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  • Writer's pictureJen Williams

Top 10 New Zealand Must-Sees (Part 2)

Updated: Jun 30, 2020

If you saw my blog post from last week, you’ll know that I am halfway through counting down my top ten highlights from my month-long trip to New Zealand last year! As my first solo trip, I knew it was going to be a memorable month anyway, but I could never have anticipated just how beautiful, powerful, and healing it would be. Please do go and check out items #10 - #6, but, without further ado, here are my top five experiences from New Zealand!

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#5 Tranzalpine Railway

One of my favourite days in New Zealand, and one I was most looking forward to, was the day I spent travelling on the TranzAlpine railway. Who doesn’t love a good train ride, right?

Carriage on the TranzAlpine Railway
Carriage on the TranzAlpine Railway

I really want to write a full post reviewing my experience with the TranzAlpine, so I’ll try and keep my description to a minimum here!

The TranzAlpine Railway traverses the South Island between Christchurch in the east and Greymouth in the west; while it’s more common to travel just one leg, or at least stay overnight in Greymouth, I did both legs of the journey in one day.

Views from TranzAlpine Railway
Views from the open-sided viewing car

I will obviously go into more detail in my dedicated blog post, but my return journey back to Christchurch was by far my favourite of the two. The trains running along this line are made up of a mixture of carriages with seats and panoramic window views, and two viewing cars, which are window- and seat-less carriages. Undoubtedly, you’re going to have the best views from these carriages.

Views from TranzAlpine Railway
More amazing views of Southland - my favourite island

I found that more people travelled from Christchurch to Greymouth than they did the other way round; whether that is always the case, I’m not sure. If you’re planning on booking a ticket to ride the TranzAlpine, however, based on my experience I would highly recommend you travel towards Christchurch rather than away.

Viewing car on TranzAlpine Railway
Enjoying having the viewing car to myself for most of the journey back to Christchurch

Regardless of which leg of the journey you end up taking, you are guaranteed stunning views across NZ’s South Island, through Arthur’s Pass, across vast plains and valleys, and through the tiniest of towns. I wish you all the best weather on your trip as well, as the sunshine and blue skies just perfected the experience.

View from TranzAlpine Railway
Gorgeous glacial water in Southland

#4 Tongariro Alpine Crossing

The Tongariro Crossing was one of my absolute favourite parts of travelling through NZ, and one of the days that always stands out to me when I think back on my trip. If you know me in real life, trust me, I’m as surprised as you are! I think very few people would expect me to consider a 19km/12 mile/7-hour hike over volcanic terrain any sort of highlight at all!

View along the Tongariro Alpine Crossing
The view early on in our hike

Even more bizarrely, we had *zero* visibility for the majority of our hike - for all the important bits at least. All of those amazing landscapes you see on instagram? Yeah, we didn’t see any of those. For the majority of the hike, we were climbing into thicker, greyer, and colder cloud. When you can’t see the peak you’re trying to reach, the climbs seem endless, too.

View along the Tongariro Alpine Crossing with poor visibility
Maybe a third of the way into our hike - our visibility was terrible, but I was very grateful for some flat terrain after a steep start!

A lot of the wayfinding - particularly in the first half of the crossing - is done based on the craters and the lakes you’re passing. This is made so much harder when you can’t see anything around you! If we walked down to within metres of them, we could see two of the lakes, but you basically had to be standing in the water to appreciate them.

Cloudy view of the Emerald Lake on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing with poor visibility
I found a lake (somehow)!

Now that I’ve laid out all the less-than-perfect aspects of my Tongariro experience, how on earth has it become one of my favourite NZ memories?

Mostly, because of the people I was hiking with. Topdeck brought so many wonderful people into my life, and as we were nearing the end of our trip by this point, we had all grown so close, and it was honestly a great bonding experience! There were a couple of moments where I felt disappointed with the day, of course, but for the most part, I remained fiercely optimistic. (In the year before, I had come to realise I’m actually a raging optimist, rather than the tiresome pessimist I thought I was.)

Female travel blogger on Tongariro Alpine Crossing in poor visibility
There's outstanding views behind me (apparently)!

As part of my undergrad degree in Geology, we had to do a lot of fieldwork, for which I cannot fully describe my loathing. One of my original concerns about Tongariro was that it would feel just as exhausting, pointless, and demoralising as all of the hikes and various other things we had to do as part of fieldwork. I don’t want to get all mushy or profound, but the day I hiked Tongariro was the first time I understood what true teamwork felt like.

Four of us - myself, Katja, Phoebe, and Sarah - ended up breaking off into our own group (there were 20+ of us hiking, so different groups went at different paces). Led by Phoebe’s catalogue of motivational speeches, we became this perfect little team. Regardless of who was leading the pack, who needed a rest, or who was hurting, we kept up the morale, kept smiling, and kept going! Everyone was just as important as everyone else, which is not something I had encountered during previous hikes.

