Mention New Zealand and people might think of rugby, haka dances, mountains, lakes, Lord of the Rings and extreme sports. But why visit New Zealand? Why is it so popular? For many, myself included, it’s the answer to the typical question among travellers – what’s your favourite country? There are many answers, each personal to everyone who is so enamoured by the place. So, to give you some idea, here are the best reasons to visit New Zealand.
Incredibly friendly locals
Part of the excitement in travelling to new countries is exploring the local way of life. The culture, the food and, more often than not, the people. Kiwis are some of the friendliest people I’ve met anywhere in the world. They’re so accepting of visitors and are very open when introducing you to their home. In many other countries I could go alone to a bar and have a quiet drink. In New Zealand there were so many times when I ended up chatting to the locals and learning about their lives.
Before my first visit I was told New Zealand was the easiest place in the world to hitchhike. A friend I made in Sydney had just spent the previous six months living near Auckland and had hitchhiked many times during his time there. The longest he had to wait for a lift was an hour. The second longest just 20 minutes! I even managed to hitchhike on Stewart Island without actually trying. Just following the coastal path, a local woman pulled over and offered me a lift. I didn’t need it, but it was nice to be offered the option.
One of the biggest highlights of New Zealand is the scenery. Snow covered mountain ranges, icy blue glaciers, vivid green fields and wide, calm lakes. On the North Island, particularly around Auckland, you’ll find many volcanoes. Most of which are extinct. This volcanic activity allows for many natural phenomena such as the hot springs in Taupo, or the multicoloured pools of the Thermal Wonderland just outside Rotorua. At Hot Water Beach on the Coromandel Peninsula you can dig into the sand to create your own private hot pool.
There are more natural attractions in the South Island too. The Southern Alps mountain range spreads along most of the south’s length, the highest point being Mount Cook. Further north are the Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers, two impressive sites full of ice caves and jaw-dropping crevasses. At the top of the South Island is Abel Tasman National Park. Here you’ll find some of the most beautiful beaches in the country along with dense forests to hike through and small, uninhabited islands reachable only by kayak.
Extreme sports and adventure activities
One thing many people associate with New Zealand are extreme sports. It’s the country where bungee jumping and skydiving were invented (if falling out of or off things can be invented). Taupo is the place to visit if you want to experience falling from 14,000 feet at the site where the sport originated. On the way down you’ll have views of the massive Lake Taupo. At 46km across the lake is the large area of water in the centre of the North Island which can be seen on most maps.
While jumping out of things is better done in the north, the South Island is where you want to go for jumping off things. For many Queenstown is the adventure sports capital of the world. Unsurprising given this is where bungee jumping first took off. Since it started bungee jumping has been taken to further and higher extremes. Most of which you can enjoy in Queenstown. And once winter hits it becomes one of the best places in New Zealand to go skiing.
Hiking in the great outdoors
With all that beautiful nature all around it’d be a shame not to get out there and make the most of it. And there are so many amazing routes all around the country to do just that. Stewart Island, just a short flight or ferry trip from the bottom of the South Island, is 90% national park and offers plenty of trails to explore. It’s also the best place to see the native Kiwi bird in the wild.
One of the most popular hikes is the Milford Track. The 53km trail takes four days to complete and leads through more of the South Islands incredible scenery, including forests, rivers and mountains, before finally arriving at Milford Sound.
The North Island has its own hiking highlights, with the Tongariro Crossing one of the most sought after. Often named as the best one-day hike in the world, the trail covers almost 20km and can be completed in around six to eight hours. Part of the route involves hiking past Mount Ngauruhoe. An active volcano which was used as Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings movies.
Getting about New Zealand is incredibly easy. Bus routes are readily accessible and not so expensive, especially when booked in advance. Reaching smaller towns can take a little longer as the only available route follows winding roads through thick forest and up hills. Alternatively, hitchhiking is very easy in New Zealand and much safer than it might be in other countries.
Travelling between the islands is also easily done. Ferries leave Wellington and Picton three times each day and take about four hours to make the crossing. There is another ferry to Stewart Island from Bluff in the South Island, or you can fly from Invercargill. The flight is pricier but takes just 20 minutes and it’s an hour on the ferry.
