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Things to Do & Must-See Attractions in New Zealand

It might have been the popularity of “The Lord of the Rings” movies that put New Zealand on the map, but it’s the enchanting landscapes, rich Maori heritage, and unforgettable natural wonders that keep travelers coming back. The North Island is home to New Zealand’s capital, Wellington, and largest city, Auckland, but its real highlights lie outside the urban centers. Stroll the golden beaches of the Bay of Islands, journey to Middle Earth on a tour of the Hobbiton set, or cruise through the glowworm caves of Waitomo. Nearby, Rotorua is as renowned for its bubbling mud pools and lava fields as it is for its Maori culture, while farther south, the rocky peaks of Tongariro National Park form the backdrop to one of New Zealand’s most rewarding hikes. A short ferry ride from Wellington lands you on the South Island, where the landscapes get wilder, the weather more temperamental, and the cities even more laid-back. Expect to spend most of your time outdoors, traveling from the sandy spit of Cape Farewell, past the windswept beaches of the West Coast, to the dramatic fjords of Milford Sound and the Fiordland National Park. Christchurch, revamped after the tragedy of the 2011 earthquake, is the main hub of the north, while the southern city of Queenstown is New Zealand’s adventure capital, where thrill seekers congregate to try skydiving, bungee jumping, white-water rafting, and ziplining.
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Franz Josef Glacier
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One of the fastest moving glaciers in the world, the Franz Josef Glacier is a spectacular river of ice. It is one of the world's steepest glaciers descending 1.5 miles (2.5 kilometers) over its 7.5 mile (12 kilometer) path through the valley, ending in lush temperate rainforest. As it flows it travels over bumpy steps which forces ice upwards to create dramatic ice cliffs and sharp crevasses. Over 2,700 people visit the ice a day during peak season. Some spend their time exploring the terminal face while others take helicopters to take advantage of the views and get access to higher icefalls, so they can clamor over the less-populated ice and carve out an adventure in the stunning and challenging terrain.
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Lake Wakatipu
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Dazzling Lake Wakatipu is New Zealand's longest lake. Shaped like an inverted "n" it is a highlight of a trip to Queenstown, which nestles against a curve near the middle of the lake. During the last ice age a huge glacier carved out the lake, which sinks to a depth of 1,300 feet (400 meters).The surrounding mountains that fed the glacier provide a dramatic backdrop to the crystal waters.

Atmospheric pressures cause the lake to rise and fall about 5 inches (12 centimeters) every 5 minutes. This gave rise to the Maori legend that the rise and fall of the water is the heartbeat of a giant who lies slumbering under the water.

The magnificent lake was the location for the Lothlorein scenes in The Lord of the Rings movie. If you’d like to get out on the water the most genteel way is to climb aboard the refurbished vintage steamship the TSS Earnslaw. Cruises across the lake will take you to Walter Peak where you can see a working high-country farm.

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Mine Bay Maori Rock Carvings
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The unique art and handicrafts produced by New Zealand’s Maori population are among the country’s most vibrant and celebrated art works. There are few better examples of the Maori Rock carvings at Mine Bay. One of the most striking attractions of Lake Taupo, the immense carvings adorn the cliff faces of the bay, towering over 10 meters high.

Although the designs appear like the remains of an ancient Maori settlement, they were in fact carved by artist Matahi Whakataka-Brightwell in the 1970s, taking three summers to complete. The dramatic works are some of the largest rock art of their kind in the world, depicting Ngatoroirangi – the Maori visionary who guided the Tuwharetoa and Te Arawa tribes to Lake Taupo over a thousand years before. Flanking Ngatoroirangi are two smaller carvings depicting the south wind and a mermaid, and utilizing traditional Maori stone-carving techniques.

