When asked about bucket-list travel destinations, people from all over the world continuously put New Zealand near the top of their lists. And, for a good reason — New Zealand is bursting with beauty and diversity. From the subtropical Northland to the grandeur of famed Fiordland National Park, this island nation is an outdoor lover’s dream. Whether your preferred adventure includes SCUBA diving, skiing, or relaxing on a beach, the Kiwis are sure to point you in the right direction. This insider guide to New Zealand will help you cross this destination off the top of your bucket list.
Located around 900 miles east of Australia in the southwestern Pacific Ocean, New Zealand is an island country comprised of the North Island, South Island, and approximately 600 smaller islands. The North Island and South Island are separated by the Cook Strait, which is 14 miles across at its narrowest point. The Southern Alps run down the center of the South Island. Mount Cook — or Aoraki — is highest peak in New Zealand at 12,316 feet. The Australasian country boasts 9,300 miles of coastline and a total land area of 103,500 square miles.
Due to its location in the Southern Hemisphere, the seasons in New Zealand are flipped. The summer months run from December through February, and the winter months run from June through August. The weather in New Zealand is diverse, but in all, the country mostly enjoys a temperate climate. The mean annual temperature is around 50 degrees Fahrenheit in the south and 61 degrees Fahrenheit in the north. The West Coast of the South Island receives a tremendous amount of rainfall, while the Central Otago region is semi-arid. The northern parts of the South Island are the sunniest, and Northland in the North Island is subtropical. The snowy season generally runs from June through September, with the alpine regions and eastern and southern portions of the South Island receiving the most snowfall each year.
Packing for a trip to New Zealand depends on your itinerary. The country is a popular destination for travelers throughout all seasons. Bring comfortable walking or hiking shoes and a waterproof jacket, regardless.
English is spoken by over 96 percent of the population. New Zealand English and Australian English are extremely similar, but there are subtle differences. Still, many English speakers from the Northern Hemisphere can’t tell the two apart.
Maori is also an official language of New Zealand. This indigenous Eastern Polynesian language is currently undergoing a process of revitalization and is now spoken by just under 4 percent of the population.
The official currency in New Zealand is the New Zealand Dollar ($ or NZD). The dollar is easily exchangeable with all other major currencies, but major credit and debit cards are widely accepted. To avoid fees or commission charges, withdraw cash from an ATM that has a partnership with your home bank. For example, Bank of America has a partnership with WestPac.
Leaving tips at restaurants isn’t required, but if service was superb, leave around 10 percent of the total bill. Waiters do not work for tips, but the gesture is still appreciated. At hotels, tip bellmen $1 to $2 per bag, maids $1 – $5 per night, and concierge around $10 for exceptional help throughout your stay. Tipping taxi drivers is not expected or required and may even be refused.
New Zealand is largely an egalitarian culture. The country has been influenced by the Maori culture and other outside influences throughout the years. Today, the people are generally relaxed, outgoing, and polite. While there are differences between the Kiwi and Maori cultures, they are united by their love of the environment. People in New Zealand are extremely environmentally conscious. Family is at the center of the social structure, and individual wealth and status are not important. However, they do take pride in their achievements.
Greetings in New Zealand are casual and involve a handshake and smile. Individuals often move to a first-name basis quickly. For all occasions, punctuality is important. Meals are often served family style, and table manners are casual. You will often be told where to sit. This is contrasted by Maori etiquette. They are more formal and ceremonial. For formal occasions, there are distinct protocols, so make sure to follow along.
The cuisine in New Zealand is built on local ingredients that change with the seasons. It is generally based on British cuisine, with Pacific Rim, Maori and Mediterranean influences. Since New Zealand is largely agricultural, the cuisine uses a vast amount of ingredients. Seafood, meat, vegetables and fruit are all used extensively. Barbecues are popular in the summer months. Similarly, in Maori cuisine, a hangi is a method of cooking using heated rocks buried underground. It is used for special occasions. Pavlova, a meringue-based dessert, is considered a national dish.
The meal structure in New Zealand is comparable to ours. Dinner is the largest meal of the day. Breakfast and lunch are smaller meals, and some people consume small snacks throughout the day. The eating-out culture in New Zealand is growing, as is the fast-food culture.
New Zealand is an extremely safe country, but theft from cars and hostels against tourists does occur. Never leave your belongings — especially passports — unattended.
Located on the North Island, Auckland is New Zealand’s largest urban area. It is the location of the country’s major international airport and home to the largest Polynesian population on the planet. To explore the history of this multicultural city and the people who call it home, visit the Auckland Museum. The city also serves as an ideal base to explore the less populous West Coast and its beaches and nearby wineries.
Referred to as the “Winterless North” by locals, Northland is the northernmost region in New Zealand. This exciting region is home to beaches, vineyards and farms. Visit the Goat Island Marine Reserve on the Matakana Coast. The first marine reserve in New Zealand, Goat Island is popular with snorkelers and SCUBA divers due to the diversity of fish teeming the crystal clear waters.
Western North Island
Bounded by the Tasman Sea, Western North Island experiences more rainfall than the East Coast. This creates a lush and vibrant landscape filled with farms and thoroughbred horse stables. It serves as a relaxing change from densely populated Auckland. For adventure tourists, visit Raglan for world-class surfing, and Waimoto to explore surreal limestone caverns filled with glowworms. For movie enthusiasts, visit the city of Matamata. A local farm served as the set of Hobbiton in the Lord of the Rings movie franchise.
