10 Places All Kiwis Should Visit

Paradise New Zealand

These are unprecedented times. At last, New Zealanders have the opportunity to visit all New Zealand’s very best tourist attractions – without the tourists! Even better, the tourism industry is so desperate for customers that many operators have drastically reduced their prices. So, if you’re a New Zealander who hasn’t yet managed to experience New Zealand’s most famous spots, get out there. They’re famous for a reason.

To get you started, here’s a list of ten places all Kiwis should visit:

1) The Waitomo Caves

I was a kid the first time I went to Waitomo and the caves blew my mind. The idea that there was this mysterious, scary, beautiful world beneath the ground made me feel very small. Quite literally, in the case of some of the subterranean chambers. I found the glistening stalactites, disconcerting drops, and eerie whispers of waterfalls echoing through the rock both exciting and fascinating. What really enchanted me, though, were the glowworms: whole galaxies of electric-blue fairy lights!

2) Milford Sound

No doubt you’ve heard that Rudyard Kipling called Milford Sound the Eighth Wonder of the World. Floating across the dark, mirror-like fjord, surrounded by bush, waterfalls and peaks, you may well believe it. When I was there, on my family’s first South Island campervan trip, I felt quite overwhelmed. Struck by the sheer force of nature on display, on suppose. Of course, Mitre Peak is just as stunning as its pictures promise.

3) The Bay of Islands

Sounds idyllic – and it is. As well as being a sub-tropical haven of beaches, orchards and water sports, the Bay of Islands is historically important. It’s home not only to the Waitangi Treaty Grounds, but New Zealand’s very first European settlement, Russell. I had fun searching for the musket ball holes in the side of the church! Walking along Russell’s waterfront is lovely, and it has a row of great-looking restaurants to choose from.

4) The Glaciers

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The Fox and Franz Josef glaciers are known for being the most easily accessible glaciers in the world. When I was a kid, we did both on the same day, simply walking up to them. We didn’t walk on top of either of them, which is expensive, but just seeing them was awe-inspiring. I remember imagining one as a crystal wall, magically imprisoning an ice dragon! You should see them before they disappear.

5) Rotorua

You haven’t lived until you’ve inhaled the gloriously gross, eggy fart aroma of New Zealand’s Sulphur City. Or gazed into its steaming pools of gloopily bubbling mud. Or soaked in a natural spa bath. Then there are the endless thrill-seeking activities, the unmatched displays of Māori culture, and the gripping history of the Mount Tarawera eruption. I have many fond memories of Rotorua, a lot consisting of a teenage me hooning down a luge track!

6) The Otago Peninsula

I’ve been up Dunedin’s Otago Peninsula a few times. The first, it was all about the wildlife: seals, penguins and the world’s only mainland royal albatross colony. The second, it was all about the views. My fiancé and I spent the day just driving around it – it was very romantic! The third time, we visited New Zealand’s only castle, Larnach, which is worth visiting even though it isn’t actually a castle.

7) Cathedral Cove

The Coromandel’s Cathedral Cove is one of the most amazing beaches I’ve been to in my life. Its name is well-deserved. It’s not an easy beach to get to, however. It’s a bit of a walk from the car park, which is torturous in hot weather. That’s why some people catch a boat there from Hahei. It’s also a marine reserve and a fantastic place to kayak.

8) Paradise

The name says it all, really. Only once have I been to Paradise: it can be found an hour northwest of Queenstown. The drive takes you along the shore of Lake Wakatipu and through the picturesque settlement of Glenorchy. The surrounding countryside was used in The Lord of the Rings and it’s so beautiful I almost cried. I experienced it from horseback, but, of course, there are lots of tracks and tour options.

9) Tongariro National Park

One does not simply walk into Mordor. One drives there. Despite standing in for Mordor in The Lord of the Rings, Tongariro National Park is far from a desolate hellscape. It’s home to three volcanoes, three ski fields, a myriad of hiking tracks and a glamorous hotel from the 1920s. The Chateau Tongariro, as it’s called, does a delectable high tea in a room overlooking Mount Ngauruhoe. When we were there, my fiancé and I did a short walk in the morning, had high tea for lunch, and embarked upon another walk in the afternoon. We want to do the Tongariro Crossing one day.

10) Mount Cook

I’m not suggesting everyone has to climb New Zealand’s tallest mountain, but you at least need to look at it! The landscape for miles around Aoraki is epic. The view of it over Lake Pukaki, for example, is sublime. (Provided it isn’t cloudy like the last time I was there, camping on the shore in a campervan rental.) There are many easy-yet-awesome walks to choose from around Mount Cook National Park. The Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre’s pretty cool too.

