Discover New Zealand’s magnificent wonders & wildlife
New Zealand is filled with spectacular natural wonders, from dramatic glaciers, fjords and soaring snow-capped mountain peaks to roaring waterfalls, natural hot springs and fascinating caves. Wildlife is abundant too, on land and in the water, with opportunities to watch for whales, dolphins, penguins, seals and more.
Kayak or cruise Milford Sound
Rudyard Kipling once called Milford Sound the ‘Eighth wonder of the world. Located on the west coast of the South Island, it’s truly one of the world’s most wondrous sights with cliffs that rise vertically from dark mysterious waters.
Paddling across in a sea kayak is one of the best ways to experience it, feeling the mist of the waterfalls that cascade down the forest-covered mountains while navigating the wild fjord. Along the way some of the wildlife you might encounter include penguins, seals and dolphins. If you’re looking for an adventure with little effort, cruises are available too.
Franz Josef Glacier helicopter/hike tour
The South Island is home to some of the world’s most accessible glaciers, Franz Josef and Fox. Franz Josef is just three miles from the town of the same name, and a 90-minute walk will bring you to within less than a half-mile of its terminal face. But if you want to make contact with it, join the popular heli-hike, one of the top things to do in all of New Zealand. Experiencing the frozen rivers of ice that flow down from dramatic mountain peaks from above is something you won’t soon forget. Take in a bird’s-eye view of the pinnacles, crevasses and the deep blue ice, and then the pilot will land right on the glacier, providing a close-up look. During the hike you’ll walk between towering walls of ice and even crawl through ice tunnels – if you’re lucky, you might witness the glacier calving too.
Waitomo Glowworm Cave
New Zealand is the only place where you’ll find Arachnocampa luminosa, better known as the New Zealand glowworm. A visit to the Waitomo Caves to marvel at them on the North Island is considered a must. Like many caves, they’re famous for their stalagmites and stalactites, but they also offer an extraordinary experience. Accessed by inner tube or boat, you’ll float down the underground river with thousands of the glowworms illuminating the way, providing a sky of living lights. The guided tour will bring you through three different levels, starting at the cave’s top level, travelling through the Banquet Chamber where early visitors used to stop and eat, with evidence that can be seen in the smoke on the chamber’s ceiling. It concludes with the boat ride through the cave that formed more than 30 million years ago, beginning with the creation of limestone at the bottom of the ocean.
Whale watching in Kaikoura
The coastal town of Kaikoura on the South Island is one of only a few places on Earth where sperm whales can be seen all year round. The marine environment here is incredibly rich in nutrients, attracting the massive animals that can grow to as long as 65 feet and weight over 50 tons. They gather here thanks to the more than one-mile-deep canyon that runs right alongside the coast creating a rare system of sea currents that result in an exceptional marine food chain. Depending on the season, you might get to glimpse southern right whales, blue whales, humpback whales, beaked whales and orca whales too. You’ll also have the opportunity to see rare and endangered hectors dolphins, dusky dolphins and New Zealand fur seals.
Hike to the Emerald Crater Lakes of Tongariro National Park
If you’re looking for an epic hike, the Tongariro Alpine Crossing in Tongariro National Park will bring you on a magical adventure through volcanic alpine landscape that seems as if it’s an entirely different planet. Multiple geothermal vents and crater lakes filled with surreal emerald waters are dotted around the volcanic complex, providing one of the most truly jaw-dropping sights. One of the world’s best day hikes, the three-hour trek starts at the Whakapapa Visitor, winding to Taranaki Falls, before travelling through dense forest and across the lava line marking eruptions that occurred centuries ago. At the summit of Red Crater, the highest point, the trail steeply descends to Emerald Lakes with their brilliant colour the result of minerals from the adjacent thermal area – thermal steam can be seen around both Red Crater and the lakes.
Dig your own natural spa bath at Hot Water Beach
There are many different spots where visitors can soak in natural hot springs in New Zealand, but Hot Water Beach may provide one of the most unique soaks of all. Located along the east coast of the Coromandel Peninsula on the North Island, by heading to this normally deserted beach within two hours before or after low tide, you can dig your own natural spa bath right out of the sand, with hot water bubbling through.
Sail and swim with dolphins in the Bay of Islands
The Bay of Islands is world-famous for sailing, as a collection of over 140 islands, dazzling secluded bays and hidden sandy beaches. There are many different sailing options for a day trip, including catamaran tours that include the chance to swim, snorkel and kayak while keeping an eye out for abundant marine life like dolphins, penguins and whales. In the town of Paihia, you can even join the Dolphin Eco Experience for the opportunity of a lifetime: swimming near dolphins in the wild - do however respect these creatures and never pet them. A cruise will bring you out to search for the creatures int heir natural environment in the sheltered warm waters of the bay where you can jump right in and snorkel among them.
