Two ideal regions for immersive excursions in New Zealand
The short version (ha-ha)
Side note: In June the topic for the month is Excursions and this article was meant to appear earlier this month. However, I’ve discovered while writing this post, that it’s hard to write about two ideal regions for immersive excursions in New Zealand without going into detail and writing way too much. After some personal stuff that happened earlier this month (unfortunately one of my two cats passed away) which set me back a week, I’ve since struggled to keep the post short, and it’s taken me a long time to complete with various attempts to shorten it. In the end, to keep it (somewhat) short I’ve had to remove many other locations such as Hamilton, Raglan and Hobbiton and noteworthy excursions and day-trips I wanted to include, otherwise I would never finish it before the beginning of July when a new travel topic starts. Hopefully, in time, I will be able to add those to separate posts.
I’ve always loved rugged landscapes and fjords, interesting rock formations, ice-capped mountain views, waterfalls, lakes and rivers, not to mention white sand beaches and the ocean and, of course, active volcanoes and volcanic landscapes. Experiencing an active volcano is still on my bucket list, as is visiting New Zealand, which for one reason or another has not happened yet.
It stands to reason, that when I became a Travel Advisor last year, I decided New Zealand would be one of the first destinations I would specialize in. Now as a Destination Specialist for New Zealand, I realize that if you want to see more than just a few active volcanoes, fjords and lakes, one trip is probably not enough.
If, like me, you have New Zealand on your bucket list (and really, if you haven’t already been there, why wouldn’t it be?), you’ll already know there is so much to see, do and experience in this southern hemisphere country. If you travel from Auckland in the North to Queenstown in the South, whether by road, rail, boat or air (or all four), you’ll discover spectacular coastlines with beautiful white sand beaches, unique and interesting rock formations and fabulous fjords; you’ll see majestic mountains and vineyard covered hills; on a road-trip through this volcanic land, you’re bound to come across symbolic Māori temples and indigenous architecture, picturesque villages, charming small towns and iconic cities.
If you’re an active traveller and you go beyond the major highways and byways to venture deeper, you’ll discover stunning volcanic landscapes where you can explore huge caves and underground rivers, geothermal pools and geysers; you’ll have ample opportunity to hike on gorgeous low-altitude glaciers or kayak on glass-like glacial lakes and winding rivers; the more adventuresome can trek through ancient rain forests, moss-covered beech forests or on stunning white sand beaches; you can stand in awe of wonderful waterfalls and spot incredible and unique wildlife, including the kiwi, New Zealand’s national bird; or you can learn about the Māori culture, its heritage and myths as well as the history of the islands that make up this stunning country.
Needless to say, it’s impossible to explore the entire country and experience everything New Zealand has to offer on a two-week vacation, which is all most of us have time for, especially as you’ll need at least two days to get there and back (or more if you want to break up the long flight with a stopover in Hawaii or Fiji) plus another to recover from the jet lag before embarking on your island adventure.
So, below I highlight just two ideal regions where you can go on a variety of immersive excursions in New Zealand that, I believe, will provide you with a good experience and understanding of the landscapes, wilderness and culture that New Zealand is known for, as well as provide an awesome adventure. On North Island, you’ll experience Māori culture as well as volcanic landscapes, and on South Island, you’ll experience rugged wilderness and spectacular fiords.
North Island: Thermal Explorer Highway Region
Experience Maori culture and volcanic landscapes
If you’re flying to New Zealand from anywhere in North America, chances are you’ll be landing at Auckland International Airport which is on the northern tip of North Island, the second largest of the three main islands that make up New Zealand, even if it’s just for a stopover before heading south.
There’s a ton to see, do and experience in and around Auckland itself as well as Northland Region, which is home to stunning coastlines with excellent diving, snorkelling and swimming spots, kauri forests, and some of the country’s most significant historic events. The north peninsula is also a place of great Māori spiritual significance so it’s an excellent area to learn about the Māori culture and heritage.
However, if you’re like me, and you’d like to experience both Māori culture AND volcanic landscapes, and would like to combine outdoor activities and adventure with relaxation and rejuvenation, you should head to the Thermal Explorer Highway Region to explore Rotorua, Taupō, Tongariro National Park and Waitomo.
Rotorua and area
- In Rotorua, you can take guided tours of the city to learn about its history and the Māori culture as well as see Māori arts and crafts.
