Photo take on October 2014

Travel Guide to New Zealand

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Part One

1They say that good things come in small packages and when it comes to New Zealand, this old adage couldn’t be more accurate! This small but exquisitely formed country is actually a similar size to Great Britain and has a relatively miniscule population of just 4.5 million. But don’t let the statistics fool you into thinking that New Zealand is lacklustre and lifeless; on the contrary, this incredible nation is bursting at the seams with spectacular natural and cultural delights. So let’s waste no time and jump straight into my travel guide to New Zealand.

I’ve decided to split my travel guide to New Zealand into three parts: One for each of the main islands (‘North Island’ and ‘South Island’) and one covering some useful travel tips and surprising facts about this unique country. In this first part, I will be looking at the practical side of travelling to New Zealand, such as how to get there, how much time you need to spend in the country and when is the best time to visit.

2But before I impart my wise words, I want to dazzle you! For me, the highlight of New Zealand is, well, everything! From the glaciers to the subtropical forest, right through to the rugged mountains and white beaches, New Zealand’s landscape has everything! It’s verdant, it’s icy, it’s gentle and it’s wild; to put it into words will never do New Zealand’s natural beauty justice. And did you know that only 5% of New Zealand’s population is human? New Zealand plays home to several species of flightless birds, 100 year old reptiles and diverse and abundant marine life. It’s no wonder why these awe-inspiring landscapes, teeming with rare flora and fauna, have become popular film locations for epic blockbusters such as ‘The Lord of the Rings’.

3It’s not just Mother Nature who has played a huge part in creating this captivating country. New Zealand’s culture and history is a patchwork quilt of international influences: with Māori, European, Pacific Island and Asian cultures, New Zealand has become a real melting-pot of traditions, customs and heritage. All of this can be seen in the diverse cuisine, architecture and arts, which I strongly encourage you to completely submerge yourself in!

So let’s go! To help you make the most of your trip, part one of my travel guide to New Zealand aims to answer some general questions and give you some handy tips before you experience one of the most incredible countries on Earth!

Where is New Zealand?

4Approximately 4,000 km off the south-west coast of Australia, in the South Pacific Ocean, lies New Zealand. The country is made up of two main island, ‘North Island’ and ‘South Island’, however there is a third, smaller island called ‘Stewarts’ Island’, which lies at the very bottom of the country. There are also hundreds of smaller islands offshore. The landmass is relatively small in size and no part of the country is more than 79 miles from the sea. Nearly a third of the population live in Auckland on the North Island; in fact more people live here than the whole of the South Island.

Do You Need a Visa to Travel to New Zealand?

If you are a British or Australian citizen, or a citizen of a country with a visa waiver agreement with New Zealand, you will not need a visa to visit New Zealand on holiday. A full list of countries with this agreement can be found here: http://www.visabureau.com/newzealand/holiday-visa.aspx.

Without a visa you are permitted to stay in New Zealand for up to 6 months. You will however need proof of on onward travel (e.g. a return ticket home or a ticket to fly to another country outside of New Zealand) and evidence that you can support yourself.

When is the Best Time to Visit New Zealand?

Being in the Southern Hemisphere, New Zealand experiences opposite seasons to those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, i.e. continental Europe, North America, Central America, the Caribbean, the vast majority of Asia, 2/3 of Africa and 1/10 of South America. This means that our summer is New Zealand’s winter, and vice versa.

5If you’re looking for the warmest, driest weather, visit New Zealand between December and February. However, personally I think that the best time to visit is during autumn (March-May), when the country is usually adorned with incredible foliage and long, dry days. Having said that, spring (September-November) is equally beautiful, and you will see new life bursting into existence, impressive waterfalls and benefit from warm days. In all fairness, anytime of the year is a good time to go, as every season brings with it new sights and sounds.

How Much Time Do I Need to Spend in New Zealand?

This is actually an incredibly difficult questions to answer! Part of me is inclined to tell you to spend as long as possible (6 months without a visa) exploring this diverse country. I do of course appreciate that this is likely to be impractical, so I would probably recommend anywhere from 2-6 weeks.

Flight times to New Zealand are approximately 26 hours, without stops, so this may have a bearing on how long you chose to stay. For me, the ideal trip is to stop off en route (maybe somewhere like Hong Kong, Dubai or LA) for a few days, and do the same on the way home. This of course lengthens your trip, but does means that you are not travelling for excessively long stints. Plus, you get to potentially see 3 countries on one trip away!

