One glimpse of New Zealand’s snow-capped mountains, glittering lakes, glacial fiords, stalactite-stacked caves, and untouched beaches would have even the most committed heathen wondering at the existence of a higher power
No wonder New Zealand’s nickname is ‘God’s own country’ or ‘Godzone’, thanks to poet Thomas Bracken, who waxed lyrical about its epic grandeur in the 1800s. With palpable excitement, Bracken describes a breathtakingly dramatic geography, where ‘the forests are the greenest and the rugged mountains rear’; a land of ‘boiling cauldrons, foaming geysers, lakes whose bosoms leap with fear’; a place where ‘lovely islands crowd and cluster in a bright and placid bay’. Understandably, Bracken was wooed by New Zealand’s dizzying diversity, captivating contrasts and knee-weakening natural beauty. There’s plenty to admire, so we’ve mapped out some highlights.
Fiordland, Te Anau, South Island: 2hrs by car from Queenstown
New Zealand’s World Heritage-listed Fiordland is made up of 14 fiords, spanning 215km of coastline. It’s so eye-bogglingly beautiful, you’ll have to blink and double-check its glassy lakes, green-cloaked valleys, cascading waterfalls and snow-capped alps looming from the oceans are real. According to Rudyard Kipling, Milford Sound is ‘the eighth wonder of the world’. It’s also the only fiord accessible by road: the Milford Alpine drive is spectacular.
Tip Go on a cruise of Fiordland, try sea-kayaking or hike one of the three tracks that has earned the region its reputation as the walking capital of the world.
Mine Bay Rock Carvings, North Island: a 3.5hr drive from Auckland; 5hrs from Wellington
If nature was your canvas, what would you draw? Māori master-carver Matahi Whakataka-Brightwell chose to depict Ngātoro-i-rangi – a visionary high priest and Māori navigator – on Mine Bay’s cliffs. The carving marked the completion of Matahi’s 10-year artistic training with Māori elders – as graduation certificates go, it’s pretty special.
Tip Join a cruise or kayak around the Western bays of Lake Taupo to admire the carving.
Lake Pukaki, South Island: 3.5hr drive from Christchurch
Don’t be surprised if Lake Pukaki looks familiar – it’s a bona fide movie star, thanks to Peter Jackson, who selected it as his setting for Laketown in the Hobbit trilogy. Pukaki’s cinematic attributes include: golden tussocks, white-cloaked mountains and pristine waters that colour-shift from vivid turquoise to milky blue. Lording it over the entire scene is New Zealand’s highest peak, Aoraki Mt Cook, which draws mountaineers, hikers and cyclists to its handsome heights (3,724m).
Tip For a jaw-drop road trip, make the hour-long drive from the little town of Tekapo in Mackenzie Country – also home to a beautiful lake – to Pukaki, following State Highway 8 through the heart of the Mackenzie Basin, whose clear night skies beg for stargazing.
Abel Tasman National Park, South Island: 1hr 20mins by car from Nelson; 5.5hrs from Christchurch
This national park has plenty to write home about: it’s New Zealand’s only coastal national park; it’s also the country’s smallest, at 22,530 hectares. What it lacks in size, it makes up for in paradise-points: staggeringly beautiful beaches, native forests, glittering streams and mossy valleys. Look out for seals and dolphins in the waters; wild pigs, possums, goats and deer on dry land.
Tip Access the park on foot from Marahau, take a cruise to one of the beaches on the Coastal Track (one of the DOC’s Great Walks), go sea-kayaking, try a helicopter ride or canyoning.
Geothermal wonders (both islands)
Perks to lying on the Pacific Ring of Fire (where volcanic activity and geysers are a part of daily life) include boiling mud pools and hot natural springs, sometimes where you least expect them. On the North Island, have a dip in a natural hot pool by Lake Taupo, visit Te Aroha Mineral Spas south of Auckland, or try the Lost Spring near Whitianga on the Coromandel Peninsula. Don’t miss Hot Water Beach, where you can build your own spa pool in the sand (if you time things right), or Rotorua: a city built on top of an active volcano, famed for its bubbling mud pools, hot springs, private spas and pool complexes. On the South Island, visit award-winning, all-seasons Hanmer Springs resort, a complex of thermal mineral, sulphur and freshwater pools.
Tip Don’t miss a dip in Kerosene Creek – less flammable than it sounds – on the North Island, or under the stars at Lake Tekapo on the South Island.
Franz Josef Glacier: a 5hr drive from Christchurch; a 4.5hr drive from Queenstown
Getting hot under the collar after all those thermal waters? Cool things down on the South Island’s West Coast, at the Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers, home to blue-ice caves, dramatic crevasses and elaborate ice formations. The glaciers flow almost to sea level, making them unusually accessible; it takes half an hour to drive from one glacier to the next.
Tip Guides can lead you through the glaciers; alternatively, zoom in by helicopter and be dropped off for a tour of the sparkling ice caves.