Here are some of my (Jerry Bridge) top experiences New Zealand has to offer – I hope you like them although I have to say listing them like this was tricky! I could just make a list of one…..’our favourite thing to do ever’ and then write ‘be in New Zealand’ under it but that would perhaps be cheating (as well as rather unhelpful). However, for me it would be true. I am very much in love with this country (especially Wellington!)
So, how do I narrow down the many wonderful things you could do whilst on holiday in New Zealand? Well, I have decided to use this criterion – which of our many combined memories makes all of us at ‘What To Do In Wellington’ smile the most?
Many people skydive in New Zealand. As a common entry on the ‘I-must-do-at-least-once-in-my-lifetime’ list of individuals it is also one of the cheapest places on the planet to realise this dream.
So, having decided to do it you then had to decide where. We suggest you go for a 12,000 ft jump in Glacier country (south island) so that when you hurtle towards the earth at 120 miles per hour you’ll be able to see mountains, lakes, rivers, glaciers and the ocean.
I am not going to attempt to describe the experience – if I was Charles Dickens it would be impossible anyway. Suffice it to say that ever since taking that ‘leap of faith’ out of the aircraft, we have all been trying to persuade everyone we meet to experience it!
Swimming with wild dolphins wasn’t just top of our must-do list but has been a lifetime dream for many of us. In my opinion, there are two companies who surpass all the others by a mile in every respect and they are Black Cat Cruises, Akoroa, South Island and Dolphin Rendezvous, Mangonui, North Island.
This appealed because I liked the idea of being on one of only two or three boats likely to be out on the sound once dusk fell. Nothing disappointed me about this trip. The scenery was awe inspiring and majestic, the wildlife fascinating and exciting and the wonderful tranquillity and peace of it reigned supreme. The almost unnerving ultimate sound of silence is in fact one of the things I remember most and it is made so much of that all passengers are asked to sit down while the boat’s engines are turned off to allow everyone to experience in full this eerie nothing.
I also got to dive into the black ice-cold waters – no-one knows how deep they go. Swimmers are few – most passengers just choose to watch and laugh at the crazy ones. The waters are so cold they don’t just take your breath away but make it impossible to breath. We were called back to the boat after a few minutes to prevent hypothermia. An amazing experience.
At low tide, the rocky foreshore of Curio Bay is exposed and along with it the remains of a 180 million year old petrified forest. You can wander around this site tracing out very obvious tree stumps complete with knots and wood grain and also fallen trunks and branches, some of which you have to touch to convince yourself they really are stone. There are fossils, particularly of ferns, to be found too but these are well hidden unless you get very lucky or a local or tour guide points them out to you.
The viewing platform is great to take in the whole forest but the hours I have spent here have been more about watching the Yellow-eyed penguins shuffle their way ashore as night falls.
No matter how many times I return here the place fills me with the same awe and magic as the very first time.
I was lucky enough to be taken here in a private boat by a friend but there are many tour operators which offer cruises, snorkelling trips and scuba-diving excursions here. The waters of New Zealand don’t seem to be short of teeming sea-life no matter where you stick your head beneath the surface but the Poor Knights take it up many notches further. The ocean life here is the equivalent to a major aquatic metropolis thanks to the presence of vast underwater sea caves, tunnels and arches.
I consider myself highly fortunate to have snorkelled in some of the world’s best places including the Great Barrier Reef and still I rate Poor Knights as a major highlight.
When a Kiwi friend suggested we take our body-boards and go sand surfing I really wasn’t prepared for the sheer size of these sand dunes or the gut wrenching thrills which followed. Climbing the dunes felt like going up a mountain made of treacle and admittedly wasn’t quite so much fun but still I did it over and over so I could hurtle downwards just one more time. I left exhausted, with sand in parts of me which I didn’t know I had and a memory which several years on still makes me grin like an idiot.
New Zealand is second-hand wonderland – shops sometimes resemble Aladdin’s caves with lots of ‘treasure’ to be found of both ancient and modern origin.