- In Whakarewarewe or Ohinimutu you can explore these living villages and stay overnight at a marae (traditional Māori meeting place) to experience warm Māori hospitality and spirit.
- Watch wood carvers and flax weavers create their traditional works of art at the Te Pula Māori Arts and Crafts Institute.
- Spend an evening in authentic surroundings as Māori performers sing, dance and haka (the Māori war dance).
- Once you’ve had your cultural fix in the city, take a tour of “nature’s spa” to experience the volcanic landscape that Rotorua is known for. Stand in awe of gigantic geysers as they jet high into the air from the earth below, listen to gurgling mud pools and watch the steam spurt from hot springs
- If you’re feeling energetic, hike on a dormant volcano, Mt Tarawera.
- If you prefer to relax and rejuvenate, head for one of the many hot pool complexes that provide both communal and private pools fed by geothermal hot waters where you can bathe in mud.
- Stay in one of the area’s health and wellness resorts that provide massages and a variety of other therapeutic treatments that incorporate volcanic mud, mineral water and steam.
Head to Taupō (just an hour away from Rotorua) to discover more spectacular landscapes created by thousands of years of volcanic activity. Here you’ll be wowed by Lake Taupō, which was created by huge volcanic eruptions in 86 AD and is the largest fresh water lake in Australasia. About the size of Singapore, it is internationally-recognized for its trout fishing.
- Take a boat tour on Lake Taupō for leisurely scenic sightseeing or fly fishing with a guide.
- A must see are the Māori Rock Carvings, the other side of the lake. They can only be seen from the water, so you’ll either want to take a boat tour or, if you’re active, you can kayak across the lake.
- Another must-see (or must-do) experience is watching the Huka Falls. Walk the banks of Tongariro River from Lake Taupō and watch a natural phenomenon as the calm river waters are suddenly forced through a narrow volcanic ravine.
- If you’re an adrenaline junkie, you’ll want to go jet boating or white river rafting up the Tongariro River and through the Huka Falls. Here you can even go bungy jumping or tandem skydiving!
Venture further south in the Thermal Explorer Highway Region and you’ll enter Tongariro National Park, a World Heritage Site, where there is so many spectacular landscapes and natural wonders to discover including sparkling emerald lakes, fresh alpine meadows and steaming volcanic craters. The best way to experience the best of Tongariro National Park is on a self-guided hike or a guided tour. However, there are way too many to mention here, so here are just a few.
- Hike around an active volcano. If you’re looking for adventure you’ll want to hike the Northern Circuit, one of New Zealand’s Great Walks. This 41 km track encircles Mount Ngauruhoe, a perfectly cone-shaped volcanic peak and takes 3-4 days. It’s ideal for volcano lovers who don’t mind camping.
- Guided hike of Tongariro Alpine Crossing. If you’re looking for a day hike and enjoy a challenge, this is said to be one of New Zealand’s greatest day walks. You’ll see lava flows, an active crater, steam vents, extraordinary emerald-coloured lakes and spectacular views.
- Taranaki Falls Walking Track. This two-hour walk is a must if you’re short on time. On this walk, not only will you see Taranaki Falls halfway round the track, you’ll also see stunning views of Mt Ngauruhoe, Mt Tongariro and the massive Mt Ruapehu.
- Self-guided Audio Tour of Tongariro. On this unique 1-3 hour hike, you’ll learn about volcanic activity, the area’s craters, and Māori myths as you walk past Soda Springs, Emerald Lakes, Ketetahi Springs and more.
- Ski on an Active Volcano. There’s not many places in the world where you can experience skiing on an active volcano, but here in Tongariro, in the right conditions, you can ski on Mount Ruapehu, an active volcano.
If you enjoy underground adventure, head to Waitomo, where you’ll find not just one cave to explore but three, starting with the world-famous Waitomo Glowworm Caves.
- Waitomo Glowworm Cave Tour. Here you’ll be guided on foot through the underground limestone caves, whilst listening to informative and entertaining stories and cultural legends. You’ll also be taken on an unforgettable adventure as you enjoy a boat ride under thousands of spectacular glow worms.
- Ruakuri Cave Walking Tour. Head to Ruakuri Cave, New Zealand’s longest guided underground walking tour and the only wheelchair accessible cave in the Southern Hemisphere. This cave offers a fascinating feat of underground engineering as well as a natural cave experience.
- Aranui Cave. In Waitomo’s smallest and most fragile cave, Aranui, you’ll find a colony of cave wetas (cave crickets) native to New Zealand and the most stunning collection of decorative creations. This cave is filled in Māori myths and legends.
