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New Zealand sits on two tectonic plates—the Pacific and the Australian plates—resulting in a fantastic display of natural contrasts across the North and South Islands. The shifting plates produce an unlikely mix of glaciers, geysers, beaches, and fjords in one nation. As these tectonic plates continue to shift, the landscape of New Zealand does as well, but one thing remains—the islands' warm and gracious locals.
New Zealand’s cultural fabric is as diverse as the landscape around it, which is sewn together by European, Polynesian, and Maori origins. The Maoris descended from Polynesian settlers who arrived in New Zealand in the 14th century. The new inhabitants of the islands introduced new crops to the land and brought with them a foundation of traditions that has carried over into modern day. Until the 18th century, New Zealand had remained undisturbed by European settlers, until an English explorer, James Cook, landed in New Zealand and later claimed the land in the name of the British Crown. It wasn’t until 1840 that British representatives and Maori tribes reached a peaceful agreement that brought New Zealand one step closer to independence. Under the Treaty of Waitangi, Maori gained land protection, but British law was officially enacted in New Zealand. The nation officially gained its independence in 1947.
Today, Kiwis, Maoris, and Pacific Island Polynesians come together to keep age-old traditions alive and the vibrant spirit of New Zealand thriving. Share a meal, laugh, and talk with the locals to get an intimate glimpse of what it means to call New Zealand home.
Click on map markers below to view information about top New Zealand experiences
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*Destinations shown on this map are approximations of exact locations
“Welly,” as it is more lovingly dubbed by the locals ranks twelfth on Mercer’s list of best places for quality of life—and it’s no surprise as the small cosmopolitan city with a big-city feel is also in easy reach of 50,000 hectares of parks and forests, which includes Zealandia. This eco-sanctuary is home to 40 species of birds, reptiles, insects, amphibians, and also protects native flora, such as Ponga ferns and Clematis flowers.
The waterfront capital of New Zealand, which boasts just over 10% of the nation’s population, promotes environmentally friendly habits like the use of public transportation—Wellington residents use public transportation more than any other city in New Zealand. This includes the historic public tram—that began running in 1902—that ascends up the suburb of Kelburn to produce stunning cityscape views. In addition to the tram, Wellington proudly displays its history at the Te Papa Tongarewa, the National Museum of New Zealand.
Auckland—a picturesque city where boats bob in the harbor, a dormant volcano serves as the city’s backdrop, and the Sky Tower rises over 1000 feet above the city. This “City of Sails,” home to 1/3 of the nation’s population, is the eighth most livable city in the world, a ranking based on healthcare, culture, environment, and education by the Economist Intelligence Unit. Here, you’ll find an eclectic selection of cuisine, music, and art—a prominent influence on each comes from the Maori and Polynesian groups that live here.
Similar to other New Zealand cities, Auckland originated as a Maori settlement in 1350. Due to Auckland’s rich soil and geographical features as an isthmus, European explorers moved into the area and began to colonize the land. Today, the vibrant multicultural city proudly displays its European and Maori roots, as well as other cultural influences, making it one of the most diverse cities in the world.
Watch this time lapse film for a glimpse of the subtle grace and beauty of Auckland, New Zealand.
Milford Sound rightfully earns the “Eighth Wonder of the World” title from Rudyard Kipling as the natural phenomenon winds for ten miles around towering mountains and rugged cliffs, which seemingly rise out of the tranquil waters. Milford Sound, located in Fiordland National Park on the South Island, opens up into the Tasman Sea. The sound, actually a fjord, was carved by retreating glaciers that left valleys to be filled in with water from the ocean.
Surrounding the fjord are cliffs, that rise 3900 feet into the air, year-round waterfalls, and animal-like mountains. The Elephant, said to resemble the head of an elephant, and the Lion, known for its feline characteristics, both tower over the waterway at over 4000 feet tall, but the most commanding presence is the Mitre Peak. At over 5500 feet high, Mitre Peak is one of the world’s tallest peaks. These natural wonders can be enjoyed by boat, kayak, helicopter, or on foot. Follow 33 miles of the Milford Track on foot from Lake Te Anau to Milford Sound. This trail provides a unique perspective of the landscape leading up to Milford Sound—travel through valleys, over mountain passes, and past waterfalls.
Queenstown has always been a fast-paced city. When settlers arrived in the 1850s and discovered the land was replete with gold nuggets, a population boom occurred and the government deemed the town “fit for a queen”—where the name Queenstown originated.
Today, Queenstown is just as fast-paced and is for the truly adventurous—it is the adventure capital of the world after all. There’s no shortage of thrilling activities here as it boasts a myriad of landscapes, perfect for a variety of adventures. Water ski or jet boat on Lake Wakatipu or snowboard or mountain bike on The Remarkables Mountains—and for the brave of heart, Queenstown also offers sky diving and bungy jumping. In fact, the world's first commercial bungy company, AJ Hackett, jumped onto the scene in Queenstown. But if you’re looking for more relaxed pacing, Queenstown has other activities too, including golf, wine tastings, fishing, and sightseeing.