Capture a photo of Whangarei Falls
Whangarei Falls, north of Auckland on the North Island, is widely considered to be the country’s most photogenic waterfall. A classic curtain waterfall that flows all year round on the Hatea River, it plunges nearly 80 feet over basalt cliffs into a pool below, providing one of the most magical swimming spots in the area and it’s just 10 minutes from the city centre of Whangarei. There are two viewing platforms above the falls that provide spectacular views as well.
Experience New Zealand’s Thermal Wonderland
New Zealand has many geothermal features in addition to hot springs, including volcanoes, geysers and volcanic lakes. The Taupo Volcanic Zone in the central area of the North Island is especially active. The Waimangu Valley in Rotorua is considered the country’s thermal wonderland – it was totally reshaped when Mount Tarawera erupted in the late 19th-century, covering three Maori villages with lava and ash. Today visitors can join an organised tour of the area which follows the shores of Lake Rotomahana, a lake of steaming hot water. Some of the highlights include the Cathedral Rocks, Waimangu Cauldron and Warbrick Terrace. Just below the mountain near the lake are Maori rock drawings.
In Wai-O-Tapu, you can watch the carbon dioxide bubbles rise to the surface of the Champagne Pool, the largest spring in the area at around 200 feet in diameter. The orange framed spring was formed by a hydrothermal eruption some 700 years ago and is quite the sight to see.
See one of the world’s most endangered penguins on a Dunedin wildlife tour
The rare hoiho, or yellow-eyed penguin, is one of the most endangered penguins in the world. Distinguished by a vivid yellow eye band, they inhabit the Otago Peninsula just south of Dunedin on the South Island. Visitors can join a wildlife tour from Dunedin for close encounters with the penguins in their natural habitat, along with fur seals and sea lions. Profits made from the Penguin Place tour all go toward the private conservation effort to save the adorable flightless birds. It includes the opportunity to visit a working conservation programme, experiencing and photographing the penguins without disturbing their activities at close range, through a system of covered tunnels and hides.
Marvel at the rare beauty of the Southern Lights
Stewart Island, located about 15 miles off the South Island is known as Rakiura in the Maori language, which means ‘the land of glowing skies.’ It’s one of the few places in the world where you can experience the aurora australis, or southern lights. If you aren’t fortunate enough to catch this incredible natural display, the island is also a fantastic place for any wilderness lovers as a ‘final frontier,’ with a population of less than 400, magnificent scenery and abundant wildlife.
View Punakaiki National Park’s Famous Blowholes and Pancake Rocks
Punakaiki National Park along the wild west coast of the South Island, is home to world-renowned blowholes and the Pancake Rocks, bizarre limestone rock formations that look like huge pancakes. Aim to visit at high tide and you’ll be able to capture especially stunning photographs of the rocks that formed some 30 million years ago from tiny fragments of plants and marine creatures that landed on the seabed, far below the water’s surface. The powerful pressure of the water led to them solidifying into soft and hard layers. Over time, seismic action caused the limestone to lift above the seabed while wind, waves and rain sculped them into these unique shapes. A less than three-quarter mile walk provides a closer look
Whakaari Island adventure
Whakaari Island, otherwise known as White Island, is the most active volcano in the country. It sits about 30 miles off the Bay of Plenty coast on the North Island and was formed by three separate volcanic cones. The two oldest eroded away, while the younger cone rose between them. It’s privately owned and can only be reached by guided tour, by helicopter or boat. Excursions usually include a walking tour of the island where you’ll see steaming vents across the crater floor. If you want to check it out from above, flyover-only tours are available too.
Get up close to endangered birds and wildlife at the Pukaha National Wildlife Centre
Located among 942-hectares of native forest, just two hours from Wellington on the North Island, the Pukaha National Wildlife Centre is home to the only white kiwi in captivity in New Zealand, along with many other endangered birds and wildlife kakariki (a New Zealand parakeet), the kokako bird, and tuatara, an endemic reptile.
Horseback riding through Lord of the Rings scenery
The Lord of the Rings is what made this country a bucket list destination for many, and you can experience much of the awe-inspiring scenery you saw on the big screen on horseback with a trip through Glenorchy on the South Island, located at the gateway to magnificent Mount Aspiring National Park. Used for many filming locations in the trilogy, you’ll be able to trek among the brilliant turquoise lakes and soaring peaks of the Southern Alps.
Discover the best of New Zealand with these recommended tours
New Zealand Marvel escorted tour (13 nights)
New Zealand Wonderland escorted tour (16 nights)
Contrasts of New Zealand (9 nights)
Lord of the Rings Scenic Explorer Self-Drive (13 nights)
North Island Highlights with Scenic Train Self-Drive (8 nights)