The best of this is, to my mind, the second-hand bookshops which seem to crop up in even the tiniest of towns. Here you can find books often well over 100 years old for which you pay next to nothing – floors to ceilings are a book-worm’s paradise. Forget loading your suitcase with reading material – you can find everything you need here – old, new, fiction (of every genre), non-fiction, maps, magazines and so on – for a fraction of what you will pay anywhere else.
As a claustrophia sufferer, there were more than one or two moments in the few hours I was underground in pitch black, in which I had to fight a feeling of rising panic. Kitted out with hard hats, wet suits, rubber boots and head torches our group of six swam across underground lakes, slid into water filled pot holes from a height, squeezed through impossibly small crevices, crawled on hands and knees through half water filled tunnels and rafted on inner tubes along an underground stream with the roof apparently full of stars which in reality was the light from the glow worms.
I emerged into daylight squinting, cold, exhausted and with something super precious stored in my memory banks.
Now to say I had to be dragged here by my partner kicking and screaming isn’t too much of an exaggeration. I set out with the full (and secret) intention of having a quick look around for form’s sake and then leaving him to it. Several hours later I emerged from this wonderful museum (and only then because it was closing time). I had been moved to tears, I had been entertained, I had crawled through war bunkers and I had learned heaps.
I have visited many museums around the world – good, bad and terrible – and New Zealand’s offerings typically rank among the best but it turns out that, as far as I am concerned, this museum is the best I have ever visited.
This island is actually a live volcano and from the mainland most days it can be seen sending out clouds of smoke and steam into the sky. When you actually land and step out onto this incredible island it is easy to imagine you are on some hissing, steaming alien planet complete with lakes, bubbling mud pools and a bright yellow punctuated landscape where the sulphur crystals form into weirdly shaped masses.
On the boat ride over you are given a hard hat and gas mask and briefed on emergency evacuation procedures (this is a live volcano and evacuations can and do happen). Scattered among the fascinating natural features are the remains of the island’s last sulphur mining factory now abandoned and ruined. Quite simply this place is amazing.
You would think then perhaps choosing favourite places would come easily but actually quite the opposite is true. Position me just about anywhere in New Zealand and I’m in seventh heaven. So, to make it onto my top 20 list you can be certain that the place has something super-special about it.
11) Curio Bay/Porpoise Bay, the Catlins, South Island
On one side of the headland is calm, sheltered Porpoise Bay, so named because the tiny, rare and only found in New Zealand Hector’s Dolphins live, play, fish and surf here. On the other side of the headland is Curio Bay where the rocky ledges and platforms are actually the remains of a 180 million year old fossilised forest. In the evening the rare Yellow-eyed penguins hop ashore and then shuffle their way (looking for all the world like hunched up little old men in raincoats) to their nests in the bushes.
I have lost days watching the dolphins (or surfing with them) and spent weeks camping here nestled among the flax -which made me something of a local celebrity because most people just pass through here apparently. The word unique is very much overused but is highly appropriate here. Curio Bay isn’t just my favourite place in New Zealand it is my favourite place on the whole planet
12) Matiu Somes Island, Wellington Harbour, North Island
This Department of Conservation (DOC) managed, pest free conservation island is a short ferry ride from down town Wellington but may as well be a million miles away for the peace, serenity and solitude it affords.
Rich in Maori history this island has been a quarantine station (for both animals and humans) and a prisoner of war camp before becoming the wildlife haven for rare and endangered species that it is today. Here you can see the Tuatara – a large lizard-like animal found only in New Zealand with a lineage so ancient it is sometimes called the living dinosaur.
Day trips are special but staying overnight on the island is indescribably wonderful (camping and basic DOC lodgings are available). Watch the last ferry of the day leave and as the sun sinks the lights of Wellington wink into view. The only sounds which break the hush which descends are the cries of the Little blue penguins calling from their nests. Unforgettable.
13) Gisborne, Eastland, North Island
Technically a city but my English brain can’t really register this fact for such a warm and friendly place. I am not usually a city lover but Gisborne is different….perhaps it’s the beaches, the people, the weather, the street cafés, the best second-hand book shop in the world (complimentary coffee served as you browse)…..I’m not sure but it is an indefinable something.
My quest for surf (which this region has by the bucket-load) is what originally drew me here and it is the vibrancy and buzz combined with the relaxed open atmosphere which sees me going back again and again.
