When visiting New Zealand, Australians usually target a couple of activities or destinations for a short across-the-ditch break.
For those who aren’t time-poor, here’s a tote-bag of travel highlights.
TIP – START AT THE TOP
Most visitors head south from Auckland, skipping one of New Zealand’s most fascinating areas, the Bay of Islands, a sub-tropical zone with the historic town of Kerikeri at its heart.
Kerikeri is starting point for low-level scenic flights over a complicated-looking coastline between Ninety Mile Beach and Cape Reinga, the country’s northernmost accessible point. [North Cape, 30kms east, is the true northern extremity but requires a hike.]
Other far-northern destinations include the quaint village of Russell, capital during early European settlement, and nearby Paihia, a key Maori cultural hub.
AUCKLAND – NUMBER-ONE CITY
Escape the bustle of New Zealand’s biggest city, with its numerous attractions, through side-trips to wine-growing Waiheke Island and farther-flung Great Barrier Island. Back downtown, a short stroll from Queen Street ends at the Viaduct, a marina precinct with many restaurants, bars and hotels.
ROTORUA – SMELL BEFORE YOU SEE
This North Island town, wedged against an eponymous lake (one of 17 in the area), is famed for geysers, bubbling mud pools, hot springs and health spas. A strong sulphurous aroma wafts across this geo-thermally active town where Maori-run Hell’s Gate allows wanderings between pools of bubbling mud, hot water or steam before buffalo-like wallowing pools of mineral-rich mud.
WELLINGTON – SUITED AND BOOTED
The New Zealand capital’s appealing transformation is most evident at a formerly dreary bus terminal along Courtenay Place, now arguably New Zealand’s hippest district and crammed with trendy nightclubs, bars and eateries. Nearby Cuba Street is renowned for fashion boutiques showcasing work by the country’s top designers.
Te Papa, with free entry, is New Zealand’s top museum. Showcasing Polynesian history, it also allows visitors to experience a simulated “shaky isles” earthquake. Wellington Cable Car is a 612m funicular railway offering panoramic views. It links downtown’s Lambton Quay with Wellington Botanic Garden in inner-suburban Kelburn. Wellington is most convenient access point for the South Island.
COUNTRY ROADS – OFF-HIGHWAY EXPLORING
Head from highways onto country roads passing beneath low bridges. Delightful delays are all but inevitable in this picture-postcard New Zealand of sheep-studded rolling green hills. Farmers herd flocks from one pasture to another – and traffic is quickly surrounded by a mass of animals.
GREAT WALKS – OR A STROLL IN THE PARK
New Zealand has nine officially designated Great Walks. Most famous is the South Island’s Milford Track, a three-night adventure offering great views and skirting dense forest, mountains, valleys and fiords. Others include Routeburn Track and less demanding Heaphy Track.
Aside from Great Walks, the country is rich in hiking – “tramping “ in Kiwi parlance – options ranging from challenging mountain routes to flat-as-a-board 10-minute
SKIING, BUNGY-JUMPING AND RAFTING
The South Island’s Queenstown considers itself New Zealand’s “adventure capital”. This mid-sized town has hotels in all price categories, numerous restaurants and bars along with outlets selling skiing packages (including heli-skiing). Several skiing locations thrive on the town’s outskirts of town as well as at locations such as nearby Wanaka.
Other popular Queenstown activities encompass bungy-jumping, rafting and hiking – or relaxing cruises on Lake Wakatipu. aboard a restored paddle-steamer.
CHRISTCHURCH – AN OH-SO-ENGLISH HIDEAWAY
The South Island’s biggest city flaunts its “Englishness”, proudly describing itself as the “world’s most English city outside England”. Ideal for on-foot exploration, its most gorgeously lazy diversion involves being punted along the Avon River.
Christchurch is where the 224km TranzAlpine – often described as one of the world’s most scenic train routes – begins, traversing forests and mountains to terminate at the west coast’s Greymouth.
DUNEDIN – NEW ZEALAND’S MAIN UNIVERSITY TOWN
Rival Dunedin, the South Island’s second city, is home to one of the country’s top centres of learning, the University of Otago with a leafy campus that’s itself a tourist attraction. Styling itself the “world’s most Scottish city outside Scotland”, its centre isn’t merely a square but an Octagon. Streets leading from it showcase grand buildings constructed during a “gold rush” heyday.
Trudge up Baldwin Street, officially the world’s steepest – or cheat by driving to the summit to pose for fake-breathless pictures. Dunedin backs onto the Otago Peninsula which anchors New Zealand’s “wildlife strip”.
WILDLIFE STRIP – NEW ZEALAND’S ALMOST SECRET DELIGHT
It’s surprising how few people associate New Zealand with wildlife. But interest is growing. Many visitors make half-day trips from Dunedin to the Royal Albatross Centre, the only place where these giant migratory birds with 3m wingspans breed that isn’t a remote island. Nearby, several locations offer close-up sightings of yellow-eyed penguins, a rare variety – as well as New Zealand fur seal colonies and beach walks amid basking New Zealand sea lions.
Off the Otago Peninsula, the town of Oamaru is home to a colony of blue penguins (also called fairy penguins and little penguins), Kaikoura is famed for whale-watching, Invercargill has built a handy habitat for the lizard-like tuatara – hard to spot in the wild and the oldest type of unchanged creature still found on the planet – and Stewart Island (see below)is a good place to spot the national bird, the flightless kiwi.
STEWART ISLAND – ROCK-BOTTOM
Tucked just south of the South Island, it’s reached by ferry or 12-minute flight from Invercargill. After-dark trips into forests enable spotting of the kiwi, a chicken-sized bird living for more than 20 years. The isle is renowned for its hiking menu – five-minute strolls to 10-day hikes
Prominent among local guides is Furhana Ahmad, a transplanted Briton running an operation called Ruggedy Range. She visited on a bird-watching trip and decided she’d found paradise.