First, a few reasons to visit New Zealand:
Convinced yet? New Zealand is wild, it’s rugged, and it’s breathtaking. Its landscape can change instantly from the tropical vacation beaches of the Bay of Islands, to the pristine blue glacial lakes like Tekapo, bubbling neon green and pink sulfur Wai-O-Tapu hot pools, rolling hills of Mamata, looming cliffs and waterfalls of the Fjordland….the stunning and diverse scenery doesn’t end. I was lucky enough to drag an Aussie friend with me to see it all in the best way possible: road trip. Hire a car or camper van and take it all in at your own pace.
New Zealand is relatively a very young country. Its language, food and customs still reflect largely on British, Irish and Scottish culture, however it is quickly changing in diversity with recent arrivals from Asia and Europe. It’s also had it quite tough over the last few years, too, with two devastating earthquakes in Christchurch in 2011. Although its aftermath is still very prevalent in Christchurch, the city is quickly changing, adapting and evolving into a funky cultural hot spot. The city’s perseverance and optimism mirrors quite well many New Zealanders’, or Kiwis, spirit, which can also largely seen in the All Blacks (New Zealand’s famous rugby team) fan base. Kiwis are very high up there in the friendliest, cheeriest people I’ve encoutered. It’s not surprising to be greeted from a passerby in country areas, and everyone is beyond polite. This, however, has two exceptions: 1. on the road and 2. if you’re Australian, although the latter tends to be more in good fun. I do recommend never mistaking a Kiwi for an Australian, though. You’re on your own there.
It is first important to know only about 20% of the population lives in South Island. Food choices aren’t as diverse as the major cities, but that doesn’t mean you won’t find some delicious restaurants, with exceptional mom-and-pop service. There are many, many tiny towns scattered throughout all of New Zealand, and here the best choice is to ask a local for their favorite, or what I call old school Yelp (remember those days?). Food here is very British influenced, but there are still some dishes that are a must try:
- Fish and Chips – like Britain, this is very bonafide Kiwi favorite. Some places in New Zealand just excel in this dish from the abundance of fresh seafood. A good fish and chips is lightly battered, crisp and not oily, and made with fresh fish. Similar to what a great tonkatsu or tempura would be. Best accompanied by a cold glass of beer.
- Lamb – fun fact: there are more sheep in New Zealand than there are people. Truth. But that means you can find lamb almost anywhere. Even in fast food chains.
- Seafood – New Zealand has some of the most tantalizing, juicy, largest shellfish I’ve ever seen. All that coastline ain’t for nothing.
- Hokey Pokey anything – usually seen as an ice cream flavor, it is essentially vanilla with bits of honeycomb and toffee, basically the best ice cream flavor ever. It’s also translated into cookies and other desserts
- Wine – I absolutely love New Zealand Savignon Blanc, and the choices are endless here. New Zealand has several great wine regions that are worth checking out and bringing back a few bottles from local wineries. New Zealand is most popular for not only savignon blanc, but also pinot noirs and merlots (I’m still more partial to my French wines when it comes to reds).
Also, here is a list of some notable restaurants I discovered along the way:
- Fergburger – located in Queenstown, and lives up to its hype. Pretty much the best burger I’ve ever had.
- Moeraki Boulders Restaurant – a surprisingly good fish and chips is served here and you can’t beat the views. It’s a perfect stop to see the Moeraki Boulders, too.
- Fidel’s Cafe – located in Wellington on Cuba Street (your go-to place for food in Wellington) that serves up a great cup of coffee and brunch
- Rams Crazy Dumpling – also located on Cuba street in Wellington. We came here on a whim as my Asian instincts starting kicking in after consuming too much fish and chips and meat pies. Surprisingly, it ended up being very solid Chinese food. It’s cheap with generous portions as well!
- Oppie’s Fish and Chips – located in Rotorua. best fish and chips I’ve ever had. Light, not too greasy, fresh fish. Need I say anything else?
- Wongkok Cafe – don’t be fooled by online reviews! Or by the looks of this place for that matter. This place was recommended to us by a family friend from Auckland who promised good, cheap Asian food, and this place delivered. I will warn you this is a straight hole-in-the wall Chinese restaurant (usual Chinese service included). The BBQ pork however was one of the best BBQ porks I’ve ever had. This place is also incredibly cheap.
The Must-do List
I could write on and on about each vibrant city, quaint small town and spectacular viewpoint I visited, but we live in a TLDR world nowadays, so I’m going to give you my TDLR version.
- Fjordlands and Milford Sound – one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen, and this is not an overstatement. Not only is the drive to Milford stunning, but traveling through Milford is somehow even more. Kayaking through Milford is highly recommended, as well as a good massage the day after.
- Hobbiton – this is an enjoyable trip for both the hardcore LOTR and not so much fan. The experience is truly like stepping into a magical world. It includes a pint of Green Dragon local brew ale, so you can’t go wrong with that.