From jetboats to bungee jumping, see how Queenstown, New Zealand has built an industry around adrenaline.
Geothermal geysers spout steam and water into the air in a fantastic display of nature at work … bubbling mud pools, verdant valleys, and turquoise waters contrast to create a wonderland of natural splendor … Waimangu Volcanic Valley’s unusual landscape was sculpted by the 1886 eruption of Mount Tarawera, which gave way to sites like Frying Pan Lake, one of the largest hot springs in the world, and Inferno Crater, whose bright blue waters stand out from the rest of the landscape.
The town of Rotorua was established by the New Zealand government in the 1880s, but was originally settled by the Maori people. It is believed that the Maoris have inhabited this land for about a thousand years and continue to live here today—more than 1/3 of the city's population is Maori. The indigenous group carries on beloved traditions, including hangis, or feasts that are prepared underground.
Sun-drenched beaches, lush forests, and rolling mountains make Nelson, the South Island’s oldest city, a sought after destination for travelers and locals alike. Local artists have taken to this particularly scenic seaside city, setting up hundreds of arts and crafts shops, studios and galleries. Art festivals, a burgeoning culinary scene, and the sheer beauty of the area attract people far and wide, especially during summer, when international tourism in Nelson is at its peak. From classic cars, traditional art, eccentric fashion and jewelry, to botanic gardens, serene beaches, and more, Nelson has a penchant for showcasing a diverse sampling of creativity in a setting that rivals any dreamed paradise.
Watch this video showcasing what makes this country so unforgettable
See New Zealand alongside filmmaker David Conover and his family—from the Dart River to Lake Wakatipu.
Watch your fellow travelers favorite films & videos
Kim “I’m a Kiwi Ranger”
Meet a Kiwi Ranger who takes care of New Zealand’s native—and endangered—bird species.
Produced by Human Postcards
New Zealand’s North Island
Follow along with Rudy Maxa as he kayaks, hikes, and bikes through New Zealand's North Island.
Produced by Small World Productions
New Zealand’s South Island
Join Rudy Maxa as he reveals the scenic gems and deep-rooted Maori traditions of New Zealand's South Island.
Immerse yourself in a journey through New Zealand’s myriad breathtaking landscapes.
Produced by Christophe Hamon, Over The Moon Productions
Immerse yourself in New Zealand with this selection of articles, recipes, and more
No matter where you go in New Zealand, the forces of nature are close by with its multitude of geothermal wonders.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Maori women in New Zealand weren’t encouraged to participate in public life. But that never stopped Whina Cooper.
Get a glimpse into Maori culture—from tracing their ancient genealogy to learning how this indigenous group has thrived.
Maori bone carving is more than just a beautiful art form. Discover the deeper significance of this custom.
Hop into a ’95 Toyota minivan with O.A.T. writer Jenna Thomas for a scenic adventure to New Zealand’s Milford Sound.
Take a side-by-side look at the origins, spiritual beliefs, and traditions of Australia’s Aborigine and New Zealand’s Maori.
Jenna Thomas, from Dispatches
No matter where you go in New Zealand, the forces of nature are close by. Even in cosmopolitan Auckland, no less than 48 volcanoes dot the city skyline—nearly all of which are long-dormant. Outside the city, the North Island’s idyllic landscape hides a secret: molten lava bubbles just underneath the gently rolling hills and bucolic green meadows.
In Rotorua, the layer between our world and the fiery underworld is especially thin. It lies in the middle of the Taupo Volcanic Zone—a swath of land that includes some of the world’s most active volcanoes. Here, the landscape is pocked with holes where black mud boils, and the unmistakable odor of sulfur permeates the air. Looking out across Lake Rotorua, hundreds of steam columns rise from vents along the shore. In nearby valleys, geysers erupt like clockwork (the Lady Knox geyser, ever-punctual, goes off at 10:15 every morning).
Here on the southern edge of the Pacific’s Ring of Fire, not all geothermal activity is quite so forbidding. Deep in the forest, bubbling springs emerge from the Earth’s surface at the perfect temperature for a long, warm bath. In the Waimangu Volcanic Valley, there are serene pools of lime green, Tiffany blue, pale yellow, and citrusy orange water. The world’s only geothermal caves are found here—caverns that hide warm springs in their depths, far below the Earth’s surface.
According to Maori legend, the hot pools were a gift to their ancestor, Ngatoroirangi, one of the first Maori explorers in New Zealand. He found himself freezing on a mountainside one night as a blizzard approached, and begged his sisters, far away in his Polynesian homeland, to send warmth. The “baskets of fire” they sent to their brother appeared as hot lava, undoubtedly warm enough to save him from freezing to death and thus securing his legacy among the Maori.
Ever since, the Maori have enjoyed a pleasant, if wary, relationship with their bubbling geothermal neighbors. Some of the first Europeans in this area were surprised to see just how interwoven the hot springs and mud baths were with Maori daily life—so much so that villages were literally built upon active geothermal fields. “Gentleman explorer” JH Kerry Nichols wrote of the Maori villages he encountered, “Bathing here seems to be second nature, and the women and girls arrange afternoon bath-parties just as we might assemble our friends at afternoon tea.” Village homes were warmed with geothermal steam, warm patches of ground served as ovens, and Nichols found “a small graveyard situated among boiling springs and steaming fissures … as if the volcanic fires below were just ready to burst forth and swallow up the living with the dead.”