- Adventure Activities. For the more adventuresome, you can also choose to abseil, weave, jump, climb or float through an underground glow worm wonderland. Expert guides will assist and reassure you on your exhilarating cave adventure tour.
South Island: Fiordland National Park
Experience the rugged wilderness and stunning fiords
With only one quarter of the country’s population living on South Island, if you’re looking for wilderness excursions in New Zealand, this is definitely where you need to head, whether directly, after a short stopover in Auckland to experience the Thermal Explorer Highway Region, or as part of a road or rail trip of the entire country.
New Zealand’s largest island is a wilderness paradise with majestic mountains, glass-like lakes and spectacular glaciers. But choosing which location to explore first, especially if you’re short on time, is the hardest part.
Many adventure seekers head for Queenstown, the adventure capital of New Zealand, located in the heart of the Southern Lakes Region which includes both Fiordland National Park and Wanaka Lake. If you have time, I highly recommend you experience both, but if you crave seeing spectacular coastal scenery and stunning mountainous landscapes, then a visit to New Zealand’s largest national park is a must see-do experience.
You can choose from a variety of excursions in this 12,607 km² (1.2 million hectares) World Heritage area. Discover towering mountains reflecting their magnificence on the glassy surface of Mirror Lakes near Te Anau; have your breath taken away by views of impressive waterfalls plummeting hundreds of metres into pristine forest or spectacular glacial-carved fiords; enjoy a walk or hike on a beach and forest trails that extend thousands of kilometers.
Here are just a few of the excursions, day-trips and multi-day trips you can take in Fiordland National Park from Te Anau.
Fiordland National Park
- Scenic Sightseeing Flight. A really unique, and probably one of the best, ways to see the wonders of Fiordland National Park is a scenic flight either by small plane or helicopter. If you’re short on time, this is a great way to see the stunning ocean fiords of Milford and Doubtful Sounds and the inland fiord of Lake Te Anau and much of the rest of the Southern Lakes Region in just 1 or 2 hours.
- Cruise Lake Te Anau. Cruise New Zealand’s largest lake to discover spectacular inland freshwater fiords, spectacular mountains reflecting on the glass-like surface and some of its other unique geological features.
- Tour Te Anau Glowworm Caves. This is a unique feature in the southern hemisphere where you will discover thousands of glowworms that inhabit the caves. The tour begins with a scenic cruise across Lake Te Anau and a tour of Te Anau Glowworm Caves.
New Zealand’s Great Walks
- Multi-Day Guided Track Hikes. Three of New Zealand’s nine Great Walks, The Milford Track, Routeburn Track and the Kepler Track, start (or end) in Fiordland National Park. A guided hike on one of the tracks is one of the best ways to see the stunning landscapes of the Southern Lakes region and to explore its expansive wilderness. You can choose to hike the tracks independently or as a group. You’ll need three to five days to complete a hike depending on which track you opt for.
- One-Day Guided Track Walks. If you’re short on time, a range of shorter walks are also available, including one-day guided tours of either tracks.
- Boat Cruise: Discover more wonders of Fiordland as you cruise the length of Milford Sound to the Tasman Sea stopping at various points of interest along the way. Choose from a few hours or an overnight stay.
- Milford Deep Underwater Observatory: View Milford Sound’s unique marine life up close and personal without even getting wet.
- Guided Kayaking Tours: For the more active traveller, you can paddle among towering cliffs and waterfalls. You may even meet seals and dolphins while on the water.
- Guided Diving Trips: If you’re a marine enthusiast, go diving and just 20 m below the surface you’ll discover stunning black and red coral.
- Boat Cruise: Doubful Sound is New Zealand’s deepest fiord. Crossing Lake Manapouri, you’ll be taken on a spectacular scenic cruise of these gigantic fiords. You can choose a one-day return trip or overnight cruises that range from one night to multiple nights.
- Kayaking is another way for the more adventurous traveller to experience Doubtful Sound. You can choose from a few hours to a few days, stopping to camp amongst the forests and stargazing on the beach at night.
Have you put any of these excursions in New Zealand on your bucket list now?
Stop dreaming… If you’ve put any of these excursions in New Zealand on your bucket list and need help planning a vacation to this wonderful volcanic country, Kaz Custom Travel can help you plan, create and arrange everything needed for an experience of a lifetime on one or both islands.