Living in New Zealand just wasn’t enough for me – I have to keep writing about it, too!
I fell in love with the country the moment I arrived. Well… two days later once some of the jet lag had worn off.
Even though I’ve left, part of my heart will always live in the land of the long white cloud (the Maori meaning of New Zealand’s native name). And after a year of procrastination and getting overly emotional about pictures, I’m finally writing my Complete Guide to New Zealand so you can fall in love too!
If you’re trying to figure out where to go or what to do in New Zealand, you need this guide!
The Complete Guide will cover all of the exciting things to do in New Zealand, from the northernmost point of Cape Reinga to the southernmost point on Stewart Island (which is technically New Zealand’s third island!).
Break out your notebook and start saving your pennies, because after this you’ll be dying to visit.
Read on for exciting activities, beautiful beaches and more!
- 1 The Complete Guide to New Zealand: North Island
The Complete Guide to New Zealand: North Island
Bay of Islands
The Bay of Islands is the area of New Zealand north of Auckland. It’s full of remote beaches, small towns, cultural areas and natural beauty.
Drive from Auckland to Paihia to have a base in the Bay of Islands. In Paihia, you can go on dolphin watching cruises, see the famous hole in the rock, take the ferry to Russell (New Zealand’s first capital), snorkel or dive from Poor Knights Island, cycle the Twin Coast trail, walk to small waterfalls or hang out on the beach and catch some fish.
From Paihia, you can take day trips up to Cape Reinga – the northernmost point of New Zealand’s North Island. It is the place with the Tasman Sea meets the Pacific Ocean, and where the Maori spirits cross over into the afterlife.
On your way, you can visit Kauri tree forests (like Puketi Kauri Forest or Waipoua Forest) and see Tane Mahuta, the world’s largest Kauri tree. Pack a bougie board to visit Te Paki Stream, the largest sand dunes in the southern hemisphere, and try sand surfing! (It’s not quite as terrifying as it looks – but you’ll need to pack a change of clothes for after. That was a mistake I deeply regret.) Tours heading south can drive on Ninety-Mile Beach, which is officially a highway. It’s also the route of a pilgrimage from the north to the south of New Zealand.
If you visit in April, be sure to go to Waitangi – the birthplace of New Zealand – where an annual celebration is held for the country’s founding. You can visit a museum about the signing of the treaty that created New Zealand.
There’s so much to do in Auckland that I had to separate it out into three categories! (Admittedly, I lived here … but you’ll soon that this Complete Guide to New Zealand is a bit biased anyway!)
Auckland was rated the third most livable city in the world – and for good reason!
Downtown Auckland (the CBD – central business district) is full of delicious restaurants, has an amazing waterfront and is the business centre of the country. Working right next to the harbour, with great food and pretty parks just moments away, made it so hard to leave my job.
Make the most of Auckland by exploring on foot. You can walk from the CBD to the famous One Tree Hill (no, not the TV show!) and Mount Eden for panoramic views of the city. Walk along the waterfront to Mission Bay or Herne Bay for white sand beaches (although Mission Bay’s popularity can make it less relaxing). Relax in the Auckland Domain or wander the Winter Gardens to get away from the city noise. If you’re after a quick bit of greenery, head to Albert Park by the university.
Looking for something more challenging? Try the coast to coast walk. It is 4-5 hours of urban views from the Auckland ferry terminal to Onehunga (pronounced own-eh-hunga). It’s a challenging 16 km walk that includes One Tree Hill and Mount Eden, but offers less and less as you go on. It’s not a walk for views.
Enjoy the quiet life in Devonport – just a ferry ride across the harbour. There you’ll find a free naval museum, a look out over Auckland and my favourite beach (Cheltenham Beach) for a quiet picnic.
Adrenaline junkies will love Sky Tower for the highest views in the city, and the opportunity to walk (or bungee!) off the edge. For more of a thrill, head to the Auckland Harbour Bridge to do the only ocean touch bungee in the world!
Auckland is no slouch when it comes to food. My favourite restaurants were in Ponsonby and K Road. From cheap (American) pies to fancy steak dinners, you’ll find a myriad of restaurant ratings by @eatlit food. I highly recommend scrolling through his feed for inspiration!
Cultural travellers should check out the Auckland War Memorial Museum to discover more about the country’s history. Head to the art gallery to enjoy some modern art (which I’m told is very good even though I don’t get any of it).
For non-native wildlife, you can visit the Auckland Zoo. (Its the only time kiwis let other species into the country without a national pandemic.)
New Zealand’s largest city is also known for its nightlife. Auckland has bars across the boardwalk that often feature live music (and incredibly price-y drinks!).
