One of New Zealand’s most iconic images is the indomitable mountains of its South Island Fjordlands plunging into the icy depths of Milford Sound. For much of the year, their peaks are capped by snow and ice, shrouded by ethereal mists carried across from Antarctica. These stunning views are the main reason that thousands of tourists make the journey through the Fjordlands to Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound, though there’s plenty more to do than stand in awe. Kayaking trips across the black water offer a unique experience of getting up close and personal with the mountains – it’s a more intimate enterprise than the ferry trips, which ship most tourists around the sound. Be sure to pay attention to weather warnings before you start your journey, though – when we visited in early October, the single winding road into Milford Sound was closed for three days thanks to an avalanche.
Although the South Island is generally regarded as having more dramatic, awe-inspiring scenery than the North, the Tongariro National Park is a clear rebuttal of that generalisation. Bordering the Desert Road of the North Island’s interior, below the impressive Lake Taupo, this huge area of stunning, isolated mountains and expansive plains is a favourite of New Zealanders. Many attempt to make the Crossing – a 19km trek across the heart of Tongariro – though it’s not an easy day’s hike. Be sure to pack emergency equipment as the weather conditions can change rapidly and unexpectedly.
Another lesser-known gem on the North Island is the Coromandel Peninsula, due north of Rotorua. It’s not advertised as a haven for mountain bikers or rock climbers, but the combination of stunning coastline and rolling hills will sate the wanderlust of any aspiring adventurer. It also boasts a collection of free campgrounds for vanlifers, all monitored and maintained by the local council to a high standard; not all ‘facilities’ in New Zealand’s campgrounds are as inviting.
Originally a mining town on the shores of Lake Wakatipu, Queenstown has evolved into a haven for outdoor adventurers of all stripes, from diehard powder hounds to casual trail runners. It’s crammed with outdoor shops, cafes serving organic coffee and lakeside bars, with cheap campgrounds on its outskirts, too. Riding the gondola to the mountaintops will provide spectacular views in any season and no visit to Queenstown is complete without eating a Fergburger; they’ve been voted ‘Best Burger in the World’ by the New York Times. If you’re heading to the Fjordlands or Mount Cook, be sure to drive via this bustling town.
Cloaked by native forest and dotted by beautiful coves tucked away on the coastline, Abel Tasman is New Zealand’s smallest national park but is no less impressive than its peers. As well as more hikes than you can shake a boot at, it boasts kayaking trips, horse-riding treks, catamaran voyages and innumerous astounding vistas. Just a short drive from the Picton-Wellington ferry crossing, it’s well worth making Abel Tasman either your first or last stop on the South Island.
To the north of Auckland lies the narrow peninsula comprising the Bay of Islands, including the infamous 90 Mile Beach. New Zealand prides itself on its spectacular natural beauty and this northernmost point is one of the best examples; its stunning beaches and warm climate exist alongside rolling green hills and blue seas. For that reason, it’s one of the busiest sky-diving spots in the country, though meandering around in a campervan provides stunning views too. Be sure to drop into the world famous Mangonui Fish Shop while you’re there.
To the south-west of Christchurch is Lake Tekapo, a designated dark-sky area set amidst the snow-capped mountains of the Southern Alps. There are various hikes departing from the campgrounds, whether to the observatory on the summit of Mt John or across the grass plains of Rohan, for Lord of the Rings nerds. Not all your time in New Zealand needs to be spent chasing high octane adventures; sometimes, a campfire beneath a star-studded sky is a better experience. And when you need that calm, there’s no place better for it than Lake Tekapo.
Urban exploration might not be why you travelled to New Zealand, but Auckland is worth taking some time off from tramping, mountain biking and your #vanlife. Crammed with bars, street markets and parks, NZ’s busiest and most bustling city is a haven for city folk, and no visit is complete without at least attempting to watch a rugby match at Eden Park. It’s the country’s largest sports stadium and, for a rugby-obsessed nation, produces an atmosphere that little else can compare with. If sport isn’t your thing, Auckland will have another trick up its sleeve - you just need to get wandering its streets.
It’s a peculiar experience, overlooking a gigantic wall of ice that’s tens of thousands of years old and stretches for kilometres. No, it’s not Game of Thrones - it’s the Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers on the east coast of New Zealand’s South Island. There are few relics left of the last ice age and the locals here have made a business from flying people to the top of them in helicopters, allowing you to walk upon the glacier and witness the incredible mountains surrounding it at the same time. If you’re watching your budget, both glaciers have viewing stations within a short hiking distance, too.
Not an area that’s as popular for tourists, the entire peninsula to the east of Dunedin is spectacularly beautiful, but be sure to take the coastal road to Harington Point and the albatross centre. The tarmac skirts the coastline by a few feet and in places there’s nothing but your skill behind the wheel between your vehicle and the Pacific Ocean - dramatic but an incredible experience. After scouring the coastline for the inimitable experience of an albatross in flight, return via the internal road from Portobello. Its route is just as dramatic, but with hills and sheer drops to replace the saltwater. As the sun is setting, it is beyond compare for awe-inspiring views.
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