New Zealand is a natural wonder of the world. No question about it. If you have any liking for the outdoors, New Zealand is a must-visit on your travel list for its over-the-top mountain landscapes, glowing night skies, lush green hills, and striking blue waters.
The North and South Islands together offer a relaxed escape from the commercialized and faster-paced lifestyle back in the United States. Locals are known as ‘kiwis’. There are more sheep than people (60 million sheep and 3 million people, to be exact). Animals roam freely. Mountains surround you at every corner. Organic and local food is the norm. And most importantly, adventure always awaits.
There is so much care and compassion for the earth here, and it’s beautiful. Whether it’s how they conserve resources, or how they grow their produce, there is a moral intention and sustainable mindset for future generations. With so much love put in the sowing, there’s no wonder why the kiwis have reaped such a lovely country.
With two weeks on the open road, my parents and I began our journey in the North Island in Auckland before flying to Christchurch to explore the South Island. We focused the majority of our time in the South where you can find the most awe-inspiring and dramatic sights. Two weeks is fairly short to explore all of New Zealand, but it felt more like a month with all of the sights we managed to see.
My first impression of Auckland was that it reminded me of the West Coast. The laid back vibes, hilly roads, abundant trees and shrubs, and vibrant city center felt reminiscent of California and Oregon. We rented a car; the hardest adjustment by far was driving on the left side of the road (quite a stressful feat). While we were only in Auckland for three days, we were able to explore downtown, as well as nearby cities, such as the beach town of Coromandel, Hamilton for its famous Hamilton Gardens, and Waitomo for its glowworm caves.
Walking downtown, it feels like any big city. Tall skyscrapers, streets lined with shops catered to both locals and tourists, and diverse cultures scattered throughout from immigrant influences.
Auckland’s iconic, downtown landmark features the Sky Tower, the 23rd tallest tower in the world at 1,076 feet (328 meters). Downtown is also home to the University of Auckland where you’ll see plenty of students walking about.
Nestled in an ordinary looking building is a hidden local favorite, the Food Alley. Here you can choose from a selection of authentic, international cuisine, such as Thai, Indian, Chinese, Middle Eastern, and Japanese, in a food court layout. It’s a popular place because of the excellent taste, fair prices, and generous portions.
One of the unique aspects of Auckland is its coast. Everyone is outside walking or jogging along trails, enjoying the coastline views and fresh air. There are even ferries that can take you to various islands nearby with different attractions, such as vineyards where they make their famous Sauvignon Blanc.
One of my favorite parts of Auckland was visiting Mount Victoria in Devonport, a harbor side suburb of Auckland. You can walk up Mount Victoria if you choose, but since we rented a car, we drove up this very steep hill for breathtaking views of the city. When you arrive at the top, you are surrounded by sweeping, 360 degree views of the Auckland skyline, sparkling ocean, and surrounding islands. This is a must-see lookout if you want spectacular city views.
The surrounding cities near Auckland are more than worthwhile to visit. First stop: the glistening beach town of Coromandel. This region is full of clear blue waters, as well as some of the best smoked mussels and fish n’ chips. Near Coromandel, we also visited a variety of other beaches: Long Bay Beach, Whitianga Beach, and Hot Water Beach (famous for hot water that emerges from digging up sand).
Second stop: Hamilton. New Zealand itself may already seem like one enormous garden, but the Hamilton Gardens is so worth the visit. Not only is it free to the public, but it features a variety of different gardens from around the world, such as Japanese Gardens, Chinese Gardens, English Gardens, and Italian Gardens. All of the gardens seamlessly connect in a maze of exquisite flowers and plants.
Third and final stop: Waitomo. Waitomo is famous for its glowworm caves, which means it’s best that you make reservations early! We made the mistake of thinking we could join the most popular Waitomo Glowworm Cave Tour (with the boat ride) upon arrival. Unfortunately, by the time we arrived, it was already sold out. We ended up joining an alternate, family-owned glowworm cave tour. Although this tour did not include a boat ride, we still got to see and learn about glowworms and walk the caves by foot.
While our time spent in the North was brief, we were more than excited to start our road trip in the South Island. So off we flew to Christchurch!