However long you chose to stay in New Zealand there will be plenty for you to do. My top tip is to explore as much as possible, so that you can take in as much of the islands as possible.

How Do I Get Around New Zealand?

6Owing to the physically small nature of New Zealand, travelling around the islands is a popular option. The roads are generally high quality and routes have been planned with tourists in mind, making location hopping by car an enjoyable experience.

 If, however, you prefer not to drive, New Zealand is home to a comprehensive bus and rail network, with links to over 600 cities, towns and communities. This is the scenic way to travel and best suited for those who may feel uncomfortable driving in an unfamiliar country. Alternatively, flying is also a relatively affordable way to travel and no internal flight takes longer than 2 hours.

What is the Currency in New Zealand?

The currency in New Zealand is the New Zealand Dollar, which can easily be obtained in most countries before your visit. The New Zealand Dollar is accepted throughout the country, and did you know that New Zealand is the only country with the right to put ‘Hobbit’ related images on its currency?

What Languages are Spoken and What Cultural Etiquette Should Be Observed?

There are 3 official languages of New Zealand: English, Māori and New Zealand Sign Language. English is the day-to-day language and is widely spoken, however Māori will often be heard throughout the country and is used commonly in television and radio. Don’t be surprised if you hear some vocabulary that sounds unfamiliar- Māori culture has influenced English, and English has influenced Māori.

7In terms of general etiquette, New Zealand is a very laid-back country and you should find that the majority of people are welcoming and friendly. There is however a very strong ethos of protecting the environment, so ensure that you are respectful of any environmental rules and concerns.

If you do visit a traditional Māori settlement, there are some more specific rules to follow, which can be found here: http://www.commisceo-global.com/country-guides/new-zealand-guide. These are nothing to worry about, but it is worth making yourself familiar with some customs that may seem very different to your own.

I hope that Part One of my Travel Guide to New Zealand has given you a good overview of what to expect from New Zealand, as well as some useful tips to help you prepare for your visit. In Part Two we will be visiting the South Island, where I will show you some incredible sights and activities to help you make the most out of your trip to New Zealand.

Travel Guide to New Zealand- Part Two: The South Island

aRenowned for its mountains, lakes and glaciers, New Zealand’s South Island is the place to be if you love the great outdoors. In Part Two of my Travel Guide to New Zealand, I’ll be hiking up mountains, jumping from ‘The Edge’, swimming with dolphins and drinking some of the finest wine in the world.

East Coast

Christchurch

We start our journey at the ‘gateway’ to the South Island, Christchurch. This vibrant and ever-evolving city suffered devastating earthquakes in 2010-2011, but has re-emerged as a one of the ‘top 10 cities to visit in the world’[1]. Frankly, I can understand why! Much like New Zealand culture, the architecture of Christchurch is an eclectic mix of ultra-modern meets turn of the century, where Spanish ‘Mission’ style balconies and archways sit next to buildings that look like they’ve come straight from New Orleans. Brightly coloured trams criss-cross the city, taking you from gourmet restaurant to casual and chic cafes and flat-bottomed punts glide across the city, making you feel like you’re in Venice rather than New Zealand.

However, the cherry on top for me is Christchurch’s location. Sat in a bay of 16km of open coastline and framed by mountains, Christchurch offers some spectacular views of nature. It also provides a fantastic base to explore the East Coast South Island.

[1] New York Times, ’52 Places to Go in 2014’, 2013

Banks Peninsula and Akoroa

Roughly 80km south of Christchurch lies the Banks Peninsular, which you should be able to reach in roughly an hour and half by car (the roads are bumpy, so maybe avoid car travel if you suffer from car-sickness!)

This picturesque peninsula provides incredible vistas at every turn and a chance to meet some of New Zealand’s wildlife. This is great place for avid hikers to don their boots and explore the bays, beaches and volcanic craters. It’s also a relaxing and peaceful spot, perfect for a picnic or private swim.

1If marine life is something that interests you, the sparkling waters off the Banks Peninsular play home to the world’s smallest and rarest dolphin, the ‘Hector Dolphin’. Swimming with these playful and friendly mammals was a highlight of my trip, and an experience I will never forget. If you’d prefer to experience the water without getting wet, you can take a boat trip from the peninsular and may be lucky enough to see Fur Seals, Little Blue Penguins and scores of birds overhead.

