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The ultimate New Zealand adventure for all types of traveller

New Zealand
Magnificent New Zealand has something to offer everyone – be you foodie, fantasy fan, hiker, biker, birder, backpacker, retiree, culture buff or adrenalin-junkie - Miles Holden/Tourism New Zealand

New Zealand is magnificent. Who doesn’t yearn to visit this Land of the Long White Cloud, with its riotous geology, movie-set looks, scrumptious wines and opportunities for adventure?

Be you foodie, fantasy fan, hiker, biker, birder, backpacker, retiree, culture buff or adrenalin-junkie, the country is likely near the top of your bucket list.

But it’s also on the other side of the globe – and a big time, money and carbon commitment. Chances are, you won’t go twice (well, never say never…). And if you are going to go, you want to do it right.

You don’t want to risk returning from your once-in-a-lifetime trip and being asked ‘Oh, did you do such-and-such?’, realising too late that your dream holiday was actually missing something even more extraordinary.

For starters, allow time. “You are travelling a long way so ideally you need a minimum of three to four weeks,” says John Lightwood, director of country specialist Silver Fern Holidays (silverfernholidays.com).

“As a rule of thumb for first-timers, spend a third of your time on North Island, two thirds on South Island – the South has 10 national parks, to the North’s three. And allow two to three nights in each location to give you time to explore, and reduce your packing and unpacking.”

While New Zealand isn’t huge – just a little bigger than Britain – trying to cram too much in will mean less satisfying experiences.

Then figure out what you’re into. There are a bunch of obvious “must-dos”, from marvellous Milford Sound to mud-bathing in Rotorua. But there are also more left field options, plus experiences you can only have in New Zealand, like paddling a Maori waka (canoe) or running down the side of a volcano (kaitiaki.co.nz/guided-tours).

“New Zealand is a ‘wow’ destination, offering an abundance of ‘wow’ experiences to match,” says Emma Maidment, senior product executive for New Zealand at Audley (audleytravel.com). “But we encourage clients to consider the alternatives to the ‘headline’ opportunities, seeking out elusive, more private experiences, whether that’s taking on an overlooked walking track, embarking on one-on-one tours with private guides or simply choosing to focus time in a region that receives less footfall.”

You won’t be able to do everything. But you can, with a little thinking outside the box, take a trip you’ll be bragging about for years. Or at least until you plan your second “once-in-a-lifetime” NZ adventure…

Tongariro Alpine Crossing New Zealand
North Island’s Tongariro Alpine Crossing is touted as the world’s best day walk

For walkers and cyclists

Hiking is a must. You could tick-off one of NZ’s 10 official Great Walks – the Milford and Routeburn Tracks are most popular, and need booking in advance (doc.govt.nz). Or be first to bag the 11th, the Hump Ridge Track, opening 2024.

But there are many other options. For instance, the Hollyford Track is a 56km foray into untouched Fiordland; do it independently, or via the award-winning Hollyford Wilderness Experience (hollyfordtrack.com), a guided hike with smart lodges, gourmet food and jetboat transfers. Audley offers a 20-night New Zealand trip, with the Hollyford Experience, from £8,300pp, including flights (01993 838380; audleytravel.com).

Alternatively, do lots of little hikes. North Island’s Tongariro Alpine Crossing is touted as the world’s best day walk. Or try the Kaikoura Coast Track, developed by local farmers; Roy’s Peak Track, for dazzling Lake Wanaka views; or sections of longer trails like the waterside Queen Charlotte Track. Macs Adventure offers a 25-day tramp-packed Best of New Zealand tour from £3,975pp, excluding flights (0141 530 5452; macsadventure.com).

Queen Charlotte Track New Zealand
For hiking with a view, head for the waterside Queen Charlotte Track - Tourism New Zealand

Cyclists are equally spoiled. The NZ government has invested in bike trails to encourage tourism to rural regions. Today there are 23 off-road Great Rides (nzcycletrail.com), ranging from the easy Whakarewarewa Forest route to the Old Ghost Road in South Island’s wild west.

The ultimate challenge? The Tour Aotearoa, a 3,000km top-to-toe bike-packing trail. “It’s not only a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but actively helps set aside land for nature,” says Responsible Travel’s Sarah Faith. “By 2012, along just one section, mountain-biking was five times more valuable to the local economy than logging.” Responsible Travel offers a 41-day Tour Aotearoa ride from £8,924pp, excluding flights (01273 823700; responsibletravel.com).

For luxury lovers

You can add extra bragging rights by upping your accommodation’s location and exclusivity. For instance, take the PurePod network, minimalist glass cabins marooned in wild spots; two new pods have opened in Central Otago, overlooking mountains, vineyards and gold mining history, with easy access to the excellent Lake Dunstan cycle trail (from NZ$690/£337pn; purepods.com).

