Retro: New Zealand
I had high hopes for New Zealand, and it more than delivered. We spent one month in a camper van, running around the islands, hiking, exploring, and making really obscure Lord of the Rings references to each other. It’s hard to believe there is so much to do in such a small place, and with only a month on the road we couldn’t do nearly all that we wanted - here’s a list of our favorites that we did get to try.
Places to Go
There are so many absolutely beautiful places in New Zealand, prepare for a long list.
• The Catlins, especially Nugget Point. The Catlins are a hidden gem, on the southernmost point of South Island. It’s pretty rugged out there, not many people, lots of penguins and other wildlife, and amazing coastal landscape. There is SO much to do there - little bays nestled amongst towering white cliffs, countless waterfalls, coves, blowholes, and hikes. My favorite was Nugget Point - interesting little rock formations, a small lighthouse, and the most picturesque area where the cliff meets the sea.
• Wanaka. You’ve probably heard of Wanaka before, it’s where the famous Lake Wanaka tree is, which is definitely worth checking out. Outside of that, though, the lake is crystal clear and great for swimming, there’s a cute little downtown area, a beautiful park, and some great hikes. It’s one of those places where it just feels like everyone is hanging out being active outside, and there’s always plenty to do there.
• Milford Sound/Fiordland. Fiordland is an absolutely breathtaking area, most famously home to Milford and Doubtful Sounds. The best way to get there is to drive, the road down that west coast of the island is filled with waterfalls, lakes, and hikes you can stop off at and explore for hours. Once you get to Milford Sound, there’s tons to do - kayaking, scuba diving, more hiking. We took a short cruise around the Fiords, the landscape is some of the most beautiful sights we saw, took us right through the rocks and waterfalls and dolphins scattered throughout the sound.
• Bungy Jumping in Queenstown. Commercial bungy-jumping was first popularized in New Zealand, and the same center is still up-and-running today. It’s a pretty quintessential thing to do while passing through; it’s a beautiful area and a really gorgeous jump into Kawarau Gorge.
• Tongariro Alpine Crossing. A beautiful hike, it’s touted as the best day-hike in the country. It’ll take you about six to seven hours, but the entire way is just breathtaking (emerald lakes, hot springs, beautiful flora) and well-worth the sore legs you’ll have the next day. You’ll also get some views of Mount Ngauruhoe, aka Mount Doom from Lord of the Rings, which is pretty cool to see if you’re a fan of the movies!
• Mt. Sunday. This hike was is a little under-the-radar, especially compared to some of the other popular hikes we did here. But it was our favorite one in the country, maybe ever. Mt. Sunday is famously where Edoras was filmed in Lord of the Rings, but you’ll like it, even if you haven’t seen the movies, I promise. A quick hike that gives you vast, deserted plains, and an incredible view of mountains and farmland on all sides.
• Rotorua hot springs. We spent a day driving around Rotorua, every few minutes there’s a turn-off where you can go and explore geysers, mud pools, thermal baths, and more. We drove to Kerosene Creek, just a little outside the city, a churning little river with warm water and a smell of sulfur that’ll knock you back if you’re not careful. Be sure to bring your swimsuit so you can take full advantage of the mineral baths.
• Raglan. Raglan is an unassuming surfing town on the west coast of North Island, with a laidback vibe. It is the spot for surfing in New Zealand (Ngarunui beach to be exact), and we thought it’d be a great place to learn. We wandered into a little surf shop for a few lessons, and spent the next four days attempting to surf, getting knocked down, and just hanging out in the waves all day. It was some of the best time we spent in New Zealand, and if you can fit it in yourself then I’d highly recommend it.
• Whale watching in Kaikoura. Kaikoura is a seaside town on South Island, famous for the several sperm whales living around the coast. We hopped on a boat and went whale watching, which sounds pretty boring, but it was surprisingly exhilarating to see the iconic tail diving under, set against the background of the mountains in the distance. Outside of whale watching, there are lots of seals and rocky seaside hikes to check out, as well as some of the best crayfish on the island.