Whilst you are visiting the Banks Peninsula, be sure to stop off in the seaside town of Akoroa. This small township has an almost French feel to it, full of art and history. This is a great place to stop off for lunch and sample some of the local, artisan produce. It’s also a lovely to have a wander around the boutiques and craft galleries, if shopping is up your street!

West Coast and Central

Once you’ve spent a few days in and around Christchurch, I’d highly recommend exploring more of the South Island and experience the abundance of delights it has to offer. One travel option, which I would highly recommend, is to take the TranzAlpine Scenic Railway from Christchurch to Greymouth- http://www.kiwirailscenic.co.nz/tranzalpine/. Not only will this journey take you from one side of the island to the other, it will also allow you to see for yourself just how beautiful the South Island is.

The west coast has a huge amount to offer, not all of which I can cover here, but I want to share with you some of my highlights. We’ll start south-west and work our way north, where even more surprises await! For the west, I’d recommend basing yourself somewhere like Queenstown, as it’s fairly central and a great deal of trips leave from this destination.

Doubtful Sound

1For one of your nights on the west side of the island, I would recommend visiting ‘Doubtful Sound’ in the Fiordland National Park. This untouched wilderness offers lush rainforests, hidden inlets and caves and a chance to come face-to-face with penguins, dolphins and seals.

Your first adventure here is actually reaching your destination! With no direct road access, you will need to take a boat across Lake Manapouri, followed by a coach trip over Wilmot Pass. I’d recommend taking a night trip like this: https://www.realjourneys.co.nz/en/experiences/cruises/doubtful-sound-overnight-cruises/

On our trip we were able to experience swimming with dolphins, canyoning and loads and loads of fantastic food and wine. What more could you want!

Milford Sound

2In the north corner of the Fiorland National park you will find ‘Milford Sound’. This spectacle of nature provided some of the most breath taking views of my trip! The mountains, fjords and waterfalls are incredible and their sheer scale is humbling. Whilst visiting the South Island, Milford Sound is a must! I’d highly recommend hiring a kayak and paddling across the fjord, as it makes the whole experience even more exciting.

Queenstown

1As I mentioned at the start of this section, a good base for the west side of the island is Queenstown.

Set on the shore of Lake Wakatipu, you could be forgiven for thinking that this city is another tranquil place to relax and take in the views. Well, you could of course do that, but for me Queenstown is about adventure and high-adrenaline sports!

Bungee jumping has become a rite of passage in New Zealand, which is where the sport was originally born, and Queenstown is the place to do it. Whilst I was there I took on the highest bungee in New Zealand and lived to tell the tale! There are several bungee companies located in and around Queenstown, if you fancy indulging in what has become the ‘Bucket List’ classic!

For those who don’t fancy plummeting head-first whilst being suspended by a rope, Queenstown also boasts jet-boating (which is simply awesome) and helicopter rides over the ‘Remarkables’ – a mountain range nearly 2,500m high. There’s also the ‘Gondola’ ride, which provides a much more ‘gentle’ spurt of excitement, by taking you leisurely to the top of the mountain range via cable-car. There’s a restaurant at the top too, so a good pit-stop where you can take in the wonderful views. And, as it’s Queenstown, there’s a ‘high-octane’, optional, way to get back down too in the form of the ‘Luge’: a ride on a three-wheeled car that navigates the twists and turns of the downward track.

http://www.skyline.co.nz/newzealand/luge-tracks/

Lake Wanaka

After all of t1hat excitement, I for one am ready to get back to the tranquillity of the lakes and mountains! Just under 200km from Queenstown you will find Lake Wanaka, which is guaranteed to offer you a slice of peace and quiet! This piece of paradise offers everything from mountains and glaciers to rivers and lakes, so really does provide something for everyone.

The crystal clear waters of Lake Wanaka are ideal for fishing, whereas the surrounding hills are great for hiking. You can even play golf or indulge in some wine-tasting, so it really is a perfect location to satisfy a range of tastes.

Lake Wanaka is also an ideal spot of the skiers amongst you, however I would advise that you stay in Treble Cone or Cordrona if you’d like to take to the slopes. The New Zealand ski-season ordinarily runs from June to early October, depending on snow fall.

Lake Tekapo and Mount Cook (including Lake Matheson)

1If you liked Lake Wanaka, then you’ll love Lake Tekapo! Situated approximately 220km north of Wanaka, Lake Tekapo is located bang in the centre of the Southern Island and is found in the Mackenzie Basin. The really unique element of Lake Tekapo is the intense milky-turquoise colour of the lake itself. It’s also framed by the Southern Alps, which are definitely worth exploring.

