My Aotearoa/New Zealand Top 15ish

This list comes from everything we did over three amazing months in Aotearoa/New Zealand — experiences, sights, and places. So, if it’s here, I thought it was pretty spectacular and worth visiting or experiencing. It’s in no particular order, except alphabetical, because it was hard enough to narrow it down to 16. And, if New Zealand isn’t in the cards for you yet (or ever) this list is a fun exploration of the country and its people.

Abel Tasman Coast Track (South Island)

One of New Zealand’s “Great Walks”, the Abel Tasman Coast Track runs for a total of 60km along the northwestern coast of New Zealand’s South Island. It’s by far the most accessible and easiest walk among the group, hence perfect for me, Sendhil, Karthik, and Meera. Over 4½ days we walked approximately 45 km, from Marahau (where the walk begins) to Totaranui.

We walked on beaches, along gentle cliffs, and in rainforest hills. Our hike was challenging but also restorative. We were able to stop and swim in the ocean several times, and often, we would be the only people on a beautiful, expansive beach. 

Below are the key things that made this hike, our first multi-day, not just manageable but a joy:

Staying at The Barn in Marahau, before and after our hike. I love this lodging. It, of course, has all of the holiday park basics — cabins, campervan sites, and a campground. And, it also has atmosphere — sweet and comfortable indoor and outdoor lounge space, multiple large a kitchen to cook in, a TV room that reminds me of my basement when I was growing up, and a stellar staff who will help you with any need you have. The Barn’s staff patiently helped us figure out our walking route, made water taxi reservations, and helped us determine what we needed — no more, no less — and then helped us rent it. I would go back to Marahau just to stay at the Barn again… and do the Abel Tasman Great Walk again. 

The water taxi service along the Abel Tasman coast is spectacular for all sorts of reasons, not least of which is because they will transport your backpacks from one DOC camping site to another. This means that you (and your kids, if you have them) don’t have to carry your packs from campsite to campsite! It’s amazing. You make your reservations at the head office in Marahau, telling them where you will be on which date. When you arrive at the campsite, you pick up your backpacks from a designated site, and then in the morning you drop your packs back off at the site. Most drop off/pick up sites are really close to the campgrounds (there is one that is about an hour away).

In addition to taking luggage, water taxis also take people. Many people will walk sections of the Abel Tasman by taking a water taxi to where they want to begin walking and then, at the end of the day, get on a water taxi back to where they are staying. It’s possible to do ¾ of the whole hike this way. (Water taxis don’t take people past Totaranui, so that is something to consider.

There are several water taxi companies in Marahau. We used Abel Tasman Aquataxi and had a great experience. 

Finally, here are websites I looked to time and time again to figure out which walk we should do and to get details about the Abel Tasman Walk

Auckland War Memorial Museum (North Island)

Each time I look at this list, I’m surprised to see the Auckland War Memorial Museum among the honorees. And, yet, I cannot deny that it belongs here. The Auckland Museum tells the story of New Zealand, its place in the Pacific, and its people. It has pre-eminent Māori and Pacific collections, significant natural history resources, and major social and military history collections; a must-see attraction. (Sendhil’s longer take is in this post.)

Upon entering the museum, we saw Te Marae Ātea Māori Court, where visitors are presented with the story of the past, present, and future of Māori in Aotearoa. The size of the Marae instantly speaks to the significance of the Maori narrative in the exhibitions. This bore out as we walked through the floor. The exhibitions centered on the brutal colonization of the Maori by the British (other European countries tried, but in the end lost to the already waning British empire). We learned about the founding document of New Zealand, and the Treaty of Waitangi, and heard from scholars about the ways in which the Treaty was used to further oppress the Maori people. (The Treaty of Waitangi is not considered part of New Zealand domestic law, except where its principles are referred to in Acts of Parliament. The exclusive right to determine the meaning of the Treaty rests with the Waitangi Tribunal, a commission of inquiry created in 1975 to investigate alleged breaches of the Treaty by the Crown. More than 2000 claims have been lodged with the tribunal, and a number of major settlements have been reached.)