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Marlborough Sounds
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Set at the top of New Zealand’s South Island, the Marlborough Sounds amazingly comprise one fifth of New Zealand’s coastline. Not because the region is large, however, but simply because the serpentine coast weaves in and out of so many bays it massively adds to the mileage. Here the coastline is so stunningly rugged that mail is still delivered by boat to towns that are cut off from roads, and visitors can actually ride along with the boat that’s delivering mail. It’s a rural time capsule that hearkens back to life in the 1800s, where sheep still roam the forested hills and fishermen ply the waters for mussels and live off the bounty of the sea.

For an authentic experience in Marlborough Sounds, hop aboard a seafood cruise to sample the clams, mussels, and salmon the Marlborough area is known for. Or, to scour the shore on your own two feet, hike the famous Queen Charlotte Track that weaves through Queen Charlotte Sound.

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Coronet Peak
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Located only 25 minutes from the adventure capital of Queenstown, Coronet Peak is one of the most popular ski resorts on the entire South Island of New Zealand. This historic ski field is officially the nation’s oldest, and when it opened for business in 1947 there was only a single tow rope.

Today, however, Coronet Peak is a modern ski field on par with the best in the country. Aside from being the nation’s oldest, it’s also one of the last resorts in the country to watch its snow melt away. Given its southerly location, colder temperatures make for a longer season and better conditions for snowmaking. On most years, Coronet Peak will open its slopes sometime during the middle of June, and remain open throughout the winter until the mountain thaws in October. In addition to the long season, the resort offers views over Lake Wakatipu and the surrounding Southern Alps.

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Huka Falls
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One of New Zealand’s most visited natural attractions, just over a kilometer north of Taupo city, the mighty Huka Falls are the largest falls on the Waikato River, thundering over a 20-meter cliff edge into the rock pools below. Fed by the vast Lake Taupo (Australasia’s largest freshwater lake), the falls are created by the narrowing of the 100 meter wide river into a slim rock ravine, pushing a colossal 220,000 liters (enough to fill two Olympic sized swimming pools) over the cliff edge each second. Thanks to the build up of pressure behind the rock, an immensely powerful natural waterfall is formed. Named from the Māori word 'huka', meaning 'foam', the falls more than live up to their name as the surging water crashes onto the rocks below.

Those hoping to get a lookout over the falls can walk the footbridge overhead, where you’ll be close enough to feel the spray or else get a view from the Huka Falls Trail, a one-hour walk.

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Banks Peninsula
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The Banks Peninsula is a side of Christchurch that too many visitors miss out on. This mostly-undeveloped, circular peninsula juts out from Christchurch like a swollen thumb, yet despite its obvious prominence on a map, a large majority of Christchurch visitors make the mistake of never exploring the area.

The lone exception is the town of Akaroa which is one of the most popular day trips from Christchurch. This charming outpost of French heritage is located a 90-minute drive from Christchurch, and the boutique shops and rose-lined cottages gaze out towards a protected harbor. The harbor itself is the flooded caldera of the volcano which formed the peninsula, and the calm waters are a popular place for boating and swimming with dolphins. Along the drive to Akaroa you weave through pastures and farmlands, and a handful of wineries and gourmet food stops are sprinkled along the highway.

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Kawarau Suspension Bridge
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Spanning 141 feet above the waters of dramatic Kawarau Gorge, no attraction is more iconic to Queenstown than the historic Kawarau Suspension Bridge. Built in 1880, there was a once a time when this rustic bridge connected Queenstown with the Otago gold fields. With the construction of an asphalt highway, however, traffic moved away from the bridge and it became frequented by bikers and joggers.

Then, in 1988, adventure-seeker A.J. Hackett decided to strap a bungy cord around his ankles and throw himself off of the bridge. When his hands splashed down into the waters below and the cord bounced back towards the bridge, the extreme activity of Queenstown bungy jumping had officially found its start. Today, hundreds of visitors flock to the bridge to watch as thrill-seekers leap into the gorge. Shuffling out onto the wooden planks, the rush of the water cascading through the gorge drowns out whimpers of the timid and scared.

