New

Transcendent Travel: What I Learned Island-Hopping in New Zealand

 
×
Passengers×
Clear
 

New Zealand is officially open to international travelers as of May 1st, 2022, and now is the time to celebrate the wonders of the ‘Real Middle Earth’ — and to finally book that dream vacation. There’s a reason that fantasy films such as The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, and A Wrinkle in Time were filmed in New Zealand: The beauty of the nation is so spectacular it is simply unbelievable, and the otherworldly setting is even more enticing in-person than depicted on the silver screen. 

I embarked on a ten-day journey across New Zealand in the recent past, road-tripping from one wondrous destination to another across the North and South Island. And while there’s simply no way to see all the beauty and partake of all the adventure travel New Zealand has to offer in one trip, this trip certainly comes close (and is, categorically, revenge travel). Read on for the ultimate itinerary across New Zealand and start planning your next Kiwi vacation now. There’s no better time than the present to check that item off your bucket list

Hawke’s Bay

Clifton Glamping, Hawkes Bay, New Zealand

Clifton Glamping, Hawkes Bay New Zealand (provided by the author)

I flew from Texas to Auckland in early October to begin the first part of my journey on the North Island. (Air New Zealand currently offers direct flights from LAX, as well, and in September, nonstop service from JFK will also be available). Once I landed, I hopped on another flight southeast to Napier for my first destination: Hawke’s Bay

You will quickly get used to hopping on quick, inter-island Air New Zealand flights — and driving on the opposite side of the road, as well. Similar to America, the best way to experience New Zealand is the open road: I discovered many of the most breathtaking vistas on my trip while navigating from one destination to the next. My first stop? A luxury glamping adventure at Clifton Glamping, replete with an outdoor tub overlooking the bucolic fields and streams surrounding my luxurious abode. 

Clifton Glamping Outdoor Bath

Outdoor Bathtub at Clifton Glamping, Hawkes Bay New Zealand (provided by the author)

I took to my bed early that first evening, but I was ready to go for the rest of the trip. Though New Zealand is across the world for U.S. travelers, a benefit of traversing so many time zones is that when you arrive, it’s an entirely new day — so, jetlag isn’t a worry. I spent the next day with Napier Maori Tours, exploring the Otatara Pa Historic Reserve, one of the most majestic and significant landmarks of Maori culture. 

My lovely hosts greeted me with a traditional Maori song, and when asked to sing a tune emblematic of my own culture, I offered an off-key rendition of “The River” by Bruce Springsteen (I’m from New Jersey, after all). I’d later learn my classic rock reference was on-point with the locale, as Hawke’s Bay is where Eagles band member Joe Walsh had a spiritual revelation and successfully found sobriety during a trip to Ngāti Kahungunu. The Reserve was nothing short of spectacular, and learning about the history and meaning of the land, and the heritage of the Maori culture, enriched my entire experience throughout New Zealand.

Elephant Hill Winery, Hawkes Bay, New Zealand

Elephant Hill Winery, Hawkes Bay, New Zealand (provided by the author)

Next up was a visit to the winery at Elephant Hill, where I was delighted to discover the Sauvignon Blanc was as delicious as I’d hoped it would be — if you love this particular variety of white wine, you will be in heaven for the duration of your New Zealand stay. The gorgeous winery showcases New Zealand artists and other luminaries on the walls and overlooks rows of palm-tree-lined vineyards stretching out towards the sea.

Finally, I checked in to the city of Napier, also known as the Art Deco Capital of the World. After a massive earthquake in 1931 destroyed most of the city’s original architecture, the buildings that were rebuilt matched the style of the era. I maximized my Art Deco experience with a stay at the Art Deco Masonic Hotel and grabbed a cocktail at the hotel’s Rose Irish Pub before heading out for dinner at Pacifica to wrap up the first chapter of my New Zealand adventure. 

Wellington

Wellington, New Zealand

Wellington, New Zealand (Adobe Stock)

Next up was another destination on the North Island: Wellington. I boarded another Air New Zealand flight southeast and taxied from the airport to my hotel, the Ohtel, downtown. The quirky, waterfront city of Wellington reminded me a bit of San Francisco, and everything was relatively close — no rental car necessary. That first night, I headed out to Hillside Kitchen, to check out the seasonal cuisine of Chef Max Gordy — somehow, he managed to make an entirely plant-based meal utterly delicious. 

While in Wellington, I visited Zealandia for a sunset walking tour. The world’s first fully-fenced urban ecosanctuary, Zealandia is home to over 40 native species of wildlife. It was here that I learned about the nation’s ecological history as a habitat for monstrously enormous birds of all varieties. Prior to the arrival of humans, roughly 800 years ago, there were virtually no land mammals in New Zealand for millions of years.