Vibrant local culture
Another big part of travel is immersing yourself in the local culture. Most people are aware of the Maoris that are native to New Zealand and their culture spreads across much of the country. Although it’s seen more on the North Island than the South. While travelling the country you might hear “kia ora” (Maori for hello) or “Aotearoa”, which is the Maori name for New Zealand and means ‘land of the long white cloud’.
There are many legends associated with the Maori people, such as Māui who pulled up a giant fish that would form the North Island of New Zealand. Rotorua is a popular place to experience Maori life for yourself, including haka dances, wood carvings and tattoos. Make sure not to miss a traditional ‘hangi’ where they cook food in a pit in the ground.
There are many museums you can visit to learn more about the Maoris. Te Papa in Wellington is one of the best museums in the world and a great place to learn more about its indigenous people and the country as a whole.
While New Zealand doesn’t have a huge population, there are a number of big cities you can enjoy if the breath-taking nature gets a bit too much for you. Auckland is the biggest city in the country and the arrival point for many visitors to New Zealand. It can sometimes feel lacking in activities for tourists. Especially with so much choice elsewhere in the country, but for a place to live it has everything you need.
The country’s capital is Wellington at the bottom of the North Island. Here’s where you’ll find all the government buildings and the ferry to take you to the South Island. It’s also the place for many movie locations and often referred to as ‘Wellywood’. Wellington has a different feel to it than Auckland, similar to the difference between Sydney and Melbourne in Australia.
Christchurch is the big city in the South Island and gateway to the larger of the two main islands. Flights to Antarctica usually depart from here, although typically only for research stations. The city has been devastated by terrible earthquakes over the last decade but it’s gradually rebuilding and once more becoming the city it was as businesses slowly begin to reopen.
Safe to explore
With such a small population it’s no wonder many places in New Zealand don’t have a great number of residents. Instead you’ll find towns that immediately feel local and quiet streets. (Sometimes too quiet when you’re wondering around in the evening looking for something to do.) It almost seems like you’ve travelled back in time to an age when no-one bothered to lock their doors and a found purse is advertised in the local paper.
You can walk around late at night nearly anywhere in New Zealand without worrying how safe it is. Combined with the friendly locals it’s another reason why hitchhiking is so easy in the country. Of course not everywhere can be completely safe, so always take regular precautions. Especially when travelling alone.
Sporting World Champions
As you’d expect from a country with such amazing outdoors, Kiwis tend to be pretty good at sport. Rugby and cricket are the two most popular, with both national sides being some of the most successful in their respective sports. Rugby union is by far the most played of the two forms of rugby (the opposite of what you’d find in Australia), but rugby league is becoming more widespread throughout the country.
Auckland’s Eden Park, the Westpac Stadium in Wellington, Christchurch’s AMI Stadium or the Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin are the best places to watch live rugby. Eden park can hold up to 50,000 spectators and has seen many famous moments throughout the years. It has also held many important cricket matches and is a great place to go if you’ve never seen the sport played live.
If you’re not sure about the rules of cricket get chatting to some of the friendly locals who’ll help you out with some of the finer points of the game. You can also watch the big sporting events in the many bars around the cities where you’ll again get some assistance from the natives about when to cheer.
Tolkien and Middle-earth
The popularity of the Lord of the Rings movies is another reason why so many people are drawn to New Zealand. Whether it’s the famous scenery used as the backdrop to so many spectacular scenes, activities based on the franchise or visiting Hobbiton close to Rotorua. Wandering around the national parks, green fields and mountains of New Zealand can feel like you’re actually trekking across Middle-earth as J. R. R. Tolkien’s world comes to life around you.
But Tolkien’s work is not the only movie related attraction in New Zealand. Wellington has been used in many big screen pictures while in the outskirts of the capital is the Weta Cave. A special effects workshop used on many of Peter Jackson’s biggest hits from Lord of the Rings to King Kong and District 9. Just outside Christchurch is the town of Lyttleton, which may be familiar to anyone who’s seen The Frighteners starring Michael J Fox.