I personally loved the thermal pools that overlook the lake, as it gave me a chance to completely relax whilst taking in the breath-taking views.

2I’d recommend staying in Mount Cook Village when you visit Lake Tekapo, as not only are you only an hour away from this site, but you are also directly next to Mount Cook itself. Staying in Mount Cook village means that you can literally walk straight out onto the mountain! If the budget can stretch, I’d highly recommend staying at the 5* Hermitage Hotel. It’s a wonderful place and has fantastic views over the mountain.

When you visit Mount Cook you also have to visit Lake Matheson, if only to see the reflection of the mountain in the lake! My one tip is that you get there before the ducks do, so try to arrive by early morning.

Franz Josef Glacier

1You may have noticed that as we head north, the theme of our activities has become decidedly chillier! Well, things are about to become even frostier with our next stop, the Franz Josef Glacier.

The majestic Franz Josef Glacier is considered by many to be the west coast’s best example of glacial formations and is even heralded as one of the most incredible sights in the world, so it’s definitely worth a visit.

2You can ‘attack’ the glacier in two main ways: hiking or via helicopter. The terrain, as you may expect is tough and is a full day’s walk, so is really only recommended for those with a good level of fitness. I would also suggest that you take a guide with you, who will be able to tailor your experience accordingly. Make sure you warp up warm for this adventure though!

Seeing the glacier by helicopter is also a brilliant experience and, if you can, do this as well as hiking! There are many helicopter tours, but make sure you book in advance.

Moving North

Hokitika

As we move north along the west coast towards Nelson (a good base of northern exploration) there are several beautiful pit-stops which I would encourage you to experience. The first is Hokitika.

This quirky little beachside town is full of great bars, cafes and restaurants and has a vibrant arts scene. Nature is also on your doorstep here, with mountains, rivers and beaches literally surrounding the town. Hokitika is also the home of a great deal of jade mining in New Zealand, and the local museums and shops offer you the chance to see some beautiful and intricate carvings. You can also be guaranteed to see the kiwi-bird in Hokitika, as the national centre for these flightless birds is based in this town.

There’s actually loads going on in Hokitika, so it is worth spending the night here before continuing with your travels. For more about local events, museums and tours visit http://www.hokitika.org/activities2012/activity_guide.aspx

Punakaiki

1Next stop is Punakaiki- the home of the famous ‘Pancake Rocks’. These limestone formations began forming a staggering 30 million years ago! These soft, and unusual, rock formations are a must-see. The coast itself is equally as fascinating and is a really enjoyable walk that will allow you to see Hector’s Dolphins, Westland Petrals, Wekas and Fur Seals.

Cape Foulwind

Further along the coast you will find the prominent headland of Cape Foulwind, which overlooks the Tasman Sea. The coastal walks here are stunning, but the main feature is definitely the wildlife. Cape Foulwind is home to New Zealand’s largest seal colony and also a great location to try and spot Orcas, Killer Whales and the rarer Southern Right Whales. A great afternoon for nature lovers!

The North

Before we leave the incredible South Island, I want to show you some of the delights that the north part of this terrain holds. I would recommend basing yourself in Nelson for this leg of the trip, as it is central, and boasts several vineyards!

Nelson

Like many of the South Island’s towns and cities, Nelson is a magnet for creativity and the arts. It’s also the sunniest spot on the South Island, so will let you thaw out after the glaciers of the west! Nelson is also surrounded by incredible forests, beaches and rugged mountains and the impossibly clear waters of New Zealand’s freshwater springs.

I’d recommend spending at least 3-5 days in Nelson, as there is so much to see and do in the city and the surrounding areas. For me, however, my favourite thing to do in Nelson is to visit the vineyards and dine on the famous Nelson Bay Scallops – a well earnt reward after all of the hiking we’ve been doing! My top pick for vineyards has to be ‘Cloudy Bay’, ‘Mud House’ and ‘Hunters’, but there are so many to explore. Visit http://winenelson.co.nz/#home-welcome for more information and to start your journey on the ‘Wine Trail’.

Abel Tasman

2If you are staying in Nelson you are in the perfect place to explore the idyllic Abel Tasman Coastal Track. This series of crescent-shaped coves of glittering golden sand are washed by the crystal-clear waters of Tasman Bay. You can wander along beaches, jump into the sea for a swim or hike around the headlands. When I visited, I however opted to explore the national reserve via kayaking, which was great fun.