Kiwi bird in New Zealand

A New Zealand Kiwi flightless bird (Adobe Stock)

“The combination of isolation and us being an island resulted in gigantism,” my guide told me, explaining the unique existence of the Moa and the Haast Eagle. The bird of New Zealand, the Kiwi, is famous for being flightless, and still exists to this day — book a night tour for the best chances of catching one in the wild. 

But you needn’t be a bird lover to be fascinated by the species still alive and thriving in New Zealand. In the words of my Zealandia guide: “How can you care about nature if you can’t connect with it?” 

Kapiti Island, New Zealand

Kapiti Island, New Zealand (provided by the author)

Luckily, in New Zealand, there are plenty of opportunities to reconnect with nature, and I’d experience an immersive adventure the very next day with a trip to Kapiti Island. A shuttle to the coast and a boat ride across the water transported me to the magical island, one of the most important nature reserves in the nation, and a historic destination for Maori culture and heritage. The turquoise waters, grassy cliffs, and stone beaches were breathtaking, and the hospitality I experienced from the family who maintains the island, and the fellow travelers I met on the boat along the way — visitors from the South Island, on vacation as an extended family — was unforgettable. 

New Zealand may be famous for its landscapes, but it's the kindness and generosity of the people that make the country all the more beautiful — and perfect for solo travelers, like myself. While I don’t always love to explore new destinations on my own, I appreciated the opportunity to meet new people, and fully immerse myself in my surroundings. Highly recommended for veteran solo explorers and newbies alike. 

Queenstown

Queenstown, New Zealand

Queenstown, New Zealand (Adobe Stock)

For the third branch of my trip, I headed down to the South Island, for my arrival in Queenstown.  I took off from the airport in Wellington — home to Smaug the dragon (be careful not to touch him in the eye) — and enjoyed the most spectacular views from my window below as I flew over from the North Island down to the South Island. The views are reason enough to book a multi-island tour of New Zealand, as you can witness the crystal-clear lakes and snow-capped mountains from above. I recommend looking into multi-stop bookings with Air New Zealand, as it's the easiest way to add on to your trip and layout your itinerary in advance.

Once I landed, I rented a car for my cross-island adventures, and headed to The Sherwood to enjoy lunch with gorgeous views of my iconic surroundings — and order some wine to build up a bit of liquid courage for my activities ahead that afternoon. After lunch, I embarked on the first daredevil activity of my vacation: the Nevis Catapult, which swings out across the Nevis Valley.

New Zealand is the home of bungy jumping, and AJ Hackett Bungy is the premier establishment for all free-falling endeavors. (Don’t worry, my instructor reassured me: “Nobody’s died.") I found the entire experience thrilling — and perhaps became addicted to the adrenaline, as is evident later on in the trip. From there, I drove an hour northeast to Wanaka — my favorite destination in all of New Zealand. 

Wanaka

Criffel Station New Zealand

Criffel Station, Wanaka, New Zealand (provided by the author)

Wanaka was easily my favorite part of New Zealand — and one of my favorite destinations in the world — as it reminded me of my other beloved wilderness mecca: Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The snow-capped mountains and cobalt lakes are surrounded by golden fields and endless vast expanses of wide-open spaces. Similar to the Grand Teton hotspot in the U.S., Wanaka is equally popular (and beautiful) in the summertime and in the winter, as skiers flock to the slopes. Since I was visiting in October, it was New Zealand’s spring, and the lush surroundings were wildly in bloom. In short: Paradise, found.

I stayed at the Shearers Quarters of Criffel Station — in New Zealand high-country farms are referred to as ‘stations’ — and my cottage was situated amongst the Dunstan Range, surrounded by poplar trees and hordes of European Red deer (roughly 6,000, to be exact). The cottage is named after the nearby wool shed, and came equipped with an outdoor bath for summertime visitors — based on my experience here and in Hawke’s Bay, outdoor bathing is quite the thing in New Zealand, as it turns out. 

Mandy Bell, the station’s owner, greeted me in the early evening and took me off-roading through the fields in her Range Rover as we drove towards the top of the mountains for Gin & Tonics at sunset. We mixed cocktails in a tiny cabin while the sun set upon the high, rolling plateaus — afterward we walked, drinks in hand, through fields of gold. To say it was a transcendent experience is to understate the memory.