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Tiritiri Matangi Island
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Tiritiri Matangi Island is an open wildlife sanctuary devoted to the protection of local endangered species. The island is tightly controlled to keep out predators such as cats and mice, which hunt fragile bird species, including the tiny kiwi birds you’ll see running around the island.

With about 80 species of birds, Tiritiri Matangi is a must-see for birdwatchers, and the air is rich with varieties of birdsong rarely heard on the mainland. Guided walks can help you spot and identify the various types of birds, and you can find the trailheads of walking tracks at the visitor center. The Kawaura Track winds through coastal forest and 1,000-year-old pohutukawa trees, while the Wattle Track leads to the oldest working lighthouse in New Zealand. Head to Hobbs Beach, just a short walk from the ferry dock, to take a swim and spy on blue penguins in their nesting boxes.

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More Things to Do in New Zealand

The Remarkables

The Remarkables

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New Zealand’s outdoor playground, the Remarkables, located high in mountainous country, possesses a great sense of excitement for any visitor looking to rip-up the alpines. With fabulous skiing, hiking, snowboarding and opportunities to just hangout, the entire family will get a kick from these majestic reserves.

Cool jumps, tunnels, trails, and even a bouncy castle at the crèche are available for children of all ages, while snow-sports schools are waiting for adults who have put off the slopes for too long.

You can also have a look at how the pros do it, with international competitions that take place. See boarders go sky-high off the half-pipes, or see renowned skier’s flow between slaloms at immense speeds.

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Parnell

Parnell

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The most charismatic of Auckland's neighborhoods, charming Parnell Village is Auckland's oldest suburb and is renowned for its restaurants, cafes, galleries and boutique shopping.

Spend a day exploring the fashionable village shopping area along Parnell Road which is renowned for quality crafts and good jewelers. In the evening there is an international flavor to the 40-odd restaurants and cafes in the area and a dinner option to suit every budget. Every second Thursday of the month there is music in the streets and Parnell’s galleries stay open until 7:30pm for late night art; afterwards you can bunker down in one of Parnell’s many lovely bars. Leave behind the main shopping area and you'll find beautiful, quiet parks including the Parnell Rose Gardens and some interesting historic buildings, including the Anglican Cathedral which stands at the top of the hill and exemplifies ‘Modern-Gothic’ style, as well as the impressive 1930s brick Auckland Railway Station.

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Tamaki Maori Village

Tamaki Maori Village

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Built by two brothers in 1989, the Tamaki Maori Village is the destinatition for an authentic Maori experience. If you are looking for a Maori encounter beyond the typical performance found at hotels, this is the place to go.

The village is itself a recreation of an actual Maori settlement, and in this village, guests experience "The Chronicles of Uitara," a story following a single warrior line from 3,000 BC to the present day. Based on true events effected by actual people, the Chronicles of Uitara is reenacted by the most sought-after historical performers in the country. Guests will be enchanted and hooked by the tale, dramatically recreated with action-packed choreography. Following the story, the evening culminates in a traditional hangi feast.

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Mission Estate Winery

Mission Estate Winery

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Aoraki/Mt. Cook National Park

Aoraki/Mt. Cook National Park

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A fabulous UNESCO World Heritage area measuring 700 square kilometers (434 square miles), Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park stretches from Westland to Fiordland in the South Island.

There are 22 of New Zealand’s highest mountains soaring over this park, including mighty 3,755-meter (12,316-foot) Mount Cook itself, the tallest peak in the country. Perhaps the best way to take in the mountains’ grandeur is from the air on a helicopter tour of the park. A mecca for climbers, hikers, skiers and lovers of natural beauty, the park’s attractions include the Tasman Glacier and the warm and welcoming Heritage, New Zealand’s most famous hotel.