You know what? I’ve just remembered I met Sir Edmund Hillary. It wasn’t long after I arrived in New Zealand, aged ten. I can’t remember much about it, but there was a massive, Mount Everest-shaped cake that I got a piece of in a napkin. It was at the Auckland Museum. My dad was giddy with eagerness to get the old man’s autograph.

Wow. That’s the first time I’ve remembered that in years. It’s hazy, though. I should ask my dad about it.

edmund hillary

 

Auckland to Christchurch by Campervan

A friend of mine is on an epic journey. He’s just arrived in New Zealand from Europe. He’s picked up a campervan hire in Auckland and he’s taking it all the way down to Christchurch. Naturally he asked me for advice: where should he stop along the way? I was only too happy to help.

1) The Waitakere Ranges Regional Park

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I often tell people the first place you should go in New Zealand (if you’ve landed in Auckland) is the Arataki Visitor Centre. It’s a great place to learn about New Zealand, especially if you’re interested in bush walks – an integral part of the New Zealand experience. The Arataki Visitor Centre is located in the Waitakere Ranges Regional Park, just half an hour’s drive west of the centre of Auckland City. It provides easy access to a multitude of bush walks, short and long; relaxing and challenging. The park also encompasses some fantastic black sand beaches – Muriwai and Bethells are my favourites.

2) The Hamilton Gardens

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Hamilton’s an hour or so’s drive south of Auckland. It’s not exactly an impressive city, but it’s one of those places from which you can easily get to other places. And, as you’re passing through, you may as well visit the Hamilton Gardens. They’re actually wonderful – officially amongst the best gardens in the world. If you’re a garden person you should put them on your must-see list.

3) The Waitomo Caves

Waitomo is an hour’s drive south of Hamilton. It’s very touristy, but I had the most magical experience of my life there. The Waitomo Caves are breathtaking. As well as simple tours there are lots of different adventures to go on, including abseiling and tubing – floating down an underground river on a rubber ring. The truly magical thing about Waitomo, though, is its glowworms. Drifting beneath them in that little boat was like being surrounded by tiny, blue stars glittering upon velvet darkness… (That’s the Spellbound Tour – $75 per adult, but so worth it!)

4) The Hobbiton Movie Set

First Hobbit Hole

I know I keep going on about the Hobbiton Movie Set, but I really did love it. To call it a movie set is almost misleading – it’s like a real village, living and breathing. The hobbit holes actually meet council standards, so could be used as proper houses! Hobbiton is about three quarters of an hour’s drive east of Hamilton. It’s probably best to visit in summer, when the flowers are at their most glorious and the vivid colours of the round doors at their brightest, but going in winter would make the Green Dragon seem even cosier with its inviting fireplaces.

5) Rotorua

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Rotorua is an hour’s drive south-east of Hobbiton. You want geysers, hot pools, mud pools, spa pools, fascinating history, thrilling adventure and Maori culture? Of course you do! And you don’t have to pay through the nose for it, though many places in Rotorua will try to make you do so. It’s about knowing where to go. Start with Kuirau Park – it’s free – and definitely check out How to Do Rotorua on the Cheap.

6) Taupo

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An hour’s drive south of Rotorua you’ll come to Taupo, a resort town on the edge of an enormous crater lake. Hot springs abound and exciting water sports are at your fingertips. I recommend jet boating – it was invented in New Zealand after all. I also recommend a walk around the Craters of the Moon

7) Tongariro National Park

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Volcanoes. Epic volcanoes. The Tongariro National Park is about an hour’s drive south of Taupo. It doubled for Mordor in The Lord of the Rings, but it’s not ugly and oppressive in real life. It’s beautiful. Camping there is quite something, especially with all the bats, and the walks are amazing. The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is the most famous, but it takes at least seven hours. For a good two-hour walk you could try the Taranaki Falls Track – you get to see one of the most beautiful waterfalls in the country as well good views of the volcanoes, Ruapehu, Ngauruhoe and Tongariro.

8) Wellington

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Four to five hour’s drive south of Tongariro we come to New Zealand’s capital city, Wellington. It’s from here that you’ll take your campervan on a ferry across Cook Strait to get to the South Island, but you should hang around a bit first. Wellington’s an unusual city, surrounded by forested hills. Walk around the harbour, visit Te Papa and Weta Workshop, and climb Mount Victoria for some fabulous views.

9) The Marlborough Sounds

At the top of the South Island are the beautiful Marlborough Sounds. They always make me think of New Zealand wine and dolphins. What I really want to do is go kayaking on the Pelorus River. That’s where they filmed the barrel ride from the second Hobbit film. (Even if you think the Hobbit films were a major disappointment compared to the Lord of the Rings films, you can’t fault the stunning nature of the New Zealand scenery.) Plus, if you’re in a campervan, there’s a fantastic campground at Pelorus Bridge – make sure you book ahead.