Aside from being excellent company — and quite hospitable: she invited me for dinner with her family the next evening — Mandy was extremely knowledgeable about local conservation efforts. “You can come to New Zealand, and it’s amazing, with these gorgeous landscapes,” Bell told me. “But the stories of the people, and how people live is important, as is the passion of the rural people to look after the land.” Ecotourism may be trending now for travel destinations everywhere, but New Zealand truly is one place where sustainability has always come naturally — and been an immense priority. 

Waterfall climb in New Zealand

Climbing Falcon Falls (provided by the author)

The next day, I met another equally passionate Wanaka resident: Mark Morrison, creator of Wildwire Wanaka, the highest waterfall cable in the world. Together, we climbed the equivalent of the Eiffel Tower — roughly 1,148 feet — up Falcon Falls for lunch at the summit. TLC may have famously warned to not go chasing waterfalls, but that advice should be disregarded in New Zealand — I was immensely proud of my vertical ascent. This was Morrison’s intent: “I built Wildwire to give people the opportunity to experience what it’s like to be a climber on the side of a big cliff, without the technical know-how,” he explained. “It gives people a massive sense of achievement.” Perhaps summiting Mount Everest will be next. 

Lake Wanaka, New Zealand

Lake Wanaka, New Zealand (Adobe Stock)

Afterward, I embarked on a sunset cruise on Lake Wanaka, cocktail in-hand (I deserved it after the waterfall). The lake was once a glacier, and its vivid cobalt waters reminded me of the lakes in Switzerland — as did the surrounding mountains and fields, with their jagged peaks and lush green flora. My trip aboard Wanaka Cruises delivered me to Stevenson Island, where I learned about a project to restore the local Weka bird population and the original Maori name, Te Peka Karara, which translates to “place to stop.” It certainly was an idyllic stopping place on my journey, with 160-acres of native bush and rock beaches strewn with shells. Though, I’d already realized that simply everywhere in New Zealand is picturesque — even the parking lots seem more serene. (And I certainly had to navigate quite a few while trying to remember how to drive on the left side of the road.)

As for shopping, a visit to Common People is perfect for handbags and accessories, while a trip to  Untouched World New Zealand is simply mandatory. Buy the wool, of course — all of which is made locally. Lest I believe I stumbled upon a hidden gem, a framed picture of Barack Obama made me realize this local haunt was world-famous — at least for the likes of Prince Charles and Bill Clinton. (And who else to vouch for quality cashmere than royalty and presidents, after all?)

West Coast

West Coast, New Zealand

West Coast, New Zealand (Adobe Stock)

For my last stop on the South Island, I headed north up towards the Tasman Sea to visit New Zealand’s West Coast. While much of New Zealand would be considered remote by American standards, the West Coast is truly another level of untouched and pristine. In fact, when I told people in Wanaka and Queenstown where I was headed, they reacted as if I was headed into the wild. "You’re headed out into the country," I was told. "It’s rural out there." I was under the impression it had been quite rural seemingly everywhere on the South Island, but one visit to the West Coast will assure you that you’ve entered another landscape — and state of mind — entirely. And, for many reasons, I’d discover that the West Coast is the best coast in New Zealand. 

My drive north would have taken less than four hours, but I was frequently sidelined by gorgeous views on either side of the road as I headed to Franz Josef Glacier. (The occasional freak rainstorm derailed my progress, as well — you have to prepare for all elements on the South Island of New Zealand). I stopped along the way for some sustenance and a Speight’s (a delicious New Zealand beer) at Hard Antler Bar & Restaurant, where the taxidermied walls and enthusiastic rugby fans made for a diverting afternoon. 

“In New Zealand, we root for the All Blacks and anyone who plays against Australia,” my cab driver told me a couple of days earlier in Wellington, referring to the New Zealand national rugby team. And if you happen to be visiting New Zealand when the All Blacks are playing, do make a point of posting up at the local watering hole. (And say a prayer that the home team wins.)

Rainforest Retreat, New Zealand

Rainforest Retreat, New Zealand (provided by the author)

I headed to Franz Josef Glacier Village and checked into the luxurious Rainforest Retreat, where my treehouse was camouflaged by a canopy of trees, and a jacuzzi awaited me on the outdoor deck — the perfect respite from a muddy day spent caught in the rain. That evening I visited the Glacier Hot Pools, and soaked in Te Puna Makoh, also known as “The Pool of Tranquility.” After a day spent navigating the wilds on foot and by car (I managed to get lost several times, despite having full cell service), the Retreat was a restorative reward. 

I’d had major plans to do a heli-hike up to Franz Josef Glacier the next morning, but the weather, unfortunately, did not cooperate with my plans. (All the more reason to return again this year.) But if you’re aiming for maximum adventure on your trip — and don’t want to be thwarted by the elements — then set aside several days to complete the Glacier Heli Hike, to account for the changeable weather, and consider a visit in May, as well (autumn in New Zealand).

