Top 10 New Zealand Must-Sees (Part 1)
Updated: Jun 30
Across three posts, I’m going to be sharing my top ten New Zealand must-sees, as well as my NZ wishlist, which only grew throughout my time in the country! Today’s post features the first five of my NZ highlights!
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In January of 2018, shortly after the worst year of my life had come to a close, I set off on my first solo trip to spend a month in New Zealand. I knew solo travel was a big thing and had its own community etc, but this trip was nothing more than an escape to me. It didn’t take courage, and I wasn’t trying to prove anything to anyone - I just wanted to go. Somewhere. Anywhere. Away from where I was.
It’s certainly not the healthiest mindset to have when you plan a trip; regardless of how you do it, running away from your problems just does not work. While I was a genuinely broken person at the start, the month I spent in NZ turned out to be the best therapy I could have asked for.
2017 had drained me of my emotions, and left me unfeeling, uncaring, and hopeless. New Zealand forced me to feel again, whether that was by falling in love with a place or a view, being mesmerised by seeing wildlife in its natural habitat, or feeling heartbroken about leaving new friends on the other side of the world. I spent my 26-hour journey back to England either on the edge of tears, or actually in tears, but it was the healthiest thing in the world.
New Zealand is a truly exceptional country in so many ways, and I would recommend it to absolutely anyone, but I wanted to give some context to explain why this country is particularly important to me. In a three-part series, I’m going to be counting down my top ten highlights from NZ, and the ten things I still want to do, starting today with the first five of my favourite NZ memories!
#10 Mount Maunganui
Starting at #10 is Mount Maunganui, aka The Mount!
I’m very lucky to have a number of relatives living in NZ, including in Tauranga, near The Mount. I spent the second week of my trip staying with them, enjoying a relatively quiet week hanging out with their precious pooch, Miss Ruby! I experienced NZ bach culture as well, with 8+ people squashed into a 2-bed cabin in Waihi Beach!
Unfortunately, the weather during my week in Tauranga and Waihi was less than perfect, but my aunt and uncle (they’re actually second cousins once removed, but that’s very convoluted) took me to The Mount on my first evening, and we hiked up to the top just before the sun went down. It was the last sunny day I saw for a little while, and climbing The Mount was something I needed to tick off the bucket list!
Having completed a lot of fieldwork for my undergrad degree in geology and growing up in a village with everything within walking distance, my definition of a “hike” is something akin to a long walk, probably with lots of hills etc. This definition clearly varies around the world, so I was very pleasantly surprised that we reached the summit in about 20 minutes - and I wasn’t even too puffed out! (By my unfit standards, that’s an achievement.)
The sun just touched the horizon as we reached the top, and we watched the sky turn all the colours of the rainbow as the sun went down during our descent. Climbing The Mount isn’t necessarily a world-class bucket list item, but I am so glad I finally did it! I’ll definitely be heading there again when I’m back in Tauranga.
#9 Helicopter ride in Fox Glacier
For the latter half of my time in NZ, I joined Topdeck’s Kiwi Encounter tour, which will receive a post of its own at some point, but the helicopter ride I experienced in Fox Glacier was one of the very first things I did while on tour!
Due to some iffy wind conditions - which are especially important if you’re about to take to the skies in a tiny sphere powered by spinning knives, diving in between mountain peaks, apparently - our trip was delayed and almost cancelled, but we finally made it out!
This was my first experience of flying in a helicopter! Thanks to the wonders of anti-anxiety medication, I have no problem with commercial planes anymore, but my knees did feel a bit weak when I saw what I’d be taking off in! I had seen multiple helicopters head up to the mountains during the morning, and they’d all been what I would call “helicopter sized”, whereas ours was so much smaller!
At the end of the day, this really didn’t matter. There were five of us on the flight: myself and Sanj, who had come from Topdeck, two other tourists, and our pilot. (Go and check out Sanj's travelgram here!) I believe the flight we had booked was the “Grand Tour”, where you fly to the top of both the Fox and Franz Josef glaciers, as well as Mount Cook, and land on one of the glaciers for some sweet as photos! Our flight plan changed a few times due to the weather, and it was uncertain whether we would be able to see both glaciers, but the conditions changed in our favour, and we saw everything we planned to!
I cannot for the life of me remember for sure which glacier we landed on, but I *think* it was the Franz Josef glacier. Either way, it was a pretty awesome experience! It hadn’t occurred to me whatsoever that I’d be stepping out onto snow at some point during the day, so my shoes were instantly soaked through, and my toes frozen - totally worth it though. For my new Aussie chum Sanj, this was his first *ever* experience of stepping out onto snow - what better place for your first snow experience, right?
We were far from the only heli up on the glacier, as there are a number of companies in Fox Glacier who offer similar tours. It was still a pretty neat experience; it felt like something out of a Bond movie if I’m honest. While it *felt* movie-worthy, I still look like my remarkably nerdy self in the photo our pilot took! Who cares, I flew to the top of a glacier!
The views were genuinely amazing; us passengers switched seats for either leg of the journey, so Sanj and I were up front for the ascent, and in the back as we came down. A couple of the photos I took are now amongst my all-time favourites.
As soon as helicopters are included in a tour, the price shoots up, so these trips aren’t for everyone, nor for their budgets. However, there are some cheaper options for experiencing heli flying, as well as visiting the glaciers - one of these is the Helihike, which I will be mentioning in my NZ wishlist blog post!
#8 Driving Creek Railway
Driving Creek Railway was one of the quirkiest places I have ever visited, and the transport nerd in me had an absolute field day during our visit!