PurePod New Zealand
Stay in minimalist glass cabins marooned in wild spots with PurePod

Or consider combining some classics: “From December, luxury hotel brand Rosewood will be at the helm of an iconic trilogy of NZ lodges – Kauri Cliffs (Bay of Islands), Cape Kidnappers (Hawke’s Bay) and Matakauri (Queenstown),” says James Bell of Turquoise Holidays, which offers a 12-night trip, with suites at all three prestige properties, from £18,950pp, including flights (01494 678400; turquoiseholidays.co.uk).

For off-beat luxe, book a wilderness lodge. Just opened, Te Karaka offers insight into a working livestock station, with fabulous farm-to-table food, just 95km from Auckland (from NZ$440/£215pn; tekarakalodge.co.nz). More remote, Eleven Cedar Lodge offers unrivalled views of, and access to, the Southern Alps; new this season are a range of heli-adventures, from hiking to wine-tasting (from NZ$3,260/£1,591pn; elevenexperience.com/cedar-lodge).

Indeed, helicopters are a surefire way of getting where most don’t. Look out for Kaimanawa Alpine Adventures, launching 2024, which will offer fly-in/fly-out-only heli-glamping in Central North Island (kaa.co.nz).

Eleven Cedar Lodge
Eleven Cedar Lodge offers a range of heli-adventures that take hiking and wine-tasting to new heights - inshotstudio.com

For all-round luxe, Cazenove & Loyd’s new 16-night Rivers Deep, Mountains High trip is full of exclusive lodges and experiences, from a catch-and-cook Kaikoura fishing trip to a heritage yacht cruise with local guardians on Queen Charlotte Sounds. From £13,580pp, excluding flights (020 7384 2332; cazloyd.com).

For culture vultures

Meeting Maori is key to understanding New Zealand, and worthwhile experiences include learning about the Treaty of Waitangi in Northland and tucking into a hangi feast. However, there are other ways to gain insights.

For instance, take a wellness journey at Wai Ariki, a new spa in Rotorua, built around traditional Maori healing practices (from NZ$155/£76; wai-ariki.co.nz). Or head into the Kaimanawa Ranges with a Maori outdoorsman (kaiwaho.co.nz).

Alternatively, deep-dive into a specific region. Discover the World offers a 13-night self-drive to the East Cape, an uncommercialised area rich in Maori heritage. “It’s scattered with Maori communities, traditional marae and quirky pubs,” says Discover the World’s Liz Lunnon. “My highlight is St Mary’s Church, Tikitiki – as well as its intricate Maori carvings, penguins nest under the floor.” The trip costs from £2,071pp, excluding flights (01737 428406; discover-the-world.com).

City fan? Explore deeper with Fine Art Tours, which runs private special-interest walks in Wellington, Christchurch, Auckland and Dunedin (from NZ$330/£161pp; finearttours.nz). And don’t miss Napier, the world’s best-preserved Art Deco town. The Art Deco Trust runs walking tours (from NZ$29.50/£14.40pp; artdeconapier.com), or catch the Art Deco Festival, returning for the first time in four years in 2024 (15-18 February; artdecofestival.co.nz).

Popular culture more your thing? Head to Hobbiton in Hamilton-Waikato, where the new Bagshot Row experience (opened December) lets Lord of the Rings lovers venture inside a Hobbit Hole (NZ$120/£59pp; hobbitontours.com). Stubborn Mule’s 15-day Highlights of New Zealand trip, a family-friendly combination of Hobbiton, Maori hakas, geysers, glowworms and more, suits all culture levels. From £5,050pp, including flights (01728 752751; stubbornmuletravel.com).

Hobbiton, New Zealand
Pop culture enthusiasts can visit Hobbiton, where Lord of the Rings was filmed - Tourism New Zealand

For foodies

Succulent lamb and seafood, artisanal cheese, exceptional wine – dining across NZ is a delight. But experiences to really brag about? Start with a Big Foody Tastebud Tour of Auckland for guided grazing around the suburbs (NZ$265/£129pp; thebigfoody.com).

Then book a place at the Chef’s Table at Blue Duck Station: a two-hour bush safari is followed by multi-course feast with views of Tongariro National Park (NZ$495/£242pp; blueduckstation.co.nz). Dine at North Canterbury’s Black Estate, 2023 Winery Restaurant of the Year (blackestate.co.nz).

And, for utter opulence, helicopter to the Bad Decision, a mountaintop whisky hut in Aoraki Mount Cook National Park (from NZ$$2,080/£1,015 for four; mackenziehelicopters.com).

Bad Decision, a mountaintop whisky hut in New Zealand
Mountaintop whisky hut Bad Decision can be reached via helicopter

Travelling on NZ’s scenic rail network can be tasty, too. The Great Journeys Scenic Plus Experience, which includes an open-air viewing carriage and gourmet food and drink, is currently available on the TranzAlpine train (Christchurch-Greymouth), but launches on the Coastal Pacific (Picton-Kaikoura) in December and on the Northern Explorer (Auckland-Wellington) in May 2024 (greatjourneysnz.com).

