An island nation in the South Pacific, New Zealand’s landscapes are home to astonishing diversity. From the mud pools and geysers of Rotorua to the skyscraping peaks of the Southern Alps, our natural grandeur promises to inspire and delight. Read on to discover the best way to see some of New Zealand’s many highlights.
Every aspect of a visit to Milford Sound is simply incredible – as soon as you arrive, you’ll discover why famous British author Rudyard Kipling named it the ‘8th great wonder of the world’. Milford Sound is the jewel in the crown of Fiordland National Park, and even the journey there is impressive. The Milford Road grants access to this wilderness, traversing a spectacular route considered to be one of New Zealand’s best scenic drives. Jagged mountain peaks soar above sheer granite cliffs and valleys of golden tussock add to the magic.
Milford Sound itself showcases some of the most dramatic scenery in the country. The fiord’s plunging cliffs, imposing peaks and inky blue water will leave you awestruck. Getting out on the water allows visitors to enjoy the landscape from a different perspective, and the pods of dolphins and families of fur seals bathing on the rocks only add to the experience. Don’t miss the opportunity to soar above the mountains and fiords on a scenic flight – a birds’ eye view of these landscapes is a must-do while touring New Zealand.
There’s no better way to experience Milford Sound and the surrounding Fiordland region than with a combination of coach, boat cruise and scenic flight. Travel Milford Road in a coach, board a boat to cruise the inky waters, admiring the towering waterfalls along the way. Afterwards, return to Queenstown via a magnificent scenic flight soaring over the Fiordland landscapes and turquoise blue Lake Wakatipu.
Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park
The grand Southern Alps stand sentinel above the West Coast and, to the east, the Canterbury Plains. Reaching a lofty 3,754 meters (12,349 ft.) above sea level, Aoraki/Mount Cook dominates this skyline as New Zealand’s highest peak. The mountain is also an iconic representation of the pioneering kiwi spirit. Aoraki/Mount Cook hosted the endeavors of great adventurer Sir Edmund Hillary, who trained here for his legendary expedition to Mt Everest, making history as the first successful person to summit the Himalayan giant.
When touring New Zealand, strolling in the landscapes that surround the mountain is a privilege – a number of easy-going walking tracks grant access to the scenic valleys, and walkers are rewarded with plenty of vistas of soaring summits along the way. During springtime, these valleys come alive in a riot of purple, pink and blue lupins. Whether you are visiting the Canterbury Plains or exploring the West Coast, Aoraki/Mt Cook is an ever-present spectacle in the landscape of the South Island.
Journey to the foothills of the Southern Alps to the Hermitage Hotel at the foot of Aoraki/Mount Cook. Then stretch your legs, fill your lungs with mountain air and enjoy snowy peaks and grand alpine scenery with a stroll in the nearby valley.
It could be said that few other locations on the Pacific Ring of Fire portray their tempestuous, tectonic character more boldly than Rotorua – New Zealand’s ultimate geothermal hotspot and a resounding highlight on our New Zealand small group tours. And it’s easy to see why: Rotorua is studded with majestic lakes and offers one of the hottest live theatrical performances on the planet – literally. Here, restless forces claw their way to the surface in the form of boiling mud pools, hot springs, bursting geysers and colourful mineral depositions.
Further adding to the unique appeal of Rotorua is its status as the Maori Cultural Hub of New Zealand. The region is steeped in Maori history, and today visitors can experience vibrant renditions of a culture that found its roots here almost 1000 years ago. In Rotorua, the spirit of Manaakitanga (hospitality) is alive and well – delicious dining experiences combine traditional Maori foods with warm, embracing hosts to create a cultural experience visitors remember for life.
Explore the reaches of beautiful Lake Rotoiti on a cruise aboard a luxury catamaran – visit natural hot pools on the edge of the lake that are only accessible by boat. See the famous ‘Buried Village’ of Te Wairoa before learning all about the amazing efforts going in to helping our national icon at the Rotorua Kiwi Encounter. Walk through Ohinemutu Village, a living Maori settlement on the shores of Lake Rotorua. Take a guided tour of the enchanting geothermal hideaway of Wai-O-Tapu, where bubbling mud pools and colourful silica terraces create an otherworldly and unforgettable landscape.