Hikers on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing in poor visibility
Katja, myself, Sarah, and Phoebe - my favourite team

I suppose this doesn’t really sound like a “NZ highlight”, but rather one that’s more personal to me, and perhaps that is the case. Tongariro will also be featuring in my next blog post, which covers the NZ bucket list I still have yet to complete, as I’m dying to hike the crossing on a day when I can see those iconic views! But even without all the typical rewards you expect from Tongariro, the hike in itself was an experience, and it is one I would recommend to anybody who thinks they can take on the hike. I am far from being the fittest person, and it wasn’t easy at all, but it was absolutely worth it, and I would - and will - do it again!

The Tongariro Alpine Crossing
Marching into Mordor at the start of the Crossing

#3 Milford Sound

Milford Sound is a South Island must-see, and I have little doubt you’ll have heard about it already! There are SO many things to do in Fiordland (fun fact, Milford Sound is incorrectly named, as it is a fjord and not a sound!), including hiking, scenic flights, kayaking etc, my Topdeck tour included a cruise through Milford Sound, and we had the most perfect day for it!

Fiordland in South New Zealand
Driving through Fiordland on our way to Milford Sound

I believe our cruise was with Go Orange, who provided us with a boat just for our tour group, and a free slice of carrot cake(!!) – unfortunately it wasn’t vegan, but a L&P ice lolly more than hit the spot instead. (L&P deserves its own blog post – if you know, you know!)

The cruise to the end of the fjord and back took a good couple of hours, and not at any point did I feel bored or ready for it to end. Granted, you’ll be looking at similar sorts of scenery the whole time, but it is breathtaking. The landscape around Milford Sound is so beautiful! Everyone went on about how much Milford Sound messes with your perception of depth and size, and it’s so true! Some of the cliffs lining the fjord are over a kilometre high, which is BIG, and distance-wise, huge cruise ships you could see up ahead looked so miniscule!

While New Zealand is known for its temperamental weather, especially around Milford Sound (I believe two out of three days in Fiordland are wet ones!), we were SO lucky with the weather as we travelled around the South Island. On one day, Maxine – our bus – overheated and broke down, so maybe we weren’t so lucky, but I certainly appreciated exploring Milford Sound in the sunshine! I would have frozen on our cruise if it was blowing a gale outside!

Cruise through Milford Sound
On board our Milford Sound Cruise

There were two particularly memorable moments during our cruise that I really hope you get to experience yourself. The first was seeing the Milford seals up close and living their best life! There’s a particular rock in the fjord – aptly named ‘Seal Rock’ – where loads of seals hang out and bask in the sunshine, as they were doing on the day of our cruise! New Zealand was the first place I really got excited about seeing wildlife up close, and it was wonderful to see these amazing creatures! You also have the opportunity to see dusky dolphins in Milford Sound, although we didn’t spot any.

Milford seals on Seal Rock in Milford Sound
The Milford seals basking in the sunshine

The second memorable moment was the quick shower our captain gave us under Stirling Falls – the second highest waterfall in Milford Sound! Having watched another boat just touch the water with its bow, I didn’t think it would be too bad an idea to stay on the outer deck of the boat as we approached the waterfall ourselves. Our captain didn’t hold back, and I was fully drenched after being dunked underneath the full force of the waterfall! Yet another reason I appreciated the hot weather!

A cruise ship dips under Stirling Falls at Milford Sound
Another cruise ship soaking its passengers under Stirling Falls

However you choose to see Milford Sound, you cannot miss out on this gorgeous place when you’re visiting the South Island. I have also heard good things about its lesser-known sister fjord, Doubtful Sound, which I will need to visit next time!

Selfie next to Lady Bowen Falls in Milford Sound
Next to Lady Bowen Falls - the tallest waterfall in Milford Sound, although it doesn't look high at all!

#2 Lake Pukaki

My penultimate New Zealand highlight involves the discovery of my favourite spot on the planet. Big deal, right? The only reason it hasn’t taken the #1 spot is because the experience was fleeting by comparison. I wish it could have lasted longer, but I made sure to absorb and take note of everything I felt during the short time I was there, in an attempt to take as much of it home as possible.

My new-found favourite spot on the planet is on the shore of Lake Pukaki, the largest lake in the Mackenzie Region of the South Island, with the most incredible, unobstructed views of Mount Cook. We passed by Lake Pukaki and Lake Tekapo on our drive from Lake Ohau to Christchurch a week into our tour. As I said, they were relatively fleeting stops, but this one perfectly hit the spot for me.

After pulling up by the lake, I went down to the water and sat on the rocks right by the shoreline, directly opposite Mount Cook; it was love at first sight. The water was perfectly calm, the sun was warm, and there was a gentle breeze which wasn’t too chilly. Ultimately, it was perfect.

