The north–south journey travels from Northlands' towering subtropical rainforests and endless picturesque beaches to Auckland’s exciting cityscape, then south through rolling green pastures, past lakes, rivers and volcanic marvels, into the rural towns of heartland New Zealand, arriving finally in a capital city that’s acclaimed for its arts, culture and coffee.
Northland's relaxed lifestyle springs from its subtropical climate and the many islands, bays and beaches around its extensive coastline.
The first Polynesian voyagers are believed to have arrived in Northland during the 11th century. It wasn’t until after the British sea voyager Captain Cook landed in 1769 that missionaries, sealers, whalers and traders arrived. The Treaty of Waitangi, the founding document of New Zealand, was signed in the Bay of Islands in 1840.
Northland is rich in Māori history, and more than a third of its population is Māori. The Ngapuhi iwi (tribe), the largest in the country, has a population of 125,601 Māori, according to the latest census.
With the Tasman Sea buffeting the west coast and the south Pacific Ocean lapping the east coast, activities in this region often involve being out on the water. Chartering a skippered yacht to explore the Hauraki Gulf or the Bay of Islands gives visitors quick access to isolated beaches, bays and islands. You can also explore by hiring a runabout (boat) or kayak, or taking a ferry. Snorkelling, surfing, big game fishing or dolphin watching are all experiences readily found along the region’s touring route, the Twin Coast Discovery Highway.
Auckland is New Zealand’s largest city, with a population of more than 1.5 million people. Its unusual geography and temperate climate have inspired a lifestyle that’s regularly ranked among the world’s top 10 cities. Urban attractions such as shopping, restaurants, bars and local theatre are a significant part of the city’s fabric.
Auckland’s layout also makes it easy to jump quickly from one activity to another. Within half an hour of leaving the city centre, you can be on an island in the Hauraki Gulf, trekking through native forest, sampling wines at a vineyard or walking along a black-sand surf beach.
Of all the regions in New Zealand, the Central North Island is perhaps the most varied. It offers the Volcanic Plateau, high-altitude ski-fields, surf beaches, geothermal areas and wine regions.
There are two main touring routes. The Pacific Coast Highway follows the East Coast, skirting beaches around the Coromandel Peninsula, Bay of Plenty and Eastland, to Hawke’s Bay, one of the country’s key wine regions.
The Thermal Explorer route leads to or from Hawke’s Bay across the Volcanic Plateau, where New Zealand’s location on the "Pacific Rim of Fire" is most evident. You can visit natural hot-spring spas, geothermal parks full of geysers and boiling mud pools, and the site of New Zealand’s largest volcanic eruption in living memory, Mount Tarawera.
The city of Rotorua is the home of Te Arawa, one of the country's largest iwi. This accounts for the large number of Māori living in Rotorua and makes it one of the best places in New Zealand to learn about Māori culture.
Beyond the city of Hamilton – beneath the Waitomo area – is a labyrinth of limestone passages and caves, which can either be explored on foot or on water in an activity known as blackwater rafting. Not far away, the Hobbiton Movie Set spreads across a lush pastoral landscape.
Further south, the Tongariro Alpine Crossing is New Zealand’s most popular one-day walk and counted among the world’s best. It offers a different type of adventure, featuring moonscape craters, lava formations and emerald green and blue lakes.
A solitary mountain looms over Taranaki – a huge, dramatic volcanic cone with a snowy top. One version of Māori history recalls how the mountain once lived in the centre of the North Island with other mountain gods: Tongariro, Ruapehu and Ngauruhoe. Nearby stood the lovely maid Pihanga, with her cloak of deep green bush, and all the mountain gods were in love with her.
When Taranaki could no longer keep his feelings under control and dared to make advances to Pihanga, a mighty conflict broke out between Tongariro and Taranaki that shook the foundations of the earth. The mountains erupted with anger and darkness clouded the sky.
When peace finally came to the land, Tongariro, considerably lowered in height, stood close by Pihanga’s side. Taranaki, wild with grief, tore himself from his roots and plunged towards the setting sun, gouging out the Whanganui River as he went. Upon reaching the ocean, he turned north. While he slept overnight, the Pouakai Ranges thrust out a spur and trapped Taranaki in the place where it now stands.
Hiking is the thing to do in the Egmont National Park encompassing the mountain and the land around it. Rainforest covers the foothills, but the landscape changes as you ascend, from tall rimu and kamahi trees at lower altitudes to dense subalpine shrubs, and then an alpine herb field with plants unique to the park. The forest on Mount Taranaki’s middle slopes is sometimes known as "Goblin Forest" because of the gnarled shape of the trees and the thick swathes of trailing moss.
Taranaki's climate perfectly suits extravagant flowering plants such as rhododendrons, azaleas, old-fashioned roses and lavender plantations. Many private gardens are available for viewing year-round. Dozens of gardens open to the public for the Taranaki Garden Spectacular during the peak blooming period in late October and early November.
In March, tens of thousands of festivalgoers descend on the Bowl of Brooklands in the region’s major city, New Plymouth, for the annual WOMAD (World of Music, Arts and Dance) celebration.
The capital of New Zealand, Wellington, is a cultural as well as a political centre. It is home to the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and national treasures such as the original Treaty of Waitangi and the childhood home of the prominent short story writer Katherine Mansfield. Set between a scenic harbour and bush-clad hills, the city is compact and easy to explore on foot.
Martinborough, a short drive across the Rimutuka Range from Wellington, is a popular wine-growing area, its specialties including Pinot Noir and Riesling.