The electronic, interactive map exhibit that sticks with all of us is a map showing how much land Māori people owned prior to British colonization, — 94% — and how much after colonization — less than 10%. Leaving the Auckland Museum, we all had a much broader and deeper understanding of the forces that shaped New Zealand in what felt like a much fairer accounting than we often get in the United States.

Two tips:

  1. Look for a haka performance: Not every day, but many days, a group of Māori men performs the haka in the main foyer of the museum. 
  2. Get to the museum early: This is not to avoid the crowds; it’s to take advantage of the early morning activity in the museum courtyard.

In addition to the Auckland Museum, there are many other wonderful museums across New Zealand. Here are a few others that we loved: 

Cloudy Bay Vineyard (South Island)

We went to two vineyards during our romp across the South Island (Don’t feel too bad for me and Sendhil; we drank a lot of wine in other places). They were both lovely. Cloudy Bay Vineyard (Marlborough) made an impression because I didn’t think we were going to be able to make it to another vineyard, so I was just happy to be somewhere pretty and drinking wine. 

But Cloudy Bay delivered a spectacular sparkling wine, Pelorus, and an equally delicious setting in which to enjoy it. An open lawn with large bean bag chairs, wicker chairs, and chairs hanging from picture-perfect trees. 

I wouldn’t go to Marlborough just to go to Cloudy Bay, but if you’re anywhere in the area, and you’re looking for a kid-friendly (yes, kid-friendly!) place to create an instant mini-celebration, definitely visit.

(The other vineyard we went to was mt. difficulty in Central Otago. The wine didn’t make an impression but the food and views certainly did. Not as kid-friendly as Cloudy Bay, but certainly worth a visit.)

Doubtful Sound Day Cruise (Fiordland National Park) (South Island)

Doubtful Sound is one of the 13 sounds in the South Island’s Fiordland National Park. Of the two sounds you can visit, Doubtful is more remote and more scenic.* The high rock cliffs, waterfalls, and vertical rivers seem out of time. Doubtful Sound provides a rare opportunity to see our world as it must have been before we arrived. It is a wonder. 

We scheduled our cruise with RealNZ, and it was great. There was plenty of room on the boat and plenty of room outside. The town where all the ships leave from, Te Anau, is its own little world and worth spending a day or two in as well. Two Great Walks start from here. So, if you wanted, you could hike parts of those or hop in the lake before or after your cruise. Finally, there is a fantastic pizza place in Te Anau, La Toscana, that I would go to over and over again. 

*We also went on an overnight cruise in Milford Sound. The drive to Milford Sound is prettier, and the landscapes were stunning. In retrospect, however, Sendhil and I agree it wasn’t worth the high cost. 

Here are a few resources to help you ascertain which experiences you would like to have:

Duck Island Ice Cream

We first tried Duck Island Ice Cream in Wellington, an alarming 6 weeks into our Aotearoa/New Zealand adventure. But once we had, we made up for lost time, in Wellington and any time we saw (or sought it out) in other New Zealand cities. One of our favorite things about Duck Island was that we could always get kiddie size (brilliantly named “The Tiddler)  even if we weren’t kids. Often times that small size hit the spot, and that’s all we would need – for that day. A survey of our crew reveals the following favorite flavors: 

Toasted Marshmallow, Salted Caramel Caco Crumb, Chocolate, and Chocolate and Peanut Butter. 

You can also get Duck Island in various grocery stores throughout New Zealand, but we never did. We always headed straight to the source. 

Fitzroy Beach (New Plymouth) (North Island)

I have such fond memories of going to  Fiztroy Beach during our month-long stay in New Plymouth, New Zealand. Part of the New Plymouth Coastlay Walkway, the beach is popular for surfing, swimming, and dog walking. Getting there, being there, having a coffee at one of the many cafes there, and swimming there is so easy. Some days the waves are big, so it’s better to watch from one of the cafes along the way. Some days the ocean is exactly right for jumping and taking part in. 

