So that was it. 63 days after flying into New Zealand, I flew back out again.
In the meantime I’d driven from the top of the North Island to the bottom of the South, and pretty much everywhere worth going in between. I’d abseiled into a cavern, dived with stingrays, jetboated on two rivers and hiked some of the country’s greatest walks. I’d hung out with sea lions, sprinted down sand dunes, visited a steampunk museum, slept in a railway caboose and so much more.
More importantly, I’d had a chance to reconnect with the country I’d grown up in, seeing it through new, less jaded eyes than when I lived there. Blessed with the best summer weather I can ever remember, I was able to see what so many other visitors do in this remarkable little spot at the bottom of the world.
Here, then, are a few of my favourite things about my two months back in New Zealand.
27 of them, in fact.
Bridal Veil Falls, near Raglan
Following a random sign in New Zealand can often bring rich rewards. This was very much the case on the day that we drove out of Raglan – following the sign from the main road for Bridal Veil Falls led us to this stunning, barely-visited waterfall.
Lake Hawea, Otago
Although Lake Hawea lies only a few kilometres outside of Wanaka, it’s one of those places that doesn’t get much attention from tourists. I’m not really sure why that is, as on a sunny day, the view over the lake is absolutely incredible.
Wharariki Beach, Farewell Spit
Lying slightly west of the official start of Farewell Spit, Wharariki Beach requires a 10-15 minute walk over a hill to get to from the parking lot. Once we arrived, however, we soon realised just how worthwhile that short hike had been. Running down high sand dunes, admiring the pounding surf or just unsuccessfully hunting for baby seals, it was the perfect spot to spend an afternoon.
Billed as the greatest one-day hike in the country, the Tongariro Crossing is notorious for both its jaw-dropping views and ever-changing weather. Fortunately it was warm and sunny the day we were there, even at the top of Mount Tongariro. If you have the appropriate gear and moderate fitness, it’ll easily end up being one of the best things you do in New Zealand.
There’s no doubt that Te Papa is the best museum in New Zealand, and it could easily be the best in the southern hemisphere. This large but carefully curated collection on the Wellington waterfront tells the story of the country in fascinating ways, utilising technology and more traditional techniques to bring history alive. I spent an entire day exploring it, and went back the next morning to work and drink coffee in the museum cafe. It’s just that kind of place.
While you can take organised tours out onto Farewell Spit if you want to, it’s also possible to just walk along much of this delicate sandbar as well. With sand dunes everywhere, hundreds of wading birds and barely another person to be seen, it’s a beautiful, chilled-out experience.
Given that jetboats were invented in New Zealand, it’s no surprise that you can take a ride in one almost anywhere in the country. Many of the trips are unfortunately both brief and overpriced, but the half-day ride along the Dart River near Queenstown was thankfully neither. As much a nature expedition as an adrenaline rush, I loved every minute of it.
Almost all of my dive experience has been in tropical waters, so I was a little nervous when signing up to dive in the chilly sea off the Poor Knight’s Islands. I needn’t have worried, though – the thickest wetsuit I’ve ever seen kept me plenty warm enough, and the marine park status of the area meant that there were thousands of fish and other sea life to keep me company in the clear waters. Absolute bliss.
Doubtful Sound is definitely the bigger, quieter and less-visited version of Milford Sound, and spending a night on it made the experience even more magical. We caught our own dinner, enjoyed incredible views and were gently rocked to sleep under a thick carpet of stars. It’s not cheap, but it’s totally worth the money.
With converted railway carriages and tipis nestled amongst acres of native bush, looking out over the hills towards the crashing waves of Manu Bay, Solscape was easily one of the best, most interesting hostels I’ve ever stayed in.
The Innlet, Pakawau (Collingwood)
Between Collingwood and the end of the road at Farewell Spit at the top of the South Island lies the Innlet, a small, eco-friendly place of the kind that New Zealand does so well. The remote location, lovely on-site manager and self-contained cottages attract a certain kind of visitor, resulting in friendly conversations, plenty of laughter and even the odd sing-a-long. I loved it.
The Hilltop, Papatowai (Catlins)
We hadn’t even planned to stay at the Hilltop, but a booking mistake led to this serendipitous find. Two self-contained houses sit at the top of a remote hill in the Catlins, with stunning views, spotless rooms and a warm, cozy vibe. With a small group like ours, it was absolutely perfect – and it took a very long time to work up the desire to leave the following morning.
