From the towering mountain peaks of the Southern Alps to the shimmering opal waters of the Bay of Islands, New Zealand (or Aotearoa, as it’s referred to in the Māori language) is a pocket of wilderness unlike anywhere else in the world.
You can gaze at awe-inspiring vistas, learn about remarkable flora and fauna, and even freedom camp amongst the breathtaking landscapes.
Below, we’ve listed nine reasons why New Zealand is the ideal holiday destination for nature lovers…
1. You can experience the entirely unique wildlife
The land mass that we now call New Zealand broke off from Australia around 80 million years ago. And since then, native wildlife has evolved in isolation from the rest of the world, resulting in an abundance of completely unique plants and animals.
One of the most impressive of New Zealand’s creatures is undoubtedly the tuatara: the last living relics of an ancient order of lizard-like reptiles that have a third eye for spotting overhead predators. But there are many more species of fascinating fauna, such as the glow worms that turn the caves at Waitomo into a starry night sky, and the yellow-eyed penguins that live on the Southern coasts.
There are plenty of great spots for observing wildlife in New Zealand too, but some of the best include Kaikōura (the country’s whale-watching capital) on the western coast of the South Island, Stewart Island off the southern shores, and Tiritiri Matangi Scenic Reserve near Auckland.
Plus, in centuries gone by, New Zealand was home to an amazing variety of fantastical creatures that no longer walk the earth. Two of the most famous of these are the Haast eagle (the largest eagle ever to exist) and the South Island giant moa (the tallest species of bird in history).
2. You can set off on an unforgettable hike
One of the most incredible aspects of New Zealand is the number of landscapes all crammed into one relatively small country. Over the course of a few days, you can experience craggy volcanic peaks, lush forests, white-sand coastlines, snow-topped mountains, and rolling countryside – and one of the best ways to explore these is on foot.
No matter what your experience level is and where you’re visiting, there are plenty of well-marked and maintained routes to choose from. For example, if you’re visiting Milford Sound – the jewel of South-west New Zealand’s many fiords – and looking for something relatively easy to complete, you could take the Milford Sound Lookout Track. This trail only takes 20 minutes or so to complete, and you’ll be rewarded with jaw-dropping views.
Alternatively, if you’re an experienced hiker, you could tackle the famous Milford Track. This involves over 50km of wilderness trekking, which you’ll need four days to complete.
For lots of other famous tracks across the country – such as the Abel Tasman Coast Track – you’ll also have the option to just hike part of the way. And there are even some – like the Lake Gunn Nature Walk – that are wheelchair accessible. So there truly are options for everyone!
Some other famous routes include the Tongariro Crossing, which takes you through volcanic craters and past mesmerising geothermal lakes, and the Hooker Valley Track in Mount Cook National Park. If your budget allows, you could even channel your inner Edmund Hilary and catch a helicopter up to one of the country’s mesmerising glaciers, before taking a guided hike over the ice.
3. You can marvel at New Zealand’s famous flightless birds
As we’ve already mentioned, New Zealand’s isolation from the rest of the world has led to the evolution of lots of weird and wonderful animals. But interestingly, before European colonisers arrived, the only mammals in New Zealand were a few bat species and marine mammals.
This lack of mammals meant there was an absence of ground-based predators – and without this threat, many of the native bird species evolved to be flightless.
Some of these famous flightless wonders include the kākāpō (the world’s heaviest parrot), the weka (infamous for its love of all things shiny and tendency to steal tourist’s keys and phones), and, of course, the kiwi, of which there are five different species.
Unfortunately, many of these birds have been driven to near extinction by the introduction of pests – like rats and stoats – by European colonisers. So while some can be spotted in the wild with relative ease, you’ll need to visit sanctuaries and other conservation sites to see others – such as Orokonui, near Dunedin, and The National Kiwi Hatchery in Rotuara.
4. You can experience the natural scenery in extreme style
Some people enjoy admiring natural scenery leisurely – for example, on a relaxing walk or bike ride – while others prefer taking it in at a more extreme pace. And, in New Zealand, there are endless high-velocity activities that you can take part in while soaking up views of some of the country’s most dramatic landscapes.
One of the most popular destinations for adrenaline junkies is undoubtedly Queenstown. Nestled at the foot of The Remarkables – a mountain range that lives up to its name – the town is often lauded as ‘The Adventure Capital of New Zealand’. Here, you can get stuck into bungee jumping, skydiving, paragliding, mountain biking, jet boating, skiing, and snowboarding, all while taking in breathtaking vistas.
Or if you like to seek your thrills on the waves, New Zealand is an excellent destination for surfing. In fact, when European colonisers arrived on the shores of Aotearoa in the 19th century, they witnessed Māori people surfing (or whakahekeheke, in their language) – so it’s been practised on New Zealand’s coasts for hundreds of years.
Check out this article from Surfer Today to find some great spots to catch a wave.
5. You can learn about wildlife conservation
New Zealand faces a range of conservation challenges, but it’s also renowned for its efforts in combatting these problems. So if you’re interested in what we can do to protect our planet’s biodiversity, there’s plenty to learn about.
