11 of our Favourite Places in New Zealand

The Land of the Long White Cloud has to be one of our favourite countries in the world. We loved the landscape, the weather, the food and of course, the people. It wasn't easy choosing only 11 places to recommend for a trip to New Zealand, but here's what we came up with:

A view of Lake Hawea the the road to Wanaka, South Island, New Zealand

1. Dunedin

Despite its very chilly, British-style weather, "Edinburgh of the South" was our favourite city in New Zealand: probably because it reminded us so much of home!

With Victorian architecture, a rich Scottish history and a thriving arts scene, Dunedin oozes soul.

Statue of Robert Burns in the Octagon, Dunedin

Be sure to walk around the city and enjoy the sights. The Octagon is the social hub, with plenty of bars and entertainment on its eight-sided 'square'. If you love architecture, you'll find grand old churches like St Paul's, Knox and the First Church, as well as stunning design in the form of the Rail Station and Otago University.

For history and the arts, there's the Otago Settlers Museum and Otago Museum, as well as Dunedin Public Art Gallery.

Like many places in NZ, Dunedin is great for op-shops (the Kiwi term for second-hand/charity shops) and we enjoyed trawling for vintage bargains in this town. Once we were ready for a cuppa, we headed to the Dog With Two Tails or Modaks Espresso for proper coffee and divine cake.

If you love nature, you'll be satisfied with the Botanic Gardens, and further afield there is the Orokonui Eco Sanctuary and the Royal Albatross Centre on the Otago Peninsula.

The Otago Peninsula, South Island

Head to St Clair for some fish and chips by the beach, or disappear into the rolling hills to Sandfly Bay to get close to native wildlife like seals, sea lions and penguins.

The Otago Peninsula is also where you'll find the only castle in New Zealand: Larnach Castle. Stunning views, award-winning gardens and rich history.

Another must-do in Dunedin is the railway: Trains run through the spectacular Taieri Gorge or up the coast to the steampunk town of Oamaru or Moeraki Boulders.

2. Taranaki

This little corner of the North Island seemed somewhat overlooked to us; whenever we talk about it to fellow NZ-enthusiasts, they've never heard of it! We stayed here for almost two months and never felt short of things to do.

With black sand beaches and the striking lonely mountain of Taranaki (Mt Egmont), it's the only place in NZ where you can go surfing in the morning and skiing in the afternoon!

Hiking on the river walk in Taranaki, North Island

New Plymouth is the largest town, with a great arts scene. Check out the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, home to sculptures by kinetic artist Len Lye, or peruse the many boutiques around the high street.

The reflections in the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, New Plymouth

There's also the picturesque park with long walks through carefully curated flora and a large ampitheatre for concerts - head here in March for the WOMAD music festival.

Hiking is also a popular activity in the area. You can choose the leisurely walk around Lake Mangamahoe, or a more challenging climb on the slopes of Mt Taranaki. We also hiked the Kaitake ranges, a series of smaller mountains close to the main peak, which were full of native bush and wildlife. If you fancy a short walk with a panoramic seaside view, opt for the Paritutu Rock. And for a seaside stroll with less of an ascent, there's also the New Plymouth Coastal Walkway.

Beach in Taranaki, North Island

3. The Milford Sound

For wow factor, you can't beat Milford Sound (or the Doubtful, for that matter; although we didn't see it, so many people told us to head there too!). The Fiordland is the wettest, most isolated part of NZ, and seemed like a vision of Conan Doyle's Lost World when we drove through it. Waterfalls cascaded from misty slopes that rose up like sleeping giants all around us.

Bowen Falls on the Milford Sound, South Island

On the way to the Sound, you can visit the Mirror Lakes, which reflect the jaw-dropping mountain scenery around them, or the Chasm, a massive drop in the river where the water froths and foams into a whitewater chute.

Take a boat out into the Sound to see the wildlife: we spotted seals and penguins on our trip, and some people are even lucky enough to see dolphins too.

The Milford Sound, South Island

Somewhere you can really tune out and get close to nature is one of only a handful of campsites on the road from Te Anau to the Sound. We stayed at one near Upper Eglinton with only the sounds of the rain and hooting morpork owls in the night. Blissful solitude.

4. The Catlins

We were suggested this place by another traveller and were mightily impressed with what we found at this southerly point of the South Island. The landscape is quintessentially Kiwi, with rolling green hills, stone walls and rugged coastline.

Porpoise Bay in the Catlins, South Island

The area is perfect as a place to escape and relax. We took surfing lessons in Porpoise Bay, while swimming with rare Hector's Dolphins!

Sky reflections in Porpoise Bay, the Catlins, South Island

At sunrise and sunset, you can wait on the shores of Curio Bay and be rewarded with sightings of endangered yellow-eyed penguin as they come inland. Also on this beach is a fascinating fossil forest, with patterns which were left in the rock during the Jurassic era.

Hikes in the area include Slope Point, the most southerly part of New Zealand mainland and coastal treks to sights like the Cathedral Caves.

On your way out of the Catlins, don't miss the wonderful imaginarium of the Lost Gypsy. This converted bus houses a collection of hilarious and ingenious inventions and automata to delight and intrigue.