Mount Cook viewed from the other side of Lake Pukaki
Viewing Mount Cook across Lake Pukaki

To paraphrase an insta post I published, I was still a fragile shell of a person in January 2018. I was still in the early stages of healing from some fairly serious life events, and moments like this were so precious to me – they still are, but I appreciated them so much more around this time. The air around me felt so clear; I could breathe easy and detach myself from the chaotic world by which I felt so absorbed. I was continents away from home, for which I was thoroughly grateful, surrounded by beauty and perfection. The moment couldn’t be disturbed or taken away by the forces that had already taken so much from me. For the ten or so minutes I was able to appreciate the view from where I sat, I was at peace, a feeling I so craved.

Lake Pukaki
Lake Pukaki - peaceful and perfect

Have you ever found yourself in front of a building, a view, or another kind of phenomenon, and felt something you’d never felt before? Or been moved to tears from its pure, raw beauty?

I can’t promise Lake Pukaki will provide as powerful an experience for you as it did me, but even on a superficial level the lake is truly gorgeous. The north and south islands of NZ are so different, it’s very difficult to compare them, but the vastness and jaw-dropping landscapes of the South Island truly stole my heart. I left a piece of myself on the shores of Lake Pukaki, and I can’t wait to go back someday.

Lake Pukaki
One last look at Lake Pukaki

#1 Dolphin Watching in Kaikoura

And so, we have reached the #1 highlight of my time in New Zealand! If you had asked me before my trip what I thought I would enjoy most, there’s no way I would have said dolphin watching.

Watching/swimming with dolphins was one of the activities organised for us in Kaikoura by Topdeck, who hooked us up with Dolphin Encounter Kaikoura for an amazing afternoon. I think there were a couple of other things you could opt to do in Kaikoura, but pretty much everyone chose to hang out with the dolphins – it is one of the best places in the country to do so, after all!

While Dolphin Encounter provide you with the incredible opportunity to swim and interact with dolphins up close, I can’t really swim….so I sensibly opted to remain on board the boat, marvelling at these amazing creatures, and catching up on some vitamin D!

Dolphin watching in Kaikoura, New Zealand
Topping up on my Vitamin D

Dolphin watching is a bucket list item for so many people, so why was I so ambivalent about it before I went to NZ? It’s only been in the last five years or so that I’ve really had any interest in animals whatsoever. Many of you will know me as a raging, dog-crazy lunatic, but five years ago I couldn’t have cared less! I never wanted pets, never wanted to go on safari, and I didn’t share endless dog memes online (believe it or not!). Travelling in NZ was the first time I was really captivated by nature and wildlife in its native habitat – whether this is a testament to NZ’s raw and magnificent beauty, or to my fragile mental state, I’m honestly not sure.

Dolphin watching can be a bit hit or miss, even in Kaikoura. We were told we might see a pod of anywhere between 100 and 1,000 dolphins, but it would be impossible to know until the time came. I think we ended up meeting a pod of possibly 400-500 dolphins, which was absolutely incredible! Unless there were some common dolphins among them, the dolphins we met were dusky dolphins, which are only found in the Southern Hemisphere.

Dolphin watching in Kaikoura
Dusky dolphins swimming alongside our boat

Even only watching from the boat, these creatures were spectacular, and I felt so warm inside seeing these animals so happy and content! The dusky dolphins were full of character and energy - they were so playful and not at all shy about coming up to the side of the boat and launching themselves out of the water to show off! I cannot imagine how amazing it must have been to be in the water and up close with these adorable creatures!

Dolphin watching in Kaikoura
Dusky dolphins, unafraid of showing off

To top off our incredible dolphin experience, we were blessed with an amazing surprise at the end of our trip. Just before we were getting ready to head back to shore, we spotted some orcas (aka killer whales) only a few tens of metres away from our boat! Everyone on our boat was utterly floored, and understandably so! We were all in complete awe of what we were witnessing – if dolphin watching is hit or miss, then whale watching is even more of a chance encounter – we were so lucky!

Dolphin watching in Kaikoura with the appearance of an orca
One of the orcas we spotted from the boat

We couldn’t get too close to the whales, but we were still plenty close enough to be blown away. Our guides were even kind enough to extend our time on the water so we could follow the whales for a little while – clearly this doesn’t happen very often!

Once the whales ventured off into the deep again, we headed back to shore, and were joined by another group of dolphins – possibly the same pod – who swam alongside our boat for most of the journey! An incredible end to an unbelievable afternoon!

Dolphin watching in Kaikoura
The pod of dolphins which guided us home


And so, that concludes my top ten highlights from my favourite country in the world! It was such an exhausting and busy month, but I wouldn’t have changed a thing.

Have I persuaded you to book a trip to NZ? If not, I very much hope it’s jumped a few spots up your bucket list!

If you’ve been to NZ already, I would love to know your favourite parts of the country, and the most amazing experiences you’ve had out there.

For more New Zealand content, check out the other articles I've written about this incredible country!

My biggest thanks and all my love to you for checking out this post, and my blog in general - feel free to like/comment/share, and make sure you subscribe to my page to be notified whenever I post!

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