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Must see places in New Zealand to blow you away and give you a good overview of just how beautiful and diverse this country can be.
New Zealand is the land of natural beauty. It’s a country that draws people from all over the world who want to experience nature at its finest. Seriously, the amount of outdoor activities and adventures to go on as soon as you step foot in the country will make your head spin, as well as the abundance of New Zealand wonders on both the north and south island.
I was lucky enough to travel around a good portion of New Zealand while living in Wellington for a year, and I came away with some incredible experiences and stories of places I could’ve only ever imagined (or seen in Lord of the Rings).
New Zealand is a special place for me to be sure, so I wanted to share with you guys my favorite must see places in New Zealand that completely blew me away. It’s a another world down under, and I hope you get to experience it for yourself one day, if you haven’t already.
Whether it’s your first time in the country, or you’re coming back for yet another visit, these are the must see places in New Zealand that you can’t miss!
There is a great variety of landscapes and natural wonders you’ll find in New Zealand, but one of the most impressive ones has to be the gurgling, steaming, and very smelly pools and attractions all over Geothermal Rotorua on the North Island.
You can smell the sulfur from the moment you roll into town, but the rotten egg smell is worth it from the moment you set eyes on Wai-O-Tapu, one of the main attractions for geothermal activity, 20 minutes from town.
The colorful park’s name means “sacred waters” when translated from Maori, and it’s a spot that has naturally been shaped through hundreds of years of geothermal Rotorua history.
There are hot pools, caves, rock formations, bubbly mud pools, and even a geyser that erupts daily. You’ll find an abundance of different types of minerals present in the pools, which gives you every bright color in the rainbow spectrum to look at.
Of course, this isn’t the only geothermal attraction in the area. There are multiple spots around Rotorua and other parts of the North Island where you’ll find natural hot pools and geothermal activity, although this one would have to be the most colorful.
Other notables in geothermal Rotorus would include Tikitere Hell’s Gate, Whakarewarewa, Waimangu, Orakei Korako (the Hidden Valley), and the free options of Ohinemutu, Sulphur Point & Flats, and Kuirau Park.
One thing is clear if you’re making a visit to New Zealand, you have to stop at least once to cherish the geothermal side of the country, it is truly a wonder to behold.
You Might Also Like: A Guide to Wai-O-Tapu
On the Sound Island, you’ll come across a completely different type of landscape from the bubbling hot pools in the north – frigid glaciers.
I was only able to see the Fox & Franz Josef glaciers for a brief moment on a long road trip from Westport to Wanaka on the West Coast, but that was enough to be wowed by their overbearing presence in the area.
I’ve also heard from other travelers and friends about the many activities there are do at these New Zealand glaciers, including a Fox Glacier heli hike, Franz Josef glacier hike, and more. If you’ve ever wanted to learn how use an ice pick correctly, this is a good place to start.
These two glaciers are considered some of the most accessible glaciers in the world, almost reaching sea level from their lofty height that tumbles as far down as the rainforest.
Although you don’t even have to get out of your car to see the glaciers (you can see them from a quick turnout off the highway), there are multiple hiking trails, called the Glacier Valley Walks, that get you a closer look from below. Or, as I mentioned above, you can go on one of the popular New Zealand glacier hike tours to really get up close and personal.
The glaciers are able to stay icy year round because of their ideal location. They form through the warm and moist air that comes over from Australia, which drops a large amount of snowfall in the higher regions of the Southern Alps.
These piles of snow then start sliding downward due to gravity and the snow transforms into hard blue ice. Very little snow actually falls in the nearby towns around the glaciers, but there is plenty in the surrounding mountains. This creates the perfect conditions for a glacier to form and continue stay icy.
Punakaiki Pancake Rocks
Another popular attraction on the West Coast of the South Island is the Punakaki Rocks, also commonly known as the Pancake Rocks.
The earlier you get to this spot the better since there are a ton of visitors that start coming in during the afternoon, and this spot is most magical when it’s quiet and serene.
The odd shapes and layers of these rocks come from 30 million years of history, to be exact, millions of years of alternating layers of sea creatures and sand continuously compressed to the bottom of the ocean floor. Earthquakes are the reason why we see them above sea level today.
