Did you know New Zealand is actually made up of two small islands? The North Island and the South Island both offer an incredible variety of landscapes and experiences for New Zealand vacations, but their characters are a little different.
The North Island is warmer, with more beaches and a stronger Maori cultural presence. You’ll also find green, rolling farmland and interesting volcanic landscapes. Meanwhile, the South Island has more dramatic and mountainous landscapes—this is where you’ll find the iconic scenery you probably picture when you think of New Zealand. The South Island also has more English and European heritage, which you’ll definitely notice in some of the architecture.
The good news is, it’s easy to travel between the two islands and see as much as possible! Here are some of the highlights of both islands.
North Island Destinations
Auckland is New Zealand’s largest city and international hub. Auckland is mostly a jumping-off point for other destinations, but the bustling Viaduct Harbour, great shops, and fabulous restaurants and bars are certainly worth exploring on an overnight stay. Most New Zealand vacations will start here.
Helicopter to White Island. Photo courtesy of Shannon Bradley
Home to geothermal wonders and Maori cultural heritage, Rotorua’s volcanic landscape is bursting with colorful rock formations, boiling mud, steaming sulphur vents, and more. It really seems as though you’re on another planet. You can even take a helicopter to an active volcano and hike around!
This is also a great place to immerse yourself in Maori culture. At Te Puia, you can see Maori carvings, weavings, and other traditional arts come to life at the onsite crafting school. You can also watch a haka performance and participate in a traditional Maori welcome ceremony.
Go abseiling or blackwater rafting in the amazing Waitomo Caves. As you make your way along the lazy stream, you’ll see thousands of glowworms on the cave ceiling, making it look like the night sky!
This is a must for Lord of the Rings fans. You’ll feel like you’re really in the Shire as you meander through beautiful rolling hills reminiscent of the English countryside. Visit the Hobbit holes (each with a distinct personality), grab a drink at The Green Dragon Inn, and learn how the area was transformed into Hobbiton for the Lord of the Rings films.
The Coromandel is a remote and pristine beach destination. (Keep in mind, New Zealand’s beaches aren’t very warm—head to Australia or Fiji if you want to work on your tan!) Go sea kayaking here to explore hidden coves and see dolphins, whales, penguins, and seals in the ocean.
Bay of Islands
The Bay of Islands is simply a stunning destination, perfect for those who want a tranquil oasis. Diving here is spectacular, thanks to the East Australian Current passing through. You can see the site where modern-day New Zealand was founded at Waitangi Treaty Grounds; a great interactive museum was recently added where you can learn all about the history of the area.
Hawke’s Bay and Napier
Wine lovers—particularly those who enjoy Syrahs and other deep reds—are spoiled for choice in Hawke’s Bay. The main town of Napier is an architectural gem. After an earthquake destroyed the town in 1931, it was rebuilt in just 2 years, and the Art Deco architecture has been beautifully preserved to this day.
For golfers, Cape Kidnappers is a must-do; the course is consistently ranked among the world’s top 100.
Named the “coolest little capital” by Lonely Planet, Wellington truly encompasses New Zealand’s quirkiness and creativity. Lord of the Rings fans will be in heaven at Weta Workshop—you can tour behind the scenes of the studio where props and special effects for the films were made!
Wellington is great for hiking, biking, and other outdoor adventures; dining on delicious farm-to-table cuisine; and chatting with locals as you check out the many fun bars. Te Papa, the national museum, is an unexpected highlight for many of our clients; we recommend a private tour to get personalized insight into the collections.
South Island Destinations
This small, yet bustling alpine town is New Zealand’s outdoor adventure capital! Nestled on the shores of Lake Wakatipu and surrounded by the Remarkables mountain range, Queenstown offers breathtaking views around every turn. For those who want to experience iconic scenery on their New Zealand vacations, we recommend starting here.
Bungy jumping is quite popular here, as well as jet boating, mountain biking, canyoning, hiking, quad biking, and much more. If it gets your adrenaline going, Queenstown is the right place to do it!
You couldn’t ask for more picturesque scenery. You can cruise on Milford Sound or Doubtful Sound to see pure waters, dramatic mountains, thundering waterfalls, and wildlife like dolphins, fur seals, and rare penguins. Or, take a scenic flight and take in the breathtaking landscapes from above. Because the Fiordlands are in the rainforest, it does rain quite often—but that’s what makes the waterfalls so beautiful!
Photo courtesy of Katie Marta
The West Coast is remote nature at its best. We recommend self-driving along the winding roads, where you’ll be treated to stunning views of mountains, forest, and ocean. Stop along the way to hike, swim in waterfalls, take in scenic views, and discover mom-and-pop food stalls. One of our favorite activities here is taking a helicopter up to a glacier, where you can strap on some crampons and hike on the surface!
You can see Dunedin’s Scottish heritage in its beautiful architecture. Be sure to see the grand Railway Station and Larnach Castle, the only castle in New Zealand. Dunedin is the best place to see many New Zealand wildlife species, including the extremely rare yellow-eyed penguin. You can also take a cruise to visit the world’s most accessible royal albatross colony. These birds have a wingspan of nearly 10 feet!
The Marlborough wine region is the home of New Zealand’s world-famous sauvignon blancs. Pair the local wines with deliciously fresh cuisine—greenshell mussels are the local specialty—and take in the gorgeous ocean views.
This national park is perfect for outdoor adventures, with golden beaches, turquoise waters, and lush forests. You can charter your own boat to visit secluded beaches, or explore the area on a kayaking excursion. Keep an eye out for dolphins and seals!
Kaikoura is a beautiful, mountainous destination with plenty of wildlife encounters. Whales, dolphins, and fur seals live off the coast year-round. It also has great seafood, especially crayfish. A 2016 earthquake has slowed tourism to the region, but it’s on the road to recovery and still offers incredible mountain scenery.
Christchurch, the gateway to the South Island, is an interesting and resilient city. Following devastating earthquakes in 2010 and 2011, Christchurch has been steadily rebuilding. From here, you can take a day trip to Akaroa Harbour for kayaking and swimming with dolphins. Or, take the scenic TranzAlpine Train over to the West Coast.
For those who want to see little blue penguins, Oamaru is a must! You can come watch these tiny penguins waddle along the beach at dusk—in high season, you’ll see about 300 of them in a night. Oamaru, like most New Zealand cities, is also a bit quirky; it has very well preserved Victorian architecture, and it’s considered the steampunk capital of the world.