Our first day in Christchurch was mainly spent prepping for the road – buying groceries, planning details for sights we wanted to see, and well, resting. We were introduced to all of the grocery options in New Zealand while in Christchurch. There are three main grocery chains: Countdown, Pak’nSave, and New World.
Buying food at groceries for the road was not only a great way to budget, but was also incredibly convenient when traveling in remote and natural areas where food was not always readily available. Instead of having to go out of our way to find food, we could prioritize sightseeing.
With a new rental car and some food, we spent our last couple hours exploring the Port Hills viewpoint in Christchurch before beginning the road trip. At the Port Hills viewpoint, there’s a cafe where you can enjoy a drink or meal, while taking in the incredible views.
From Christchurch, we drove through Arthur’s Pass National Park to a small town called Hokitika. The town lies near Lake Kaniere and the coast of the Tasman Sea. It is worth spending one day here as you drive towards the Franz Josef and Fox glaciers.
There were several stunning sights we saw all within and surrounding the lake. Drive down along Lake Kaniere to the Canoe Dove Walk. Here you can walk an easy in-and-out trail through a forest of enormous ferns and trees along a stream of water.
From there, stop by the Dorothy Falls, a beautiful, hidden waterfall surrounded by boulders, ferns, and trees.
Probably my favorite sight in Hokitika, make a final stop at the Hokitika Gorge, famous for its milky, turquoise waters. This was the first time I’ve ever witnessed water with such a milky hue.
Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers
Considered one of the most popular sights in the South Island, the Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers are absolutely breathtaking with their steep cliffs and jagged mountains, clear blue waterfalls and streams, and sheer vastness. There’s a moderate hike with some incline to reach both glaciers, a longer hike to arrive at Franz Josef glacier than Fox Glacier.
Hiking to Franz Josef, you can expect multiple waterfalls (and maybe spot a rainbow), a grayish blue riverbed, and mossy green mountains.
Hiking to Fox Glacier, you can expect incredibly tall and steep cliff drop-offs reminiscent of the Lord of the Rings.
Just near the Franz Josef and Fox glaciers, we stopped to take a short hike to Lake Matheson for its famous mirror reflection views of Mt. Cook and Mt. Tasman.
On our way to Wanaka, we stopped by Bruce Bay Beach, Knights Point Lookout, the Blue Pools, and Lake Hawea.
The Blue Pools especially left me in awe. Unlike the milky quality of the Hokitika Gorge, the Blue Pools have a clear and bright turquoise color. Just next to the pools lie several stacks of rocks towering in various heights.
We arrived to Lake Wanaka early evening before sunset and stayed for a day and a half. Wanaka is a popular resort town famous for its beautiful lake and mountain views, proximity to Mount Aspiring National Park, and nearby glaciers and forests. Not to mention, people have witnessed the southern lights from this town because of its prime location and pollution-free sky.
And just look at these fall colors!
We drove down to Eely Point (a renowned location to witness the southern lights) close to midnight when the night sky was pitch black. We weren’t the only ones hoping to catch glimpse of the lights, considering we arrived to a lot full of parked cars.
While we did not clearly see pink or green hues, we did notice unusual cloud formations. I tried to adjust my camera to the right exposure and only managed to get a shot with some faded pink, which revealed that the southern lights were distantly there. Regardless how long we waited, the timing and conditions for seeing the lights visibly needed to be right.
This city blew me away with its small town charm and colorful array of fall leaves. Since New Zealand experiences seasons opposite of the States, I was lucky enough to experience fall twice in one year (it’s my favorite season)! Walking through wooded trails covered in golden, red, and orange, fallen leaves with a warm coffee in hand felt so right. The fall trees were seriously unbelievable! Check out these colors.
From Arrowtown, we headed for the adventure capital of Queenstown. If you have the nerve to bungee jump, this is the place to do it! I was planning to bungee jump myself, but it was just too expensive to fit in my budget. This city also has so many other adrenaline-filled activities, such as canyon swings, zip lines, skydiving, and whitewater rafting.