As close as the Maori live to the geothermal field, they know about its dark side. There is a pool called Tikiteri, or Hell’s Gate—named after the Maori princess who threw herself into the boiling waters to escape an abusive husband. The Champagne Pool, with its festive bubbles and bright colors, is 160 degrees Fahrenheit and laced with arsenic. But neither of them can match the danger of the sleeping giant, Mount Tarawera.
Just after midnight on June 10, 1886, Maori villagers and European settlers awoke to feel the earth trembling. A thundering roar heralded the eruption of nearby Mount Tarawera, as a flaming column of lava and ash pummeled the surrounding hillsides. The lava buried an entire village, killing the 120 Maori people who lived there. The Pink and White Terraces, delicate silica cascades that had drawn tourists to New Zealand from around the world, were utterly destroyed. The eruption was over within hours, but a gaping, 10-milelong rift that formed during the eruption serves as a lasting reminder of Tarawera’s fury.
These days, scientists closely monitor geothermal activity in the Taupo Volcanic Zone, even sending drones to retrieve data and images from active calderas—but the hot pots and steam vents are still full of surprises. Last fall, two geothermal eruptions burst unannounced out of Lake Rotorua. Geysers of steam and boiling water were reported as high as 90 feet above the lake’s surface. No matter how far technology advances, nature still has the last word in Rotorua.
Lyette Mercier, from Dispatches
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Maori women in New Zealand weren’t encouraged to participate in public life. But that never stopped Whina Cooper. Born Hohepine Te Wake in 1895, Whina never shied from forging her own path, becoming a pioneering tribal leader and eventually being granted the title Te Whaea o te Motu (“Mother of the Nation”) from her fellow Maori women.
Whina (short for “Josephine,” the Christianized version of her first name) was the first daughter of tribal elder Heremia Te Wake and his second wife, Kare Pauro Kawatihi. She had four half-brothers and three half-sisters from her father’s first marriage.
She was attracted to politics even as a child. In her obituary, British newspaper The Independent noted, “She defied convention and Maori tradition from an early age, eschewing games with other children to listen to tribal elders debating ownership of land.” Her father recognized her keen intellect and leadership skills and favored her over his sons, beginning a lifelong rift between Whina and her siblings.
Maori culture is community based, with local tribes gathering in the marae (sacred meeting space) to decide everything from ownership rights to engagements. At the turn of the century, women were barred from speaking in the marae. But this disenfranchisement did not stop Whina from becoming a local leader.
At 18, she organized civil disobedience to keep a British farmer from draining a swamp that the local tribes used for shell fishing. While Whina’s father challenged the farmer’s lease in court, Whina and a group of young people came at night to fill in the drainage ditches that were dug during the day. Eventually they were charged with trespassing, but by that time the farmer’s lease had been revoked and the swamp was saved.
A few years later, Whina eloped, without the approval of the community. She and her husband were exiled from their home and forced to live off the land until the priest who had married them heard of their circumstances. He advanced them a loan, allowing them to purchase Whina’s late father’s house and the general store in their hometown.
Whina proved to be such an astute businesswoman that she was able to pay off the priest’s loan in just three years. She also opened a post office, another store in town, and two branch stores in neighboring towns. She returned to public life, building a medical clinic and a community center that allowed women to speak in meetings.
While collaborating with New Zealand’s national government in a program to create Maori farming collectives, Whina met Bill Cooper, a fellow Maori politician. Romance blossomed, and when Whina’s first husband died in 1935, she moved in with Cooper. As she was also pregnant with Cooper’s child at the time, the scandal once again ostracized her from the community. Once again, she slowly rebuilt her standing, eventually serving on her tribe’s executive committee from 1946 to 1952.
After Bill Cooper died in 1949, Whina sought a fresh start in Auckland, where she immediately became involved in Maori causes. She joined the first conference of the Maori Women’s Welfare League in 1951 and was elected president. During her time leading the league, she initiated programs to improve housing for Maori immigrants to New Zealand cities, and addressed racial discrimination in housing, employment and health services.
Whina remained involved in local and national politics until 1974, when her failing health led her to declare her exit from public life. That vow lasted all of one year, until she was persuaded to be the face of a campaign fighting to preserve Maori ownership of their traditional lands. The 80-year-old, arthritic Whina Cooper led a 1,000-kilometer march from the far north of the country to Parliament to deliver a petition signed by 60,000 Maori natives.
