With the world’s tenth longest coastline and an interior riven with more than 180,000km of charted rivers, it’s no surprise that New Zealand’s cup is overflowing with watery adventures. Surfing, kayaking, rafting, diving, snorkelling, sailing, and even swimming with dolphins or seals, there’s plenty to immerse yourself in.
Diving the Poor Knights
Poor Knights marine reserve, off Northland’s east coast, was rated by aquatic legend Jacques Cousteau as one of the word’s top 10 diving spots. The island’s underwater cliffs drop steeply through crystal waters to form a maze of archways, caves and tunnels adorned with sponges and a vivid array of underwater vegetation. Rays, and a variety of colourful fish not present elsewhere in New Zealand, can be spotted here thanks to the subtropical current from the Coral Sea.
Sweet and salty little Raglan is surfing central, with serious waxheads heading to Manu Bay, rumoured to have the world’s longest left-hand break. Mere mortals are best kicking things off at beautiful Ngarunui (raglan23.co.nz), with less forbidding waves and lifeguard patrol (October to April). Hang ten with the friendly Raglan Surfing School (raglansurfingschool.co.nz), where they pride themselves on getting 95% of first-timers standing during their lesson. The beach is also great for swimming and sunsets.
Join professional sailors on a real America’s Cup yacht and go racing around Auckland’s scenic Waitemata Harbour (exploregroup.co.nz). Go head to head with another crew and grind, tack and gybe your way on the windward course with the Auckland city skyline as your backdrop. Everyone gets a go at taking the helm, although landlubbers have the option of just shooting the breeze, sitting back and watching your teammates do all the hard work.
Blackwater rafting in Waitomo
Waitomo Caves are a subterranean wonderland filled with peculiar formations and galaxies of glowworms that can be explored on a Legendary Black Water Rafting trip (waitomo.com/black-water-rafting). Don a wetsuit, abseil into the abyss and then squeeze, climb and slide your way through the limestone labyrinth before floating through a glowworm-lit passage on a rubber inner-tube. You’ll have so much fun, you’ll forget that you’re underground.
Tongariro River Rafting
Touted by anglers as one of the best trout fishing rivers in the world, the Tongariro also hooks its fair share of thrill-seekers keen to paddle their way down more than 60 roller coaster rapids as the river wends its way through ancient beech forest. Test the waters with a gentle Family Float, splash into the grade III white water or take on a more physical kayak trip with local outfit Tongariro River Rafting (trr.co.nz). On the river, keep an eye out for whio; these rare whistling blue ducks are excellent swimmers.
Kayaking in Abel Tasman National Park
At the top of the South Island is Abel Tasman National Park, a heavenly stretch of indented coastline where golden sands and forest fringes are lapped by cerulean waters. You can walk the 51km coastal track (doc.govt.nz), but paddle power is a lot more rock ‘n’ roll. Kayaking operators will provide gear and guides, and you can choose anything from a sunset paddle to a three-day catered camping affair, or combine kayaking with walking a stretch of the track and boat cruises. Secret cove and desert-island fantasies beckon.
Canyoning in the Torrent River
Drawn in by sparkling seas, peachy beaches and quintessential coastal forest, few visitors to Abel Tasman actually get to explore the park’s rugged interior and untouched river systems. Here’s your chance with Abel Tasman Canyons. Journey down the beautiful granite-lined Torrent River canyon via a fun-filled combination of swimming, sliding, abseiling and lofty leaps into jewel-like pools. Its like some kind of unruly, over-sized water park, but much better looking and a thousand times more fun.
Swimming with seals in Kaikoura
World-famous for whale watching, Kaikoura is also a top destination for swimming with New Zealand fur seals. Watch adolescents spin and dive amid tangles of kelp, while curious pups make underwater eye contact with wet-suited interlopers. Seal Swim Kaikoura’s two-hour guided snorkelling tours (October to May) were named one of the world’s best marine encounters by Lonely Planet in 2013.
Kayaking the Okarito Lagoon
Seaside hamlet Okarito (with a lucky population of 30-ish) sits alongside its namesake lagoon – the largest unmodified wetland in New Zealand. It’s an excellent place for spotting birds like the rare kiwi and majestic kotuku (great white heron). Okarito Nature Tours hire out kayaks for guided and unguided paddles on the lagoon and up into the luxuriant rainforest channels where all sorts of birds hang out. On a good day, the impressive Southern Alps provide a distracting backdrop.