Fitzroy Beach, if a tourist attraction at all, is one frequented by New Zealanders. This fact makes the energy there even more relaxed. No one is trying to power through all the activities or achieve anything other than being part of the landscape. Perfect for families. 

Our kids went to a Kiwi surf school that practiced at Fitzroy. I’m not sure that surf school was a hit (and I’m not sure that really matters) but it did force all of us to get to know Fitzroy Beach better than we would have and for that I’m grateful. 

Hooker Valley Track (Mt. Cook National Park) (South Island)

Like so many adventures in New Zealand, you never know what the next turn on the path brings. So much of what I loved about the Hooker Valley Track was how unexpected it was, so I won’t give anything away beyond what the New Zealand Department of Conservation says:

Enjoy the awe-inspiring landscapes of the Southern Alps/Kā Tiritiri

o te Moana on one of our best day hikes – wind up the Hooker Valley

past alpine streams and glaciers in the shadow of Aoraki/Mount Cook.

The hike is 10km, with only a small gain in elevation. This makes it available to many. It’s labeled as the “Best ½ day hike in New Zealand”, but I would take your time. Bring a picnic, go slow, and enjoy traveling through nature’s time.

Kaikoura Encounter (Kaikoura) (South Island)

Our experience with Kaikoura Encounter (Dolphin Encounter) was dazzling. When the company says you’ll get “close and personal” with Dusky Dolphins, they are not kidding. The four of us probably spent almost an hour in the water with the dolphins, swimming around us, beneath, and side by side in the open water. 

Kaikoura Encounter prepares you thoroughly for this otherworldly adventure. There are videos, wetsuits, snorkel gear, and flippers. Then, there are instructions for the boat, with the dolphins, and for emergencies. Prior to getting into the water, it did feel like a lot to manage for such a short excursion. Once we were in the water, however, all of the preparation allowed us to get in and out of the water quickly and move to be with the dolphins in numerous locations. 

They take safety – yours and that of the dolphins – very seriously. And, they make it clear that their first priority is to ensure that the dolphins’ environment and patterns of interaction/play are not disturbed. 

While I was moved by the experience, Sendhil, Karthik, and Meera seemed to be transformed by it. When I asked them which of the three water wildlife encounters (Akaroa Dolphins, Whale Watch Kaikoura, and this) was the best, they unanimously agreed, getting in the water with these magnificent creatures was the best hands down.

Marine Life Center (Wellington) (North Island)

We were introduced to the Marine Life Center (Wellington) by our friends, Vidya and Sam, who moved to Wellington (from NYC) several years ago. We stayed in Wellington for 10 days, in part because we wanted to spend time with them and get to see New Zealand and Wellington from their eyes. They were the most remarkable hosts; our New Zealand experience would have been very different had we not been able to be in community with Vidya and Sam’s family while we were there. 

Prior to taking us to the Marine Life Center, Sam said, “We wanted to take you on an outing that would be like an everyday outing for us. So nothing touristy, but what we would do on a regular day.” We walked along the Island Bay neighborhood, talking about the escalation of property prices (a reliable conversation anywhere we go). We tested our real estate hypotheticals by walking into an “Open House” and each guessing at the price of said home, while the children ran around exclaiming “Look at this, look at that” (the real estate agent tried to remain positive, but you could tell he found our house exploration game more than a little trying for his nerves). And, then we arrived at the best part of our day, and for me, the best part of our Wellington experience – the Marine Life Center. 