Beginning in the coastal paradise that is the Marlborough Sounds and Nelson–Tasman region and ending at the southern fishing port of Bluff, New Zealand’s South Island unfolds as a never-ending sweep of breathtaking landscapes that bring Middle Earth alive.
The north–south journey starts beside glistening waters and golden sands, then travels east or west of the Southern Alps – the mountainous backbone dividing the South Island.
To the east are vineyards and dazzling seascapes, the rocky Kaikoura Coast teeming with marine life, vast plains and the dramatic Otago coastline. The West Coast’s rugged coasts are fringed by rainforests that merge into glacier country and the vast protected expanse of Fiordland and the South Westland World Heritage Site.
Directly across the Cook Strait from Wellington, the Marlborough region is one of New Zealand’s largest wine-growing regions. While Sauvignon Blanc is considered the region’s specialty, Marlborough’s Methode Traditionelle and Chardonnay wines are also well regarded.
The Marlborough Sounds are another key attraction, where bush and mountains rise spectacularly from the sea. The Sounds can be explored by boat, bicycle or on foot, and the 71 kilometre (44-mile) Queen Charlotte Track offers superb views as it passes through coastal forest, around coves and inlets and along ridges.
The Nelson–Tasman region is known for its year-round sunshine, golden beaches, national parks, boutique wineries and microbreweries, and large creative community of working artists. With Nelson's locally grown produce, freshly caught seafood, historical streetscapes and waterfront restaurants, it is easy to see why many New Zealanders are moving here to enjoy the lifestyle it offers.
From Nelson, it’s easy to access any of three national parks: Abel Tasman National Park, the Nelson Lakes National Park and Kahurangi – New Zealand’s second-largest national park, with 22,530 hectares (55,700 acres) of mostly upland wilderness and magnificent three- to four-day hiking trails. Sea kayaking safaris are also an excellent way to explore this region.
The West Coast is the narrow strip of land between the South Island’s Southern Alps and the Tasman Sea. It is memorable for its backdrop of mountain peaks, Fox and Franz Josef glaciers which finish in rainforests just a few kilometres from the sea, as well as for its limestone landscapes, lakes and rivers, and gloriously wild coastline. This region has New Zealand's largest area of protected land and provides access to five of the country's 14 national parks.
The southern West Coast is part of the larger South West New Zealand area recognised by UNESCO as a "special place" in the world and designated as a World Heritage site.
Canterbury is the largest South Island region and includes a large central portion of the east coast, centred around the city of Christchurch. After suffering serious damage and disruption from a series of powerful earthquakes and aftershocks that struck from September 2010, Christchurch is re-emerging as an energetic and cosmopolitan city. Revitalised with new shopping precincts, restaurants, cafes, bars and hotels, it offers a unique opportunity to experience a city that is reinventing itself.
The city’s 150-year-old cathedral collapsed in the 6.3 magnitude earthquake of February 2011 and has been temporarily replaced by a six-storeyed A-frame cathedral built from cardboard and capable of seating 700 people.
One of the region's highlights is the Alpine Pacific Triangle, a touring route that links the alpine and thermal village of Hanmer Springs with the wine valley of Waipara and Kaikoura ("place for eating crayfish") on the coast. Fur seals and dusky and Hector’s dolphins can be seen from Kaikoura and, a few kilometres offshore, giant sperm whales (the third-largest whale in the world) can be seen all year round. The renowned ecotourism operator Whale Watch Kaikoura runs spectacular wildlife tours.
New Zealand’s southernmost region, Southland, is home to the fishing port of Bluff and its best-known attraction, the Bluff oyster.
From Bluff, visitors can catch a ferry to New Zealand’s third-largest island, Stewart Island, a haven for native birdlife and one of the only places where you can easily see kiwi in their natural habitat. Rakiura National Park, which opened in 2002, takes up about 85 percent of the island.
Dunedin, the home of New Zealand's first university, is memorable for its historical architecture and considered one of the best-preserved Victorian and Edwardian cities in the southern hemisphere. It is also notable for its proximity to wildlife. Within a short drive, visitors can see the hoiho or yellow-eyed penguin (the world’s rarest), the world’s only mainland breeding colony of the royal albatross, and rare New Zealand sea lions.
One of the most dramatic and beautiful parts of New Zealand, Fiordland is another part of the World Heritage Site of South West New Zealand and often called the sightseeing and walking capital of the world. You can explore Fiordland National Park on foot, by sea kayak or boat, or from the air. Its 1.2 million hectares (almost 3 million acres) offer dramatic wilderness on a grand scale. Famous walking tracks in the area include three of New Zealand's nine Great Walks: the Routeburn, Milford and Kepler tracks.
Located on the shores of Lake Wakatipu and overlooked by the Remarkables Range, Queenstown is one of New Zealand’s most popular holiday destinations. Action and adventure feature, with activities including skiing and snowboarding, jet boating, bungy jumping and whitewater rafting.
The city and its surrounds also offer more relaxing pastimes such as golf, wine tasting in the many boutique wineries, and exploring the historic gold-mining townships of Central Otago. The region is celebrated for its restaurants, wineries, five-star resorts and remote luxury lodges.
Wanaka, a short scenic drive from Queenstown over the Crown Range – one of the highest road passes in the southern hemisphere – is the region's second resort town. Located on the southern shores of Lake Wanaka, it offers stunning views of Mount Aspiring National Park. The township combines outdoor adventure with indoor luxury, complementing the lake, mountains and year-round events calendar with comfortable places to stay, restaurants and vineyards.
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