I also stayed overnight in a boat on the bay, which I think gave me the ‘full’ Abel Tasman experience.

Nature is also blissfully evident in this national reserve, with Fur Seals, Little Blue Penguins and Common Dolphins all within the area.

Kaikora

1Another day, or overnight, trip from Nelson is to Kaikora – the best place in the world to swim with dolphins! It’s also a brilliant spot for whale watching.

Kaikora is a magical place, where the mountains meet the sea. It is the place for marine encounters, coastal walks and some of the tastiest crayfish I have ever had.

During your visit you really must try to go on a whale watching tour, either by boat or by helicopter, as it’s an experience that will stay with you forever.

Leaving the Island

It pains me to say it, but it’s time leave the South Island. There really is so much to see and do here, it’s almost worth taking two trips: one for the North Island and one for the South Island! But leave we must, as there’s so much more in store as we say ‘hello’ to the North Island.

As you may have gathered, I am a firm believer in maximising every experience and that extends to my transits from one place to another. For me, the best way to move from one island to the other is via ferry, as you can still get a great view of the surrounding landscape. The ferry I chose was from Picton (on the South Island) to Wellington (on the North Island). You can book your journey here: https://www.interislander.co.nz/

Well that brings us to the end of my Travel Guide to New Zealand- Part Two: The South Island. I hope you’ve enjoyed the journey and picked up some useful tips and some inspiration for your trip. Join me next time when we head north and see what the ‘other’ island holds in store.

Travel Guide to New Zealand- Part Three: The North Island

And now for the final leg of our adventure. In my Travel Guide to New Zealand Part Three: The North Island, you guessed it, we’re heading north! The North Island and the South Island are united in their natural beauty; as you move north you will notice that the national parks, rugged volcanic scenery and lush, green landscapes are still in abundance; however the North has a slightly more ‘cosmopolitan’ vibe, mainly because it plays home to the country’s harbour-side capital, Wellington.

Wellington

It makes sense to start our tour of the North Island here in the capital. Wellington sits near the North Island’s southernmost point on the Cook Strait. It’s a pocket-sized city that’s jam-packed with personality. Amongst the many sights, you will find a waterfront promenade, sandy beaches, a working harbour and a splash of colourful timber houses on the surrounding hills. The climate is generally sunny and mild throughout year, however strong winter winds from the Cook Strait mean the city has earned its nickname of ‘Windy Wellington’.

If you’re looking for a ‘city break’ during your visit to New Zealand, this is the place to do it. There are plenty of museums, such as ‘Te Papa Tongarewa’; a host of natural spectacles, such as the eco-sanctuary of ‘Zealandia’ and the numerous bays and lookout points from Mount Victoria; and even tours of some of ‘The Lord of the Rings’ locations that leave from the city. However, my time in Wellington was memorable because of the food!

Wellington is often seen as a fairly ‘average’ city, but if you veer off the beaten track you are sure to find some quirky pop-up restaurants and plenty of exceptional independent cafes, pubs and eateries. I particularly enjoyed a Friday night at the Cuba Street Night Market, which was a melting pot of incredible international cuisine, local music and a place where the community seemed to unite. It was a great evening and one I’d highly recommend.

As with most cities, Wellington has something for everyone, but the best way to experience it is to simply get lost amid the streets and discover your own side of the city.

Napier

I’d like to move on from Wellington now and head further north to Napier. Just over 300 km north of Wellington sits another coastal city called Napier. A relatively new city, as it was rebuilt in 1931 following a devastating earthquake, Napier is nestled in the famous wine-producing region of ‘Hawkes Bay’. As a wine lover, I must confess that this fact alone was a sufficient lure for me to visit this region, and I’m delighted I did!

Aside from the wine, Napier’s streets are scattered with a huge amount of Art-Deco buildings, including the famous zigzag-patterned Daily Telegraph Building. The city also features a tree-lined waterfront promenade, where you can find the ‘Pania of the Reef’ statue, which depicts a Maori maiden and is a symbol of the city.

Napier is certainly atheistically beautiful and personally I preferred the slightly more relaxed ambiance of this city compared to Wellington (the wine may have swung it for me though!) The selection of art gives the city a ‘cultural’ feel, which coupled with the natural beauty, gave this city a ‘European’ feel. Sadly I missed out, but every February, thousands of people flock to Napier to celebrate the Art Deco Weekend Summer Festival, sending the township back to a time of new hope. The Festival celebrates the reconstruction of Napier City after the earthquake and is a hotbed of music, performers, dancing in the street; trains, planes and automobiles; picnics, galas and frivolity in true vintage style, which bring the 1930s back to life. My wife and I even said we would base another New Zealand trip around that event!