Kayaking near Franz Josef Glacier, New Zealand

Kayaking near Franz Josef Glacier, New Zealand (provided by the author)

I wasn’t disappointed for long, as I embarked on a glorious Glacier Kayaks expedition with Franz Josef Wilderness Tours and paddled upon the icy gray waters of the freezing lake. The rain sputtered overhead, occasionally clearing to reveal the dramatic snow-capped surroundings, and I was in waterlogged bliss. Not even a speeding ticket the next day — earned in a small-town speed-trap on my way to Christchurch — could spoil the mood. I was more surprised to find a police car on the road than anything else: After miles and miles without seeing another vehicle, I felt positively alone in the New Zealand wilderness. (Which, after years of lockdowns and shelter-in-place mandates, sounds like a dream). 

Auckland

Auckland, New Zealand

Auckland, New Zealand (Adobe Stock)

Last but certainly not least, I returned to the North Island, to the port of my initial arrival for my very last stop: the city of Auckland. After disembarking from my last Air New Zealand inter-island flight, I rented another car for the last branch of my trip — you will want wheels, as it’s essential for exploring the gorgeous outer regions surrounding the city. I discovered an epic Auckland radio station (named, simply, FLAVA) and checked into the S/O Auckland, where the opulent touches and chic decor reminded me of the Masonic Hotel in Napier. In short, I was coming full circle. (Literally: as I’d done a narrow loop around the country). 

Skywalk in Auckland, New Zealand

The famous Skywalk in Auckland, New Zealand (provided by the author)

The next morning, I headed out for more dare-devil adventures at the 1,076-foot Sky Tower, the nation’s highest building. I signed up for both the Skywalk (where you hang over the side of the building overlooking the city) and the Skyjump (which is exactly as it sounds) and realized that Auckland is best viewed from the sky. To reward myself, I enjoyed some dessert at Giapo Ice Cream — tagline: normal ice cream is boring — and enjoyed a delectable squid-shaped ice cream confection on the patio outside. 

Piha Beach, New Zealand

Piha Beach near Auckland, New Zealand (provided by the author)

That afternoon, I was ready to head out to the wilderness once more, and set out on a road trip to the subtropical native rainforest surrounding Piha Beach, where I’d planned to spend an hour or so catching the sunset before heading back into town.

Once I pulled into the parking lot, and approached the massive monolith of Lion Rock — a volcanic structure etched with Maori carvings and war memorials — I realized I wouldn’t be leaving anytime soon. A sentiment echoed, on a larger scale, by a fellow wanderer I met on the beach at sunset. A Canadian traveler, he’d been in New Zealand for just about a year. When I asked how long he was staying, he told me, “As long as I feel it.” It being the nature, the vibe, the spirit, of New Zealand: “Everyone’s come from somewhere here, to this island on the far end of the earth. So, everyone’s kind of in the same boat, everyone’s in it together.” What’s the unifier? “The respect for nature.”

I was certainly having a transcendental experience myself, as I watched the sunset for hours, transfixed by the colors. The beach was so vast and open and empty, the ocean so wild and expansive, and the sun felt so fiery and somehow so close to the horizon, I felt in touch with some larger presence, a connectedness to the earth itself. 

It was the closest I’d come to a spiritual awakening thus far — only one other time, in the Na Pali Coast of Kauai, had I ever felt such immense gratitude for life, and a sense of my own insignificance in the grand scale of existence. But that ultimately proved transitory — the boat tacked away from the green cliffs, and the revelation dissipated as they receded out of sight. Here, I could sit and watch for hours. 

And I remember that feeling today, years later, writing from the other side of the world. Which is exactly the reason we travel — to find something beyond ourselves. And when you measure it that way, a 15-hour flight isn’t that bad.

Art for Travel’s Sake: 11 Contemporary Art Fairs Around the World

From Art Basel Miami Beach to the Venice Biennale and many more in between

Summer Travel: The 6 Vacations to Book Now

Read on and get ready to start planning your next summer trip

5 Unique Safaris Around the World: Gorilla Treks, Tiger Tracking & More

From South America’s rainforests to the European subarctic

Spring Fling: 6 Last-Minute Trips to take before the Summer Crowds

From truffle-hunting in Tuscany to gallery-hopping in Texas

A Magical Journey Through Kenya

From Nairobi to Mount Kenya to the Maasai Mara

The 6 Best Places to Visit for Spring Skiing

From the Canadian Rockies to the Tetons of Wyoming, here are the best ski resorts to visit this spring