New Zealand isn’t just two (well, three) big islands: its composed of tons of tiny ones too!
And you can reach them all by taking ferries from Auckland. They make amazing day trips.
Waiheke is the wine capital of Auckland (can cities have capitals?? no? oh well!).
Take the ferry across to enjoy a day of vineyard hopping, eating great food and enjoying the picturesque skyline.
Or visit for a more active day in Waiheke visit an adventure park, cycle the island to see the historic ruins on the northeast shore, or hike the nature reserve.
Or, like me, find a happy medium between the two. Visit an olive oil factory, sample some wine, relax on the beach, eat too much food, and do some coastal walking (but maybe try not to get hopelessly lost like I did).
Stay overnight at one of the charming B&Bs or decadent spa hotels on the island.
Be sure to find a good vantage point to enjoy Waiheke’s famous sunsets.
Rangitoto is the dormant volcano that lies along Auckland’s shores.
Head across the harbour to hike 2 hours (an easy climb) to the summit for panoramic views.
Want more adventure? Bring a torch (flashlight) to explore the caves where some people have seen glowworms!
To round out the workout, kayak or paddle board across the harbour from Auckland. Try to time it to see the sunset on your way.
Great Barrier Island
Great Barrier Island is the furthest destination from Auckland by ferry.
Visit rare wildlife at Glenfern Sanctuary. Explore the lush greenery of the Aotea track. Enjoy the sun on the Medlands beach.
You can take tours of the island through tour groups (they even run one by kayak!).
Tiritiri Matangi Bird Sanctuary
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WOW @tiritirimatangiisland is absolutely sensational. My next few posts will be from my recent trip there this week, and yes the birdlife was insane. The Tiri team and volunteers should be so proud of this treasure, also the week wouldn't have been the same without @hosrobert @hannahshandart . You can see more of my trip on my webpage www.maddoxphotographynz.com or Maddoxphotographynz on Facebook. #tiritirimatangi #nzbirds #kokako #birds #bird #bird_extreme #purenewzealand #canonnz #birdsofinstagram #birds_private #birds_adored #bird_brilliance #birds_captures #birdsphotography #nuts_about_birds #backyardbirds #birdselite #bestbirdshots #nature #picoftheday #igs_birds #birdwatching #birds_of_ig #birdplanet #wildlifephotography #kiwipics
New Zealand has long been plagued by imported animals that are killing its native wildlife. To save their species, they have created predator free islands where the birds can thrive.
It’s so protected that humans can’t even stay overnight!
But we can hike the trails to spot some unique wildlife.
Auckland West Coast
Less than an hour from the urban CBD, you can escape to nature on Auckland’s west coast.
Head over for some of the best surfing spots (according to an old workmate) and rugged rock forms. Pack a blanket to lay out on the black sand beaches and gaze at the Tasman Sea.
Or venture into the forest on walking trails to see native wildlife and waterfalls.
Piha is the best known beach, but you can also head out to Miriwai or Karekare for an excellent day trip.
Spend the weekend with some camping gear for a cheap sort-of-staycation.
Coromandel should be the first stop on any road trip south of Auckland. The remarkable views from the cliffs is so worth the time.
Stop by Cathedral Cove to see the limestone arch and golden sand. Enjoy a scenic cruise or kayak to make the most of the clear water. If you’re a movie buff, try to create scenes from the Narnia movie set here!
For more natural beauty, explore the Whenuakura Wildlife Sanctuary with its 40ft entrance cave, Owharoa Falls in the Karangahake Gorge, or the Big Bay Blowhole. Hike the Pinnacles and camp out to see an amazing sunrise from the summit. Snorkel in the Orue sea cave in the morning to watch the light glimmer through from a small hole.
Cyclists can enjoy a 3 day ride along old rail lines on the Hauraki Rail Trail.
Ride an hour on the Driving Creek Railway to the Eyefull Tower (ha!) for amazing views. Or explore the richer side of New Zealand at the Waihi gold mine (the richest gold mine in the country).
To enjoy some TLC, especially after all that hiking, head to The Lost Spring Geothermal Spa in Whitiangi.
Don’t want to spend a dime? You don’t have to! Visit Hot Water Beach and create your own geothermal pool.
Waikato is home to the famous Waitomo Glowworm Caves. Visit Black Water Rafting Co. to raft (really inner tube), boat, abseil or walk through the underground caves to see the little blue lights.
It’s a weird (and cold!) experience, but the astonishing beauty of thousands of little blue fairy lights brightening the pitch black cave should not be missed!
As amazing as the caves are, the best thing to do in Waikato is go to Hobbiton!