But the North Island is not just about the cities; on the contrary, many believe that the natural beauty of the North outshines that of the South! So with that in mind, let’s see what Mother Nature has to offer here!

Lake Taupo

Roughly 150km north-west of Napier, you will find one of New Zealand’s most famous sights: Lake Taupo. Heralded as ‘nature’s ultimate playground’, this great lake is huge! And there are so many activities to enjoy to boot! I’d recommend spending a few days here, especially if you’re an adrenaline junkie!

But let’s start with gentile- Lake Taupo can be enjoyed in a relaxed and serene sense too, not just one full of high octane adventure! There’s so much to do at Lake Taupo: from golf and fishing, to pampering and shopping. If you are taking along young children, or indeed prefer to experience life at a calmer pace, you can enjoy Lake Taupo on one of the scenic cruises, or even jump-aboard the ‘Ernest Kemp Replica Steamboat’. Both tours will take you out into the lake, where you can see the majestic mountains, crystal clear waters and verdant volcanic backdrops.

If you want to take your relaxation a step further, why not have a soak in a natural geothermal pool? Lake Taupo is home to three impressive volcanoes, including the iconic cone-shaped, Mount Ngauruhoe (or Mount Doom for you Lord of the Rings fans). A gentle hike through this geothermal wonderland will enable you to see spectacular steaming cliffs, geysers, boiling lakes, bubbling mud pools and floating pumice rocks. It’s definitely worth a day exploring this side of Lake Taupo!

Now on to the heart-racing stuff! If you have an action-packed Bucket List, chances are that a visit to Lake Taupo will help you tick off 3 or 4 items! The ‘Great Lake’ is place to try bungee jumping, skydiving and white-water rafting! Whilst I was here I took on the Huka Falls Jet, which was the perfect combination of thrills, excitement and natural beauty.

Thrilling customers in Taupo since 1990, Huka Falls Jet is a must-do experience! The half hour of thrills, fun and excitement takes you along a beautiful river environment, lined with native bush, sheer rock cliff face and natural hot springs. But it’s not quite as placid as it may sound! Coupled with the stunning sights, you will experience 360° spins at disorientating speeds before reaching the awe inspiring majesty that is the Huka Falls.

Tongariro Alpine Crossing

I could spend all day talking about Lake Taupo, but it’s time to move on, well sort of. Our next stop is situated on the south-west shore of the lake and can be found within the Tongariro National Park. Now, if you’re a hiker, this section is dedicated to you!

The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is supposed to be the best one-day hike in the whole of New Zealand. The national park you will adventure through is not only New Zealand’s oldest, it’s also a World Heritage Site. You will see incredible volcanic pools of the most unbelievable jade-green, see snow-peaked mountains and encounter some of the most unique landscapes in the world. It’s no wonder than many claim that this hiking route is in the top-ten in the world! Many who complete the 19.4-kilometre journey will tell you the climbs can be steep and the weather unpredictable, though worth it in every aspect, so it’s worth bearing these words in mind before you embark on the challenge.

Even if you don’t feel up to taking on the main trek, the Tongariro National Park is a beautiful day out, where you can still enjoy many shorter walks and see, what I personally feel, the best scenery on the North Island.

Rotoura

From one lake to another; we’re moving north-east now towards Rotoura; the ‘Sulphur City’. Rotorua is a town set on its own lake of the same name, so as you can imagine, offers an abundance of natural beauty. But there is far more to this town, as it a cultural centre for the indigenous Maori people and houses the New Zealand Maori Arts and Crafts Institute. Rotoura is also home to geysers and thermal mud pools fuelled by the area’s geothermal activity. The Pohutu geyser here erupts many times daily.

I used my trip to Rotoura to relax after the non-stop adventure at Lake Taupo and indulged in several cultural and more laid-back activities.

My first stop was to the hot springs of ‘Hells Gate’. Despite the rather ominous moniker, Hells Gate is the only place in New Zealand where you can soak and relax in an outdoor mud bath, used for generations by Maori to ease joint and muscle pain. You have a choice of three different types of mud too: black, white or grey. The views over the geothermal landscape are spectacular too, and I would recommend experiencing a ‘Twilight Spa’, so you can see the wonderful sunsets.