Whina continued to be active until her death at age 98 in 1994. In 1990, she spoke at the opening ceremony of the Auckland Commonwealth Games, reminding her listeners of the purpose of the Treaty of Waitangi—and, indeed, of her own life as an activist: “…so that we could all live as one nation in Aotearoa.”
by Pavi Kulatunga
Here’s how the world began: Ranginui (the Sky Father) and Papatuanuku (the Earth Mother) once were locked together in a tight embrace. Their children, however, were tired of living in darkness and violently pushed their parents apart to separate the Earth and the Sky. Rangi and Papa still yearn for each other, though, as can be seen by Rangi’s tears falling as raindrops and the mist rising from the body of the Earth.
This legend is part of the rich mythology of the Maori, the indigenous people of New Zealand. Though the country’s oldest inhabitants, they are not native to these islands. It is thought that they migrated to New Zealand from French Polynesia, traveling over the vast sea by canoe. Leading the way was said to be the mythical Polynesian navigator Kupe, who is believed to have arrived on New Zealand’s shores around 950 AD.
Though the Maori today reside throughout New Zealand, the early settlers preferred the North Island, with its warmer climate and easier access to the rest of civilization. They named their new home Aotearoa—the “Land of the Long White Cloud.”
Looking back to the future (or forward to the past)
Not much else is known about the early days of the Maori in New Zealand. There is no written record because theirs is an oral tradition. While scholars and many others may dismiss oral histories as unreliable, to OAT Trip Leader David Hill, this method of recording the past is remarkable. “Most people can’t even name their own great-grandparents,” he says. “The Maori can recite their genealogy back 1,000 years. That ability to remember and recite oral histories is profound.”
The importance of oral history is rooted in a uniquely Maori way of looking at the world. For the Maori, the past isn’t something that’s already happened and can be forgotten. Instead, it’s something that still lies ahead. It’s the future that the Maori put behind them, since it’s something that can’t be seen or evaluated. The past, on the other hand, can offer guidance and instruction.
Whakapapa, or genealogy, is a fundamental part of this concept. Named for broad, flat rocks that can be stacked, Whakapapa refers to the layers of relationships that define each individual.
Strength in unity
Language is one key reason why the Maori have been successful while other indigenous people have not. Like Native Americans, Native Canadians, and Aborigines, for example, the Maori consist of several tribes. Uniquely, however, all Maori tribes share a common language and a central authority.
“The Maori are a more cohesive community because of their common language,” David explains. “The Aborigines have a wonderful culture, but because they lacked a common language, they didn’t have the same potency. They couldn’t organize to resist.”
The Maori, by contrast, have been able to get back much of the land that had been confiscated from them by European explorers throughout the 17th to 19th centuries. In some cases, they are using the land for enterprises that help them to establish themselves in the mainstream. For example, many of the traveler services OAT uses on the South Island are Maori-owned and operated. According to David, the reconciliation effort has been so successful, native people from other countries around the world look at New Zealand as a model.
“One reason the Maori have become an active and vigorous part of the mainstream is because of their character,” David says. “It’s a non-material culture, where the greatest value is mana.”
The concept of mana, so central to Maori philosophy, may be described as authority or guardianship. Mana can be earned throughout a person’s life through acts of wisdom, compassion, and courage. It can also be taken away by transgressions. David further explains that Maori society is divided into two classes: ordinary Maori (in fact, the word Maori itself means “ordinary person”), and the Rangatira, the class of the chieftains. People may move between classes during their lives based on their actions. To illustrate the concept of mana, David tells a true story from the early 1800s, of Te Rauparaha, who became leader of the Ngati Toa tribe—a very small tribe—and Te Wherowhero, a Rangatira who was chief of the Waikito, a very powerful tribe that wanted to drive the Ngati Toa tribe out of its territory:
A legendary warrior, Te Rauparaha and his forces managed to overwhelm the much larger army. Though he could have vanquished Te Wherowhero, he approached the other leader instead and offered to let him go home. Te Wherowhereo, however, knew that, if he did so, his mana would evaporate. He made a counter-offer to Te Rauparaha: Send your warriors to face me, one by one. Now it was Te Rauparaha who would lose mana if he said no. When 50 of his men had been killed or wounded, Te Rauparaha halted the battle and retreated.
An Enduring People
By the beginning of the 21st century, the Maori population had risen to 600,000, about 14% of the total population on New Zealand. This is not to say that contemporary Maori people do not face discrimination and other problems associated with minorities, especially in urban settings where their rates of unemployment, crime, and poverty are higher than that of the general pakeha (European) population. Still, with so many more Maori people assimilating into the mainstream New Zealand lifestyle, there is a generally more widespread celebration of maoritanga—all things Maori.
“When you visit, you get the feeling that the Maori are really part of New Zealand life,” says 9-time traveler Nancy Belis from Denver, Colorado. “A lot of modern nations don’t cherish the past. But the Maori are an integral part of Kiwi culture, and that’s admirable.”
by Jennifer Sullivan, for O.A.T.
Before Europeans came into contact with the Maori, the indigenous tribes of New Zealand had no knowledge of written language. The ancient Maori iwi (tribes) were steeped in folklore that was passed down orally from ancestor to descendant. Mythical tales, family histories, and cultural values became part of each person who heard them and retold them. These oral traditions shaped Maori character and culture.
