After a 27-year wait, I recently returned to New Zealand for a whirlwind trip to the North and South Islands. It's been somewhere I've been desperate to revisit since my last visit in 1996. The second time around, I still think that NZ is one of the best destinations in the world.
It's hard to think of something that NZ doesn't do brilliantly. It has mind-blowing scenery, world-class vineyards, top-notch food experiences and one million outdoor pursuits ranging from easily accessible day hikes to multi-day hiking routes.
New Zealand is a great Southern Hemisphere destination. It's around the same size as the UK, but only has a population of 5 million, with 1.5m of those people living in Auckland. By comparison, the UK has a population of 68 million. In other words, New Zealand has bags of beautiful open space!
If you have time, I believe that no visit to NZ is complete without seeing both islands. On the North Island, but you only need to drive an hour or two from Auckland to reach the stunning green rolling hills synonymous with 'The Shire' from the Lord of Rings.
The South Island is visually spectacular, with glaciers, lakes, mountain ranges and the stunning Fiordland region. The two islands are very different and offer completely different experiences.
Because of its relatively small size, New Zealand is a perfect destination for self-drive itineraries by car or campervan trips. Three weeks is enough time to really do it justice, without rushing from one destination to another.
The roads are excellent quality and once you’re outside the few major cities, there’s little traffic and driving is relatively stress-free (unlike the UK). There are a few main rail links in NZ, but you won’t find a comprehensive rail network to every corner of the country.
If you're travelling solo, I recommend joining an organised small group tour, which gives you a ready-made gang of friends to share your NZ adventures and an expert guide to take away all the hassle. It’s a great option if you’re travelling alone.
New Zealand's weather is famous for having all four seasons in one day. However, when I visited for a week in late spring (early November), I couldn't have asked for better weather. It was around twenty degrees and sunny every day, which was the perfect temperature for an adventurous itinerary.
New Zealand is truly a year-round destination and the Kiwis have adopted Wainwright's mantra of "There’s no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing.” Depending on how adventurous you plan to be, ensuring you have plenty of layers, a sturdy pair of walking shoes, a rain/windproof jacket, and some sunscreen, you'll easily be able to adapt to NZ's ever-changing weather.
I would happily go back to NZ over and over again. It’s not somewhere that you could ever be bored. Here’s a handful of my top places to visit in New Zealand – I hope they inspire you to plan your own adventure!
For the uninitiated, Weta Workshop is a very famous New Zealand-based company that specialises in making intricate costumes and props for the film and TV world. It rose to fame through its work on the Lord of the Rings, but it’s also been involved in many other big-budget Hollywood films.
The new immersive experience in Auckland, called ‘Unleashed’, takes you on a journey through the world of movie-making. The 90-minute tour centres on three fully-developed and original film concepts: a nail-biting horror, a fantasy epic, and a mind-bending sci-fi.
Under the green hills of Waitomo, just over 2 hours drive south of Auckland, lies a labyrinth of caves, sinkholes, and underground rivers. There are lots of options to see the Waitomo caves and their famous glow worm inhabitants, from walking tours to boat trips and black water rafting (floating down an underwater river in a large inner tube). The glow worms really do look like a glittering night sky.
I took a guided tour of the Ruakuri Caves, which is New Zealand’s longest underground walkway. The walkway is flat and suitable for everyone, including wheelchairs and pushchairs, as there are no steps. Seeing the stalagmites, stalactites, crystal tapestries and other limestone formations is truly magnificent.
Even before you get to Hobbiton, the general region of Matamata, on New Zealand’s North Island, looks exactly like how you would imagine ‘The Shire’. Rolling green hills, meandering rivers, stunning Scotch Pine trees - it’s just gorgeous.
The Alexander family’s, beautiful 1,250-acre sheep and cattle farm was originally scouted in 1998 by Sir Peter Jackson for the original Lord of the Rings film trilogy. He then returned in 2009 to film The Hobbit. This time, the family negotiated an agreement with the studio to leave behind the movie set as a tourist attraction. There are now 44 permanently reconstructed Hobbit Holes, including the most famous Hobbit hole of all - Bag End.