If you can’t stand the thought of sitting still for long, you can also take part in a ‘Native Bush Walk’ at Hells Gate, giving you the opportunity to see the erupting waters, coloured pools, hot water lakes, bubbling mud, steaming cliffs, sulphur crystals and land coral up close and personal.

I also visited the Polynesian Spa Complex, which is New Zealand’s equivalent of the Japanese ‘onsen’: natural thermal spas. These spas are a great way to relax and take in the stunning views.

Aside from ‘pampering’ I also indulged in some incredible cuisine during my visit to Rotoura. Firstly, I took the ‘Skyline’ gondola (http://www.skyline.co.nz/rotorua/ssr_gondola/) up the 900m Doppelmayr cable system to the ‘Stratosfare Restaurant’. The views from the top made this dining experience unforgettable!

I also took part in the Tamaki Maori Village experience, where I was transported back to the times of ancient warriors and traditions. Whilst I’m not always a huge fan of ‘manufactured’ tourism, I’m glad I took part as it allowed me to glimpse into Maori culture, experience some ancient rituals, enjoy some traditional entertainment and eat some authentic, native cuisine in the ‘Hangi Feasting’. If this sounds like an experience you’d enjoy, visit http://www.tamakimaorivillage.co.nz/ for more details.

Waitomo

We’re going to move directly east now to Waikato, or more specifically, Waitomo. Now, I’m quite excited about writing this section, as it was at Waitomo that I had some of the most mind-blowing, subterranean experiences of my life!

When you Google ‘New Zealand North Island’ there is one experience that will show up time and time again: The Waitomo Glow Worm Caves. Pictures do not do the caves justice, so I urge you to go and see them for yourself. You’ll be taken, by boat, through a sparkling labyrinth, bejewelled with a galaxy of breath-taking bio-luminescence. The only way to describe the magic of the ‘Arachnocampa Luminosa’ is that they are like nature’s Christmas lights, adding spectacle to the ancient caves. It’s just amazing!

The caves also offer a range of activities to try, including the more ‘conventional’ caving and abseiling. However, for me, I really enjoyed the ‘Black Water Rafting’, commonly known as ‘tubing’. This exciting activity sees you gently floating through beautiful caves on an inner tyre tube one minute and jumping off a waterfall the next! You can even whizz down a hydro slide or crawl up to a hidden waterfall! It’s a great way to spend a couple of hours and I high recommend it to the ‘fearless’ amongst you! http://www.caveworld.co.nz/tubeit

The Coromandel Region

We’re going to move much further north now, and back to the east-coast of the North Island, to The Coromandel Region. Renowned for its natural beauty, green pastures, misty rainforests and pristine golden beaches, The Coromandel is blessed with hundreds of natural hideaways, making it an ideal place to escape, and chance to calm down after all of the excitement of Waitomo!

I’d recommend that you explore this region by foot and by boat, as some of the sights are only accessible by water. Firstly, I’d suggest visiting ‘Cathedral Cove’, which is accessible by foot, but I think more enjoyable by boat or kayak. The cove offers some beautiful sights and geological points of interest. It’s also a great, relaxing day out, with plenty of coastal walks to enjoy.

Next on the list is ‘Karangahake Gorge’, which has been voted by New Zealanders as one of the top 101 things to do. This incredible stretch of river will take you through old tunnels and walkways, and allow you to discover the rich, hidden history. You can also cycle the route, if you fancy a change of pace.

If you would prefer to spend the day reclining on the beach, then you are in luck. The Coromandel Region has many beaches, but maybe none so lovely as ‘New Chum Beach’. This highly protected beach is consistently voted as one of the best beaches in the world. This is no surprise, as the setting is superb: with deep, green rainforest flanking the golden sands and turquoise waters lapping at the shores.

Another beach to visit is ‘Hot Water Beach’, where visitors can often find hot, bubbling water running through the often deserted sand. It’s eerily beautiful and if you’re feeling brave you can even dig your own natural spa!

Auckland

We’re nearing the end of our tour of the North Island, but before we go we have a couple of important stops to make. If you jump on a ferry from The Coromandel, you will quickly be transported into a completely different world!

Despite not being the capital city, Auckland is a major and iconic destination in New Zealand. Based around two harbours, Auckland is the playground for the rich, so don’t be surprised if you see the odd ‘super-yacht’ parked up for the night! Auckland is even called ‘The City of Sails, as it’s one of the most famous places in the world to go yachting. To come from the incredibly rugged and unspoilt Coromandel, you will be a little bit disorientated to be back in the hub of social activity, modern architectural feats and buzz of modern life, but it is worth a visit.

