Get ready for mammoth national parks, dynamic Māori culture, and world-class surfing and skiing. New Zealand can be mellow or action-packed, but it's always epic.
Walk on the Wild Side
There are just 4.8 million New Zealanders, scattered across 268,021 sq km: bigger than the UK with one-fourteenth of the population. Filling in the gaps are the sublime forests, mountains, lakes, beaches and fiords that have made NZ one of the best hiking (locals call it 'tramping') destinations on the planet. Tackle one of the epic 'Great Walks' – you might've heard of the Heaphy and Milford Tracks – or spend a few hours wandering along a beach, paddling a canoe or mountain biking through some easily accessible wilderness.
New Zealand's all-conquering All Blacks would never have become back-to-back rugby world champions without their unstoppable Māori players. But this is just one example of how Māori culture impresses itself on contemporary Kiwi life: across NZ you can hear Māori language, watch Māori TV, join in a hāngi (Māori feast) or catch a cultural performance with song, dance and a blood-curdling haka (war dance). Māori design continues to find expression in tā moko, Māori tattooing (often applied to the face) and the delicate artistry of bone, shell and pounamu (greenstone) sculpture.
The Real 'Big Easy'
New Zealand isn't a place where you encounter many on-the-road frustrations: buses and trains generally run on time; main roads are in good nick; ATMs proliferate; pickpockets, scam merchants and bedbug-ridden hostels are few and far between; and the food is unlikely to send you running for the nearest public toilets (usually clean and stocked with the requisite paper). And there are no snakes, and only one poisonous spider – the endangered katipo. This decent nation is a place where you can relax and enjoy (rather than endure) your travels.
Food, Wine & Beer
British-influenced classics like fish and chips aren’t going anywhere, but NZ gastronomy has come a long way, baby. Chefs in Auckland, Wellington and Napier borrow influences from as far afield as South Pacific islands and Western Europe for creative takes on locally sourced lamb and seafood like abalone, oysters and scallops. Meanwhile, the vegetarian and vegan food scenes grow evermore prominent and inventive. Wash it all down with coffee culture, an edgy craft-beer scene and legendary cool-climate wines (like sublime sauvignon blanc and pinot noir).
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Maungakiekie was the largest and most spiritually significant Māori pā (fortified village) prior to British arrival. At the top of this volcanic cone (at 182m high) there is an obelisk and epic 360-degree views of Auckland and its harbours. It is also the site of the grave of John Logan Campbell (the ‘father of Auckland’) who gifted the 230-hectare area to the city in 1901. He also requested that a memorial be built to the dispossessed Māori people at the summit. The 'one tree' cut down Today there is only a stump of the last ‘one tree’. The original tōtara tree was cut down in 1852 by a Pākehā (white) settler, either because it was significant to the Māori people or because he needed firewood – depending on which account you believe. In response, John Logan Campbell planted a stand of Monterey pines of which only one lone tree survived. That tree was felled in a chainsaw attack in 2000 by a Māori activist who wanted to raise awareness of the government's fiscal envelope policy – a target to settle all historic Treaty claims for NZ$1 billion – on the anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. In 2015 new native trees were planted on the site, with a view to one day having a single pohutukawa or tōtara. Walk As well as visiting the summit, allow time to explore the surrounding Cornwall Park with its mature trees and historic Acacia Cottage (1841). The Cornwall Park Information Centre has fascinating interactive displays illustrating what the pā would have looked like when 5000 people lived here. Near the excellent children’s playground, the Stardome offers regular stargazing and planetarium shows (usually 7pm and 8pm Wednesday to Sunday, with extra shows on weekends) that aren’t dependent on Auckland’s fickle weather. History The Māori name Maungakiekie means the mountain where kiekie (a native vine) grows abundantly. The mountain and its surrounds were home to the Te Wai ō Hua iwi (tribe) although other iwi also trace their ancestry to the mountain. One Tree Hill and U2 Yes, that U2 song from the 1987 album Joshua Tree is about this place too. It was dedicated to the memory of a New Zealander, Greg Carroll, who Bono became friends with after they met in Auckland in 1984. Carroll joined the group as a roadie, moving to Dublin with the band after touring with them in New Zealand, Australia and the US. He was killed in a motorcycle accident in Dublin. The song is referring to the first night in Auckland when he took Bono to One Tree Hill. Planning your visit To get to One Tree Hill from the city, take a train to Greenlane and walk 1km along Green Lane West. By car, take the Greenlane exit off the Southern Motorway and turn right into Green Lane West.
This dramatic headland is where the waters of the Tasman Sea and Pacific Ocean meet, swirling and breaking together into waves up to 10m high in stormy weather. Cape Reinga is the end of the road both literally and figuratively: in Māori tradition the spirits of the dead depart the world from here, making it the most sacred site in all of Aotearoa. It's also the northern most stop on State Hwy 1. The actual departure point is believed to be the 800-year-old pohutukawa tree clinging to the rocks on the small promontory of Te Rerenga Wairua (Leaping Place of the Spirits) far below; to those in corporeal form, access is forbidden. Contrary to expectation, Cape Reinga isn’t actually the northernmost point of the country; that honour belongs to the inaccessible Surville Cliffs, which can be spotted to the right in the distance. In fact, it's much closer to the westernmost point, Cape Maria van Diemen, immediately to the left. Cape Reinga walk From the car park it's a rolling 1km walk to the lookout, passing the Cape Reinga Lighthouse along the way. Information boards detail the area's ecology, history and cultural significance. Out of respect, you're requested to refrain from eating or drinking in the vicinity. Accommodation and camping There are few good accommodation options on the peninsula itself. The DOC has basic but spectacularly positioned camping sites at Tapotupotu Bay. Water, flush toilets and cold showers are provided. Bring a cooker, as fires are not allowed. Pack plenty of insect repellent to ward off mosquitoes and sandflies. ‘Freedom/Leave No Trace’ camping is also allowed along the Te Paki Coastal Track. Weather Check weather forecasts ahead and be aware there is no shelter after you leave the carpark area. Little tufts of cloud sometimes cling to the ridges, giving sudden spooky chills even on hot days.
