The Best Things to Do in New Zealand

Come explore New Zealand’s natural wonders—on foot, on bike, in a camper van, at the fully-extended end of a bungee cord—and meet the (exceedingly friendly) locals. For a small country, there’s an almost overwhelming number of things to do. But, to get you started: Lord of the Rings fans should head straight for their middle earth in Hobbiton. Adventure fans can get their wheee on ziplining on Waiheke Island. Nature fan? Go do some whale watching. But, no matter what you love to see, make sure you learn about Maori culture. The culture is at the center of the beauty of New Zealand.

234 Hereford St, Christchurch Central, Christchurch 8011, New Zealand
Following a powerful earthquake in February 2011, the Christchurch Cathedral was severely damaged, and while there is an ongoing ideological and economic debate over whether or not the Gothic-style church can, or should be, repaired, the Anglican parishioners of New Zealand‘s second-largest city can now worship in this fascinating edifice made of, among other things, 96 giant cardboard tubes. Designed by Shigeru Ban, a Japanese architect who specializes in building temporary structures following natural disasters, the Cardboard Cathedral (formerly called Christchurch’s Transitional Cathedral), was erected in less than a year. Its excellent acoustics are also regularly utilized for concerts and events.
Stewart Island / Rakiura, Southland 9818, New Zealand
At the far south end of the country, Stewart Island is a rugged and isolated addendum to New Zealand’s two main islands, and it’s a superb place to get a glimpse of the country’s national bird, the kiwi, in the wild. Sunset trips with Bravo Adventure Cruises depart from Oban’s rustic, fishing-boat-filled harbor, beginning with a 30-minute ocean journey and then continuing with a 45-minute stroll through native forest to a secluded beach. By now, it is dark, and southern brown kiwis can be seen scratching around for food in the kelp that washes up on the beach. Kiwis don’t have great eyesight, and they often seem quite oblivious to the interested humans sharing the stretch of sand with them.
Rotorua, New Zealand
Traditional Maori culture and geothermal activity combine at the fascinating lakeside village of Ohinemutu in Rotorua. Steam rises from volcanic vents in the ground (local Maori families still use the earth’s energy in this way for cooking and heating); the sacred Tama-Te-Kapua meetinghouse is adorned with intricate wood carvings. Nearby, St. Faith’s Anglican Church melds both Maori and European design elements with woven tukutuku (a latticework of natural materials) panels, Maori carvings, and colorful stained-glass windows illuminating the compact interior with Southern Hemisphere sunshine. One spectacular window shows Christ wearing a traditional Maori cloak and appearing to walk on the waters of Lake Rotorua. When visiting, be quiet and respectful of local families, as Ohinemutu is private land.
126 Broadway, Matamata 3400, New Zealand
Welcome to Middle Earth in the South Pacific, and an ideal stop for traveling fans of the author J.R.R. Tolkien and the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movie trilogies. Near the rural town of Matamata—itself a destination for its LOTR-inspired visitor center and a selfie-ready statue of Gollum along the main street—the re-created sets of Hobbiton offer a detailed and fascinating glimpse of the hobbit holes, meadows, and gardens of Bilbo and Frodo. An essential conclusion to the tour is quaffing an only-available-in-Hobbiton Oatbarton Ale at the leafy lakeside Green Dragon Inn.
Grange Rd S, Hahei 3591, New Zealand
Part of the spectacular wind- and ocean-eroded shoreline of the Te Whanganui-A-Hei Marine Reserve, Cathedral Cove, on New Zealand’s Coromandel Peninsula, is reached via an undulating coastal track that takes around 40 minutes to hike. To avoid the inevitable crowds, it’s best to visit the massive stone arch early in the morning or late in the afternoon, and the natural shower of the arch’s waterfall is a refreshing option after the walk. The stunning beach is also popular for swimming, and en route there’s good snorkeling at Gemstone Bay and Stingray Bay. To arrive at the cove by sea (a short hop from the nearby resort town of Hahei), contact Cathedral Cove Water Taxi.
42 Queen St, New Plymouth 4310, New Zealand
A thrilling tribute to world-renowned New Zealand kinetic artist Len Lye (1901–1980), New Plymouth’s Len Lye Centre is an integral part of the excellent Govett-Brewster Art Gallery. From the outside, the center’s stunning architecture of shimmering mirrored curtains reflects nearby heritage buildings, and the fascinating interior is a labyrinth of ramps and walkways showcasing Lye’s interesting kinetic constructions and innovative short films. Don’t leave New Plymouth without also checking out his Wind Wand sculpture, a towering work on the city’s often windswept oceanfront esplanade that’s pushed and pulled by bold maritime breezes coming from the Tasman Sea.
State Highway 45, Taranaki, New Zealand
Located on the western edge of New Zealand‘s North Island, the Taranaki region is less visited by travelers than other parts of the country, but the combination of its wonderfully symmetrical volcanic cone and its cavalcade of surf beaches makes it worthy of road-trip exploration. Dubbed Surf Highway 45, the meandering route south from New Plymouth to Hawera features the ever-present profile of Mount Taranaki and the opportunity to check out quiet side roads down to ruggedly spectacular bays pounded by Tasman Sea surf. Fascinating highlights include the skeletal remains of the 1903 shipwreck of the SS Gairloch and the Cape Egmont Lighthouse, first erected in 1865.
89 Quay Street
With a prime waterfront position on the edge of Auckland’s inner harbor, The Lighthouse is one of New Zealand’s newest and most interesting public art projects. Erected in 2017 as a replica New Zealand ‘state house,’ a popular form of social housing constructed around the nation in the 1940s and 1950s, The Lighthouse was designed by renowned Maori conceptual artist Michael Parekowhai. The outside of the largely prosaic exterior is enlivened by Maori-influenced tukutuku panels, usually seen inside wharenui, the traditional communal meeting houses of New Zealand’s indigenous people. The Lighthouse‘s interior is adorned with a giant stainless-steel representation of 18th-century British maritime explorer, Captain James Cook. Also inside is a filigree of lights representing the celestial waymarkers both Polynesian and European explorers used to navigate the vast South Pacific. Together with the work’s location on Auckland’s busy harbor, the net impact of The Lighthouse‘s design is a commentary on the impact of discovery and colonialism on New Zealand sovereignty and society. The most spectacular ways to consider the project’s impact is from the water, after dark.
Pouakai Track
In a country featuring some of the world’s more popular multiday hikes, the Pouakai Crossing around the iconic volcanic cone of New Zealand’s Mount Taranaki is a more convenient one-day adventure. The Taranaki region’s Egmont National Park does offer the longer two- to three-day Pouakai Circuit, but for a growing number of savvy local and international visitors, the more concise 12-mile (19-kilometer) Pouakai Crossing is a preferred option. The track takes around seven to nine hours, negotiating the more spectacular lower northern slopes of Mount Taranaki, and traversing varying landscapes from temperate rainforest to subalpine bush, and including waterfalls and remote mountain lakes. Local shuttle companies can arrange transport to and from trailheads, and the best time to tackle the Crossing is during spring and summer in the southern hemisphere (around October to April).
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