You must pre-book a tour in Hobbiton (certainly during high season) to avoid disappointment, as they do get full. Upon arrival, at the main entrance you are initially taken on a short coach trip around the farm, with a guide and video to set the scene. You are then guided on foot around the Hobbiton village. The level of detail is incredible, and it doesn’t take much to imagine little Hobbits running around, shouting about going on adventures!
There are different packages you can opt for, from the simplest Movie Set tour to either Breakfast or Evening Banquet tours that include a meal in the thatched Green Dragon pub, located next to the picture-perfect lake and water mill. They also host private weddings and birthday events in full costume if you’re so inclined.
If you’d like to experience some traditional Māori Culture during your time in New Zealand, then Rotorua is the best option. It has a high density of people who identify as Māori and strong links to their history. I believe that a visit to New Zealand isn’t complete without learning about the friendly and fascinating native Māori people.
Tue Pa Tu is an immersive cultural evening. After a fun but intimidating welcome ceremony, we were welcomed into the village set in the forest, where we enjoyed drinks, games and learning about the Māori way of life. After a great performance of song and dance, we entered a large dining hall for dinner which was a mix of modern and traditional Māori cooking and was very tasty.
Close to central Rotorua, Te Puia is a great place to learn about the region’s geothermal activity. With personalised guided tours, you can see geysers, bubbling mud pools and the state-of-the-art Kiwi Conservation Centre, allowing you to get close to New Zealand’s national symbol, the Kiwi. Te Puia is also home to a Māori Arts and Crafts Institute.
Just a few minutes' drive from Rotorua, you’ll find the Redwoods Treewalk. This is a forest of giant Redwood trees from the USA that have thrived in NZ’s wetter climate. The high-rise suspension walkways between the trees make for a beautiful way to see the forest. The evening version of the tour, when the forest is lit with giant hanging illuminated lanterns, is very special.
This is an experience not to be missed. Rated by Trip Advisor as the World’s #1 Nature Activity in 2021, this is no mean feat. On the tour, you explore the spectacular native forest reserve just outside of Rotorua on foot, by zipline, by swing-bridge, by cliff-walking and even by a controlled abseil descent. The 400-metre tandem zipwire is epic, and you can race each other at speeds of 80kmph! The highly trained local guides are knowledgeable, passionate and very funny. It’s a truly great day out.
Perched on the shores of Lake Wakatipu and backed by the Southern Alps, Queenstown is a stunning place to visit. Here, you’ll find great restaurants, all kinds of exciting activities and a laid-back holiday atmosphere. No visit to the South Island would be complete without a few days in Queenstown.
This is a wild 60-minute jet boat ride from Queenstown’s main wharf, taking in the incredibly clear Kawarau River and part of the Shotover River. These jet boats have been specifically designed to be able to cope with low waters of only 5cm and reach speeds of 95kmph. It's a great way to see Queenstown’s surrounding area, complete with thrill spins and close encounters.
The Time Tripper show is a fun and informative underwater visual show, which is particularly great for families with younger kids. The 30-minute experience explores the Māori myths about how Lake Wakatipu was formed, and it has some great cinematic dinosaur moments.
After the show, there’s a chance to see real-life wild trout, salmon and eels in the lake through the underwater viewing platform.
This trip left me speechless and it’s something that I’ll never forget. We boarded our helicopter at Queenstown airport, and, within seconds, we had incredible views of the valley and Lake Wakatipu. After only a minute, we were soaring high above the snow-capped mountain ranges that overlook Queenstown, heading for Earnslaw Burn.
This incredible Glacier Valley ends in a cul-de-sac, with the blue ice of the Earnslaw Glacier towering high above. The natural glacier meltwater creates hundreds of waterfalls spilling down the valley walls. Our helicopter landed in the valley, and we stood with our jaws agape in wonder. The pilot cracked open a bottle of fizz and we had around 30-minutes drinking in the views (and fizz). It was pure magic!
New Zealand's Fiordland region in the South Island is simply out of this world. Milford Sound and its quieter, less famous cousin, Doubtful Sound, make for an amazing scenic getaway from the vibrancy of Queenstown.
I took the 2-day overnight cruise on Doubtful Sound, which is an easy side-trip from Queenstown. The journey started with a 2-hour drive out of Queenstown to Lake Manapouri, which is stunning.
We then took the ferry across Lake Manapouri, with the mirror-like lake reflecting the mountains that surround it. The weather was perfect for sitting on the open-top deck with the wind in our hair and the sun on our faces.