The Lost Gypsy bus gallery in the Catlins, South Island

5. Fox/Franz Josef Glaciers

The "Glacier Country" here on South Island has some of the most spectacular landscape on the planet. The snowy peaks, glacial valleys and pristine forests can be explored by hiking, quad bikes or even helicopter. Take an organised tour to be able to walk on one of the glaciers in (relative!) safety.

Fox Glacier Valley, Glacier Country, South Island

One of our highlights here was something quite unexpected: We saw kiwis (the cute fluffy birds, not New Zealand nationals) in the West Coast Wildlife Centre. If you pay them a visit, you'll not only be helping the centre fund their conservation efforts, but also have an opportunity to see just how weird these nocturnal birds are.

Something Nate recommends is to walk the glacier valley and try to find some fool's gold or greenstone.

Greenstone and pyrite at Fox Glacier Valley

6. Rotorua

The town may smell faintly of farts, but we loved it all the same. Situated in a zone of volcanic activity, there are thermal pools all around Rotorua, including a collection in Kuirau Park close to the centre that you can visit for free.

Thermal pools at Kuirau Park, Rotorua

Head to Te Puia park to see more geothermal wonders, including the Pohutu Geyser and bubbling mud pools. There are Maori cultural performances here too, so you can experience a Maori welcome ceremony (Powhiri) and traditional haka.

We loved the architecture of the Blue Baths house, said to be the most photographed building in NZ. It houses a museum, but at the time of writing in Sept 2017, it remains closed for repairs after earthquake damage. Still, you can always head there and add to the thousands of photos of it!

The Blue Baths at Rotorua

7. Napier

Nate said that this town made him feel like he was in Gotham City, and with so much Art Deco architecture, it's easy to see why.

Art deco architecture in Napier, Hawke's Bay, North Island

North Island's Napier was rebuilt after an earthquake in the 1931 that razed most of the town. The planners decided to create a unique signature style in the town and the result is this Great Gatsby-esque city.

1930s statue in Napier, North Island

With city tours by vintage car and plenty of places to enjoy tea or a drop of the region's Pinot Gris wine (Hawke's Bay is pretty much one huge vineyard and fruit farm), you can relax in style in Napier.

8. Golden Bay

So many people raved about Golden Bay, we had to include it in our itinerary. Close to the sunshine town of Nelson at the northern end of South Island, this place is golden for a reason: countless coves of turquoise waters lie all around the Abel Tasman National Park. It really is a kayaker's heaven.

Beach in Golden Bay, South Island

On the peaks above the rural valley, you can visit the peaceful Canaan Downs and Harwood's Hole, the deepest vertical drop in the southern hemisphere.

Looking out over Golden Bay.

We also drove to the north of Golden Bay, to a spectacular strand called Wharariki Beach. Huge rock formations loomed out of the ocean and there were plenty of sea caves to explore too (where we discovered a rather cantankerous seal).

Wharariki Beach, South Island

9. Punakaiki

This place is tiny; a collection of houses and campsites on the highway along the west coast of South Island, but it's the the geology here that people come for. Pancake Rocks draw quite a tourist crowd, but it was worth putting up with the tour buses to see these unusual formations on the rugged coast.

Pancake Rocks at Punakaiki, South Island

Also in the area were caves filled with eerily beautiful, luminescent glow-worms. We headed out at night with a torch to catch sight of them. If you're keen to spot more NZ wildlife, you can walk to the beach as dusk falls and try to spot the world's smallest penguin: the rare blue penguin.

10. Wanaka

We loved Wanaka for its relaxed vibe and the stunning scenery of the lakes. The landscape is perfect for hiking or mountain biking, and with Mount Aspiring close by, you can go on a trek to find waterfalls and virgin forests.

On the lake itself you can enjoy paddle-boarding, kayaking or even jet-boating, although we spent most of our time on the shore, lazing on the peaceful beach.

Lake Wanaka, South Island

For more adventurous types, try snowboarding or skiing on the nearby peaks, or head to the valleys for abseiling and canyoning.

And if the weather takes a turn for the wet, you can head into the unique Puzzling World for a mind-boggling experience of labyrinths and optical illusions.

11. Hobbiton, Matamata

Ok, so Hobbiton isn't exactly a real place in New Zealand, but it does exist and it is definitely worth the entry fee, even if you're not obsessed with Lord of the Rings like Mark is...

Mark gets a bit excited at Hobbiton

Besides the fact that we got engaged here (outside Bilbo Baggin's front gate!), we loved Hobbiton for how authentic it seemed. The gardens were full of flowers and vegetables and the hobbit-hole houses looked like they'd been there since Gollum popped his clogs way back in the 3rd Age.

Hobbit house in Hobbiton, Matamata

Don't forget to call into the Green Dragon pub before you leave, for a drop of ale by a warm hearth. Hobbiton is one of those magical places you simply can't forget.

View across green hill country, Hobbiton, NZ

This little selection is only the tip of the Fox Glacier when it comes to what New Zealand has to offer. Wherever you head to, you'll be sure to find incredible landscape and a warm Kiwi welcome.

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