14) Rarawa Department of Conservation camp site, Northland, North Island
By the riverside and underneath the pines is this basic DOC camp site. A two minute stroll (or a five minute paddle up the river on my surf board if the tide is right) brings you to the pure white silica sands and impossibly blue crystal clear waters of Rarawa Beach.
I have never had to share this camp site with a single other person in the many nights I have stayed here unless you count the random rooster which was a little problematic at meal times. The night skies here seem to have more stars than spaces and the only sounds you will hear are fish jumping in the river, the ocean if there is a big swell on and the far off lowing of the cattle.
15) Motutara Farm, Whananaki North, Northland, North Island
This is my favourite place on the North Island. Technically a camp site, known locally just as Barron’s (the name of the wonderful family which own it) it isn’t like anything else you will ever have experienced before.
Take your pick from 3 beaches (dolphins and whales regularly come calling) or a river-mouth setting; pitch your tent in a secluded little nook carved out of the cliff itself to wake to ocean views or hideaway in a Pohutakawa valley which leads down to the ocean.
One word of warning – don’t expect to get a pitch here in summer. So sought after is the camping at this magical place that Kiwis book their pitch for next year as they leave. Outside of high summer you may have all 75 hectares and all the beaches to yourself.
And if you are thinking that this much heaven is going to be expensive think again – it is one of the cheapest camp sites I have found anywhere on the North Island.
16) Doubtful Sound, Fiordland, South Island
Majestic, awe-inspiring, mysterious, mystical, evocative…..I could create a whole alphabet of adjectives and still be nowhere near describing somewhere which has to be seen to be truly appreciated. The sound of silence reigns supreme here in this place of waterfalls, dolphins, penguins and seals.
Getting here is difficult – the reward worth it a thousand times over.
17) Matai Bay, Karikari Peninsula, North Island
New Zealand is hardly short of places rich in the ‘oh’ factor but the twin sweeping crescents of pale sand beaches at Matai Bay are lapped by waters so stunningly beautiful it might just make you cry.
I have swallowed a lot of water snorkelling here as in my excitement at all I am seeing I forget that talking and trying to breath underwater don’t really work.
If you really can’t tear yourself away when the sun sinks then no problem. There is a very cheap DOC camp site here which overlooks the bays.
18) Fox Glacier, West Coast, South Island
I was fortunate enough to skydive here so this place holds a special place in my heart but even without that magical memory Fox Glacier would still be in my top 10 list.
The glacier is of course an obvious draw and the many things you can do here but this little township has a particularly appealing atmosphere and watching the antics of the kea has kept me entertained for hours.
This mountain parrot seems to exist for the sole purpose of making mischief – they are well known for shredding and destroying anything they can lay their beaks on (my expensive surf board bag included) but I have also watched them sitting on overhanging roof tops dropping stones on the heads of passers-by – seemingly for no other reason than the fun it affords.
19) Lake Waikeremoana, Eastland, North Island
Despite the fact that I still can’t pronounce it without stuttering, Lake Waikeremoana is to me a much revisited place where I go to gather my thoughts, wander through Jurassic Park-like forests and immerse myself in all that is beautiful and natural.
Lake Waikeremoana is the only lake I have ever snorkelled in, in order to swim to the edge of a sudden drop-off where gazing down into the black, seemingly bottomless void was both heart-lurchingly scary and wonderful.
20) Rere Falls, Eastland, North Island
New Zealand has more waterfalls of every variety (high, beautiful, dramatic, fairy-like setting) than you can shake a stick at but Rere Falls is to me super-special because it allowed me to do something which had long been a romantic notion of mine – to walk behind one; then, to slide on the rock slope through the cascading curtain of water on my backside to end up in the swimming hole at the bottom.
I was fortunate enough to be taken traditional eel fishing here with a Maori friend where I have to confess seeing the size of the eels caught made me a little more reluctant to go swimming again knowing they were in there with me!
Although not one of the filming sites of The Lord of the Rings films, this place nonetheless is so magical that I always half expect to see Gandalf come wandering along, every time I am there.
For me information about these and other top experiences New Zealand has to offer please contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org
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