In addition to its waterfalls, New Zealand has other attractions to keep you busy taking photos or admiring the scenery. I’ve singled out some of the features that you’re bound to see upon a visit to Middle-earth. Read below to get a brief introduction to these features.
Hole-in-the-Rock (Bay of Islands; North Island): I consider this one of the must-see attractions in the Bay of Islands. It is a giant sea arch that some tour operators may be able to drive their boat through! Since I'm also a fan of natural arches, this was one attraction I couldn't miss. Of course, there are also other coastal attractions to be had in the Bay of Islands area. The lack of crowds and sense of history here really give the area its charm.
Kauri Trees (North Island): These majestic trees rival the size of the redwood trees in California. The largest remaining groves of Kauri Trees can be found in the Waipoua Forest in Northland along the aptly-named Kauri Coast. This grove includes the largest living kauri tree called Tane Mahuta. A visit to this area also yields quaint and picturesque coastal towns.
Piha and Karekare Beaches (North Island): Surprisingly just an hours drive west of metropolitan downtown Auckland, the Waitakere Ranges provides a convenient barrier to civilization; leaving behind some relatively unspoiled beaches like those at Piha and Karekare. In addition to their soothing sandy beaches, you can still get your waterfall fix from the neighboring waterfalls of Kitekite Falls and Karekare Falls.
Cathedral Cove and Hot Water Beach (North Island): Minutes from the charming seaside town of Whitianga, Cathedral Cove and Hot Water Beach are a pair of popular attractions that any visitor coming out this way should see. At Cathedral Cove is a large natural arch that is accessible during low tide. Right behind the arch is a beach watched over by Hoho Rock. The 1-hour hike to get to this attraction is well worth it as it provides a gorgeous view of the turquoise blue waters backed by white cliffs.
Minutes away from the car park for Cathedral Cove is the intriguing Hot Water Beach. Under the right tidal conditions, you can dig yourself a pit in which cool ocean water mixes with the heat of the sand to form a nice makeshift spa. You could spend all day doing this. The only caveat to this activity is to watch for rising tides as drownings have occurred here before.
Te Whakarewarewa (North Island): This popular thermal park is located close to the bustling town of Rotorua. Its natural features include the spouting geysers - Pohutu and Prince of Wales - as well as several colorful thermal and mud pools. There is also a Maori Arts and Cultural center here as well as a dark exhibit showing off some captive endangered Kiwi birds.
Wai-o-tapu (North Island): This is another thermal park featuring a nice assortment of geysers and colorful thermal pools and lakes. While the name of the park is Maori for "forbidden waters," it has nice walking boardwalks that passes by its many watery attractions that you'd certainly not want to make contact with.
Perhaps the most popular attraction in the park is the Lady Knox Geyser, which goes off at precisely 10:15am each morning. That's because a ranger drops some soap into its vent at that moment and you can see this thing go off.
Other attractions include the large and colorful Champagne Pool. While this pool has its own interesting colors, its sheer size and photogenic qualities really reminds me of the Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone National Park.
Tongariro Crossing (North Island): It is perhaps New Zealand's most popular day hike. This world class excursion takes you right through the heart of the Tongariro National Park amongst volcanic peaks such as Mt Ngauruhoe and Mt Tongariro as well as craters such as the South Crater, Red Crater, and Central Crater.
This hike is technically part of the much larger Tongariro Northern Circuit, which is one of the country's Great Walks, but fortunately, this currently-unregulated track can be enjoyed by all who are willing to make the shuttle arrangements and commit to the strenuous 6-8 hour hike.
While on this hike, look for the scenic Emerald Lakes, whose neon green pools were certainly the highlight of the tramp for me.
Mt Taranaki (North Island): This beautifully conical volcano watches over much of the rural pastures and beaches of the Taranaki District. This mountain doubled at Mt Fuji in the movie "The Last Sumurai". On very clear days, it's possible to see this mountain from as far away as the peaks of Mt Ngauruhoe or Mt Tongariro in the Tongariro Crossing.
The only downer is that clouds usually cover Mt Taranaki because I believe it is considered on of the wettest spots in New Zealand.
Hole-in-the-Rock (Waverley; North Island): This quiet beach contains a small but charming sea arch. You can walk underneath this arch only during low tide.