The irony here is that I almost was going to skip it. Vidya and I were still catching up and getting to know each other, so we decided to sit outside while Sam, Sendhil, and the kids went inside. We talked and walked around the fascinating rock pools. Just as the kids were ready to go, Sam mentioned that inside the small, shabby building there was a tactile experience like no other – with the opportunity to touch sea life of all kinds. I tried to let myself let it go, telling myself that kids would already be bored. But I couldn’t. Vidya looked at my face, and said “you should go if you want to.” And that was it, I paid the fee and hopped through the doors. I proceed to pick up, as gently as I could, starfish, anemones, crabs, and other sea creatures that I can no longer remember the name of. I had the best time holding these creatures and seeing all the children delight in holding them as well. 

And, I thought to myself,”This is how we should spend our days, getting to know each other and the earth better.” 

New Zealand Department of Conservation 

A general shout-out to the New Zealand Department of Conservation (D.O.C.), which protects NZ’s nature and the ability for people to enjoy it. D.O.C oversees the national parks and the intricate system of lodging within them. We could have done what we did without them. 

Parliament Tour (Wellington) (North Island)

Here’s why the Parliament Tour is an absolute must for Americans: it immediately puts into perspective the significance of governmental size and scale. In addition to learning about how the New Zealand Parliament operates, we also visited parliament executive offices, committee offices, and Parliamentary Chambers. The whole enterprise is unassuming, humble, and small in comparison to the US endeavor. It was actually hard to reconcile the corresponding role that both governments play with respect to their populations, which is why it was so important to see.

Tasman Holiday Park in Christchurch

We spend the last month of our time in New Zealand in a campervan, and consequently spent the last month in New Zealand in holiday parks, which are like campervan motels. Holiday parks are all over New Zealand and are a big part of the reason it’s so easy to travel by campervan across the country. They range in their offerings, but all offer communal kitchens, showers, and bathrooms. On top of that, many have TV rooms, kids’ playrooms, outdoor playgrounds, dishes/pots/pans that are shared, and more. Finally, holiday parks are a great way to meet people. And given that we were already looking for external people connections, holiday parks made this easy. 

During our campervan time, we moved every 2 days, so stayed in approximately 15 different holiday parks. (I had dreams of freedom camping, but the closest we ever got was the one night we parked outside Vidya and Sam’s house, and they graciously allowed us to hang out, use their showers and bathrooms, and fed us breakfast.)

We tried all the major holiday park companies: Top10 Holiday Parks, Kiwi Holiday Parks, and Tasman Holiday Parks. And many were one-offs. 

Tasman Holiday Park in Christchurch distinguished itself by having an indoor, heated pool, a great TV room, a good kitchen (the TV room and the kitchen were one in the same), and various self-powered vehicles for the kids to ride around in. Other holiday parks had these too, but this just happened to be one that has stuck with us. Here are some tips for choosing holiday parks:

  • We found that you couldn’t just rely on one provider (Top10, Kiwi, Tasman, etc) across the country. In one city, a Top10 might be the best option, and in another town, Kiwi might be the best — partly because the holiday park networks are not consistent in age or amenities, and actually have resulted from consolidation of existing sites (some of which used to belong to other companies, as some vintage signage revealed). I spent a good amount of time for each destination seeking a holiday park fitting our current needs and mood.
  • Location of a holiday park is important. If a holiday park is close to where you want to be, then you don’t have to spend money taking a taxi back and forth, or spend time converting your campervan back and forth every day. Sometimes there are no ideal options given the location of the main sites, but something to consider.
  • While holiday parks are MUCH cheaper than motel/hotel lodging in New Zealand, over time they still add up to a significant amount. (The holiday parks we stayed in ranged from $20/night to $200/night.) We didn’t account for holiday park stays in our budget, and it made the budget much less realistic. However, it was consistently more possible to find availability for campervan sites in holiday parks than to find rooms or cabins (in a holiday park or a hotel), especially as we were pretty dynamic with our itinerary — and this is surely even more of a consideration in the real high season, like in January.
  • Overall, we found holiday parks really safe and kid-friendly (true for all of NZ, as well). We didn’t worry about where the kids were or what they were doing when we were in the holiday park container. We spent many lovely evenings eating in the communal kitchen and playing cards. 
  • Here are a few of our other favorite holiday parks:
    • Driftaway Queenstown – this is the luxury version of the holiday park, and I can’t lie. We loved all that it had to offer – amazing facilities, great views, and a playground. 
    • Lake Taupo Holiday Park – part holiday park, part water park, you can imagine where this landed on Karthik’s (12) and Meera’s (11) list. Just click on the link, and you’ll see what kind of vibe this place has. Fun, fun, fun. 
    • Glentanner Park Centre – is the Best Western Plus of holiday parks. Located next to Mt. Cook, it is a serious operation, with lots of accommodation and activities. It’s not the bespoke experience of Driftaway, but it has the efficiency of a place that knows how to get people in and out. 
    • The Barn – I already mentioned this holiday park above. This was my favorite. Not only did it have exactly what was needed in the right amount, the staff at had the remarkable ability to create community among the transient. 

