New Zealand: Just the highlights from the small country that packs a punch

Nov 11, 2015

New Zealand is awesome. Like really awesome. Like, you’ll find more to do per square meter here than most other places on the planet. It’s not cheap but you can still do it on a budget. Here are our top five highlights in no particular order.

Cape Reinga (North Island)

An amazing sunset at Cape Reinga with the lighthouse off to the right. (Photo by Jen Hays)

Cape Reinga is as far North as North goes in New Zealand. Getting there is a bit of a drive but totally worth it. The road zigs and zags along hilly passes and at times can be quite steep but the views are excellent and free camp sites are available in various outposts along the way. Getting there was half the fun but Cape Reinga itself was just really nice. The views, the crystal clear water and fortunately for us, the weather were all perfect. The water was cold of course, but it didn’t stop us from wading in and a few hardy folks from going for a swim. 

We camped at the Department of Conservation (DOC) campsite right on the beach that only cost us about $3 USD per person per night. For that price, you got a nice spot of your choice, clean drop-toilets, a tap for washing dishes and cold showers. In high season we heard it could be a little crowded but there’s so much room I have to imagine “crowded” is a relative term. Given the good price, amenities and excellent scenery it’s pretty common for people to stay the maximum allowable time of one week per site and in some cases a little longer. We certainly would have stayed a full week if we had more time.

In terms of things to do, fishing, trekking, kayaking and visiting the lighthouse are easily the most popular. In the evenings, enjoying a few beverages while watching the sunset was also popular and pretty much every camper had something. We went with goon (cheap box wine) and the occasional Dark and Stormy. The highlight for us was definitely the hike up to the lighthouse from the campsite though. It’s not the longest hike but certainly rewarding. This place makes my list on scenery alone but if we had some fishing poles, it would have enhanced the whole thing quite a bit.

Pancake Rocks and Blowholes (South Island)

Photo compliments of Jen Hays

I wasn’t 100% sure that this should be on my list because it’s just sort of a cool thing to see on your way to somewhere else but Jen and I were very lucky to have a storm brewing off the coast as the tide was heading back in, which whipped up some heavy surf making the blowholes especially… blowy.

Pancake Rocks and Blowholes is a rock formation created by hard and soft layers of limestone that erode at different rates giving it the appearance of stacks of pancakes making up the interesting stone formations. The blowholes blast water out as the ocean surges into caverns and out through vents erroded through the rocks and in some places the water rockets out with tremendous force. The ground literally shakes and the water blasts out with a loud "woosh!" Jen and I both really liked it and we probably spent more time there than your average visitor. 

Arthur's Pass (South Island)

More than just a way through the mountains.

I don’t know who the hell Arthur is but the pass that bears his namesake is stunning. It seemed like every few kilometers we were either snapping photos from inside the car, saying “wow, this is awesome” or pulling over to take it all in. Arthurs Pass is a two-lane highway through the mountains that separate the East and West portions of South Island and straddles two tectonic plates that are slowly grinding past each other. The mountains are jagged and crumbling with ice-melt creeks running down them into the valleys and the road sort of cuts right through, sometimes in perfectly straight lines and at other times twisting and undulating so much that I was instantly jealous of everyone on a motorcycle.

On our way through we stopped off at a little place with these really strange looking rock formations called Castle Hill Station. The boulders are massive hunks of limestone that look like they were dropped into place by some giant moving stones around his little Zen garden. We actually didn't even have this spot on our list of places to stop and just decided to pull in because we loved the area so much. It turns out, this too was a filming location for Lord of the Rings and later, the Chronicles of Narnia. It's popular with people who like to boulder/rock climb and just an overall cool place to tramp around and have lunch. I looked up the area later just to see what it was all about and found out that when the Dalai Lama visited the same place back in 2002, he said it was "The Spiritual Center of the Universe." How cool is that?

Mount Sunday (South Island)

There are no pictures that truly capture the awesomeness of this place and there's pretty much nothing here but beauty.

Prior to heading to New Zealand, I looked up a few places where the Lord of the Rings was filmed in an effort to see some of the best sights without paying the high prices to see the more touristy locations. I read a message board where someone said Mount Sunday was hands down the best sight they saw but it required a long drive down a bumpy road that is often impassible during the winter and early spring due to snow and flooding. Driving a Nissan Tidda (tiny underpowered toy car) had me wondering if we’d make it there or not but, fortunately for us, the road was in decent shape most of the way and none of the creeks were flooding as most of the snow had melted about 3 weeks earlier. We did raddle just about every bolt and nut loose on that road though. That little Nissan will never be the same.

Anyway, the guy on the message board was right. The place was incredible. It was a gently sloping plane surrounded by sharp snow-capped mountains that seemed to be placed on top of the land instead of jutting out from it. The plane area had a small rocky mound in the center where Endoras, the Capital of Rohan was built for the Lord of the Rings. We arrived in the late afternoon and watched the sunset before heading back to the tiny lake-side campsite run by the little town that had a total of 90 year-round inhabitants.