Central North Island
This volcanic region features some of the most unique and popular scenery in New Zealand. The city of Rotorua is surrounded by geothermal features, including active geysers, mud pools and hot thermal springs. The city also boasts 17 lakes known collectively as the Lakes of Rotorua. Te Wairoa, or “The Buried Village”, is also nearby.
Other attractions in Central North Island include Lake Taupo — New Zealand’s largest lake — and Tongariro National Park — New Zealand’s oldest national park. Tongariro National Park is home to three active volcanoes and numerous Maori religious sites.
The Coromandel, Bay of Plenty, and East Cape
This region is one of New Zealand’s crown jewels. The sweeping coastline and shimmering waters of the Bay of Plenty are speckled with islands, including the actively fuming White Island. The Coromandel Peninsula features a ridge of volcanoes, surrounded by lush rainforest and edged by golden beaches. The picturesque area is best explored from the historic city of Thames. Finally, the remote East Cape is full of rarely visited Maori villages.
Poverty Bay, Hawke’s Bay, and the Wairarapa
The hilly coastal plains of Poverty Bay, Hawke’s Bay and the Wairarapa produce some of the best wines in the world. The region’s ample vineyards are best explored from the city of Napier. Napier is full of classic Art Deco architecture and is home to the widely recognized statue of Pania of the Reef on Marine Parade. The city also hosts numerous food and wine festivals throughout the year.
The capital city of New Zealand, Wellington is also often regarded as the country’s premier urban destination. While most tourists skip over New Zealand’s cities to visit the beaches, parks and countryside, Wellington does have plenty to offer. It is the main departure point to South Island, so it’s easy to schedule it in to your itinerary. The vibrant waterfront is packed with activities, and the Lambton Quay shopping district offers numerous shops and restaurants. For cultural tourists and history buffs, the National Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa is one of the city’s top attractions.
Marlborough, Nelson, and Kaikoura
Located on the northern end of South Island, this region is home to glistening bays, sandy beaches, sprawling national parks and sunny weather. Visit the Marlborough wine-producing region for quaint bed and breakfasts and scenic wineries. For beaches and hiking trails, try Abel Tasman National Park, and for some great ecotourism, head to Kaikoura for whale watching.
Christchurch to Stewart Island
This picturesque region is often referred to as quintessential New Zealand. If you have a mental image of the country in mind, it is probably this scenery. Unfortunately, Christchurch and the surrounding areas are still recovering from a series of earthquakes in 2010. However, the city is rebuilding and much of the countryside and villages were largely unaffected.
The French-inspired village of Akaroa sits on the Banks Peninsula. A scenic area of bays and harbors, this charming village is the perfect base for exploring the region. Further down the coastline, the town of Oamaru is famous for its penguin colonies. Throughout the area, the coastline is dotted with other historic settlements.
Central South Island
The West Coast is dominated by the Southern Alps. This region is perfect for adventure tourists. During the summer, the area attracts hikers, and during the winter, skiers flock from all over the world. Mount Cook Village sits at the base of New Zealand’s highest summit. It serves as base for glacial treks and heli-skiing. Arthur’s Pass National Park also offers numerous hiking trails of varying difficulty, and finally, the spa town of Hamner Springs serves as the perfect place to relax and unwind after a day of adventure.
Dunedin to Stewart Island
One of the least visited areas of New Zealand, this region is all about historic towns and wildlife. Located on a harbor, the city of Dunedin was built by Scottish immigrants on Scottish traditions. The city boasts Gothic Revival architecture crafted with local limestone and volcanic bluestone. Near Dunedin, the Otago Peninsula is home to penguins, seals and albatross. Finally, visit Steward Island for serious birdwatching.
The weather in the southern regions can be unpredictable. Plan a trip during the summer months (November-April) for the best weather and the best wildlife.
The West Coast
This sparsely populated region is dominated by the Southern Alps and the surrounding scenery. The region experiences periods of intense rainfall followed by days of pure sunshine. Due to the ample rainfall, rapid, alpine rivers descend from rugged peaks, creating adrenaline-inducing rafting opportunities. In all, this region is all about the landscape. The drive up and down the coast rivals any iconic road trip in the world.
The Central Otago region is home to the city of Queenstown. Also known as New Zealand’s adventure capital, Queenstown is located on Lake Wakatipu and surrounded by numerous mountain peaks, including The Remarkables range. Whether you’re looking for rafting, boating, mountain biking, sky diving and/or fishing, someone in Queenstown can point you in the right direction. For skiers, the city boasts four main ski resorts. Plus, numerous vineyards are a stone’s throw away.
Located in the southwest corner of New Zealand, Fiordland is largely comprised of the nearly 4,900-square-mile Fiordland National Park. This magnificent park consists of glacier-carved valleys, mountain peaks and fiords. The most famous fiord is undoubtedly Milford Sound. To explore this geographic masterpiece, take either a boat or kayak tour. Fiordland National Park also hosts the country’s two deepest lakes and an extensive list of wildlife. The whole region serves as a refuge for rare and endangered species, including the planet’s only flightless parrot — the kakapo. If visiting, be prepared for rain.
New Zealand has something to offer adventure tourists, ecotourists, cultural tourists and leisure tourists. This stunning country is overflowing with natural wonders and unique culture. After reading this insider guide to New Zealand, you’re well on your way to planning the adventure of a lifetime.