With nearly 1/3 of the population living in and around Auckland, it’s no surprise that everything you need and want is on your doorstep: there is a vibrant dining scene in Auckland, and plenty of exceptional wines on offer to compliant the gourmet delights; a huge array of outdoor pursuits within easy reach and museums and galleries galore. I’ve spoken in great depth about the natural delights that New Zealand has to offer, so I think it only fair to discuss some the man-made attractions that are worth paying a visit. Auckland has so much to see, especially through the fresh eyes of tourist, however, if I had to choose just five things to do, I’d recommend the following:

  1. Auckland Sky Tower: Not only the tallest building in New Zealand, but a landmark of Auckland. And stood at the staggering height of 1,076 feet, the tower is the tallest man-made structure in the Southern Hemisphere! As you can imagine, the view from the observation decks is simply incredible, and a fantastic way to take in the Auckland cityscape from all angles.
  2. Waitemata Harbour: Another iconic sight in Auckland, which is often referred to simply as ‘Auckland Harbour’. In my opinion, the best way to see the harbour in its entirety is by jumping on one of the many cruise boats and sitting back whilst the view sails by.
  3. Auckland Fish Market: If the sea air has made you hungry, then head on down to Auckland Fish Market. Here you can sample fish and seafood, literally caught that morning, and even learn how to cook your purchases at the Auckland Seafood School. I really loved the couple of hours I spent at the market, especially the fresh sushi, smoked fish and lobster being sold with local wine!
  4. Auckland Harbour Bridge: You can’t claim to have seen all of Auckland’s sights without seeing the Auckland Harbour Bridge. A feat in engineering, it defines the Auckland skyline and is worth a visit. However, the main draw for tourists is so that they can don their walking boots and conquer the iconic structure. If you’re feeling exceptionally daring, you can even climb to the top of Auckland Harbour Bridge with a professional guide.
  5. Auckland Museum and Institute: Perched on top of a dormant volcano, the Auckland Museum (also referred to as the War Memorial Museum) is a fantastic place to explore Maori and Pacific Island history. It has the world’s largest collection of artefacts on these topics, including buildings, canoes, carvings and around 1.2 million images.

I could go on, but sadly it’s time to leave Auckland. In all honesty, I went to New Zealand to see nature’s incredible vistas and experience outdoor adventure, but I’m really pleased that I had a few days in Auckland, as it’s a wonderful city full of charm, and in an incredible setting to boot!

Bay of Islands: Paihia

Our final stop takes us just over 200km north of Auckland to the ‘Bay of Islands’, or more specifically ‘Paihia’. Known as the ‘jewel’ of these isles, Paihia, for me, encapsulates all that I have seen, in one, seaside town. It has golden beaches, picturesque coastal walking trails and waterfalls, and a vibrant population of local birds. The town also played an important role in the country’s history, as it was here, after a century of conflict between indigenous Maori tribes and Western settlers, that peace was finally made and the ground-breaking Treaty of Waitangi was signed.

I went to Paihia as I’d heard about how beautiful it was, and the rumours were certainly true! This town and its surrounding landscape are stunning and gave me the perfect opportunity to relax and soak up the friendly atmosphere and lounge in a hammock underneath a palm tree.

1But that’s not all I did! The main purpose of my trip here was to take part in one of the whale and dolphin safaris, where you can join a boat and sail around this incredible group of 144 islands. I love seeing nature up close and personal, so this trip was right up my street. I also took another cruise out to the ‘hole in the rock’ at the tip of Cape Brett, where I had dinner on board.

If that all sounds a little too relaxed and laidback for your taste, you’ll be pleased to know that Paihia also offers visitors the chance for adventure: You can skydive, parasail, scuba dive or go exploring on a sea kayak. For a true Northland cultural experience, you can also paddle a ‘waka’ (Maori for watercraft) up the tidal estuaries of the Waitangi River.

I really enjoyed my time in Paihia and really felt at home there. It’s perfect for a 2-3 day stay and a great way to end your New Zealand travels.

Well sadly that brings me to the end of my guide to New Zealand. I hope that you’ve learnt lots along the way and gained a real insight into what this magical country has to offer. But like all travel, the only real way to experience it is to live it, so get out there and pay New Zealand a visit now!


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