To help preserve these stories, the Maori used objects of humble origins. Over time, the weaving of cloth and baskets, and the carving of bone and jade, grew into intricate art forms that recorded legends, genealogies and tribal histories. It could take years to finish just one bone carving when engraving it using a stone tool. The resulting amulets became heirlooms, handed down for centuries, and were considered taonga, “treasure.”
As a taonga was reverently passed from one generation of elders and great warriors to the next, it grew even more sacred. The wearer became a part of it, and it became a part of the wearer. Each new owner added a new story that now belonged to the talisman, and it was believed that—if given and received with love—it absorbed a measure of the spirit of everyone who handled it. A carving that has been passed down in a family or tribe and worn over many generations is a very precious and powerful gift.
Material and Meaning
All the way up until the latter part of the 20th century, the bones of whales were traditionally used to make bone carvings. The Maori’s relationship with whales has been an integral part of their society for centuries and features heavily in their mythology and everyday life. Whales are said to be the children of the god of the oceans, Tangaroa. Many legends have the cetaceans guiding sea-faring humans. Some stories even chronicle the creatures escorting the original Maori as they made the journey across the water from their ancestral homeland to Aotearoa (New Zealand) eons ago. Today, due to conservation and trade regulatory efforts, most carvings are made with cattle bone. However, whalebone is of significantly higher value for many reasons: it is considered to be more beautiful, it has cultural and historical significance, and it is scarce. Whalebone is available but rare. If it is found—washed up or unearthed—or if a whale is stranded and unable to be saved, then by New Zealand law the material belongs to the Maori hapū (clan) in whose territory it is found.
A Matter of Design
Maori bone carvings are usually worn as pendants. They are made up of one or more common traditional symbols that have very specific meanings; most incorporate aspects of mythology. How these motifs are connected and interact with each other tells a story and plays heavily into a particular piece’s unique nature.
The following design elements are three of the most common:
Koru–The Spiral The koru’s spiral form suggests a fern frond, unfurling in the spring, bursting forth with new life. It represents perpetual movement, growth, positive change, awakenings and new beginnings, as well as spirituality and peace. It is sometimes interpreted as nurturing, so when it appears interlocked with other symbols it can also signify a strong and loving family bond.
Tiki–The First Man Polynesian myths and legends surrounding tiki suggest that he was the first man on Earth. The Maori tiki is derived from this lore. He is associated with fertility and birth, so you will often see him with his hands placed on his loins. More importantly, he is considered a remembrance of forebears. Tiki is a repository of ancestral wisdom, spirituality, and strength. When worn, he is thought to be lucky and to ward off evil spirits. The wearer is believed to enjoy inner balance and a clear mind.
Hei Matau–The Fishhook The development of this age-old tool—the fishhook—into one of the most common symbols in Maori art belies its centrality to the life of its people. Fishing was crucial to the ancient population. Thousands of years ago, fishhooks were worn around the neck so as not to be lost. As ages progressed, the wearers began carving images into them, making them more and more elaborate until they became priceless ornaments, rife with symbolism. The hei matau is a favorite even for non-Maori New Zealanders, as it has come to represent New Zealand in general.
A Worldwide Sensation
This is a venerable, ancient, local art form, with a fascinating and rich history. It is a token of memorable times spent in New Zealand that has traveled home with people from all over the world. Should you want one, there are many talented, dedicated, local artists who can sell you a truly authentic piece of the islands’ vibrant culture.
by Jenna Thomas, from Dispatches
When my husband and I got married, we took an unconventional approach to our honeymoon. Three months after the wedding, we flew to Auckland, New Zealand on one-way tickets, bought a 1995 Toyota minivan from a couple of French backpackers, and hit the road. Our van, whimsically named Moonbeam, was a bit of a clunker. She had been driven around New Zealand maybe a dozen times, and was about as reliable as you would expect—not very reliable at all. She had a head gasket leak, and the engine was prone to overheating even on small hills. But she was all ours, and with a bed and kitchen already built in, she had everything we needed to live on the road.
By the time we circumnavigated the North Island and reached Queenstown on the South Island, we feared Moonbeam was on her last legs. We had to stop at the top of every hill to let the engine cool down and refill water or coolant. A mechanic gave us some sealant for the head gasket leak, and told us there was no way of knowing how long it would hold. With her future uncertain, we decided to make the rest of Moonbeam’s life count—we were going to drive the winding, dead-end mountain road to Milford Sound. The most dramatic fjord out of fourteen in Fiordland National Park, Milford Sound was hailed by Rudyard Kipling as the eighth wonder of the world, and it seemed like an appropriate last hurrah for our poor van.
The drive from Queenstown toward Fiordland was stunning. The road, flat along the shore of Lake Te Anau, eventually began to roll up and down on the growing hills before entering a valley surrounded by high peaks. We got as far as the Homer Tunnel, a nearly mile-long passage that separates Milford Sound from the rest of the world, before deciding to stop for the night at a roadside campground.
When we woke the next morning to that awful weather, turning around was not in the cards. We had come this far, and who knew when we would be back in this remote corner of the world? Making the best of the bad weather was our only option, so we packed up and headed for the tunnel.