10) Kaikoura

NZ Fur Seals

Two hours or so south of Marlborough we come to Kaikoura, the whale-watching capital of New Zealand. (On the way there’s a great place to spend the night for free if you’re in a self-contained campervan, right on the edge of the sea and practically on top of a colony of seals – Paparoa Point.) Kaikoura’s famous for its mouth-watering crayfish – the name Kaikoura actually means ‘meal of crayfish’ in Maori – and for its amazing marine encounters. You can swim with dolphins and kayak with whales, and if you look back towards the shore you’ll see a backdrop of snow-capped mountains.

11) Arthur’s Pass

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Arthur’s Pass is the name of a national park, a mountain pass and a village nestled within the Southern Alps. When my family was on a South Island campervan tour years ago, my dad wanted to get a photograph of someone standing in front of one of the signs, covering the P. I can’t remember whether we actually did this as the scenery was more than a little distracting. Four hours south-west of Kaikoura, Arthur’s Pass is a gateway to many wonderful walks. It’s also the perfect place to encounter kea, the most intelligent birds in the world and New Zealand’s cheekiest natives.

12) Christchurch and Beyond

Christchurch

Christchurch is about two hour’s drive south-east of Arthur’s Pass. There’s so much to do around the city. Visit the Botanic Gardens and the see the awesome splendour of the Waimakariri River. Or the Rakaia River. Or both! Go up Banks Peninsula and spend a night or two in Akaroa – it’s the only place in the world where you can swim with the Hector’s dolphins, which are so cute! If you drive three hours south you’ll come to Oamaru, which used to be famous for just penguins, but now it’s got penguins AND a cool steampunk thing going on.

Fur Seal 1croppedWell anyway I don’t know how many of these suggestions my friend will follow. The best places are always the ones you discover for yourself. That’s the beauty of campervan travel: you can go where you want when you want, following whims. I wonder what new places my friend will discover. He’s been to New Zealand before – we met at a larping convention in Auckland two years ago and, last year, my boyfriend and I stayed with him for one night on our European tour. Actually, I interviewed him about his time in New Zealand on this blog. (See Interview with the Larper.) He said he’d be back and this time he’s brought his girlfriend.

Seriously, though, you have to stop coming in winter!

Why You Should Visit the Arataki Visitor Centre

First time in New Zealand? Time to spare around Auckland? Head west to the Arataki Visitor Centre in the Waitakere Ranges Regional Park. It provides a fantastic introduction to life in New Zealand. You can learn about Auckland’s history, environment and wildlife in a wonderful setting with magnificent views, before embarking upon one of the many laid-back bushwalks in the area.

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The Arataki Visitor Centre is one of the first places I remember visiting in New Zealand. I was ten years old; the centre was great for kids and still is. In fact it’s got even better in the last decade. You could spend hours in the kids’ corner. I discovered so much and it was fun. I learned, for example, what all the different native birds were and what a weta looked like. (Answer: scary as fuck.)

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Recently, I went back for the first time in years. It still had the giant picture frame at the edge of the car park, overlooking the ‘natural masterpiece’-of-a-view. It still had the towering Maori totem pole that my little sister had climbed on, unaware that she was using the bottom figure’s penis as a handhold. But there was one important addition to the car park: a charming Danish ice-cream hut.

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The ice-cream was very nice, as were the freshly made waffle cones.

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I also found this rather pretty place for chaining up your bike.

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As you ascend the wooden ramp into the centre there are a series of balconies taking advantage of the views. In summer they’d make good picnic spots, but the wind was too cold to stay out long this time. Thankfully there’s a place to eat inside the centre too, not a proper café, but nice tables with snacks and hot drinks available. There’s also this rather lovely window seat.

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The inside of the centre has changed a lot. It looks all fancy now. The gift shop’s still the same, but there are lots of new displays. As well as informational displays about the natural and human history of the area, and about local conservation efforts, there are beautiful examples of Kiwi artwork and even live lizards! This is definitely somewhere international visitors should come.

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If you plan on doing any bushwalking during your New Zealand trip – and New Zealand is pretty much impossible to escape without doing at least one little bushwalk – then the Arataki Visitor Centre is a great place prepare yourself. There are people there who can advise you on where to go and how to stay safe in the bush, and there are heaps of free leaflets available.

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In fact the whole centre is free – did I mention that?

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The Arataki Visitor Centre is known as the gateway to the Waitakere Ranges. I think it’s also a great gateway to New Zealand in general. Make it the beginning of your New Zealand holiday. I know a few people who say it’s the first place the place they take friends and relatives when they arrive.  Other places nearby include: Rose Hellaby House, the Waitakere Dam, Fairy Falls and Bethells Beach.