can help spread), and remember to pack wisely (waterproof boots are a must!). Guided hikes are also available.
Ride through a glowworm cave
Taking a boat through Waitomo’s glowworm caves will give you the chance to see the country’s native glowworm light up its surroundings while you learn about the caves from an experienced guide.
If you’re claustrophobic the tour might not be for you, but if you choose to partake, you’ll want a warm jacket.
Discover Stewart Island
If you’re looking for somewhere quiet off the beaten track, you might just love Stewart Island.
New Zealand’s third main island is often passed over by visitors, but it’s worth a visit for its tranquility as well as its welcoming inhabitants.
With under 400 residents, much of the island is taken up by a national park, so if you’re interested in hiking, this is a good place to be.
Birding is also a popular pastime here – approximately 13,000 kiwi birds call the island home, making it the perfect place to spot this iconic symbol of New Zealand.
Visit the sea
With no place in New Zealand more than 120 km (about 80 miles) from the sea, it would be hard not to notice the country’s beaches — even if you tried.
If staying in the North Island, visit Raglan to admire (or join) brave surfers and wander around the relaxed beachside town.
Try Piha Beach on Auckland’s west coast if you’d like to see windswept ocean views from the vantage point of Lion Rock.
On the South Island, try Pilots Beach on the Otago Peninsula to view wildlife, or Caroline Bay Beach in Timaru for a tranquil stroll.
Author Bio: Freelance writer Harper Reid has seen some of the best of many Kiwi towns and cities – and will never tire of the beauty, mystery and adventure that her home country has to offer. After working with various blogs, she has recently written for local business and technology sites such as Trustpower. You can find more of Harper’s work on Tumblr.