Oh New Zealand.
Such fond memories made here… Probably my favorite country so far.
There’s so much to do and so much to see here I don’t know how where to start.
Just kidding. I know exactly where you start.
Unless you arrived by boat, you start in Auckland like 99% of the people who fly into New Zealand. (does anybody actually arrive by boat to NZ?)
Depending on how much time you have in New Zealand and what you want to see, your itinerary will change drastically. In fact, I had a 2014 Lonely Planet book in my campervan that listed “suggested itineraries” for shorter time frames like 2-3 weeks that were very useful for a tourist-like trip and hit all the major spots. My mom came to visit me here in New Zealand in December and I used one of those itineraries to structure our road trip so those time-limited structured itineraries have their use but that’s not the point of this post.
This post is going to lay out some of the must-see sites if you’ve arrived for a year-long Working Holiday Visa. The main draw of the WHV is the ability to work and travel, giving the traveler maximum flexibility to see the country at his/her own pace and to be able to work (legally) to afford those adventures. Some areas are great for finding work, others places are better for the experiences or scenery. The first thing to do when you land is to set up a bank account and get an IRD (tax) number. I won’t discuss that here as there are many resources online and elsewhere but this will allow you to work and earn money (legally).
There’s a few options here; buy a car or campervan, rent a car or campervan, take buses, tour buses, domestic planes, or simply just hitchhiking. Which mode of transportation you choose is really just situational and personal preference, I met travelers who preferred all types.
I’m a big fan of owning a self-contained campervan out here, especially during summer. I bought a van in October and owned it through January driving all over the country and staying at free campsites as much as possible. The best part about a self-contained campervan is the fact that you can stay in free campsites by utilizing a popular program in New Zealand known as “Freedom Camping.”
Next post I’ll write about all the rules and little nuances of freedom camping but my intention of introducing it here is to explain my preferred method of New Zealand travel, self-contained campervan #vanlife.
Now that you’ve got yourself a campervan (good choice) it’s time to break it down by region to make sure you hit all the best spots along the way.
Not my favorite city in the world but certainly a great place. Easy to meet new people and is the landing zone for travelers either beginning or nearing the end of their adventures. Most travelers here are working and saving money for their next destination. Auckland is a great place to work in New Zealand and there’s plenty of things to do as well. Beautiful beaches, bush walks, and city life can all be experienced within an hour’s drive of the city. Some of the more notable things to do are see the view of Auckland from the top of Mount Eden, go see the inner-city beach of Mission Bay, get on a ferry and see both Rangitoto or Waiheke islands, and go walk along the Auckland harbor. There’s really no limit of things to do in Auckland but it’ll cost you. A good guide of things to do in Auckland can be found here.
This is all the area North of Auckland, commonly called the Northland. There’s a few notable spots to see here, including Cape Reinga, the northern city of Whangarei, the Bay of Islands, Ninety Mile beach, and the Giant Sand Dunes. The Northland was not a place I spent a lot of time in but wanted to explore it more, frankly, I never made it any further North than Whangarei. I listened to other travelers who visited this area and everybody had great things to say about the Northland. The Northland has some great hiking spots and is the start (or finish) of the Te Araroa trail, a 3000km hiking trail that goes from Cape Reinga at the tip of the North Island through all of New Zealand to the bottom tip of the South Island, more info on the trail here. Another notable spot in the Northland region is Cape Reinga, where the Tasman Sea meets the Pacific Ocean in a clash of waves and mixing different colored blue seas. You can also drive your car down Ninety Mile Beach to the Giant Sand Dunes where you can sandboard down the dunes to your heart’s content. The Bay of Islands is also a great spot to see and is widely regarded as one of the most beautiful spots in the Northland and a terrific spot for a whale or dolphin watching tour or a sailing trip.
A very large region hosting everything from The Lord of the Rings’ Hobbiton movie set, the beautiful Coromandel Peninsula, the Waitomo Glowworm Caves, the surfing haven on Raglan, and the beautiful lake Taupo. In such a wide area there are simply too many great things to see but I’ll name a few here. Some great hiking in the Coromandel Peninsula along with a few of the most beautiful beaches in New Zealand in addition to Hot Water Beach, a must-see geothermally heated beach where you dig your own hot pool in the sand. Another great spot worth seeing in the Coromandel Peninsula is the near-perfect New Chums beach. One of the best hikes to do in this region is the increasingly popular Tongariro Alpine Crossing, rated the best day-hike in New Zealand. The city of Taupo, the urban center north of New Zealand’s biggest lake of the same name is a place I spent a lot of time freedom camping and going to Spa Thermal Park to soak in the all-natural hot pool. Spa Thermal Park is also a short walk away from Huka Falls, another popular spot in Taupo.