Being a lover of natural arches, we found this one from a tourist brochure in the Visitor Center in Stratford. When we found out it was on the way to Wanganui then we just had to be there!
Mangapohue Natural Bridge (North Island): On the way to Marokopa Falls from the Waitomo Caves, don't miss this interesting attraction. This natural bridge is the remnants of a cave that had eroded away to the point that it could be considered a bridge instead of a cave. While you're doing the short loop walk, look for some fossils of ancient sea life, which clues you in on how the area used to be under sea level.
Waitomo Glow-worm Caves (North Island): Once you go through a cave full of glow-worms like this, you'll swear you were floating in outer space if it weren't for the sounds of clapping water constantly reminding you of where you are. You're not allowed to take photos in here so you'll have to take my word for it when I tell you that the glow-worms inhabiting the cave light it up like the stars of the night sky.
Pancake Rocks (South Island): This area is the centerpiece of the rugged West Coast between Greymouth and Westport. The Pancake Rocks are striated rocks that look like flattened rocks have been stacked on top of each other like pancakes. Amongst these rocks are a few blowholes that put on quite a display during high tide. If you're lucky to have good weather late in the afternoon, come here for a most memorable sunset.
The Pancake Rocks are near the township of Punakaiki and are a part of the Paparoa National Park. This park features interesting Maori archaeology as well as hidden caves and coves just waiting to be explored by adventurous visitors.
Arthur's Pass and the Otira Viaduct (South Island): Arthur's Pass is the rugged alpine pass in the heart of the Southern Alps that provided quite a barrier for travel between Christchurch and Greymouth. Within the forbidding landscape, several waterfalls as well as picturesque snow-clad misty mountains can be seen and tramped.
Recently, some ingenious engineering resulted in the Otira Viaduct. This (along with other engineering feats) helped to make Arthur's Pass a tourist attraction as well as an important route for commerce to and from the West Coast. It also had important implications for the feasibility of tourism and commerce further south along the West Coast.
Franz Josef Glacier (South Island): Whether the glacier is under heavy and frequent rainfall or basking in sun, you will have the chance to at least see and maybe explore this glacier. Along with the nearby Fox Glacier, the Franz Josef Glacier is one of the fastest moving glaciers in the world. A helihike or full day glacier walk is a great way to experience this marvel. You may be able to check out blue-tinged ice caves as well as walk between or over deep crevaces. It's sure to be a unique and memorable part of your New Zealand trip should be fortunate to do it.
Knights Point (South Island): This scenic lookout allows you to take a break from the long drive between the Glacier Country and the Queenstown area. It overlooks a rugged bay with the turbulent seas crashing against a crescent inlet amongst the wildly scenic West Coast.Definitely check it out if you're in the area.
Queenstown (South Island): This resort town on the shores of Lake Wakatipu is self-proclaimed the adventure capital of the world. It was here that bungy jumping got started. There are also thrilling boat rides on the Shotover as well as skiing opportunities in the winter.
Those looking for a more laid back experience can find tramps as well as some charming walks in the picturesque upscale town. It's popular with both locals and tourists and tends to be on most peoples' New Zealand itineraries.
Southern Scenic Route (South Island): This pleasant drive stretches from Te Anau to Dunedin while skirting the southernmost coastlines of the South Island. Most notably, it passes through the pleasant Catlins Forest Park, which features many waterfalls, as well as coastal attractions such as lighthouses, blowholes, and New Zealand fur seal colonies.
I was told that the route had recently been entirely sealed so I'm sure the popularity of this previously lesser-known gem will increase.
Moeraki Boulders (South Island): These intriguing series of boulders planted on some beaches just north of Dunedin are mysterious yet great photo subjects. You can walk up to them and some of them even can be climbed into for some interesting photos with friends and loved ones. It also helps to break up the long coastal drive between Dunedin and Christchurch.
Dunedin (South Island): This happening city has a bit of a youthful vibe to it as well as a quirky Scottish feel. Anchored by a city centre shaped like an octagon, the city also features happening live bands as well as some impressive churches as well as an attractive railway station.
The city also features the so-called World's Steepest Street at Baldin Street as well as a quieter side at places like Sandfly Bay (to see fur seals) and Larnach Castle. Walking around the city almost reminds me of strolling around San Fransisco what with all the Victorian buildings lined up amongst steep hills weaved in between by streets.