I’ve always been a sucker for a cold pint on a hot day, and if it’s somewhere where I can sit out and see the ocean, all the better. The Mac’s Brewbar on the Wellington waterfront ticked all the right boxes, proving to be the perfect place for Lauren and I to contentedly eat and drink our way through a random summer afternoon.
A few minutes back from Nelson’s main beach, the Tahuna Sprig and Fern is one of those bars that is much better than it really deserves to be. It’s one of several in town, kinda small and overlooks some nondescript playing fields. And, yet, we still talk about the couple of hours we spent there to this day. To be honest, I think it was the fries in curry sauce that did it. Well, that and the mild sunburn.
Pretty much anything in life is better if you have to work for it, and this was no exception. Midway though our hike along the Queen Charlotte Track, we dragged our tired and sweaty bodies onto a stool at the Boatshed Bar at Punga Cove. Built on a jetty that juts out into the sound, it seemed strangely incongruous to be ordering a cold beer in the middle of a multi-day hike – but that definitely didn’t stop me doing it.
Since I didn’t see any kiwis on this trip, I had to make do with weka instead. Similar in build, colouring and non-existent flying skills, they are thankfully nowhere near as rare as their nocturnal cousins. Weka were pretty much everywhere on the Queen Charlotte Track, racing around near our feet and trying to scavenge food out of bags whenever we looked away.
The smallest member of the dolphin family is found only in New Zealand waters, and it’s pretty rare to see them outside of a few specific areas. That’s why I was quite surprised to spot a small pod as I stood on the deck of a water taxi in the Marlborough Sounds. Success!
You can see glow worms in several different places throughout the country, but the most well-known spot is almost certainly the Waitomo Caves in the central North Island. Having just abseiled down – and climbed back out of – a 100m cavern that afternoon, it took a little convincing to drag me back out again that night to go and look at bugs with shining butts in a nearby park. Luckily, it was totally worth it – they really were an incredible sight.
New Zealand is one hell of a photogenic place, and narrowing down the 2500+ shots I took to my favourite three is kinda laughable. Still, despite that, here’s my attempt:
Clockwise from left: boats in the harbour at Mount Maunganui, Purakaunui Falls in the Catlins and the road to Mount Cook (click for a larger version).
As far as I’m concerned, It wouldn’t be a trip to the west coast of the South Island without a whitebait patty. Every local has their own tried and true way of cooking these tiny fish, and Tony at the Curly Tree Whitebait Company was no exception. The patties were, as always, delicious – even if certain people did have to avoid looking at the little eyes peering back at them.
Picking up a can of L&P at the dairy
When I was a kid, buying a can of L&P from the local dairy (corner store) was an important summer ritual. The full name of this iconic Kiwi beverage – Lemon and Paeroa – comes from the small town in the North Island where it was originally made, although it has long since been taken over by the Coca Cola company (boo, hiss). Every time I grabbed that distinctive can of soft drink from the fridge, I was instantly transported to an earlier, simpler time.
I grew up in a small town, and at the time many of the minor roads nearby weren’t sealed. Learning how to drive on gravel was just something that you did if you wanted to be able to get out to see your friends on the farm. Even now – 20 years later – many rural roads in New Zealand aren’t paved, and I got a little tingle of excitement every time we bumped off the tarmac and the wheels started to slide. Nowhere did this happen more than in the Catlins – other than the one main road, it’s pretty much gravel all the way. Woohooo!
Even though I’d driven past the turnoff several times, for some reason I’d never taken the trip past Lake Pukakai and up to Mount Cook Village. On another glorious summer’s day with blue sky above and towering mountains all around, I really had no idea why that was.
While Milford Sound itself isn’t a patch on the larger, lesser-known Doubtful Sound, the drive in is a South Island highlight. This narrow, winding road is often closed by avalanche risk in winter and crowded by tour buses in summer, but if you leave early – or late – enough in the day, you’ll almost have it to yourself. Give yourself plenty of time to stop at the little rivers, lakes and waterfalls along the way – you may well enjoy them more than the ultimate destination.
State Highway 6 stretches the entire length of the South Island, but the best part of its 1100km length lies along the West Coast. The landscape changes dramatically, crossing the Southern Alps and winding through dense rainforest and alongside pounding surf. There are few towns of any size and little traffic – the southern part, in particularly, truly is the road less travelled.
If you’re thinking about heading down under but are a bit overwhelmed by the options (and I know, there’s no shortage of them), my friend Matt at Planit NZ provides a free New Zealand trip planning service. Check it out if you’re interested!