The entrance to the Homer Tunnel is an attraction in itself. It sits at the top of a gorgeous glacial valley, populated by cheeky green kea, the world’s only alpine parrot. Kea are curious, social, and notorious for landing on parked cars and picking at any rubber they can find (they’ll destroy windshield wipers given half a chance). We spent at least an hour on the trails above the tunnel, watching kea swoop through the misty valley and land with a flash of their red wing feathers. But we were on a mission, and we eventually joined the line of cars creeping into the tunnel.
We emerged on the other side to what looked like a scene from Lord of the Rings. Verdant cliffs receded into the mist ahead of us, and after the previous night’s record rainfall, literally hundreds of waterfalls were cascading down every vertical surface. The road descended over three thousand feet from the tunnel to the valley floor approaching Milford Sound, and every curve of the hairpin road revealed a dozen more waterfalls, some of them thundering and wide, and some as delicate as the stream from a faucet.
We eventually reached the valley floor, despite the constant inclination to pull over for a photo. I was so anxious to see the sound itself that we bypassed The Chasm, a dramatic rocky gorge, and kept driving. My expectations were high—everyone in New Zealand agrees that Milford Sound is a must-do, and all the guidebooks call it one of the most beautiful places on earth. I was nervous that the view would disappoint me, that it couldn’t possibly live up to the hype.
Coming around the final bend in the road, the sight of Milford Sound laid out in front of us shattered every expectation I had. Even hyperbole falls short of capturing a view like that. As we boarded a cruise that would take us the length of the sound to the edge of the Tasman Sea, I did wonder how it would look on a sunny day. The normally vibrant trees and plants that covered every surface seemed dark and subdued in the gray light. The sound itself looked almost black. With the peaks receding into the clouds and waterfalls catching the eye at every turn, Milford Sound was cloaked in mystery. It could have been a painting, but the rain lashing my face, the smell of seawater, and the distant shriek of kea brought the scene to life.
Our boat left the dock and nosed into deep water. The guide explained that the water of the sound looked so dark because it was stained with tannins from rotting plants during its journey down the cliffs. When it reached the sound, it formed a footdeep layer of freshwater before being absorbed into the sea. He pointed out wide gashes of bare rock on the cliffs—places where the angle had proved too steep to support the weight of the forest, and entire thickets had gone tumbling into the water. Tree avalanches, he called them.
Triangular Mitre Peak emerged from the mists in front of us. In fact, the rain had stopped. The clouds were lifting to reveal more jagged mountains, surrounding the sound like thousand-foot-high walls. The captain piloted the boat straight for the cliffs, until the prow (and a handful of brave passengers in heavy raincoats) sat directly under a waterfall. The guide brought a tray of glasses forward, filled them from the cascade, and handed them out—pure glacial water, fresh from the source far above our heads. As we drank the water, brown with tannins yet more fresh-tasting than any tap water I’d ever had, the clouds were breaking up to reveal patches of blue sky.
Our journey continued. A small white dot appeared on the horizon, drifting closer on the water. Believing it was a small fishing boat, I was shocked to hear our guide say it was actually a mega ship from a major cruise line. The towering cliffs had completely thrown off my sense of scale, but as the ship drew alongside and passed us, I craned my neck to count the decks—there were many. Milford Sound is a mile wide in some spots and reaches depths of over a thousand feet, so it accommodates ships of all sizes. The advantage of our tiny boat was, of course, its ability to get so close to the cliffs. We passed within a few feet of flat rocks where fur seals were relaxing in the sudden sunshine, and ventured into the path of many more tumbling waterfalls.
Eventually we reached Dale Point, a curve of land that juts into the entrance of the fjord and completely blocks Milford Sound from the Tasman Sea. It was because of Dale Point that the Europeans left Milford Sound untouched for so long—they literally couldn’t see it. Even Captain James Cook passed by unaware on his explorations of the New Zealand coastline, and subsequent whaling expeditions missed it as well.
But that doesn’t mean that Milford Sound was free of people. Facing Dale Point across the water, our guide pointed out a glittering rocky beach named Anita Bay. For hundreds of years, the Maori have been coming to Anita Bay to search for tangiwai, or bowenite, a clear green stone that makes beautiful jewelry and weapons. According to Maori legend, tangiwai are the petrified tears of a woman who was stolen from her husband, and the sad history of Milford Sound doesn’t end there. The Maori name of Milford Sound is Piopiotahi, or “one single singing thrush,” named for a bird that has since gone extinct. The story goes that the mythical god Maui went on a journey to win immortality for his people, accompanied by a piopio bird. When Maui was killed by the god of death, the grief-stricken piopio flew south to Milford Sound to mourn.
Ten miles from where we started, we reached the Tasman Sea and left the sad stories of Anita Bay behind us. The cliffs that had hemmed us in for the entire journey so far opened up, and we were hit with the full force of the “Roaring Forties.” This part of the world, between the 40th and 50th latitudes, is home to a westerly wind that doesn’t let up, often reaching galeforce speeds and pounding the southwest coast of New Zealand with wet and windy weather throughout the year. We had only the briefest of sojourns with the Roaring Forties. Our captain turned the boat around before we reached any actual swell, and we headed back toward Dale Point.
