New Zealand is blessed with an absolute abundance of stunning scenery – snowcapped mountain peaks, white-sand beaches, rivers meandering through fern-covered valleys – and an equally impressive number of ways to experience it, from easy walks to three-day canoe journeys.
On the water
It might involve paddling down a river but the Whanganui Journey in the south-west of the North Island is still considered to be one of New Zealand’s nine Great Walks. This canoeing or kayaking trek follows 145 kilometres of the winding Whanganui River, framed by steep-walled gorges covered in verdant native ferns, waterfalls, farmland and bush. It begins at the small rural town of Taumaranui and ends at Pipiriki three to five days later, depending on how quickly you wish to complete it, with a number of campsites and Department of Conservation (DOC) huts along the way. Bookings are essential during the peak season (October to April), which is also the best time to see this stunning part of the country.
For a more laid-back time on the water, you can’t go past sheltered Golden Bay at the north-west tip of the South Island. On Tata Beach, a perfect crescent of yellow sand and Pacific waters, you’ll find Golden Bay Kayaks, which offers guided tours and a range of hire options. On the offshore islets of Motu and Ngawhiti you’ll spot nesting shags (comorants) hiding among the scrub and seals lounging on the rocks. And in adjacent Wainui Bay, the lake-like stillness is only disturbed by clouds of sand exploding from the sea floor as stingrays – attracted by the warmth of the shallow water – are disturbed by your gentle paddling.
Taumaranui, the starting point of the Whanganui Journey, is a 4.5-hour drive from Wellington. Concessionaires are on hand to provide you with all the gear and training you need. Make sure you check out the Bridge to Nowhere spanning the Mangapurua Stream, the only reminder of a now-abandoned farming community.
Bookings are essential at Golden Bay Kayaks, which shuts down over winter. Tata Beach is a two-hour drive from Nelson. The nearby Abel Tasman National Park is home to another Great Walk, the Abel Tasman Coast Track.
Step by step
New Zealand experiences don’t get much more beautiful than the Milford Track – from the glacially carved Clinton Valley blanketed in lush beech forest and the Sutherland Falls tumbling gracefully for 580 metres to the 1073m-high Mackinnon Pass, the highest point on the walk. It’s not hard to see why, in 1908, English-born poet and essayist Blanche Baughan called her essay on the track ‘The Finest Walk in the World’. The 53.5km walk takes four days and three nights and, over summer, bookings are essential – interest in the most famous of New Zealand’s Great Walks is always incredibly high.
For something requiring less stamina, consider Rangitoto Island, the youngest and largest of the 48 volcanic cones scattered across the Auckland region. It rises above the Hauraki Gulf with picturesque perfection, the world’s largest pohutukawa forest covering its slopes. The gentle 4.6km walk to the 260m summit is very popular, with stunning views of the Auckland cityscape, the Waitakere Ranges in the west and the island- and yacht-dotted splendour of the gulf awaiting those who reach the top. The island is pest-free, so ensure your packs and bags are sealed, particularly those containing food.
The Milford Track is accessed by boat from Te Anau Downs, 27 kilometres from Te Anau in the south-east of the South Island. Late October to early May is the best time to walk the track – in winter, snow makes it far more challenging. There are a host of other great hiking opportunities in the area, too.
Rangitoto Island is a 25-minute ferry ride from downtown Auckland; the service is frequent, making getting on and off the island very easy. This is a great year-round walk, but make sure you wear sturdy walking shoes able to handle volcanic rock. You can also take advantage of the Volcanic Explorer, a little tractor train that will take you most of the way.
The only thing more thrilling than looking down at Queenstown from the top of Bob’s Peak – the deep blue of Lake Wakatipu cradled in the arms of The Remarkables – is racing towards it on two wheels, the conifers of the Ben Lomond Reserve whipping past in a blur. The Queenstown Bike Park has more than 30km of tracks, with the longest clocking in at 6km. The best bit about it? There’s no need for any uphill cycling to interrupt your thrills: the Skyline Gondola will deposit you at the top of the 450m rise, ready for you to race down.
If gastronomic thrills are more your thing, the Tasman’s Great Taste Trail in Nelson, in the far north of the South Island, is the bike ride for you. While the full loop of 175 kilometres might sound somewhat daunting, any fatigue is more than mitigated by the number of award-winning vineyards, artisan producers, cafés and restaurants you’ll encounter en route. Take it slowly and enjoy the scenery: the rolling hills, the mountainous backdrops and the Waimea Inlet, with its significant population of white heron and royal spoonbill. It’s the most relaxation you can have on two wheels.
Queenstown is a hub of action-related activity, from bungy jumping to water sports, skiing and snowboarding. In addition, there are many fine restaurants and bars – making this lakeside destination a place to linger.
The Tasman Great Taste Trail couldn’t be easier to find – it begins at Nelson Airport. Nelson regularly records the most hours of sunshine in the country, making it a great year-round destination, with the Mediterranean-like climate responsible for the region’s amazing food and wine.
Stand-up paddleboarding (SUP) is the one of the world’s fastest-growing water sports, with every calm body of water now seemingly inhabited by an army of upright figures bobbing peacefully on the waves. Northland Paddleboarding is the oldest specialist SUP school in New Zealand, operating out of the Kerikeri area, in the far north of the North Island, since 2008. It offers a variety of tours and lessons, all on the beautiful Kerikeri Inlet, where calm waters and secluded coves make it ideal for beginners.
If you feel the need to add a challenge to your SUP experience, why not combine it with yoga? And why not try it on the icy blue waters of Lake Wanaka, with the jagged peaks of Mt Aspiring National Park rising above you as you turn your paddleboard into a floating yoga mat. Paddle Wanaka offers lessons with professional yoga instructors who will lead you through a diverse range of poses as you try not to be distracted by the majestic scenery.
It’s a three-hour drive or 45-minute flight from Auckland to Kerikeri. Other attractions in the area include The Stone Store – New Zealand’s oldest surviving stone building – and the town of Russell, site of the first permanent European settlement in the country.
Paddleboard yoga is best in the warmer months. Wanaka is just an hour’s drive from Queenstown. En route, make sure you stop at historic and charming Arrowtown, where stone huts built by Chinese miners in the 19th century still stand.