West Coast of the South Island
They don’t call the West Coast ‘wild’ for nothing. This spectacular stretch of paradise unfolds over 600km (372 miles) of incredible coastline, hemmed in by the mighty Southern Alps and the endless Tasman Sea. The tempestuous weather for which the region is so famous for constantly shapes the environment, adding drama to the grand natural orchestra. The glaciers of this region are notable for their accessibility – tumbling down from the Southern Alps, their lower reaches are surrounded by temperate rainforest and they descend nearly to sea level.
It’s no wonder this land of extremes has created such a unique breed of resilient kiwis. The culture here is different to the rest of New Zealand – perhaps due to the isolation and hardships that the first hardy settlers who etched out a living here had to endure. Hokitika is a great place to get a feel for this pioneering spirit. In the north of this region, the stacks of limestone that form the Punakaiki Pancake Rocks are not to be missed on any small group New Zealand tour. At the right tide, water shoots up through cracks in the rocks, creating a show of blowholes and sea spray.
This is a very special part of the country, so take several days to get a feel for the landscape and pioneering spirit. Beginning by journeying through the native beech forests and cascading waterfalls of the Haast Pass, enjoy a short stroll to crystal-clear blue pools. Continuing towards the coast, top off the day by viewing Fox Glacier along with picture-perfect Lake Matheson – known for its mirror reflections of the Southern Alps. See Okarito a feeding ground for the rare white heron (Kotoku) and a rare experience that’s off the tourist trail.
View the artisan art galleries of Hokitika before driving the coastal road to the Punakaiki Pancake rocks to admire prehistoric formations, dramatic blowholes and a wild coastline.
Kaikoura is a coastal town of the South Island of New Zealand known for its abundant wildlife, its sperm whale population and New Zealand fur seals. Here you can relax and let the worries of the world wash away as the waves of the Pacific Ocean crash to the shore, surrounded by fresh sea and mountain air.
Not only is Kaikoura home to one of New Zealand’s best beaches, but this town is also the only local authority in the Southern Hemisphere to be awarded an EarthCheck certification for its dedication to sustainable tourism. Located in the Canterbury region of New Zealand, the small township of Kaikoura can be found on a craggy peninsula, sitting on pastoral farmland and lying beneath the Seaward Kaikoura Mountains.
With vast stretches of blue-green ocean as far as the eye can see, giving life to a vibrant marine-eco system, home to some of New Zealand’s rarest marine wildlife and seabirds, Kaikoura is perhaps most famous for its exceptional seafaring adventures and is a must-do if you are a wildlife lover wanting to experience the best of pure New Zealand. No visit to Kaikoura would be complete without experiencing a whale-watching tour for which this town is world-famous. Out in the Pacific Ocean, the stunning sperm whale makes the waters off Kaikoura its playground, giving you the perfect opportunity to see this gigantic mammal in all its natural glory.
The playful Dusky Dolphin is also found in the waters of Kaikoura. If you’ve ever dreamt of swimming with these majestic creatures, known for their acrobatics and inquisitive nature, then this is the place to tick this experience off your bucket list. This unique breed of dolphin is abundant in Kaikoura’s sub-Antarctic waters and a dolphin watching and/or swimming expedition is the perfect place to get up close to these beautiful mammals.
And, if the above marine-adventures are not enough, Kaikoura also offers you the chance to snorkel with the cheeky New Zealand fur seal. This trip takes place in the sparkling shallow waters of the Kaikoura Peninsula, giving you the chance to experience the raw beauty of natural New Zealand.
Miles Clark is the Owner of MoaTrek New Zealand Small Group Tours. MoaTrek was started in 1971 by Miles’s mother, Ena, and they’re still going strong sharing all their favourite New Zealand spots and experiences with guests on their tours.