NZ’s wine regions – from Auckland’s Waiheke Island to Hawke’s Bay, the “12th Great Wine Capital of the World” – are deserving of dedicated itineraries. Inspiring Travel offers a 16-night Highlights of New Zealand Wineries trip, which samples olive oil on Waiheke, cycles Marlborough’s vineyards and delves into the country’s biggest wine cave. From £7,755pp, including flights (01244 729748; inspiringtravel.co.uk).

Waiheke Island Wine
Indulge in New Zealand wine and snacks with a view at Waiheke Island

Or foodies might fancy Wexas’s 23-night Culinary Highlights tour, which links Auckland and Queenstown via foodie hotels, local producers, farmers’ markets and culinary tours, from £10,120pp, including flights (020 7838 5892; wexas.com).

For nature buffs

To some extent or another, everyone comes to New Zealand to be immersed in its magisterial great outdoors. And certain experiences are classic, from whale-watching off Kaikoura (a 95% chance of spotting cetaceans) to meeting kiwis at Wellington’s Zealandia Eco-sanctuary. But why not up your game?

For truly brilliant birding, boat over to Mou Waho Island nature reserve, home to many native species, including the flightless weka, and Arethusa Pool, a lake within an island in a lake, perfect for a dip (NZ$204/£100pp; ecowanaka.co.nz). Or add on Stewart Island, the country’s lesser-visited third isle, for a chance to see wild southern brown kiwi in pristine nature.

Sea Lion Dunedin, New Zealand
Spot the rare New Zealand sea lion on a wildlife safari

Wildlife Worldwide’s immersive 23-day South Island Self-drive visits Stewart as well as magical Doubtful Sound, the Otago Peninsula (spotting rare New Zealand sea lion) and the Catlins, home to spectacular sunsets and mohua birds. From £6,395pp, including flights (01962 302086; wildlifeworldwide.com).

Prefer astronomy to avifauna? Even amateurs will be dazzled by Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve. Pimp the experience by star-spotting while soaking in hot pools (NZ$119/£58pp; tekapostargazing.co.nz) or booking Billion Star Dining (NZ$270/£132pp; mtcookretreat.nz), a seasonal four-course feast followed by galaxy-gazing at the Pukaki Wine Cellar Observatory.

Stargazing in New Zealand
New Zealand may be one of the best countries in the world for stargazing

Or, for extra insight into the roots of this rambunctious land, join New Scientist Discovery Tours’ two new eight-day trips, which explore the volcanoes, glaciers and geothermal gasps of North and South island respectively, guided by expert geologists. From £3,050pp, excluding flights (0203 3089 917; newscientist.com).

For adventure junkies

There’s an air of adventure in New Zealand that may entice you to do crazy things – Zip-lining! Zorbing! Bungy! – that you wouldn’t dream of undertaking elsewhere. It’s easy to secure bragging rights if you’re willing to leap 134m into a canyon attached only to a piece of rope (NZ$345/£168pp; bungy.co.nz) or take on the world’s highest commercially rafted waterfall (NZ$142/£69pp; kaitiaki.co.nz).

Slightly less extreme, G Adventures offers an active North Island Multisport small-group trip, which packs in kayaking, jet-boating, caving, rafting, biking and hiking from £1,629pp, excluding flights (0207 313 6953; gadventures.com).

Kaitiaki Rafting New Zealand
Adventure junkies can take on rivers and waterfalls with Kaitiaki Rafting - Miles Holden

According to Jacques Cousteau, Northland’s Poor Knights Islands marine reserve is one of the planet’s top five diving sites. Learn to scuba, do a try dive or simply snorkel over the kelp forests, caves, rays and wrasses here (try-dives from NZ$379/£185pp; diving.co.nz).

If money is really no object, try it to the next level – new for 2024 is Black Tomato’s pioneering five-night charter around this remote archipelago aboard a sustainable yacht, in search of the world’s best dives. From £164,000 for eight, excluding flights (0207 426 9888; blacktomato.com).

Or come to ski. New Zealand has super slopes that offer a summer fix for northern hemisphere snow-hounds. Heli-skiing options give access to perfect powder, too (newzealand.com/uk/heliskiing). For a hassle-free intro, try Intrepid’s seven-day small-group South Island Snow Safari, which hits the finest slopes across six different mountains from Christchurch to Queenstown, with expert crew. From £1,570pp, excluding flights (0808 274 5111; intrepidtravel.com).

Essentials

How to get there: Several airlines – including Qatar (qatarairways.com), Emirates (emirates.com), Cathay Pacific (cathaypacific.com) and Delta (delta.com) – fly from the UK to New Zealand (usually connecting in LA, Singapore or Gulf states), with returns from £666.

When to go: December-February is peak summer, when it’s warmest and busiest. Shoulder months (October-November, March-April) are cooler but quieter and cheaper. May-September is coldest; some trails and attractions close, but ski slopes are open.