The town itself is fairly small and can be walked easily in a day. There are plenty of small shops and restaurants just right next to the lake, which make it a perfect place to stroll and relax.
While downtown, we made sure to stop by the famous burger joint, Fergberger (the New Zealand equivalent of our In N’ Out, but in my opinion, much better). There’s a huge line, but it moves quite quickly! They have a range of options, such as classic beef, lamb, cod, chicken, and more to suit your taste. Not only are they well priced (the original Ferberger starts at 11 NZ dollars), they’re also HUGE.
The town connects with the Queenstown Garden, which features a wide variety of flowers and plants open for the public to enjoy. I especially loved the rose garden and picnicking in the middle of vast, green space. So peaceful.
Just near Queenstown you can see the Remarkables, a famous Otago mountain range and ski field. From the Remarkables view point, you get some of the best views of the mountains and all of Queenstown. Definitely a view that left me breathless and got me and another visitor simultaneously saying, “Oh. My. God.”
With three days total in Queenstown, we decided to spend our last venturing a little further to Glenorchy. From here, you can hike the renowned Routeburn Track trail within Mount Aspiring National Park. This famous trail actually treks 32 km through the Mount Aspiring and Fiordland National Parks with insane views of the Southern Alps. We only hiked the short scenic trail yet still enjoyed incredible views and wildlife encounters.
From Queenstown, we left very early in the morning to Milford Sound. Because we were there during off-peak season, we were able to just book tickets with a Milford Sound cruise at a local gas station on our way. Normally you would book much earlier during peak season. The tickets included a two hour cruise with lunch and an underwater observatory tour.
But can I just say, Milford Sound is a fiord dream and one of the highlights of my trip. The fiords were carved out by glaciers during the ice age and now have giant cliff drop-offs, waterfalls, plant life, and sea animals. While approaching the Tasman Sea, we saw eight or nine sea lions napping on a boulder. On the return ride, the boat approached a massive waterfall where it’s likely you’ll get at least a little bit wet.
After the boat tour, we visited the underwater observatory where we saw black coral (actually white in appearance) and a variety of unique fish, sea cucumbers, and more. The best part is that we had a tour guide who could explain to us everything we wanted to know about Milford Sound and its sea life.
On our way out from Milford Sound, we stopped at Lake Te Anau, known as the “gateway to the fiords.”
Dunedin probably surprised me the most. Going into this university town, I didn’t have high expectations, especially compared to all of the other renowned cities we already visited. I was completely wrong. Dunedin has the perfect mix of city and outdoor activities, and I love that it’s larger than small towns like Queenstown and Wanaka, yet still smaller than big cities like Auckland.
One of the first things we did after arriving was visiting the world’s steepest street, Baldwin Street. It starts at 98 feet and reaches 330 feet at the top, a slope of just over 1:5 across a length of 1,150 feet.
Walking the city center, we also spotted the beautiful St. Paul’s Cathedral and Dunedin railroad station. Both have historic charm and stone that add character to the city.
I have had so many favorites on this trip, but Tunnel Beach tied the top of the list with Milford Sound. Unlike any beach I’ve seen in my life, Tunnel Beach has unique sea-carved, sandstone cliffs, rock arches, and caves that draw you in and command your attention. It is a pure dream. As you walk up the most prominent, jutted sandstone cliff, you witness the turquoise blue waters crashing upon the shore against multiple cliffs and boulders.
You can walk down steps through a small cave that takes you to a remote shore. From there you climb over boulders towards the sand and get a different, magnificent view of the cliffs and ocean. We were even lucky enough to see a ballerina from the Moscow Ballet doing a photo shoot on the boulders (pretty cool for me being a previous ballet dancer)!
If there’s only one must-see sight in Dunedin, it’s without a doubt, Tunnel Beach.
We also explored the Dunedin Botanic Gardens (free to the public) and Dunedin Chinese Gardens (9 NZ dollars per adult) because who gets tired of seeing magical flowers and plants?
A walk around the University of Otago campus was a must while we were in Dunedin. I know countless people who have studied abroad here and have raved about it. The campus is famous for its dark grey and white stone buildings and is decently mid-sized.
