From the sheer-cut fjords of South Island to the smoke-sputtering volcano cones of North Island, New Zealand is brimming with breathtaking natural sites. It’s an obvious destination for any adventure-hungry traveler, touting more wild bays, shimmering beaches, misty rainforests, and snow-capped mountains than you can shake an endangered kiwi bird at (but definitely don’t do that!).
This guide focuses on two of NZ’s top adrenaline draws: hiking and surfing. It whisks you from the alpine lakes of world-famous Queenstown to the lonely peninsulas that jut out of Auckland, all in search of Antipodean A-frames, Southern Hemisphere tramping routes, and bucket-list-busting memories from peak to point break.
Get up early to beat the morning traffic queues on the Auckland Harbour Bridge. Then, cruise north through the soft hills and gorges of the Aupouri Peninsula. Take the turn off for Mangawhai around an hour up Route 1 and bingo: you’ll be bumping over gravel roads between green farm fields straight towards the ribbon-like wisp of white-tinged sand that rolls off Te Arai Point.
On a strong easterly swell, this one kicks up some sculpted green waves that crash neatly left to right. They start at a rocky underbed near to the point itself but are mostly over sand, curling easily into a row of oat-swaying dunes. Less punchy days bring cruisier rides that are irresistible for the longboarders. Oh, and always keep your eyes peeled for Te Arai’s other inhabitants: pods of dolphins cruising through the Hauraki Gulf. Local Aotearoa Surf School is the place to go for rentals and lessons.
Prepare to gasp the first time you lay eyes on Piha. Like a hidden Shangri-La that pokes from the emerald fern forests of the Waitakere Ranges, it gilds the western edge of North Island. You can get here in under an hour from Auckland, which is great news for those who simply can’t wait to trade the Sky Tower for surf swells on the Tasman Sea.
But first, some appreciation for the beach itself. Tinted a charcoal color by iron deposits, the sand emerges from verdant fields and is watched over by towering crags. A stack of twisted volcanic stone called Lion Rock dominates the scene at the center of it all. The ocean sloshes into big coves in hues of cobalt and turquoise.
Done snapping selfies? Good. The waves are a-calling. Consistent and powerful, there are walled-up sections to ride on both flanks of the Lion Rock. Look for the smaller swells if you’re starting out and always beware of rips in these parts – Piha isn’t the filming spot of NZ’s answer to Baywatch for nothing, you know…
Helping you keep your board waxed and ready as you move down the shores of the Tasman Sea is the happening surf town of Raglan. Salt-washed and chilled in the extreme, it’s a boarder’s mecca, touting Kiwi eateries and burger joints where you can refuel after dawn patrols. However, the true treasures are just to the south.
Here, a string of beaches and bays link up to offer some of the longest rides in the country, nay, the world. It all starts on the volcanic reefs of Indicators. These drop-in barrels are for pros only, with a paddle out that involves launching yourself off nearby rock pools. To the west of that is Whale Bay, where the exposure is less and hefty groundswells signal rippable A-frames. Then comes Manu Bay of Endless Summer fame, a legend on the world surf scene. Beginners, meanwhile, can play around in the frothy rollers of Ngarunui Beach. The folks over at Raglan Surfing School can help with planning lessons there.
With a length of 52 miles, shorelines that spill into the Pacific Ocean and the Hauraki Gulf, and a backbone of rugged massifs topped with mystical kauri trees, you could say that the Coromandel is the perfect fusion of coast and mountain. The upshot? You’re just as likely to need the hiking boots as the wetsuit in these parts.
Starting with the trails, you can look to the soaring slopes of the Coromandel Range. That dominates the heart of the region. In its deepest recesses, the Ohinemuri River gurgles over boulders, carving out the sheer-cut Karangahake Gorge. There’s an historic trekking route that encompasses old mines and roaring waterfalls. Alternatively, The Pinnacles Trail is a whopping 8-hour ascent through primeval kauri woodland, whisking you to jagged mountaintops with panoramic views.
Surf wise, there’s plenty to get through on the east coast. The beachies of Te Karo Bay forever beckon intermediates and up, rolling left and right with the power of the Pacific. Or, pick the crystal-clear waters of Hot Water Beach, where steaming springs bubble into some fast and barrel-like left handers.
The Tongariro National Park is where the North Island horizon gets claimed by mighty volcanos. It’s a trio of peaks that dominates, from serrated Mount Ruapehu to the dusty caldera of Mount Ngauruhoe. You can see them from miles off, enfolded by dashes of kamahi bush and beech forests, streaked with snow, and often haloed in wisps of cloud.
Tempted? The hiking here is second to none. The awesome Tongariro Alpine Crossing usually tops the bill. Lasting up to eight hours, it’s a 12-mile trek through the very heart of the reserve. Along the way, you’ll delve into the Mangatepopo Valley and its moss-clad lava chutes, spy iridescent volcanic pools ringed by buttercups, and, of course, enjoy jaw-dropping views of the three soaring summits themselves.