Between the sheltering walls of the sound, the clouds had scudded away and left behind a sparkling blue sky. The boat’s deck filled up, as all the passengers left the sheltered cabin and came out to enjoy the sunshine. We waved at passing boats, and enjoyed a cup of tea. By the time we docked, the memory of that morning’s rain was long gone, and it was easy to imagine staying at Milford Sound—becoming a kayak guide, or working on a tourist boat. We managed to get an overnight spot for the van, but when we woke the next morning to pouring rain, it was easier to leave. Our time at Milford Sound had come full circle.
A few weeks later, we left New Zealand. Our trip back to the United States was somewhat indirect; we meandered through Southeast Asia, trekked the mountains of Morocco, and wandered from Eastern Europe to Scandinavia and the United Kingdom. All told, we spent ten months roaming the globe and saw landscapes that will remain with me forever. Milford Sound remains the most beautiful place I have ever seen.
The natural beauty of Australia and New Zealand makes these faraway islands fascinating places to explore. But beyond their stunning environs, their distinct and deep-rooted cultures are what bring these destinations to life. So let’s uncover the South Pacific’s spiritual side by juxtaposing Australia’s Aboriginal ancestry with New Zealand’s Maori heritage.
AborigineDating back tens of thousands of years, Aboriginal people came to Australia by land and have evolved into as many as 400 groups speaking more than 250 distinct languages.
MaoriArriving in the 13th century, the Maori came to New Zealand by boat from across Polynesia, and over time, have unified into a single ethnic identity with a shared language.
AborigineAncestral beings moved through the world in a state of Dreaming (also called Dreamtime), calling things into being and naming what they saw as they went. The paths these creators took are known as songlines.
Ranginui, the Sky Father, and Papatuanuku, the Earth Mother, were too close, and their children felt confined, so their sons (representing natural features like mountains and forests) forcibly split heaven and earth to yield the world as we know it.
AborigineSouls are the province of humans alone, and represent two natures: who we make ourselves to be, and who the ancestral beings create in us. Animals and objects do not have souls, though they are created by beings that do.
MaoriAll things contain mana, a soul-like force, and are bound by mauri, the energy connecting every element of creation. The resulting bond between humans and the world around us is core to Maori life.
AborigineOn rock paintings and textile art, a serpent outline in multiple colors (sometimes boasting other animal parts) is the Rainbow Snake, a mythical creature that helped create much of the land during the Dreaming period. It’s considered the wellspring of fertility, growth, and hope.
MaoriThe spiral found in Maori jewelry or in tattoo-like ta moko patterns is a koru (loop), which represents a curled fern frond. In one direction, the spiral implies going back to the beginning; in the other direction, it unfurls, suggesting a new start and rejuvenation.
AborigineBody painting using a combination of clay dust, charcoal, and ash appears in ceremonies at every age. Boys decorate their chests and arms before their coming-of-age initiations. Men may decorate their arms, legs, and torsos in great detail before large funerals or long marches. Women honor Dreamtime stories by painting communal symbols and colors on their breasts, arms, and thighs in a joyous awelye ceremony.
MaoriTa moko (somewhat similar to tattooing) is the application of permanent colored skin markings. Both men and women may have ta moko, with the patterns revealing details about the wearer's family and tribal affiliations, their social standing, and even future roles. Ta moko may be on one’s chest, limbs, or face, though women’s facial ta moko is usually limited to the lip area or below.
AborigineLong, hollowed-wood trumpets played with continuous vibration and circular breathing have been part of the culture for at least 1,500 years. Commonly known by the made-up word didgeridoo, the instrument is emblematic of Aboriginal life.
MaoriHaka refers to an array of percussive Maori dances featuring foot-stomping, thigh-slapping, and hand clapping. Performed first by women and then adapted by men as a war ritual, it’s part of both ceremonial and casual events: New Zealand’s premiere rugby team performs it before every game.
For all their differences, each of the two cultures have an oft-quoted proverb that says just about the same thing, a reminder that—even for the most ancient groups—the world we all share will always endure longer.
AborigineWe are all visitors to this time, this place. We are just passing through.
MaoriAs man disappears from sight, the land remains …
There are pros and cons to visiting a destination during any time of the year. Find out what you can expect during your ideal travel time, from weather and climate, to holidays, festivals, and more.
Due to the island nation's location in the Southern Hemisphere, New Zealand experiences summer when we're experiencing winter in the Northern Hemisphere. Delight in balmy summer weather in New Zealand between December and February. This is an ideal time to take in the variety of ocean activities that the South Pacific offers.
Unfortunately, with warmer weather comes larger crowds. Summer is peak tourist season in New Zealand, which means that you should plan ahead and expect beaches and major cities to be crowded.