Te Puia

Te Puia is located in Rotorua, which is popularly known as the hub of Maori culture. (In truth, the Maori people and their culture are everywhere, because the Maori were New Zealand before there was a New Zealand. New Zealand, in whole, is a geyser from the Maori people’s core.)

Te Puia hosts the New Zealand Maori Arts and Crafts Institute. We were able to observe current students learning traditional Maori arts and crafts. The past is brought forward, the continuation of knowledge, hopes, dreams, and challenges. I felt honored to bear witness to this endeavor, and I think you will too. 

Wanaka (South Island)

Wanaka was my favorite city in New Zealand. In truth, I loved a lot of places, but Wanaka came at exactly the right time in our trip. It’s less hectic than Queenstown, and more adventure-filled than New Plymouth or Wellington.

We hiked, biked, and swam to an island in a lake on an island in a lake in an island in the ocean. We went to Puzzling World and saw a celebrity tree (the fact that a tree has paparazzi gives you a significant insight into New Zealand).

We walked around the cute shops, ate good food, and drank great wine. Everything was easy, and I’ll take that any day, anywhere.

Whanganui Great Walk (But Really the “Great Canoe”) (North Island)

One of New Zealand’s “Great Walks” isn’t a walk at all. It’s a canoe trip down the Whanganui River, Awa in Te Reo (the Maori language). The 145-kilometer river journey from Taumarunui to Pipiriki takes an average of 5 days to complete by canoe. A shorter 3-day journey from Whakahoro to Pipiriki is also possible.

The Whanganui River is sacred to the Maori people, and any time spent with her will persuade you of her mystical powers. Our canoe trip on the Whanganui changed how I feel about bodies of water, and rivers in particular. It’s hard to explain why, except after our four-day adventure with Awa, I see bodies of water as having identities and lives of their own. 

We chose a 4-day guided canoe trip with the Maori-owned Unique Whanganui River Experience company. We were lucky to have Hone, administrator of this tribe, guide us down the river and keep us smiling through this adventure. During our canoe trip, there was so much rain that the river flowed fast and went high. This got us very wet, helped us cover more distance, and forced us to stay off the river for a day, and we ultimately had to end our trip early, being  “rescued” two days later by a powerboat that took us to the canoe endpoint. While we would have liked to finish the trip, we had a great two days at John Coulis Hut, in large part due to the amazing DOC Hut Warden who was there with us. Whether you do a day or a week on the Whanganui, don’t miss seeing her.

4 thoughts on “My Aotearoa/New Zealand Top 15ish”

  1. And we thought we were good New Zealand guides!! What a fantastic synopsis for ‘The Best of’ NZ!!
    And what we loved about your list is that you have chosen a number of lesser known places and things to do. We have so many little off the beaten track activities and attractions here that are simply wonderful. You found so many of them. We are so glad you loved little old New Zealand and got yourselves Kiwified! Happy travels and Haere Ra!

  2. New Zealand is on my “must go” list and looks like I absolutely need to “up” my swimming skills to experience it best!

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