Head on an adventure into the movie set from the Lord of the Rings, where you can take a guided tour through hobbit holes and movie magic. Take photos with Samwise Gamgee’s house and sip a refreshing ale in the tavern. You can even dress up in hobbit clothes!
I think Hobbiton will forever remain the best thing I did in New Zealand – maybe ever!
If you have longer to spend in the area, try out surfing in Raglan or cruise the Waikato river. Enjoy the finer things in life at Zealong Tea Estate, the country’s only tea plantation. You can wander through the Hamilton Gardens for blooms or Sanctuary Mountain Maungatautari to see the natural wildlife.
Waikoto Museum is home to a majestic war waka (Maori canoe) and local art that is worth visiting.
Cyclists should head to the 87km Timber Trail through the Pureora Forest for a good mountain ride.
Rotorua has a lot more to offer than just its weird smell! (Thank the geothermal activity for that.)
The volcanic activity in the area has made its landscape truly unique. Visit bubbling mud pools and geysers at Te Puia to see it in action! While you’re at Te Puia, check out the kiwi hatchery where you can see a real kiwibird.
You can also see the volcanic landscape in the bright orange and turquoise of Champagne Pool and Wai-o-tapu’s Thermal Valley.
I love the region for its cultural offerings, like the Maori village visits. Head to Tamaki Maori or Mitai Moari Village for a hangi (traditional feast) and a haka (traditional dance). You’ll learn more about the indigenous people of New Zealand while enjoying a delicious meal – who wouldn’t want that?
For a jolt of adrenaline, try rafting the 7 metre water fall at Kaituna. Not enough? Luge the skyline luge in Rotorua or mountain bike through the Rotorua Redwood Forest.
Bay of Plenty
Take advantage of the rich waters to swim with wild dolphins in Tauranga. Or stay above the waves on a Sea-fari where you may even see an orca!
Stay closer to shore with rented kayak or paddle boards.
Try to spot kiwibirds and tuatara (a large lizard) at the Moutohora sanctuary on Wahle Island.
Hike to the top of Mauoa to get panoramic views of the area. On a clear day, you can even see to the Coromandel peninsula!
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East Cape Lighthouse in all its glory basking in the early morning glow. #roadtrip #teararoa #eastcapelighthouse #eastcape #lighthouse #tairawhiti #gisborne #tairawhitigisborne #firstlightNZ #landofthefirstlight #northisland #newzealand #nz #nzmustdo #nztravels 📸 : @damonmeade
Tairawhiti isn’t included in most tour packages, but I think it should be. This is the first spot in the world to see the sunrise everyday.
Why wouldn’t you want to see that??
Spend the rest of your time checking out Maori carvings at Mount Hikurangi or sliding down a natural rockslide on the Wharekopae River.
Surf in Gisborne, thought to be the best surfing area in New Zealand.
If, like my mom, you love chardonnay, you have to visit this unofficial chardonnay capital of New Zealand! Go on a self guided tour of the wineries while you wait for the new day to start.
Waka Voyagers offers you the chance to ride in a waka hourua (historic canoe) on their tours. Get a traditional Maori welcome and try out manning the “hoe” (steering paddle) on your sail.
Mt. Taranaki is supposed to be the best climb in the North Island. Pack proper gear to make it to the top of this snow capped peak!
To get to New Zealand’s highest cafe, you’ll have to visit Ruapehu. Take a gondola ride 2020m above sea level at Knoll Ridge to reach the Knoll Cafe and enjoy a (very high) meal.
Oddly, that’s not the most unique experience here. Head to Forgotten World Adventures to board a rail cart and drive yourself 142km through a decommissioned railway line. Follow the tracks through old tunnels and interesting landscapes for a one of a kind experience.
Taupo will always send trills of excitement down my spine, because it’s where I did my first sky dive. Although there are many places in New Zealand (and even in the North Island) to sky dive, this is the only one with a chance to see both islands while you do it.
To be honest, I can’t remember if that’s true. I can barely remember more than the wind rushing at my face (but that’s why you shell out way too much for a video!).
It’s also a beautiful landscape to fall onto.
Taupo is best known for its large lake (its the size of Singapore!) which formed in an old volcanic crater. You can walk its shores, bike around it or sail across it. If you sail, you can reach the Maori rock carvings at Mine Bay which are only accessible by water.
Like most of New Zealand, you can find bungee jumping, rafting and jet boating in Taupo.
Make sure to fit in extra time in Taupo to do New Zealand’s best rated hike: the Tongariro Crossing. The crossing is a 19.4km hike across lava fields that will take you past Mount Doom (from Lord of the Rings), through snow (even in summer!) and alongside emerald lakes. Even though its a lot of walking, the view is so worth it!
