Every so often people ask me for advice on what to do when they visit New Zealand. This is hard to answer because there are a lot of wonderful opportunities here, and it's impossible to see all the "must see" places in just a few weeks. Also I feel a lot of the best parts of a trip are the in-between places, the serendipitous stops and turnings between the highlights. So my main point is to not even bother trying to knock off a list of "must sees". Plan a route that covers some of the known spectacles and take your time along it.
I suggest starting in the north (arriving in Auckland usually) and working your way south. On average things get slightly more spectacular in that direction, and it's better to move up that gradient.
In some parts of the world, the most popular attractions are "over-touristy" and to be avoided, but I think that's mostly not true here: I think most of the popular NZ attractions really are good.
Stay out of the cities, or if you're studying or working in a city, get out of the city as often as possible. I think most of NZ's cities are great places to live, but the best parts of New Zealand for visitors are outside them.
Here are some places I like:
- In the North Island, I really like the geothermal areas around Rotorua. My favourite one is Waimangu Valley.
- The central volcanic plateau of the North Island is one of my favourite places. A deservedly popular highlight is the Tongariro Crossing, a one-day hike across Mt Tongariro. The guided walk to the top of Mt Ruapehu is in some ways even better. Do them both :-).
- I took Mozilla people on the boat trip to White Island a couple of years ago. It's extraordinary and well worth doing. (You probably get the impression that I'm a huge fan of volcanoes and other geological activity. It's true.)
- If you find yourself with a day in Auckland, head out to Piha. If you wake up in Auckland, take the ferry to Rangitoto for the morning.
- In the South Island, Queenstown, despite being quite touristy, really is worth visiting.
- The Nelson Lakes National Park is great. A wonderful day hike up Mount Robert is one of the most memorable walks I've done.
- The train from Christchurch across the mountains to Greymouth (and back in the same day, if you want) is really spectacular. On one trip we stopped along the way at the town Arthur's Pass for a couple of days --- wonderful alpine area.
- Taking the ferry from Wellington to Picton is a great trip. It passes through the Marlborough Sounds which are lovely.
New Zealand has many famous multi-day hikes, if you're into that sort of thing. On these, people usually sleep in built huts rather than camp. I haven't actually done any of the famous ones myself, since my kids are only just getting old enough, but they get rave reviews from everyone I know. Most of the famous ones have to be booked in peak season. You can rough it or book more luxurious options.
Having said all that, I've left out a lot of incredible stuff, both things I've done and things I haven't. There's just too much. That's why I suggest instead of rushing from one highlight to another, plan an comfortable itinerary and take time to enjoy everything you see along the way.
One of the best things about living in New Zealand is that I get to take holidays here a lot :-).