Bay of Plenty Region:
Not to be confused with the Bay of Islands, The Bay of Plenty is a rather large region where I spent a lot of my time. Geothermal Rotorua and the beaches of Mount Maunganui are in this region. White Island is a very popular day trip activity which I would have liked to experience but it didn’t fit in with my trip, although given the opportunity again I would go. Mount Maunganui had a beautiful beach that stretches as far as the eye can see and a small beach town vibe that I enjoyed. I went to the top of “The Mount,” as it’s commonly called, almost daily. Rotorua is the obvious highlight of the region and has many activites to do in the city and surrounding areas. I didn’t spend a lot of time in Rotorua but I did go to the “Te Whakarewarewatanga O Te Ope Taua A Wahiao”, or otherwise called “Whakarewarewa: The Living Maori Village” which was a little expensive for entry ($36 NZD) but got to see the geyser so it was OK. There are lots of hiking trails in Rotorua if that’s your thing as well as many other fun adventurous things to do here. Rotorua is a very popular tourist destination and for good reason.
Also known as the Eastland, is home of the first place in the world to see the sunrise and some impeccable surf. Rere Falls is a popular attraction, basically a natural rockslide into a pool of water. Other notable spots include the Tolaga Bay Wharf (New Zealand’s longest wharf) and the Morere Hot Springs were recommended to me by a local. And as always there’s great hiking. I’m not too familiar with this area to be honest. You can probably skip it and be OK.
Another area I’m not too familiar with other than it’s a prominent wine grape and food growing region and the start of the New Zealand Wine Trail where one can cycle from winery to winery via bicycle, just don’t forget a helmet as riding without one is illegal. Napier is the self-described “Art Deco capital of the world” because of the style in which the architecture was rebuilt after an earthquake in 1931. If bird watching is your thing (seek medical help) there is the world’s largest gannet colony here.
Home to Mount Taranaki, a gorgeous cone volcano on the South Western coast of the North Island. Better go now before the active volcano explodes and kills everybody in the area. Taranaki region is yet another great place for hiking with great views of the volcano from almost all directions and, you guessed it, another fantastic spot for surfing. If you happen to have a 4WD vehicle or want to chance it with your 2WD campervan, you can drive on the Forgotten World Highway (State Highway 43), featuring a 12km unsealed section which makes it the only section of the New Zealand highway network that is unsealed and was ranked as one of the 10 worst roads for crashes in New Zealand by the Police. (). Other than some great hiking with great cone volcano views I didn’t hear much more going on in this area.
A large region covering a large portion of the lower half of the North Island, which spans South of Lake Taupo all the way to the border of the Wellington region, I drove through without much of a second thought. Agriculture dominates the region which is apparent as you drive through but not all of it is farmlands. I have a feeling there are many places to explore although I didn’t hear of a single traveler who could recommend things to do in the region as it’s generally not talked about in comparison to some of the other regions in New Zealand. Other than hiking and a couple Lord of the Rings filming locations this region didn’t rank high on my list of places to spend my time.
A beautiful region and a popular favorite city in New Zealand, home of the New Zealand Government and various attractions. Depending on what you’re after, Wellington sort of has everything. Other than being a tough place for a traveler to find good paying work, there’s so much to do here but I’ll list some highlights. Go for a walk up Mount Victoria for a 270° view of the surrounding area. Walk down Cuba street for some food and drink then down to the waterfront where the free Wellington museum is and go for a swim after all that learning at the Jumping Platform at the Taranaki Wharf. Or if a diving board isn’t your thing you can go to the inner-city beach, Oriental Bay. If you’re a Lord of the Rings fan or just movie production in general, go to the “Wellywood” sign and also to Weta Cave where you can take a tour and see some of the props and behind-the-scenes special effects used in New Zealand’s film industry.
Tasman and Nelson Regions
Technically, these two regions are operated by separate City and District councils but they’re basically the same place so I grouped them together. Home to three National Parks and you probably saw this coming but hiking is yet another great thing to do here in Tasman, particularly in Abel Tasman National Park. Adventure Tourism is quite popular here as well such as caving, skydiving, kayaking, etc. I can say Nelson was one of my favorite cities in New Zealand because of its ease of walking around and shopping and the freedom camping available. All the travelers I met who spent time in Abel Tasman National Park recommended it to others and said it was one of their favorite parts of New Zealand because of its natural beauty.
The Marlborough region is home of the beautiful Marlborough Sounds and is the first part of the South Island you’ll see if you take the Wellington—Picton ferry. Arguably the best part of this region is the Marlborough Sounds and there are some hiking trails in the area to explore the sounds as you see fit and I highly suggest you do so. The other popular thing to do in the region is wine tasting around the Blenheim area. There are countless vineyards to explore or to find seasonal work at and the whole Blenheim area reminds me of the central valley of California.
