My first visit to New Zealand was in 2007 and I was just about to turn 15 years old. I went with a group of kids all close to my age as Student Ambassadors of the United States of America. We visited schools, stayed with local families, and really got the cultural experience that New Zealand offered. I knew when I left, I had to go back when I was older.
As the time passed, a lot of memories from that trip disappeared and all I had left were bits and pieces. Only the major parts remained. Fast forward to 2016 and my sister Mallory got accepted to study abroad in Australia for her Spring 2016 semester. She asked me to come visit and I never turn down an opportunity to travel if time off from work permits. I immediately started planning the 2 week trip that we would embark on. I quickly realized that New Zealand could easily take 2-3 months to fully travel and therefore, 2 weeks could not be spent split between New Zealand and Australia. We decided we would spend the whole two weeks in New Zealand and let me tell you right now, it is not nearly enough time.
I spent months (literally, like 4 months) planning this trip of a lifetime and it was all worth it. New Zealand has more to offer than I remember from my trip in ’07. Just driving around the country was satisfying. You are in a rainforest one moment, then on the beach, and then in a city all within an hour. This beautiful country has the ability to change your life.
After much consideration and thought, I came up with the five places you can’t miss should you make a trip to New Zealand. Everything in between is also worth seeing but if you are short on time, these are the places you can’t afford to miss.
- Lake Tekapo – Lake Tekapo is a lake located in the center of the South Island and if you visit during lupine season, I can almost promise it will leave you speechless. This place changed my life…literally. We happened to time this trip perfectly to visit the lake during the peak of lupine season which is late November to mid-December. We arrived at the lake just as the sun was setting to see a field of pink, purple, yellow, and blue flowers crowded around this crystal blue lake with snow capped mountains in the background. It was like being in another world. I took a million pictures and none of them looked the same. We went back the next morning to basque in the early summer sun while seeing the lake in a different light. The sun just made the colors of the lupines more intense, furthering my love for this place. It happened to be so perfect that my fiancé proposed here! (Men, take notes. I promise she won’t be disappointed). Tekapo has more to offer than just a perfect landscape. You can lay out under the stars and just enjoy nature. You can go for a hike on the multiple trails that are available. You can visit the Church of the Good Shepherd. Tekapo is a place to be one with nature but it will not disappoint.
- Milford Sound – Milford Sound is also on the South Island located on the southwest coast. Milford Sound is only inhabited by the people who work there. By work, I mean the port where the cruise ships sail in and out. The weather is known to be very unpredictable and can be quite miserable. It rains about 300 days a year! Now, I will get into the visit to Milford in just a minute but first I want to get into how to get there. There are many companies out there that have the coach services to and from Queenstown that you can choose from and a lot of them offer packages to include the Milford Sound cruise (which is THE thing to do here). The ride is about 6 hours one way by coach bus and this typically means a very early wakeup call. This is the less expensive option so let me share with you something that you should splurge on. Flights to and from Milford Sound. We flew with Air Milford which is a family owned business that will fly you to and from Milford Sound/Queenstown in a tiny plane and the flight is less than 40 minutes. The views are unbelievable. You fly through the snow capped mountains watching the world pass by below. I could rave all day about the flight, the views, Air Milford but I might ruin the experience for you. All I can say is just skip the bus ride and take the flights. I personally felt the flight was better than the cruise at Milford Sound! With that being said, Milford Sound is beautiful. Fjords created by glaciers creating the perfect postcard picture. With all the rain they have, the fjords are filled with waterfalls. Sadly enough, it was a perfect sunny day so were unable to see a lot of those waterfalls. It is windy and it can be wet so dress appropriately!
- Queenstown – Queenstown is the adventure capital of the world and the definition of perfect. It is very small and all of the attractions and restaurants are all within walking distance of each other. Downtown is located in a valley so if you are not directly in the center, be prepared to walk up and down the hill. It is completely worth it though (I promise). Everyone is so nice and there are so many different things you can do to keep yourself occupied. Take a cruise on the lake, go bungee jumping, skydiving, paragliding, and even just relax! It is hard to put into words the feeling you get from walking through this quaint city. You feel like you found a home away from home without any effort to find that feeling. There is live entertainment, friends having picnics on the green grass, shopping streets without any cars, and restaurants with delicious food. For being so small, Queenstown does not disappoint.
- Coromandel Peninsula – Coromandel is located on the North Island about 2.5 hours from the Auckland airport (depending on where you venture). We stayed in Hahei which is a super small beach town with everything you need to be happy. They have a few places to eat, a brewery, a snorkel/dive gear store, and a gas station. From there, its just a few minutes drive to a few attractions which include (but are not limited to) Cathedral Cove & Hot Water Beach. We started our trip here as soon as we left the Auckland Airport and it was the perfect way to our adventure. We had a day filled with a good combination of relaxation and activity. We got to relax on the Hot Water Beach which has some geothermal activity that allows you to dig holes in the sand and sit in hot water (this does get quite crowded so just be prepared for that). Then you can rent some snorkel gear and head to Gemstone Bay. The snorkeling wasn’t great on the day that we went but I do recommend heading down the same trail and there is Stingray Bay. Here you can see a bunch of stingrays that hang out near the shore. Lastly, Cathedral Cove (see picture) is also down that same trail and it was amazing! Just be warned it is about a 40 minute walk one way.
- Rotorua- Rotorua is also located on the North Island. Here you can experience the beautiful smell of sulfur (smells like rotten eggs) and learn about the Maori culture. I found through extensive research that Rotorua offers the best options to get the best Maori experience. We did a three hour activity with the Tamaki Maori Village and it was perfect. We learned about the many important aspects of their culture (face tattoos, dances, games, food, etc) and then had a hangy dinner. I am not going to go too much into detail as I want you to experience this on your own. Rotorua also offer the Skyline Luge which is little cart that you control the brakes and you just coast down a hill. This offers great views and a ton of fun you and your family/friends. We went white water rafting with Rotorua Rafting and that was a blast. Talk about learning how to do something new! You get to raft down the tallest commercially rafted waterfall in the world. You can visit parks with the geysers and other thermal activities. Just so much to offer in such a small city. It is worth spending a day or two here as one day was not nearly enough. One of the highlights for us was the Redwood Forest! You can make a hike out of this park as well but make sure you do research on the trails. We ended up outside of the forest which defeated the whole purpose.
I really hope that if you are reading this, you put New Zealand on your list of places to visit if it wasn’t already there. It isn’t just the places but also the people. Everyone is incredibly nice and you have a sense of self while traveling this beautiful country. Plan ahead. There is so much to do and see and most people have so little time. 13 days could have easily been 30 and even that would not be enough time. Love the world you live in. Embrace it.
Amy writes about travel tips from all over the world on her new blog justyoumeandtheworld.com. You can read about New Zealand, Iceland, New York, and many places to come in the future. Stay tuned for more about New Zealand!