I met a helicopter pilot and his son there who fly into the mountains regularly to go hunting. They told me about the epic amounts of snow they had this year and how great the hunting has been. They fly or hike in, take their shots and then fly their kills out at least once every month or two. I asked them about the LOR filming and wondered how busy it must have been for such a remote place to see so much traffic and they said it was a windfall for some who rented their homes and supplied the film crews but for others it was just fun to watch. He told me about the massive set and how he and his son spent most weekends watching the filming when they could.

Rob Roy Glacier (South Island)

 I must have stopped every 100m to just take it all in.

Usually, when the DOC says “It is not advisable to hike to the glacier area because of avalanches,” you heed their warning and avoid it. But this time, Jen and I got really ambitious and hiked our butts off to get up close and personal with one of the awesome glaciers in New Zealand. The cost of seeing the more famous glaciers in NZ were pretty high so this one being free made us willing to throw a little caution out the window and go for it. We realized pretty quickly that about 50% of the people visiting did the same thing that day as the weather was perfect but the hike was not for the faint of heart.

The climb was a huffing and puffing clamber up steep and slippery terrain to start the trail but it eased off about mid-way before a final climb to the glacier valley. Everyone who went all the way was rewarded with some truly amazing views of massive mountains, hundreds of waterfalls and of course, the Rob Roy glacier itself. As for the landslides, we climbed over a fresh one but the closest we came to anything coming our way was a massive boulder I tipped off a ledge and sent toppling down to the rushing water below.

The views of the glacier were pretty awesome but what really made the whole thing standout were the countless waterfalls streaming from everywhere created by the snow and glacial ice melting from the tops of the mountains. Some waterfalls were small streams bouncing from ledge to ledge and finally turning into a fine mist as they plummeted to the valley floor deep below and others were gushing over the edge into small pools where the water trickled down to the main artery in the valley floor. When we reached about as high as we felt like hiking (we could have gone further but at some point an ice axe would be required) we sat down and ate our snacks while taking in the scenery.

Honorable Mentions

Really there’s too much to list when it comes to highlights in New Zealand so I had to narrow it down but I was also really pleased with the following places…

Auckland (North Island) – The city of sails is one of my favorite cities of our trip so far. It’s not huge but it is beautiful and dotted with cool little areas like Devonport, Silo Park, and Auckland Domain among others.

Oamaru (South Island) – Self proclaimed Steam Punk capital of the world and little blue penguins hiding all around town.

Palmerston North (North Island) - Ok this isn’t really a place you should visit but we did so that we could catch up with a friend and stay at her parents farm, and it was awesome. Sheep farming is hard work and the Cudby's were very good to us. We visited their son's massive dairy operation and saw 200 cows being milked on this massive automated milking merry-go-round thing and then went out to the farm for some sheep shearing and hearding. We had a nice stay in their lovely home and I drank a kickass farmer under the table. He was making drunk phone calls to his daughter singing out praises when we sent him off to bed. It was awesome.

Rotorua (North Island) – Sure it’s touristy but there are some cheap off the beaten path places you can check out. Head out to the Moon Valley and decide if you want to pay the entrance fee (we did and… meh) and then continue down the road back through town towards Champagne Pool until you pass over a steaming creek that flows with hot bubbly water. Just don’t get it in your ears or mouth. Also, nearby you can find some bubbling mud pools that are also free to visit. 

Hot Water Beach (North Island) – This isn’t a place I would say you MUST see but it’s totally worth checking out if you don’t mind going out of your way. The trick is to find the hot water about 2 hours before low tide, rent a shovel and get out there to stake your tiny piece of the beach and dig a hole that will fill in with boiling hot water. We handled this very strategically by picking our spot and holding it down early and then befriending others to help dig our hole and make a little Jacuzzi in the sand. Expert tip, ask some people where to dig about 2.5-3 hours before low tide then walk around and dig your toes in to hone in on the hot water. Don’t just start digging anywhere; the hot water area is actually quite small so choose wisely.

Queenstown (South Island) - It's an iconic place to go in New Zealand and it's SUPER touristy but there's a reason for that; it's got some awesome stuff to do and is quite beautiful. We really enjoyed it and wish we had more time there to use it as a base of operations for lots of hiking trips but time wasn't on our side. A favorite memory for both Jen and I was a day we went to a bottle shop and found some excellent West Coast IPA on tap. We grabbed up a growler and went out to the water-front/public park area and took a seat in the grass to enjoy our find. It was a cool and sunny afternoon with people everywhere enjoying a pint or just out for a walk and we loved it.

Your typical photo of the Queenstown area. Yep, pretty great.

I could keep going here but this post is already way too long. If you want to know more, just ask or better yet, get a ticket to NZ and bring your hiking boots. 

Category: Places

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