DCR is located in Coromandel, where I took a day trip from Auckland towards the start of my trip. I suppose you would describe it as a “little” railway, but, aside from the width of its track, DCR is honestly anything but little. The railway was built by a man named Barry Brickell (one of the greatest names I have ever heard), whose interests in art and engineering collided, resulting in a hand-built, fully functioning railway which snakes its way up into the Coromandel rainforest!
A return journey takes an hour, and DCR is the steepest railway in New Zealand. Your trip starts at the base station, climbing 115 metres up to the cabin at the very top, whimsically named “EyeFull Tower”, winding through dense sub-tropical rainforest, via tunnels and bridges, and passing numerous works of art by Barry himself.
I was totally enamoured by everything about this project, and the incredible exhibit it had become. The whole railway was built solely out of passion, and with no intention of commercial gain. Barry had to be persuaded to allow visitors to use the railway, as he simply saw it as one of his works of art. I would have loved to sit down with Barry Brickell and chat about his vision and general train nerdiness. Unfortunately, the he died in 2016, but is buried among his marvellous creation, and you can see his grave a few metres from the track during the journey.
This place is quirky af. I fell in love, I felt inspired, and I learned a lot. If you have time during your visit to Coromandel, I urge you to visit Driving Creek Railway and experience the true magic of this place for yourself.
Queenstown was the second stop on my Topdeck tour, and the town we stayed in the longest. I had heard so many amazing things about this little place - about how it is the adventure capital of NZ, about how people came to visit and then never left, and now I completely understand why people find it so charming.
Granted, three nights and two-and-a-bit days isn’t quite long enough to fully explore somewhere new, but the time we did spend there was so FUN. During our stop in Queenstown, I went jet boating, ziplined upside down through the forest, rode the luge five times (or was it three?), spent an afternoon walking around Lake Wakatipu, and visited multiple clubs and karaoke bars, including an ice bar. Queenstown was EXHAUSTING, but such a wonderful place!
I have to make mention of the first meal I had in this town - if you’ve done any research into Queenstown, you’ll almost definitely have heard of Fergburger, which is absolutely legendary. However, as someone who a) doesn’t like queueing and b) doesn’t eat meat (or even cheese, or most of the things that go in a burger), I thought I would be wasting my time getting in an hour-long line for a salad sandwich. Having checked their menu, it didn’t look like there were any explicitly vegan options anyway.
Instead, our tour guide Lance tipped us off about Devilburger, another awesome burger joint just a few streets away, and absolutely queue free! Instead of *running* to Fergburger like a lot of our tour group, I had the luxury of a leisurely walk into town on what was a truly gorgeous evening. Having re-checked the menu, it seems Devilburger don’t have any explicitly vegan burgers either, but I believe we managed to throw together a veganised custom order - I do have vivid memories of asking for extra avocado, which doesn’t surprise me. We met up with some of the Fergburger frontrunners afterwards, and ate dinner down on the edge of the lake. Phenomenal start to my time in Queenstown.
There were LOADS of things we could sign up for while we were in town - like I said, I signed up for jet boating and ziplining, but I’m pretty sure there were things like mountain biking, white water rafting, canyon swinging, horse riding etc. NZ is known for having skydiving spots all over the country, however we came to Queenstown very shortly after the accidental death of a tourist who skydived over the lake, and none of the skydive companies were operating. Not that i would have been persuaded to throw myself out of a plane if they had been, mind you!
Honestly, Queenstown was such a delightful place to be, and has so many amazing things on offer, regardless of what you’re into. If you’re planning a trip around NZ, you cannot miss this charming town!
#6 Sea Kayaking in Abel Tasman NP
It was a combination of travelling with Topdeck, and being in a country as fun and outdoorsy as New Zealand that persuaded me to sign up for so many things I’d never done before, and sea kayaking was one of them. I think I had kayaked maybe twice before this, and definitely on a lake if I had. From my limited experience, I would say sea kayaking is exactly the same as regular kayaking, but with more effort required.
Abel Tasman was such a perfect place to give sea kayaking a go, too. Looking back, a day was nowhere near enough time to explore everything the national park has to offer, but it was a beautiful setting for the activities we did do: kayaking in the morning, and hiking in the afternoon.
A group of us went out in tandem kayaks with Kaiteriteri Kayaks, who were absolutely wonderful, and so patient with a bunch of beginners! Overall, our trip took us from the bay at Kaiteriteri, north between the mainland and Kaka Island, and then around to the northern end of Breaker Bay/Honeymoon Bay. Not much of a distance at all, but getting there and back again (with a quick stop midway and some choppy waters on the way back) took a good couple of hours!
On our way back to Kaiteriteri, there was a little cave system we were going to kayak through, but it was quite narrow and warranted some kinder conditions. The weather turned partway through our trip, starting to rain, and and the sea was no longer conducive to beginner-level kayaking! I don’t know whether it was because the water level had become too high, or because people like Katja and I kept marooning themselves on really obvious obstacles, that we didn’t give the caves a go….
I’m not normally someone who enjoys activities that require physical exertion, but kayaking was so much fun. The stiffness and the blisters on my hands afterwards were so worth it. It would have been even better if the sun had stayed out and the water stayed flat, but that’s sea kayaking for you! If you have any kayaking experience, it’s actually a really good way of getting around the coastal parts of Abel Tasman, as you can hop from bay to bay really easily. Definitely something I would consider doing again next time I’m there!
If you’ve visited NZ before, what were your favourite memories? Do you have a wishlist of new things you still want to try? (I do!)