Fox Glacier (South Island): For a bit of a different experience than the busier Franz Josef Glacier, Fox also provides easier glacier terminus access (you'll need to be part of a guided to tour to get onto the ice by hiking or heli-hiking; weather permitting) while affording you a pleasant walking experience of being in a glacial valley flanked by waterfalls. It's also a bit less commecialized than its counterpart at Franz, but that's not to say that it doesn't get quite busy here too.
As a bonus, there's also the opportunity to see Mt Cook and Mt Tasman reflected in the calm waters of Lake Matheson or fronted by some farms and motels in the flat but lush plains between the Tasman Sea and the Southern Alps themselves. Of course, that's all up to chance as the West Coast is notoriously rainy and the mountains are elusive from this side of the alps.
Oparara Basin (South Island): If you're into arches and natural bridges, then this place is for you. Located roughly 45 minutes from Karamea (near the end of the twisting main highway heading north of Westport), you can experience the long and massive Oparara Arch, the lovely Moria Gate Arch, and (with paid admission), the Honeycomb Arches and Caves, where there are said to be old moa bones.
The Oparara Arch involves walking in native bushlands sharing the same ecosystem as the multi-day Heaphy Track. The primitive track passes alongside a red stream (very reminiscent of the blood red river of the Rio Churun in Venezuela) before arriving at the massive tunnel-like arch itself. Of course all this raw scenery does have one annoyance you'll have to put up with, and that's sandflies!
The Moria Gate Arch is another attractive arch that doesn't require an organized tour. The track follows a well-developed and mostly flat path through more of the native bush scenery this side of the South Island. Ultimately, the track lets you experience this arch in a couple of ways - one way lets you climb down a dark hole and right inside the cavernous expanse of the arch where you're inside both of the arch's main openings. The other way takes you to a lookout where you can see a red creek run through the arch (more like a natural bridge) from the outside.
Kaikoura (South Island): This place took us by surprise as we didn't anticipate spending a whole lot of time here when we set out on our itinerary. But a spontaneous decision to go for a non-guaranteed spot on a whale-watching tour yielded us perhaps our best marine life sightings in the country surpassing even the wildlife we saw while on both the Milford and Doubtful Sound cruises five years ago. Couple all that with gorgeous weather and breathtaking panoramas of that rare combination of snowy mountains backing beaches and a charming coastal town, and you have the type of scenery only found in New Zealand.
As for the marine life spotting, our experience involved seeing three sperm whales each providing you an opportunity to photograph their unique tails as they dive. Of course sightings aren't guaranteed, but given the equipment and experts on board, you have a very high likelihood of spotting them. Really it's the seasickness that might get to you if you're not careful.
But our tour also included a bonus sighting of a massive school of dusky dolphins. They don't call them acrobats of the sea for nothing as dozens of them were playfully doing backflips and swimming alongside our craft as if they acknowledged our presence by putting on a show. You would think you're in Sea World or something, but indeed we were witness to the real deal.
Maruia Springs (South Island): This thermal attraction is like a throwback to the Japanese onsen experience. Set in the picturesque Southern Alps near the Lewis Pass, you get a pretty natural and intimate spa experience as you get to soak in a handful of pools or showers of varying degrees of hot. We found this place to be far less zoo-like than the Hanmer Springs and highly recommend it as a way to briefly unwind and take a break from the long drive of the Lewis Pass Highway.
Mt Cook (South Island): A trip to Aotearoa wouldn't be complete without paying homage to its highest peak. Known as Mt Cook with its Maori name of Aoraki, a visit to its village yields pleasant walks to panoramas of the various glaciers making their way down from the upper elevations of the snow-packed alps as they empty into powder blue lakes and watercourses. Of course the well-prepared and hardy trampers can also make their way up closer to Aoraki itself.
Lake Tekapo (South Island): Most people see Lake Tekapo and other nearby lakes around the Twizel area en route to Mt Cook. The most striking thing about these lakes and panoramas (on a clear day) is the bright powder blue waters due to the combination of glacial silt. You add to that the snow-capped peaks of the Southern Alps in which Mt Cook and Mt Tasman are among them, and it's no wonder why tour buses and self-drivers alike make it a point to stop here.
As if Patagonian-like scenery wasn't enough, the historic Church of the Good Shepherd as well as the wildflowers that grow near the banks of the lakes here provide extra motivation to stop soak in the scenery.
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