Stop by Huka Falls on your journey to see the incredible waterfalls where over 220,000 L of water thunder over every second! Those braver than I am can even jet boat across it.
Hawkes Bay is famous for its wineries. It’s the Bordeaux of New Zealand!
Check out one (or more) of the 72 vineyards in the region. I’ve been told that Te Mata Estate is especially good.
We’ve made it to the end of the North Island – but we’re not quite done yet.
Wellington is New Zealand’s capital city. It has a thriving business district and is where the government is based.
The city has a lovely waterfront to walk along, with restaurants and (on certain days) farmers markets to pop into for a bite. The best food I found in the city was on Cuba Street, where you can find fancy restaurants and cheap eats side by side!
Coffee lovers should definitely plan some time to drink their way across New Zealand’s coffee capital. Some cafes even do flights of coffee for you to try!
Wellington’s most popular attraction is the Te Papa museum, a free museum that explores the history of the nation. From the Waitangi treaty to Maori traditions to World War 1, the museum details the country’s history with incredible detail. I highly recommend going to the war exhibit with the larger than life statues of soldiers.
To enjoy good weather in Windy Welly, hike or cycle to the top of Mount Victoria to lookout across the water. Wander the botanic gardens or explore the galaxy at the observatory.
Too tired to walk down? Take the Wellington Cable Car (it even has its own museum!).
Before you leave Wellington, head to Weta Workshop to see the magic behind the movies. This is the studio associated with Peter Jackson, where they create a lot of the costumes and special effects you see in movies.
Head outside of downtown to visit boutique vineyards in Martinborough or visit native birds at the Zealandia Nature Reserve. Spot seals at Red Rock Reserve or see the rare white kiwi at Pukaha Mount Bruce.
Drive down to Wairarapa to walk the Pinnacles Track (a backdrop for Lord of the Rings), visit Castlepoint lighthouse and spot seals. Make your way to Cape Palliser to reach the southernmost point of the North Island.
Getting to the South Island
Now that you’ve seen EVERYTHING the North Island has to offer (I mean, wow, that was a lot of stuff), it’s time to head to the South Island.
But how do you get there?
This wouldn’t be a very complete Complete Guide to New Zealand if I didn’t tell you.
You have two options: ferry or plane. Or I guess swim if you’re Aquaman.
Make sure to book either in advance as they fill up quickly in peak seasons!
There are two ferries from Wellington to Picton (the stop on the South Island). Both are drive on ferries or walk on. The journey takes 3 to 3.5 hours.
The Interislander is the oldest ferry that goes across the Cook Strait. Fares vary depending on time of year, age and the size of your vehicle (if you have one). They start from $65 NZD for an adult.
You can enjoy your journey more with movie theatres, free wifi, dining options and private cabins. Make sure to bundle up (especially in the summer) because the air con seems to only run on high and it gets COLD.
The Interislander sails at 9am, 2:45pm and 5pm.
The Bluebridge Cook Strait Ferry starts at $49 NZD per adult. Their fares also vary depending on time of year, age and vehicle.
Their amenities are the same as the Interislander.
The Bluebridge Ferry runs at 2:30am, 8am, 1:30pm and 8:45pm.
Note: you cannot take rental vehicles on the ferry! Arrange in advance to drop your vehicle off in Wellington and book a new one in Picton (do this early as they often run out).
The Cook Strait can be very choppy. Be sure to bring sea sickness tablets if, like me, you don’t handle waves well.
There are lots of flights from the North to the South Island, but I am only going to talk about the ones that follow a similar route to the ferry to follow our North-to-South travels.
You can fly out of Wellington Airport to either Nelson or Blenheim (35 minutes or 25 minutes respectively) to reach the South Island. It’s more expensive than the ferry, but a faster journey.
AirNZ operates this route, but now so does Jetstar (the country’s discount airline). For 25 minutes, who needs the extra centimetre of legroom?
Our journey down New Zealand’s North Island is complete!
(Or has just begun – because how could you read that and not book a flight to this gorgeous country immediately??)
Now you’re ready to start planning your kiwi itinerary to enjoy all that the North Island has to offer!
I’ve taken you through the major attractions and some lesser known ones as well to help you make the most of any journey around New Zealand. Now people understand why I always say you need AT LEAST 4 weeks to really see the country. It may look small on a map, but there’s so much amazing stuff hiding deep within.
I’ll be back in two weeks to take you further south in my Complete Guide to New Zealand’s South Island. It’s often said to be the more beautiful of the two – but I’ll leave you to decide.
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