Other tourist attractions we enjoyed: Hobbiton Movie Set, Cathedral Cove, Te Papa Art Museum, Cuba Street, Castle Hill, Mt. Cook, Mirror Lakes, Morekai Boudlers, Organ Pipes, Waitomo Glowworm Caves, Lake Tekapo, Peel Forest.
Things to do
Here are some of our favorite experiences you can try most anywhere in New Zealand!
• Rent a camper van. I may be biased but I truly believe this is the best way to explore the country. There’s so much you’ll miss if you fly from point A to point B - hours on the open road, speeding through farmlands and through mountains and across beaches, pulling off onto little side streets and discovering all the beautiful sights along the way. There are a ton of companies out there that’ll rent you a van, ranging from self-contained (including a bathroom, kitchen, room to stand), and shitty little mini-vans with a convertible mattress, like the one we got. Camping around the islands is pretty simple, you’ll pay a couple bucks a night for a place to park, running water, and a shower, or if you want to rough it a bit more, there are tons of free places too (but don’t expect more than a port-a-potty there).
• Go to a sheep shearing show. While traveling in Thailand we met a girl from New Zealand who told us at one point there were twenty sheep per person in New Zealand - so we knew we were going to have to do something sheep-related while we were here. This was a fun activity we went to on a whim, we’d been seeing signs for it in a couple cities and finally decided to stop into one. We learned more than we ever thought we would about the different types of sheep and wool in the world!
• Stargaze. New Zealand had some of the most stunning night skies I have ever seen. It’s home to the largest dark sky reserve in the world - Aoraki Mackenzie Dark Sky Reserve - and any clear night in the area will show you breathtaking views of the stars and the Milky Way spanning across the sky. The southern hemisphere was a first for us, so we got to see a host of new constellations, and some old ones, upside-down. Be sure to pick a day with as little cloud cover as possible, drive as far away from any towns/artificial light as you can, and minimize use of all electronics while you’re looking (it takes about twenty minutes for your eyes to adjust to the darkness after using a phone/flashlight.)
• Visit a Kiwi Reserve. There is so much endemic flora and fauna in New Zealand, and unfortunately a lot of it has been lost or endangered due to human interference and the introduction of pests. We visited a reserve in Queenstown where we learned all about some of the conservation efforts going on, and we also got to meet tons of different species of native wildlife - including the tuatara (a “living fossil”), the kea (a large alpine parrot), and, of course, the kiwi! We learned that kiwis lay some of the largest eggs in proportion to their body size of any bird in the world, and that they mate for life.
Food to Eat
The food in New Zealand was an interesting mix of Māori, British, and more - here are a few of our favorite things we had.
• Pies. Not like American, fruit pies, but like mini hand-pies filled with tons of different savory ingredients - lamb curry, chicken cranberry, mussels. We ate probably one of these a day, each - they’re really heavy but an amazing meal after a long hike or a day spent surfing. Our absolute favorites were anything from Blue Belle Cafe in Wellington, or butter chicken anywhere.
• Crayfish, especially if you visit Kaikoura (whose name literally means “meal of crayfish”). You might know them as lobster, but don’t call them that over in New Zealand. They grow the crayfish big out there, Peter and I split one from a little mom-and-pop joint, served on paper plates with plastic utensils, and it ended up being the most expensive meal we had our entire time in New Zealand. It was worth every penny.
• Pavlova. Pavlova is named after a Russian Ballerina, but it originated in New Zealand - a light meringue-based cake.
If New Zealand isn’t on your bucket list, it should be. Whether you’re looking for swimming, surfing, or hiking, rolling hills and farmlands or cool museums and cute downtowns, you will find it in New Zealand. We’ve been gone a while now but I’ve been dreaming ever since about going back.