A long, skinny region squeezed between the Southern Alps and the Tasman Sea, the West Coast has a lot to offer. The West Coast was rated as one of the top-ten coastal drives in the world but that’s not all the region has to show. There are two glaciers to see that are worth a stop-over, Franz Josef and Fox Glacier, we walked up to Franz Josef which is retreating at an alarming rate, might be worth checking out before it’s gone forever. There’s also a free glowworm cave named Glowworm Dell near Hokitika if you’re here at night and a Jade carving studio in the town. Hokitika Gorge is a popular day hike spot just a thirty-minute drive out of Hokitika, featuring stunning blue waters that look nearly white in certain conditions. Punakaiki or better known as the pancake rocks is on your way and they double as blowholes if the surf is strong enough. Lots of great hiking in this mountainous region and some of the prettiest views of the Southern Alps in all of New Zealand via highway 6.
A very large region making up the bulk of the South Island and hosts the largest city in the South Island, Christchurch. I’ve been living in Christchurch for 6 months so I know some of the best spots in the area. Akaroa and the entirety of the Banks Peninsula are a great place to visit in summertime, Akaroa is an old French colony that has retained some of its French heritage, about an hour and a half drive from Christchurch, good for swimming with dolphins or seeing small penguin colonies. Another great spot is Hanmer Springs which features hot springs and forest trails for hiking and biking. Lake Tekapo and Lake Pukaki host some of the best views of the tallest mountain in New Zealand, Mount Cook (Aoraki) and surrounding national park. Another great thing to do would be to take the TranzAlpine train by KiwiRail as it goes through Arthur’s Pass National Park and is considered to be one of the most beautiful train rides in the world. There isn’t much else to do in Arthur’s Pass except for hiking but it’s definitely worth a day trip at least to see the beautiful mountains. There’s not much going on in the Canterbury Plains, except for farming, which cover a large portion of the Canterbury region. Also in this region is the famous Kaikoura, a place known for its seal colony, whale and dolphin watching. Either buy a whale watching boat tour or rent a kayak and just follow the boats, you might even end up seeing whales swimming beside your kayak! The area was hit with a magnitude 7.8 earthquake in 2016 and the road into Kaikoura was just re-opened December 2018 so the region is seeing a recent influx in tourism again.
The Otago region is quite large and has a diverse landscape encompassing both the snow-capped mountains of Queenstown and Wanaka and also the Otago Peninsula in the University town of Dunedin. Queenstown is by the far the most popular destination for kiwis on holiday and travelers alike and in wintertime is known for its ski fields and lakes in summertime. The birthplace of commercial bungy jumping was born in Queenstown and is a popular tourist activity there. Queenstown is internationally popular for outdoor activities and for good reason. About an hour’s drive outside of Queenstown is the increasingly popular Wanaka with its famous Wanaka tree and Roy’s Peak hike crediting its rise in popularity. Also within the broad Otago region are the coastal areas of Dunedin and the Otago Peninsula and surrounding hills provide a scenic 270° view of it all. If you’re extremely lucky on a dark night with minimal light pollution, a good camera, and a reasonably strong forecast, Dunedin is far enough South to see the Southern Lights (Aurora Australis). The Moeraki Boulders are a popular spot to stop by on Highway 1 travelling North from Dunedin featuring abnormally spherical boulders on the beach for seemingly no reason at all. One final spot worth stopping by is Oamaru, a town with a strange mix of locally sourced white limestone Victorian buildings, huge natural colonies of blue penguins (the smallest penguin in the world), and a Steampunk museum; three things you didn’t know you wanted to see.
There’s probably nothing in the Southland region more famous than Milford Sound in Fiordland National Park and for good reason. A large portion of the Southland region is Fiordland National Park and the only Fiord currently accessible by road is Milford Sound. There are some 15 Fiords but the most notable ones are the aforementioned Milford Sound, Doubtful Sound, and Dusky Sound. Currently only four Fiords are accessible via hiking tracks or routes. Doubtful Sound is the second most popular Fiord to visit but I didn’t meet anyone who could afford the trip as it’s significantly more costly to access than Milford Sound.
The Fiordland National Park is a refuge of several threatened native animals endemic to New Zealand and not seen anywhere else in the world. Among those species are the Fiordland crested Penguin, the Kakapo flightless parrot, and southern brown kiwi bird although you would need to go to a wildlife sanctuary to actually see them. Fiordland National Park should be on your list of places to visit in New Zealand.
Many hikes exist in the area including the ever-popular multi-day Milford Track although booking in advance is essential and always immediately booked up for the following year. Other notable spots in the Southland region are The Catlins, a hilly forested coastal area somewhat near to Dunedin, Te Anau, the gateway into Fiordland, and Stewart Island, New Zealand’s most southerly island and one of the best places to view the Southern Lights.
That was definitely a lot of information but I hope it helps you in planning your trip to New Zealand.
If you want to know what to expect with a Working Holiday Visa in New Zealand, read my article here!
Let me know if you use any of my suggestions in the comments below!