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Franz Josef Glacier Hot Pools

Franz Josef Glacier Hot Pools

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The South Island of New Zealand is truly a land of enchanting fire and ice. Already known for the snowcapped Southern Alps and glaciers which lap their down the mountains, it’s also an island of geothermal undercurrents which bubble up in steaming hot springs. In the township of Franz Josef—located five hours from Queenstown on the wet, wild West Coast—the hot springs are actually a little bit different than those which are found elsewhere on the island. Unlike spring water which is heated by the Earth and emerges from a natural vent, the hot pools in Franz Josef instead use water which is sourced from the nearby glacier. This pure, fresh, frigid water is then artificially heated to approximately 100° and routed into six different pools. Combined with its setting in the middle of the rainforest, this is a serene escape from the adrenaline-fueled tourism which is so prevalent in the west coast hamlet.
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The Chasm

The Chasm

14 Tours and Activities
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Te Puia

Te Puia

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When you first catch a glimpse of Pohutu Geyser thundering up from the Earth and crane your neck skywards at a column of water that’s nearly 100 feet high, you begin to understand why this place has drawn visitors for literally hundreds of years. Only five minutes from central Rotorua, Te Puia is a geothermal and cultural attraction in the Whakarewarewa Thermal Valley. When compared to Whakarewarewa Thermal Village, Te Puia is closer to the geysers and also offers an impressive center of Maori arts and crafts. Tour the bubbling, geothermal landscape with a native Maori guide, and then retreat to the national weaving and carving schools to watch Maori students re-create the traditional arts of their ancestors. For a look at furry kiwi birds, there is a small, dark kiwi enclosure that houses the national bird, and for arguably the best evening in Rotorua, return at night to experience Te Po—a traditional ceremony and hangi feast of eating, dancing and lore.

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Lake Rotorua

Lake Rotorua

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Although the Rotorua area is speckled with dozens of lakes, Lake Rotorua is a different entity, detached from its neighboring lakes. Larger, deeper and much, much older, geologists believe it dates back over 200,000 years. Some of Rotorua’s other lakes were created by the Tarawera eruption of 1886, but Lake Rotorua is the original waterway to grace this section of the North Island.

Unlike the ocean, the waters of the green-hued lake are colored by sulfur and minerals, and the 920-foot elevation makes it a little cooler to the touch. It is the second largest lake on the North Island, is surrounded by a geothermal playground and offers a variety of activities for travelers. Take a cruise through the Ohau Channel, which connects with Lake Rotoiti, or go fly fishing where the waters connect and try to reel in a big one. Slide into the seat of a kayak and silently paddle the lakeshore, or strap on a helmet and go hurtling over falls while rafting on a nearby tributary.

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Auckland Harbour Bridge

Auckland Harbour Bridge

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The magnificent Auckland Harbour Bridge is an eight-lane motorway bridge that spans Waitmata harbor between St Mary's Bay in Auckland and Northcote Point on the North Shore.

The bridge is 3,348 feet (1,020 meters) long and 15 stories high. Although it is an imposing sight from land, one of the most exciting tourist attractions for visitors to Auckland is to get up close and personal with a bridge climb or bungy.

The climb involves clamoring up the steel struts to the top of the bridge where you will see spectacular views of Auckland, known as the “City of Sails.” Bungying sees thrill-seekers falling 147 feet (45 meters) to touch the waters of Waitmata Harbor.

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Christchurch Tram

Christchurch Tram

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Hop aboard a vintage tram for a leisurely tour of central Christchurch. It’s the most relaxing, fun way to get your bearings and see the city's attractions and landmarks.

The trams leave from Cathedral Square in downtown Christchurch. The route then crosses Worcester Bridge over the River Avon, loops past the Botanic Gardens and travels along past the shops of Armagh Street. All trams have an informative on-board commentary. Why not combine sightseeing on wheels with your evening meal, and take an evening ride on the Restaurant Tram? The colonial-style tram has every comfort, and the menu features local lamb and seafood.
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Lake Wanaka

Lake Wanaka

25 Tours and Activities
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