After a short drive along a road cut through dense native forest, we arrived at our overnight boat. The boat and cabin were very comfortable, and the buffet-style food was excellent.
Our cruise through Doubtful Sound started in the early afternoon and the scenery on both sides was like something from Jurassic Park. Sheer green cliffs with waterfalls tumbling down them, and everywhere gravity-defying trees clinging onto seemingly impossible rockfaces. We'd only been onboard for around an hour when we saw our first pod of bottlenose dolphins. It was a truly special moment.
In the mid-afternoon, the boat stopped for a while and we took out kayaks, whilst others hopped on a small boat, to explore a sheltered cove. Afterwards, there was some time for swimming and jumping off the boat into the rather chilly water.
As we continued the cruise, the views of the cliffs on either side just got better and better until we arrived at the sea entrance to Doubtful Sound. As we sailed out into the sea, the Captain extended the sails and we enjoyed an hour of open sailing, spotting penguins and albatrosses, but sadly no whales.
Finally, we headed back into the sound and moored for the night in a quiet side-arm of the main fiord. After a great sunset and hearty dinner, we retreated to the outside top deck with a few beers and stargazed into the heavens. We saw multiple shooting stars as well as the Milky Way. Then, out of nowhere, we saw 50 or so of Mr Musk’s Star-Link satellites pass right overhead in a perfect line. It was truly mesmerizing.
The following day we awoke to perfect still calm on the water. After a yummy breakfast, we headed back up to the Sound. Just as we were getting back towards the port, we were joined by a huge pod of 15 dolphins who were very happy playing in the front bow wave of the ship, jumping and breaching non-stop for 30 minutes. I felt truly blessed.
My overriding emotion for the cruise was one of peacefulness, sailing through a truly beautiful part of the world from the comfort of the boat. It’s a must-do for anyone travelling to New Zealand.
If food and drink play a big part in your holiday, New Zealand is the place for you. We opted for classic wine tours run by Appellation and also Kinross, both award-winning wine tour companies operating a door-to-door trip from Queenstown.
We visited multiple vineyards and sipped a variety of wonderful wines. After a wonderful lunch (my mushroom pizza with truffle butter is the best pizza I've ever had!), we looked around New Zealand’s largest ‘wine cave’, which was blasted out of the sheer rockface by dynamite.
No trip to NZ would be complete without an adrenaline activity. It’s a rite of passage! I’ve done a few bungee jumps in my time, but the Canyon Swing was a much nicer (although still extremely terrifying) experience, mainly because you’re not hanging upside down. You can choose whether you would like to be dropped, pushed, or cut away. All the options result in a short freefall followed by a long tarzan-esque swing across the beautiful Shotover Canyon. The staff were reassuring and funny, but also very professional.
In contrast to the leisurely cruise, this was another fast-paced jet boat experience, suitable for almost all ages. From Te Anau, we blasted up the crystal clear waters of the Waiau River and we were awed by the natural beauty as we emerged onto Lake Manapouri.
Our driver thrilled us with a few 360’ spins and high-speed passes of the riverbank, taking the time to stop and point out Lord of the Rings film locations on the way. After roughly an hour, we were dropped around 15km downriver of Te Anau.
The jet boat company supply you with e-bikes and after we'd geared up with helmets, we cycled along the newly formed Lake2Lake Cycle Trail back to Te Anau. The trail follows the river's edge and it’s easy to cycle with power-assisted bikes. As long as you can ride a bike you can ride an e-bike, with no extra experience required.
It sounds like such a cliché, but New Zealand really does have something for everyone. The NZ tourism board’s tagline of ‘The whole world in one country’ is spot on. Home to modern cities, gorgeous beaches, hidden coves, rolling green hills, crystal clear rivers, snow-capped mountains, and stunning fiords, it’s packed with variety.
On top of this, there’s tremendous food and wine served with great laid-back Kiwi hospitality. Get yourself down to New Zealand, you won’t regret it.
New Zealand works extremely well on most multi-stop holidays and round the world flight tickets, because it has natural direct links into Asia, Australia, the Pacific and both North and South America. This makes it a perfect stop on any round the world holiday. To start planning your trip of a lifetime, simply get in touch on +44 1273320580 or send us a quote request by email.