The Waikato, New Zealand’s longest river, squeezes through a narrow chasm at Huka Falls, making the dramatic 11m drop into a surging crystal-blue whirlpool at a rate of 220,000L per second. You can experience the full force of this torrent, which the Māori called Hukanui (Great Body of Spray), from the footbridge straddling the falls. Walking tracks run along both banks. Walk The Huka Falls Walkway heads back towards town and the Spa Thermal Park, while the Huka Falls to Aratiatia Rapids track goes 7km downstream to the rapids. On sunny days the water is crystal clear and you can take great photographs from the lookout on the other side of the footbridge. Jet boats There are multiple ways to see the falls on a tour. An adenaline-pumping jet-boat tour will take you to the base of Huka Falls where you’ll feel the spray on your face. For a more relaxed experience, book a Huka Falls river cruise for a cup of tea with your views. Alternatively, take a helicopter tour of the Taupo region and get a birds-eye view of this spectacular natural phenomenon instead. Huka Falls deaths This is a treacherous body of water with a very high-pressure and extremely dangerous waterfall. There have unfortunately been a number of drownings here over the years, so locals stress that it is a tourist attraction for viewing only. Do enter the falls. We repeat: do not enter the falls.
Punakaiki's claim to fame is Dolomite Point, where a layering-weathering process called stylobedding has carved the limestone into what looks like piles of thick pancakes. Aim your visit for high tide (tide timetables are posted at the visitor centre, or look them up online). If the swell and wind are cooperating, the sea surges into caverns and booms menacingly through blowholes. See it on a wild day and be reminded that nature really is the boss. Pancake Rocks geology The foundations of the Pancake Rocks were formed 30 million years ago. Fragments of plants and marine life solidified into layers. Seismic movements lifted the limestone above the seabed, then over time the rocks have weathered by wind, rain and sea spray, eroding the softer layers, leaving behind the stacks you see today. Pancake Rocks walk Allow 20 minutes for the straightforward (1.1km) walk, which loops from the highway out to the rocks and blowholes. Make that at least 40 minutes if you want to take photos. Part of the trail is suitable for wheelchairs. Keep children close by, especially at the end of the walk when it approaches the highway.
South Island’s true southerly point lies not in Bluff, as many mistakenly believe, but at the end of a 20-minute trudge through a windswept cliff-side sheep paddock. A humble signpost marks this spectacular spot where blackened rocks tumble into turquoise sea while waves smash and swirl below. Trees Local sheep farmers planted small groves of hardy trees here to protect their livestock from the weather. Today the photogenic trees are one of the main visitor draws. The wind has moulded these stands into twisted sculptural formations. Weather The weather buffeting this point has travelled 3200kms over the Southern Ocean causing consistently strong winds year-round. You know you're pretty much at the bottom tip of the world when you're standing here looking out over the ocean towards Antarctica. Accommodation The nearest accommodation is on a working farm in the Catlins, with self-contained options for different budgets, and the opportunity to recharge your electric vehicle if needed. How to find Slope Point Signs south from Haldane point the way. From the car park, walk towards the sea and veer left along the fencing. The car park at the start of the track is 4km south of Slope Point Accommodation. Be aware: there is no public access across the farmlands during lambing season.
Occupying a headland draped in lawns and bush, this is NZ's most significant historic site. Here, on 6 February 1840, after much discussion, the first 43 Māori chiefs signed the Treaty of Waitangi with the British Crown; eventually, over 500 chiefs would sign it. Admission incorporates a guided tour and a spirited cultural performance, and entry to the Museum of Waitangi, the Whare Rūnanga (Carved Meeting House) and the historic Treaty House.
From the Kauri Walks car park, a 20-minute walk leads past the Four Sisters, a graceful stand of four tall trees fused together at the base, to Te Matua Ngahere (The Father of the Forest). At 30m, he has a significant presence. Reinforced by a substantial girth – he’s the fattest living kauri (16.4m) – the tree presides over a clearing surrounded by mature trees resembling mere matchsticks in comparison. It's estimated that he could be up to 3000 years old.
Near the north end of the park, not far from the road, stands mighty Tāne Mahuta, named for the Māori forest god. At 51.5m, with a 13.8m girth and wood mass of 244.5 cu metres, he’s the largest kauri alive, and has been holding court here for somewhere between 1200 and 2000 years. He's easy to find and access, with a well-labelled car park (complete with coffee cart) on the highway.
Te Puia dials up the heat on Māoritanga (things Māori) with explosive performances from both its cultural troupe and Pōhutu (Big Splash), its famous geyser that erupts around 20 times a day, spurting hot water up to 30m skyward. It erupts in tandem with the adjoining Prince of Wales’ Feathers geyser. Also here is a kiwi conservation centre and the New Zealand Māori Arts and Crafts Institute, where you can watch students at work.
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