Exploring New Zealand
TL;DR: Spend as much time as possible on the South Island as it’s less populated and more scenic. There are things worth seeing on the North Island like Hobbiton and the Coromandel, but if I went back for a second visit I’d happily spend my entire trip in the South. We originally planned our itinerary in reverse, but when I realized this would put us in the world’s largest dark sky reserve during a full moon I reversed the whole thing, so we were in Lake Tekapo during a new moon. There’s this picturesque stone church that’s nestled on the waters of Lake Tekapo which provides an iconic foreground and a wonderful background of the galactic core rises. I was super excited because it was the first time I was able to see the southern cross constellation which is only visible in the southern hemisphere.
From there, we continued onto Aoraki Mount Cook National Park which reminded me a lot of Rocky Mountain National Park in Denver. There are a lot of fun hikes in the park and a nice museum exhibit on mountain climbing in the Hermitage Hotel.
This was one of my favorite places in NZ. It’s a quaint town nestled amongst breathtaking mountains and lakes. It has a ton of hiking and is a photographer’s paradise. Even if you don’t recognize the name, you’ve probably seen a photograph of its most famous tree: That Wanaka Tree. It’s usually surrounded by photographers, but I found the water to be the calmest and least populated with expensive cameras around sunrise.
Rudyard Kipling described Milford Sound as the ’eighth wonder of the world’. It was carved by glaciers during the ice ages, and the views are as spectacular as they sound. Most tourists stay in either Queenstown or nearby Te Anau and take a bus in for the day for their cruise. The cruise is great, and you have to do one. But the real magic is after the hordes of tourists depart. When the tides go out, beautiful pockets of water and moss-covered rocks appear. And you have a good chance of having the entire place to yourself. The only place to stay is The Milford Sound Lodge, but they have a hotel, camping, and hostel options. It’s also one of the only places to eat after the tourist shops close down, so we splurged on a nice meal.
A classic resort town, there’s something for everyone here. Tasty food, beautiful hikes, and bungee jumping for the more adventurous. There’s a gondola to take you up the nearby mountain and then a whole other “city” to explore up top. They have a fun but expensive luge ride at the top which you’re almost certainly going to try. We did the relatively easy Queenstown Hill Walking Track during the day which was much less strenuous than our prior hike up Roy’s Peak. There were some cute elf homes that we stumbled upon during that walk.
Glaciers, Mountain Passes, Christchurch, Picton, and Wellington
After Queenstown, we ran into a stretch of bad weather which kept my camera safely inside. We did hikes at the Franz Joseph and Fox Glaciers before heading back to Christchurch through Arthur’s Pass to pick up my friend Mark who was joining us for the rest of our trip. We did stop off at the Cave Stream Scenic Reserve for some quick spelunking and then did a nice hike on the Godley Head Loop for sunset. We saw old WW2 bunker ruins and lots of sheep! We also stayed in one of the most unique hostels I’ve been in Jailhouse Accomodation. You can probably guess by the name that it was an old jail converted to a hostel.
Due to earthquake damage, the fast route through Kaikoura to Picton was closed, so we had to go on a much longer detour. But on the way, we stopped off at Lake Rotoiti where Nassim Taleb would be pleased to know I discovered not one but TWO black swans. What are the odds?
From there, we hopped onboard the ferry in Picton after returning our south-island rental car, and a few hours later we were in Wellington which seemed like a bustling metropolis after spending 2 weeks in the South. We had time for a brief visit to the Museum of New Zealand before heading out on one of our longest drives to Taupō.
Taupō and Hobbiton
The Tongariro Day Hike is an extremely popular all-day hike often done from Taupō, however, our streak of bad weather continued, so our experience was rather miserable. It rained off and on and there was low fog that obscured most of the views. But, the next morning, I woke up early and the sky looked like it was going to explode in color, so I grabbed my camera gear and started driving trying to find a last-minute location. I ended up at a random dock on the west side of Lake Taupo and suddenly all the poor weather seemed to make restitution!
Taupō is home to the “World’s Coolest McDonalds”. I normally eschew chain restaurants on vacations in favor of trying local places, but the decommissioned Douglas DC-3 plane serving as an ancillary dining room caught our attention, so we took a snack break.
Hobbiton is a tourist trap. But it’s an effective one! Even knowing what it is, you’re still going to spend the money to experience it for yourself. “Sneaky little hobbitses!” I wish they were open around sunrise and sunset for some epic photos, but at the time they only did special events like that for photographers a few times per year.
Rotorua, Mount Maunganui, and The Coromandel
If you enjoy hot springs, you’ll like Rotorua. But if you’ve already been to Yellowstone and don’t enjoy the smell of rotten eggs, you can skip it.
Mount Maunganui is a cannot-miss, though. It’s known for its large lava dome that locals and tourists alike hike up. We got up in the dark so that we could watch the sunrise from the summit. There’s also a sandbar that juts out into the Bay that is sometimes accessible depending on the tide. We watched a beautiful sunset from there too. the fast-moving clouds were sweeping towards us, so a long exposure created a really cool effect.
And the Coromandel; my favorite image is featured at the top of this page of me looking out at the sea stacks from inside of a cave. If you watched The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian you might have recognized the scened from when the Pevensie siblings discovered the ruins of Cair Paravel. Of course, they arrived in the middle of the day whereas I hiked for an hour in the dark to arrive at twilight and then waited for the sky to light up. It’s truly an inimitable piece of geology. Because the other two members of my party didn’t want to get up at 5 am I actually did this hike twice on the same day. And the second time I came back we certainly did not have the place to ourselves as I did at dawn.
We stayed in a small hostel right on the beach and had a crazy sunset the last night before heading back to the airport in Auckland.
Here’s a map of most of the places mentioned in this article. It was my working copy as I planned our route, so it doesn’t follow exactly what we did but is fairly close. I hope it helps you plan your own New Zealand Adventure!
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