Recent research has revealed that New Zealand has the world’s highest proportion of threatened species. This includes 90% of seabirds, 84% of reptiles, 76% of freshwater fish, and 74% of terrestrial birds. So it’s worth spending some time learning about what’s being done to keep them around.
There are lots of places dotted throughout the North and South Islands where you can do this. For example, at the Kiwi Park in Queenstown, you can attend talks and even spot a kiwi in one of the nocturnal enclosures.
Alternatively, you could check out Zealandia: an eco-sanctuary located in the country’s capital that aims to restore the valley’s freshwater and forest ecosystem to what it was like before humans ever stepped foot on Aotearoa.
6. You can explore thousands of miles of dramatic coastline
New Zealand is a coastal country. In fact, it’s estimated that it has between 15,000km (9,321m) and 1800km (11,185m) of coastline. So there are plenty of sprawling white-sand beaches and hidden coves to explore.
If you’re adventuring by car, many of New Zealand’s roads wind right up against the sea for miles.
Highway 6, on the west coast of the South Island, is particularly scenic – especially the leg running from Westport to Greymouth. Be sure to look out for the famous Pancake Rocks at Punakaiki; a must-see-it-to-believe-it limestone rock formation.
Or head down to the southeast coast of the South Island and cruise through the Caitlins. Just make sure to stop off at Tunnel Beach near Dunedin, which can only be accessed through a tunnel in the rocks.
If you find yourself in the North Island, however, then why not take a drive down The Twin Coast Discovery Highway? It’s located in New Zealand’s warmest region and it’s a perfect place to spot wildlife. Cathedral Cove on the Coromandel Peninsula is another must-visit – a beach that features a towering ceiling of stone made famous by the Narnia films.
This article from New Zealand’s official tourism website has some great recommendations for other coastal spots.
7. You can learn about how New Zealanders adapt to the turbulent side of nature
While much of New Zealand is spectacularly serene; it can be prone to some extreme displays of the power of nature. In fact, the country sits on the barrier between two tectonic plates (slowly moving pieces of the Earth’s crust that are constantly grinding against each other).
While this positioning has contributed to the formation of many of New Zealand’s stunning landscapes, it also means that natural disasters like earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and tsunamis are more common than in other parts of the world.
The destructive power that nature can have on people and places isn’t something to be marvelled at. But what tourists can appreciate is how New Zealanders have found ingenious ways to live amongst these perils.
For example, Auckland, the country’s largest city, is located within an active volcanic field containing more than 50 volcanoes. And in the Auckland Museum, you can find an interesting interactive exhibit that explains how they formed and how Auckland has prepared for future eruptions. Many of the country’s museums also have similar exhibitions, such as Canterbury Museum’s Quake City.
A visit to Napier on the east coast of the North Island will inform visitors about New Zealanders’ capacity to not only bounce back but create something entirely new in the face of one of these disasters.
After experiencing a devastating earthquake in 1931 – which destroyed most of the town – the citizens rebuilt many of their homes in an eye-catching Art Deco style, which draws thousands of visitors each year.
8. You can witness geothermal wonders
New Zealand’s position on the boundary of two tectonic plates makes it a hotspot for geothermal activity. This is when heat from deep inside the planet’s core rises between the plates, getting relatively close to the surface; resulting in a myriad of extraordinary phenomena.
At the Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland, the Lady Knox Geyser puts on an impressive show every day at 10.15am: heated and pressurised by geothermal energy, a pillar of water 10-20m high in the air shoots out of the ground. You can also wander along the boardwalk and appreciate the bubbling mud pools, huge volcanic craters, and the surreal Champagne Pool.
Or if you’re in the mood for a more immersive experience, then you could visit Hell’s Gate: New Zealand’s only geothermal mud bath complex. Here, you can bathe in warm mud that the Māori people consider to have healing properties.
While you’ll need to pay for a ticket to visit Wai-O-Tapu or Hell’s Gate, there are plenty of free geothermal experiences to get stuck into. For example, why not head up to Hot Water Beach in the Coromandel Peninsula, where you can dig a hole in the sand and enjoy the warm volcanic water that bubbles up?
9. You can immerse yourself in nature by freedom camping
If you’re looking for a holiday where you can stay flexible and really get a taste for what Aotearoa’s wild spaces have to offer, then why not try freedom camping in New Zealand?
Freedom camping is where (unlike here in the UK) you can camp on public land that’s not managed by a campsite. So if you find a particularly scenic spot where you’d like to spend the night, you might be able to set up right there and then!
With that said, there are still rules and regulations when it comes to freedom camping in New Zealand – and hefty fines are applied to those who don’t follow them. For example, you typically can’t freedom camp in reserves managed by the Department of Conservation.
Plus, many places require you to camp in a self-contained vehicle (for example, one with a toilet and waste storage system) – which means you can be self-sufficient for up to three days without discharging any waste into the environment. You can rent self-contained vehicles through companies like Jucy and Travellers Autobarn.
From freedom camping under the stars to interacting with the country’s one-of-a-kind flora and fauna, there are plenty of reasons why New Zealand is the perfect destination for nature lovers – certainly more than we could include in the list above. So why not check it out for yourself?
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