New Zealand is one of the most dynamically diverse countries we’ve ever traveled. Known for its stunning beauty, it didn’t disappoint. From the tropics of the north to the mountain ranges in the south, it’s teeming with heart stopping adventures. New Zealanders are warm and wonderful, making you feel as if you’ve just stopped by for a cozy visit. Our nine day trip barely scratched the surface, but if you get the chance to go, here are highlights from our three unique stops.
1. Bay of Islands, North Island
We were whisked from the airport by a friendly fellow whose first words were, “we have no snakes here, as in ZERO, nothing really that can hurt you.” This must be something women love to hear–it was music to my ears since most of what we planned to do was full throttled, outdoor adventure.
Where We Stayed: Kauri Cliffs Lodge, Bay of Islands
Pulling up to Kauri Cliffs was like driving onto an exclusive southern plantation, complete with a world renowned golf course. This property is one of three owned by Julien Robertson, the American businessman who birthed the private equity model. He came to New Zealand in the mid 1990’s looking to buy a sheep farm and launched into the luxury resort business as well. He’s built three stunning properties, all worth visiting and each unique in its own way.
What We Did:
Kauri Cliffs sits perched on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. It’s a 6,000 acre property full of rolling hills, rocky beaches and roaring waterfalls. Our itinerary called for two day-trip excursions but due to inclement weather (driving rain and howling winds), both were cancelled. No problem. Rather than sail the 144 islands that make up the Bay of Islands, we hiked to our hearts content. We found breathtaking beauty in the Kauri tree (believed to be 7-900 years old), Hikurua waterfall, Waiaua Bay and Little Takou Beach. Foodies will be thrilled with bountiful meals featuring wild caught seafood, grass fed lamb or beef raised on property. Attention to detail is unparalleled and there’s no question, I could come here again and again.
2. Rotorua, North Island
Nature is vividly displayed in the boiling mud pools, geysers and active volcanic craters that steam their way from the middle of the earth. Rotorua is geothermal heaven, sitting on the Pacific Ring of Fire. It is known as the cultural heart of New Zealand.
Where We Stayed: Solitaire Lodge
Solitaire was the original “luxury resort” in New Zealand. While the property is older now, it has lost none of its appeal. It’s magically tucked deep into the natural bush of Lake Tarawera. Wayne and Ingrid, the managers, opened the front door and whisked us into our home away from home. The suites had been recently refurbished and boast the best in amenities. A deep stand alone tub sat next to a huge picture widow that featured a view of Mount Tarawera–what a way to soak it all in. The culinary fare is creative and bountifully presented in an open kitchen concept. It all begins with drinks and canapés on the patio or in the den and the night finishes off with delectable dessert delights.
What We Did:
This is where Lord of the Rings was filmed. I saw the first three films and enjoyed them, but would have never call myself a fan until now. The magic Paul Jackson created in the rolling hills of this New Zealand sheep farm is pure delight. Middle earth and the pastures of The Shire roll into adorable hobbit holes (homes for hobbits) that are trimmed by lush English gardens. Hobbiton is a MUST SEE on everyone’s itinerary.
Rainbow Springs Nature Park
At the park we immersed ourselves in a working kiwi hatching and rearing facility. Who knew the kiwi was a bird AND a fruit? When I heard that New Zealand was the land of the Kiwi’s, I thought it meant the fruit. The kiwi is an endangered BIRD and national treasure. This place is a haven to ensure its extinction doesn’t happen. A nocturnal bird, you’d likely never encounter one in the wild. Here we stood with handlers who hatched them–this was an educational experience we wouldn’t miss.
Helicopter to White Island
A half day helicopter tour took us to White Island, where we landed and hiked an active crater floor. The rusting remnants of a sulfur mine speak to the history of this place, overtaken by a volcanic eruption in the 1930’s. It’s hard to believe men actually lived and worked here. From the bright yellow sulfuric walls to the mud pools bubbling up near your feet, you will be captivated.
Kayaking Lake Rotoiti
Our adorable kayaking guide met us in his board shorts and flip flops. I was freezing but he was chillin’–he was a blast in every sense of the word. We kayaked Lake Rotoiti and jumped into hot thermal pools (made by capturing the hot water gushing from the hillside). The morning was capped off by lunch at Okere Falls Store, a hippy, organic market. I got my tree hugger on and we had a ball sitting at one of the picnic tables strewn across the backyard. This place is every beach lover’s paradise.
We ended at Te Puia, home of New Zealand’s Maori Arts and Crafts Institute. The Maori are the indigenous South Pacific people who made New Zealand their home. Their native dances and haunting songs reminded me of Hawaiians. This village beautifully captures their lifestyle and commitment to maintain the craftsmanship and creativity of their heritage.
3. Queenstown, South Island
Queenstown is filled with adrenaline infused activity. It’s a ski town that birthed the bungee jumping thrill found worldwide now. From here you can river raft, jet boat ride or hike and bike to your heart’s content. If all else fails, wine and dine your way through town. You won’t be disappointed.
Where We Stayed: Azur Lodge
Azur Lodge is carved into the rock face overlooking Lake Wakatipu. Nine private villas boast stunning views of two mountain ranges. The young and hip staff scramble to meet your every need. Since the lodge floats high above the town, you need the shuttle service they happily provide to get you to town and back. It’s easy and a fun way to get to know the local culture and vibe.
What We Did:
Helicopter to Milford Sound
As the helicopter swept us off our feet and over the southern alps, we dropped into Milford Sound, touted the “Eighth Wonder of the World”. This dramatic fiord is filled with cascading waterfalls and snow-capped peaks. Everywhere you look see towering rock faces and unique wildlife–it was spectacular and captured every one of our senses.
Dart River Jet Boat
Our jet boat tour was the most exhilarating experience we encountered. I loved watching Kyle’s face as he thrilled at every turn on this glacier fed river. These boats literally skim the water’s surface, traveling at high speed in only four inches of water.
Dining: Rata, BlueKanu, Botswana Butchery
Queenstown was the only place we dined for dinner outside our lodges. We sampled the Michel star rated Rata dishes, which were as beautiful to the eye as they were to taste buds of the palette. For fresh fish, we headed to BlueKanu for Polynesian fare that was reasonably priced and delectable. Finally, Botswana Butchery was a carnivore’s delight. Its dishes were gorgeous and full of flavor that tickled our taste buds. It was the perfect spot to cap off our New Zealand tour.