Sample some of New Zealand's local wines and savor traditional flavors at the annual Marlborough Food and Wine Festival. This gastronomic celebration was the first of its kind and is the oldest food and wine festival in New Zealand. Enjoy wine from 40 vineyards and food from 25 vendors, all while taking in musical entertainment from the event's main and acoustic stages.
If you're looking for something a little sportier, the South Pacific tournament series for rugby sevens takes place over the summer. The game is similar to traditional rugby, except seven players make up a team instead of up to 15. The sport was founded in 1883 and continues to be one of New Zealand's most popular pastimes.
Watch this film to discover more about New Zealand
Overseas with David Conover: Adventure in New Zealand
See New Zealand alongside filmmaker David Conover and his family—from the Dart River to Lake Wakatipu.
Produced by Compass Light Productions
Take advantage of the comfortable autumn weather, enjoy fewer crowds, and watch your travel dollar go further in March through May. At the beginning of the season, soak up warmer temperatures and by the end of autumn, enjoy a pleasant cool down. As the weather transitions from summer to autumn, watch the landscape brighten up with colorful foliage. In major cities, trees will most likely turn a bright yellow, and while orange and red hues aren't typical of foliage in New Zealand, you may spot these warm colors here and there. A cruise on Lake Wakatipu or an exploration of the area around the lake is a true sign of the changing seasons as the landscape around the lake turns a brilliant shade of yellow.
Balloons over Waikato is a popular New Zealand festival that attracts thousands of visitors to the city of Hamilton every year. The week-long event showcases spectacular hot air balloons that ascend over the city and dot the sky. If you're curious to see New Zealand from above yourself, various cities, including Auckland, offer hot air balloon rides. Float above mountains and valleys as you take in the crisp autumn air.
During the winter months, the South Island is dusted with snow and the North Island is drenched with rain. While cooler temperatures provide a nice contrast to the hot summer heat, rain can hinder outdoor activities and snow can make commuting difficult. Fortunately, in the winter months little to no crowds make for a more enjoyable experience.
Although this may not be the best beach weather, a visit to Abel Tasman National Park is ideal this time of year as you'll get to hike and sightsee your way through the lush landscape and scenic beach undisturbed. Milford Sound also provides a better experience in the winter as there is less rainfall in Fiordland National Park and more wildlife viewing opportunities. Penguin and seal sighting are more common when the temperatures drop. If you're seeking out a warm retreat from the cold temperatures, hot springs abound. Surround yourself with the beauty of nature and enjoy a New Zealand winter from the warmth of a thermal pool.
You may want to take advantage of Queenstown's many exciting winter activities. The South Island city lives up to its title as the adventure capital of the world with activities like snowboarding, mountain climbing, bungy jumping, and more.
Winter is one of the best times to witness the wild wonders of New Zealand's underwater wildlife. Watch whales breaching and dolphins porpoising out of the ocean along the coast of the South Island in Kaikoura. If you're looking to immerse yourself even more in nature, consider taking a dip in Rotorua's thermal pools, which provide visitors with an unparalleled New Zealand winter experience.
The renewed vibrancy of spring arrives in September and remains through November. Witness baby lambs hopping through fields of fresh blooms and lush grass, but don't be surprised if a rogue snow shower springs up in the South Island in September.
This season ushers in comfortable temperatures that are perfect for an array of outdoor activities. Make the most of the leftover snow and take advantage of the warmer temperatures by skiing or snowboarding. If you're looking for an activity more aligned with springtime, white water rafting is popular this time of year as the rapids are fuller and faster.
New Zealand is home to around three million people and 60 million sheep, which only increases once newborn lambs arrive in the spring. Newborn orcas are also common this time of year and can be spotted swimming in pods, or in groups of 5-30 whales, in Wellington Harbour.
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New Zealand: Auckland, Rotorua, Queenstown, Fox Glacier, Christchurch, Wellington
3 nights from only $1495
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Australia: Melbourne, Alice Springs, Uluru, Port Douglas, Sydney • New Zealand: Wellington, Hokitika, Fox Glacier, Queenstown, Rotorua, Auckland
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Our Activity Level rating system ranks adventures on a scale of 1 to 5 to help you determine if a trip is right for you. See the descriptions below for more information about the physical requirements associated with each rating.
Activity Level 1:
Travelers should be able to climb 25 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 1-2 miles over some uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last at least 1-2 hours at a time. Altitude can range from zero to 5,000 feet.
Activity Level 2:
Travelers should be able to climb 40 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 2-3 miles over some uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for at least 2-3 hours at a time. Altitude can range from zero to 5,000 feet.
Activity Level 3:
Travelers should be able to climb 60 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 3 miles over some steep slopes and loose or uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for 3 or more hours at a time. Altitude can range from 5,000 to 7,000 feet.
Activity Level 4:
Travelers should be able to climb 80 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 4 miles over some steep slopes and loose or uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for 4 or more hours at a time. Altitude can range from 7,000 to 9,000 feet.
Activity Level 5:
Travelers should be able to climb 100 or more stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 8 miles over some steep slopes and loose or uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for 4 or more hours at a time. Altitude can range from 10,000 feet or more.
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