The Punakaiki Pancake Rocks take on their own personality and rugged beauty when you walk around them and see them from different angles. This side of New Zealand tends to have a constant wet gloom that only adds to the character of the funky grey pancakes.
You Might Also Like: A Trip Down the West Coast of New Zealand
Abel Tasman Coast Track
Potentially my favorite spot in all of New Zealand, well, maybe tied with Milford Sound, Abel Tasman National Park is a semi-tropical and fairly remote paradise at the top of the South Island.
It’s possible to experience it as a day trip from Nelson, but I would suggest taking your time here. It’s a special place in New Zealand and one that deserves a few days of exploration and a journey of getting lost in the bush.
I tackled a 3-day hike, my first ever multi-day hike, with my best friend who was visiting at the time and it was a wonderful way to experience Kiwi nature first hand and the wild beauty of the Abel Tasman Coast Track.
The park covers 87-square-miles and it’s New Zealand’s only coastal national park. With a visit, you’ll be rewarded with turquoise blue waters, lush green forests, and golden sandy beaches that are straight out of a postcard.
It was one of the most stunning spots I went to in New Zealand and one of my greatest adventures during my year in the country.
You Might Also Like: VIDEO: 3 Days on the Abel Tasman Coast Track
The lesser known Moeraki Boulders, located between Dunedin and Christchurch, are perfectly rounded rocks located in a coastal stretch that’s a bit more off the beaten path. And, they represent a touch of Maori legend and history.
According to legend, the boulders are the baskets, sweet potatoes, and gourds that washed to shore after the wreck of Arai-te-uru, a large canoe that sunk nearby on its way from Hawaiki. The reef near the beach is meant to be the broken piece of the canoe’s hull.
There is Maori legend attached to most important places in New Zealand, and these perfectly sculpted round rocks are no exception. You would be amiss to pass these by on a South Island road trip, because they’re striking against the backdrop of a beautiful beach and jagged coastline.
I had seen pictures of Lake Tekapo countless times before I actually visited the spot myself, and I always assumed those pictures had to be photoshopped and extremely saturated. There is no way that a lake could look that color in real life, right?
Well, it’s safe to say that Lake Tekapo is the most crazy beautiful lake I’ve come across, and a lot of that has to do with its bright turquoise blue water that mesmerizes you as soon as you lay eyes on it.
It helps that the colorful lupin flowers bloom around the lake during mid-November to December to add even more color and beauty to the area, as if it needed any more.
Lake Tekapo is the highest alpine lake in New Zealand, which is where it gets its piercing turquoise blue color from – the surrounding glaciers.
This scenic spot is only one of a handful of different lakes in the area that will take your breath away. Although Tekapo in particular was the most impressive to me, another favorite was Lake Hawea nearby.
You Might Also Like: Postcard from Lake Tekapo
And lastly, another one of my favorite must see places in New Zealand – the magical Milford Sound.
According to Maori legend, Milford Sound was formed by the god Tu-te-raki-whanoa. His job was to create the Fiordland Coast, so he methodically chipped away at the rock walls of the rough coast with his toki, until he created his ultimate masterpiece – Milford Sound.
The Maori name for Milford Sound is Piopiotahi, meaning a single piopio, the name of a now extinct native bird. When Maui, the hero of many Maori tales, died trying to attain immortality for mankind, it is said that his piopio flew to what is now Milford Sound in mourning.
The Maori people named the place Piopiotahi in honor of their beloved and legendary hero’s untimely death.
The fiord is full of elegant waterfalls and very wet weather. Its beauty comes from how quiet and peaceful it is. Even though it’s a popular tourist attraction in New Zealand, Milford Sound has a way of making you feel deliciously disconnected from the world. It makes you appreciate the present moment and the power of nature combined with history.
Not far from Milford Sound, you’ll find Doubtful Sound, a lesser known fiord that’s meant to be even more peaceful and less touristy. I’d recommend visiting both and doing a Milford and Doubtful Sound Cruise if you have the time, but definitely don’t miss out on Milford Sound if you can only pick one.
You Might Also Like: Milford Sound: A Magical Place
Have you been to New Zealand? What do you consider a wonder of the country?
*Interested in more than just a short trip to New Zealand? Check out my guide to getting a work visa in New Zealand for Americans here! It can be as easy as filling out an online form in 15 minutes.
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