- Wellington – full of arthouse cinemas, vintage boutiques, garage breweries and not to mention the WETA cave, this beautiful city outshines Auckland in my favorite cities in New Zealand
- Waitomo Cave – although there are several glow worm caves in New Zealand, this is by far the best. No photos inside, but you can google yourself a photo to re-experience how magical it was.
- Mount Cook, Lake Pukaki, Lake Tekapo – on a clear day, it is well worth the money to lodge near Mount Cook and hike around to see the cliffs and glaciers. On the road up, Lake Pukaki is equally as stunning and known as the Turquoise lake aptly named for its color. Lake Tekapo is a bit more down the road, but has a beautiful picturesque church sitting right on the lake. If you’re extremely lucky, you may be able to see the Aurora Australis at night in this area, too.
- Queenstown – although it’s known to be the adrenaline junkie capital, it is much more than that. It is also a nice wakeup call from all the sleepy small towns in South Island. Spectacular location and views in and around the area, great restaurants and bars. Be sure not to skip out on the famous Fergburger!
- Wanaka – what I call little Queenstown that makes for a good stop. If you can survive a 5 hour (round trip) hike, Roy’s Peak is a well-worth it on a clear day. If you happen to be staying in town for the night, Cinema Paradiso is a little theater haven where you can stretch out on a couch or cozy in on a bean bag, enjoy your newest Hollywood blockbusters or arthouse flick and enjoy a glass of wine or two paired with fresh baked cookies. Best part is their intermission allows you to fill up on your glass.
- Bay of Islands – true to its name, it consists of a myriad of islands which include some spectacular viewpoints of it all. The cruise to Hole in the Rock is well worth the cost, and includes a beautiful island stop with look out
- Great Walk – so I didn’t have time to do one, which was my biggest regret. New Zealand is famous for its breathtaking, multi-day walks. I’ll definitely be returning just to do the walks in the future. Bucket list items are the Milford and Kepler Track
This is a list of places I loved and places you should visit at some point. However, I know a lot of you can’t take a 3 week holiday like me, so I’ve added these places to another TLDR list.
- West Coast of South Island – I know this area has many “must-do’s” on New Zealand travel sites, but I’m warning you drive is FAR. I’m talking about close to an extra 9-10 hours of driving on top of the all the driving you’re going to do to get to the Fjordlands and such. It is incredibly worth it if you have time for this though. I merged all the spots to see here:
- Punakaiki Rocks and Blowhole – I highly debated on whether putting this in the must-do list, but ultimately this area is a bit far of a drive from the more major stops in South Island. Still, it is incredible and the drive there from Greymouth is spectacular.
- Arthur’s Pass – if you’re going to see Punakaiki, you’re very likely going to have to drive by Arthur’s pass at some point. It’s the connection between Greymouth/West Coast and Christchurch. Beautiful drive, and be sure to stop and take the nice hike to Devil’s Punchbowl.
- Hokitika Gorge – a short, but GORGE-ous hike (/end dad joke) to see incredibly turquoise waters (what I call Gatorade waters). The swing bridge is an incredible photo op, too.
- Franz Josef/Fox Glaciers – the best way to experience the glaciers nowadays is take an expensive helicopter-hike tour since the glaciers have receded so far back (thanks global warming). However, the helicopters are very dependent on weather, and due to the mountains and ocean, you’ve got a 50/50 chance it’s going to happen. The hikes to the somewhat near the foot of the glaciers is well worth, although this can be weather/flooding dependent, as well. Basically, don’t get your hopes up things you planned for will happen here.
- Dunedin – with its strong Scottish past (Dunedin is Gaelic for Edinburgh), the city is quick to break out the haggis and bagpipes on occasion. It is also vibrant with culture and a little piece of Edwardian and Victorian architecture heaven, with a variety of great local bars.
- Rotorua Wai-o-tapu Thermal Springs – I’m not sure if there is anywhere else in the world you can see vividly colored springs (I’m talking neon green, pinks, red, blues), all while enjoying the beautiful smell of rotten eggs. This area is also unique in having the highest population of Maori, the indigenous people of New Zealand. Here, there are many Maori cultural centers that worth a visit and feast on a hangi.
- Moeraki Boulders – a fascinating quick stop if you’re headed down south. You can get some beautiful shots in here during sunset.
- Oamaru – Oamaru hits my list for coolest towns I’ve ever visted. It has uniquely a high concentration of antique and vintage lovers, which gives rise to some awesome shops like a vintage radio shop, vintage toy and sweets shop and the Steampunk headquarters to name a few.
I hope this helps to add New Zealand higher up on your bucket list. I think New Zealand tends to often get overshadowed by Europe, Asia and South America, or gets sadly grouped together with Australia, at least by many of my American friends. New Zealand is a beautiful country and deserves your full vacation time to truly enjoy it. I look forward to returning again with my fellow LOTR bestie and fall in love with New Zealand all over again. Ok, now enjoy a sheep selfie.
P.S. Look forward to some New Zealand inspired recipes I’ve been brewing up!