To close our last night in Dunedin, we drove up a winding road to see the sunset at the Otago Peninsula. A perfect cap to our time in Dunedin.
There was no way we would pass up stopping in the small fishing town of Moeraki. I’ve seen pictures, but the Moeraki Boulders are even cooler in person! Uniquely spherical, both broken and whole boulders lie scattered along the KoeKohe beach.
The Maori legend says that they were once used as food baskets and gourds by ancient peoples, yet science says that over about 60 million years, they were revealed from sandstone cliffs by erosion and got their round shape being held together by calcium carbonate, while also undergoing a slow chemical reaction.
It started raining while we were there, so we were a bit rushed taking pictures, but I like to think that the grey skies and clouds added to the Moeraki mystery.
As we continued traveling back towards Christchurch, we passed by the stunning Lake Pukaki. Lake Pukaki is the largest of the three parallel, alpine lakes in the South Island. From the lake, you get unreal views of Mt. Cook and the Southern Alps. It also has a very distinct blue color caused by finely ground rock particles from the glaciers (glacial flour) from glacial feed.
This was one of the most serene and special lakes I saw during my whole trip because of its matchless blue hue and gorgeous mountain backdrop.
While not the largest, Lake Tekapo makes up one of the three largest, parallel, alpine lakes mentioned previously. This is yet another stunning lake with mountain views and pretty glacial blue waters just three hours southwest of Christchurch (I’m running out of new adjectives because they’re all simply amazing). It’s known for both its day and night views, a perfect spot for evening stargazing.
Rather than staying in Tekapo, we opted for an Airbnb stay on a local family’s 1,500 acre farm in Fairlie, a small town just near Tekapo. They raise hundreds of deer, cows, sheep, and bulls and have a gorgeous view of Mt. Cook from their backyard.
The farm was so peaceful, spacious, and different from being raised in the suburbs back in Colorado. Staying with them let us have more conversation with local kiwis and understand their lifestyle better, which always makes a trip more interesting and meaningful.
The family was so welcoming that their son gave us a private tour of the entire farm on his truck. We saw all of their deer, cows, bulls, and sheep up close, as well as the hut where they shear wool that is then sold to wholesalers.
I would highly recommend having at least one remote Airbnb experience in an environment completely opposite what you’re used to. It opens your world to dissimilar lifestyles and shows you that there are multiple ways to live.
Just before arriving back in Christchurch to close out our South Island road trip, we made one last stop in Akaroa, known for its French colonization and Akaroa beach. There are many cool artisan shops in town, selling everything from crystals to famous, New Zealand Manuka honey products. After taking a stroll along the harbor, we drove the scenic route up and down hills back to Christchurch (only about 75 km away).
We arrived back in the evening just in time for one last dinner in Christchurch’s Chinatown. Not only was it my last night in Christchurch, but also in New Zealand. My trip was coming to an end, while my parents stayed two more days in Christchurch before flying to Sydney, Australia.
My journey back to the States was a long one – about 36 hours of travel to be exact. I first flew to Sydney to find out my flight from Sydney to Los Angeles had been delayed five hours. So I enjoyed the Sydney skyline from my terminal’s glass windows, drank a flat white or two, and window shopped. I then had to change my domestic flight from LA back to Denver to a later time due to the delay, which had me waiting in LA for three or four hours. Oh, the beauty of travel.
Arriving back to Denver was bittersweet: happy to be home yet longing to bring some of New Zealand back with me. Since I couldn’t bring back the country, I instead brought back pounds of Whittaker’s chocolate, Tim Tams, local and organic gummy candies, and New Zealand beanies and shirts.
New Zealand is a gem for outdoor adventure. While it may not have the depth of history and art that places like Europe offer, it offers an original, natural beauty and wonder that is rare to find.
So if I had to share one takeaway from this trip, it would be this:
Kiwis have grasped the value of prioritizing quality of life above all else. The friendly, trusting, relaxed, and open-minded New Zealand lifestyle altered my perception of how we choose to live our finite lives. It contradicted the American standard of work, work, work.
I would love to return someday and also visit Australia. I am so thankful I could finally experience this place for myself! Now the question is, where to next?