Exploring Aotearoa New Zealand by water

New Zealand’s fascination with the water is hardly surprising given the country’s geographical location and history.

Since man first stepped ashore on the islands of Aotearoa New Zealand or ‘land of the long white cloud’, the sea and waterways have played a vital role in the lives of New Zealanders who are always finding reasons to get out on the water and encouraging visitors to follow suit.

With 15,811km / 9824 miles of non-stop coastline and a mountainous interior that’s the source of hundreds of inland rivers, lakes and waterways, there's a vast variety of water experiences to suit both passive and active explorers.

Water experiences

New Zealand is the outdoor capital of the world, and the list of ‘must do’ water experiences spans every region from north to south.

Discovering the unspoilt reaches of New Zealand’s inner waterways and protected coastal coves and beaches can either be a solitary experience for the peace-seeking lone paddler, or an adventure shared with others on scheduled tours and activities.

Gentle river cruises, kayaking, rafting, canoeing, white water or sea kayaking experiences, and luxury cruising in some of New Zealand's famed wilderness regions, all provide visitors with on-the-water options that can occupy anything from a few hours to several days.

Boatie’s paradise

In the sub-tropical north, the Bay of Islands is a boatie’s paradise with hundreds of remote islands and coves to explore, a maritime park famous for underwater dives, and swimming with whales and dolphins, and some of the world's best waters for big game fishing.

At Waitangi, the birthplace of the nation, Waka Taiamai Tours offer visitors the chance to paddle a waka - traditional Māori canoe, and gain insight into the world of the Ngapuhi, New Zealand’s largest Māori tribe. There are also overnight luxury cruises exploring the Bay of Islands.

Further south - Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city, is a coastal playground offering extensive opportunities from sailing an America’s Cup yacht on the Hauraki Gulf and sea kayaking to volcanic Rangitoto Island, to catching a quick ferry across to Waiheke Island to sample some of the region’s best wines and vineyard restaurants.

Known as ‘the city of sails’, Auckland proudly boasts the highest boat ownership per capita in the world.

Waikato water sports

Waitomo - in the North Island’s Waikato region - is the home of the unique New Zealand sport of black water rafting and, 20 years on, is still a world-first in global adventure tourism.

Tourists from all over the world visit Waitomo to abseil, weave, jump and float through the glow-worm-studded subterranean world of limestone caves, and there's a level of difficulty to suit everyone.

Above ground, the Waikato region is a paddler's paradise with the country’s longest river meandering through lush rural farming areas, culturally-rich and environmentally significant spots, and diverse urban districts.

Lake Karapiro - an artificial hydro lake on the Waikato river - is an internationally renowned rowing destination that hosted the 2010 World Rowing Championships, and is the favoured training ground for New Zealand's rowing elite.

Just 50km from Hamilton, the west coast town of Raglan has New Zealand’s most famous surf beach but the natural harbour also provides an ideal spot for paddlers of all abilities and ages. The small beachside town is well known for its attractive natural environment and alternative community of musicians and artists.

Geothermal waters

The central North Island is another top spot for water-based activities. Rotorua offers the chance to ride the highest commercially-sledged waterfall in the world, the seven-metre Tutea Falls.

The region’s unique geothermal activity is a major draw card, and a 40-minute drive south to Taupo, famous for its vast lake and volcanoes, offers another must-do water experience - riding the Hukafalls Jet, an exhilarating experience where skilled operators put the iconic New Zealand invention through seemingly impossible manoeuvres.

Stand up paddle boarding (SUP) - a new on-water attraction - offers the latest way to explore Lake Rotorua, while the less adventurous might simply enjoy a quiet soak in Rotorua's famed hot spring waters.

Natural adventures

The South Island has New Zealand’s most popular kayaking destination - Abel Tasman National Park, where paddlers are often joined by seals as they explore the forest clad coastline, golden sand bays and sculpted granite headlands.

Kayaking tours can be a few hours or several days, and there are boat trips and water taxis for visitors wanting to explore the park and beyond to the tranquil Marlborough Sounds.

Heading south, Kaikoura is New Zealand’s best known whale watching destination, and where visitors will also find an abundance of local seafood in restaurants and markets.

Banks Peninsula - south of Christchurch - is famed for swimming with the dolphins. An ancient extinct volcanic crater, Akaroa Harbour is also the place to take a gentle cruise through sheltered waters to meet the local wildlife.

Queenstown thrills

The award-winning resort town of Queenstown is another ideal destination for water lovers, from gently cruising Lake Wakatipu in a paddle steamer, to careering down the narrow gorges of the Shotover river in a jet boat.

High adrenalin thrill-seekers can dip their fingers in the icy Kawarau river while plunging 43 metres from the Kawarau Bridge - home of the famous A J Hackett bungy jump.

The dramatic scenery of Glenorchy near Queenstown has inspired many famous movies including Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, and canoeing to an area known as Paradise will give visitors a true Middle Earth experience.

On the western side of the Southern Alps, in Fiordland, visitors can enjoy the wilderness landscapes of Milford Sound and Doubtful Sounds with shorter day or multi-day discovery cruise expeditions. Further south, there are also multi-day cruises around Stewart Island.

More information

Underground adventures in Waitomo Caves

Kiwi summer holiday experiences

NZ eco-tourism: Whale Watch Kaikoura