From snow-dusted volcanos to dewy rainforests bashed by ocean swells – that’s what the trip across the Cook Strait from North Island to Punakaiki is all about. Even the road trip in from the port in Picton, through the Wild West-style center of Murchison and deep into the old-growth Victoria Forest Park (where kiwis roam), is one laden with amazing hiking paths. However, there’s really nothing that can prepare you for the visions of the coast that unfold down Route 6.
That’s where you’ll discover little Punakaiki itself. A few lodges hide in the coastal forests, with lookout points jutting over black-sand bays. Choose one of those and you might just wake to sightings of wild penguins and waterfalls crashing straight into the Tasman Sea. For hikers, there are untrodden paths wiggling into the bluffs of the Paparoa National Park. Meanwhile, shoreline treks can take you to caves held sacred by the Maori and the so-called Pancake Rocks, where curious limestone formations create natural blowholes.
It’s possible to do the drive from the Wild West Coast around Punakaiki to the glacier-topped town of Franz Josef in a single day. The route skirts wave-bashed shores and runs through ancient forestry plugged with ferns. If you’ve got the time, pit stops at the river trails of Hokitika and a picnic with broadside views of the Westland mountains at Lake Wahapo are certainly worth it!
When you finally arrive in Franz Josef, it’s time to set your sights on one of South Island’s most eye-watering wonders: the Franz Josef Glacier. Cascading down from the Westland Tai Poutini National Park, it clocks up a length of more than 11 miles and carves out a wide valley between waterfall-draped massifs.
There are multiple ways for hikers to get up close. You can do the simple path that takes you to the base of the ice field. The challenging Robert’s Point Trail, meanwhile, zigzags for five hours over mossy rocks and mountain streams before revealing a soaring lookout point. And there are even helicopter treks that take place right on Franz Josef Glacier itself!
Wedged onto one of the few flat openings in the Southern Alps, Wanaka is a wonderland of mountains and peaks. An amphitheatre of summits surrounds the small town, culminating with the 3,000-meter-high silhouette of Mount Aspiring itself. Closer to home, you can embark on countless day walks through tussock, rainforest, and high-alpine habitats.
Isthmus Peak is a doozy for the views. The top straddles the joint between the two regional lakes, which means you get stunning panoramas of both glittering Lake Hawea and Lake Wanaka deep in the basin below. Roy’s Peak is another favorite, with an Instagram-worthy summit shot filled with snowy ranges and cobalt waters. For more hardcore types, the Gillespie Pass Circuit and the Routeburn Track are options. They weave into the Mount Aspiring National Park, onto rock spurs, and into valleys that are totally uninhabited.
There are plenty of reasons why Queenstown is hailed as the Adventure Capital of the World. Everything from jet boating down the Arrow River to heli skiing in the Southern Alps can be added to the itinerary here. In fact, this was even the place where bungee jumping went commercial under the guidance of AJ Hackett back in 1988!
But who needs an elastic rope and a helicopter to get the adventure gauge peaking? Queenstown is situated at the epicentre of such a comprehensive web of hiking paths that hoofing it is a sure ticket to the great NZ outdoors. Options abound. Famous hikes start right on the lakeside in the town itself. You’ll leave behind the canine buskers and beer drinkers on the main street and head through pine woods to reach the top of the Skyline Queenstown gondola. From there, break out to the saddle of Ben Lomond and even onto the summit, where endangered kea parrots like to photobomb your shots of Mount Aspiring and mirror-like Lake Wakatipu. And that’s just a taster, too.
The Fiordland National Park caps off NZ’s South Island on its extreme south-western end. There’s nowhere else like it in the country, what with deep-cut sounds and canyons piercing straight into mountain ranges where ancient beech forests converge on ice caps and wildflower meadows. Yep, this is up there with the most impenetrable and untouched corners of New Zealand, which makes it a dream come true for the most intrepid trampers out there.
Despite the remoteness of the Fiordland, paths are plentiful. You could skip the ever-popular day trips to Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound and hit the four-day Milford Track. It’s an iconic journey through alpine valleys, over boardwalk-covered wetlands, under the crashing Sutherland Falls (the tallest in New Zealand), and atop tussock-clad Mackinnon Pass. This is also the terminus of the celebrated Routeburn Track, which goes for 20 miles through the highlands from the equally amazing Mount Aspiring National Park.
Through the Otago winelands and up Route 1 past the Garden City of Christchurch brings you neatly on a circuit of South Island. Conveniently, you can wind up your trip in the town of Kaikoura. It’s more famous for its whale watching than its surf, but there’s certainly no shortage of swells to ride when you aren’t spotting the ocean giants.
Straddling an estuary to the south is Kahutara. It’s got black-pebble beaches that run along grassy headlands, offering up curling right-hand breaks that can hold up well in stronger east-going swells. Driving north through Kaikoura heralds a whole string of other spots. They’ve all got small towns or car parks where you can pull in the camper and hop straight into the lineup, starting with famous Mangamaunu, walling up empty beneath the Kaikoura Range and ending at the punchy points that spread along the mouth of the Clarence River.