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New Zealand travel guide: Expert picks for your next trip

Feb 04, 2021 by The Go Ahead Tours Team

What’s the best part of going on a tour to New Zealand? Nature enthusiasts say it’s cruising through the fjords with 1,000-foot cliffs on either side, while foodies argue it’s all about the wine and cuisine. Animal lovers swear it’s seeing a kiwi bird and learning about the conservation efforts to preserve it. Those fascinated with culture say the best part of New Zealand travel is learning about the indigenous Maori tribes and taking part in their traditions.

If you’re ready to experience this beautifully diverse country, then keep reading for all the things to know before visiting New Zealand. Along with the best things to do in New Zealand, we combined first-hand New Zealand travel tips from our Go Ahead travel experts with the top New Zealand attractions to bring you this complete New Zealand travel guide.

Currency: New Zealand dollar

Language: English

Getting around: The best way to get around New Zealand is by car and plane. Lucky for you, you’ll have a private motor coach driving you from place to place. Plus, the scenic vistas make the drives more enjoyable.

Phrases to know: Between the local slang and the frequent incorporation of the indigenous Maori language, it’s possible to speak English and still not be 100% sure what the locals are saying at times! To help you get a leg up, here are some common words and phrases to learn before you travel to New Zealand.

  • Kiwi: The name for a person from New Zealand and the country’s beloved national bird.
  • Kia ora: A versatile phrase commonly heard throughout New Zealand. It comes from the indigenous Maori language and is used as a greeting, to express gratitude, to welcome someone, say goodbye, and wish someone life and health.
  • Aotearoa: The Maori word for New Zealand. It literally translates to mean the Land of the Long White Cloud.
  • Sweet as!: This is used when something is really great or excellent.
  • Heaps: This means “a lot.”
  • Knackered: For when you’re tired after a “sweet as” day!

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WHEN TO TRAVEL TO NEW ZEALAND

The seasons in New Zealand are the opposite of seasons in the Northern Hemisphere, so when it’s winter in North America, New Zealand’s in the peak of its summer season. That’s why a visit to New Zealand is ideal if you need a little winter sun.

When is the best time to visit New Zealand? Although summer weather in winter is a huge draw, there’s never a bad time to travel to New Zealand. Check out the benefits to every season below.

  • Fall (March–May). The shoulder season still offers warm temperatures, and is an ideal time to visit New Zealand if you like the sun, but want to beat the summer crowds (and heat).
  • Winter (June–August). This is a great season to travel to New Zealand if you don’t mind swapping out high season crowds for temperatures in the 30s and 40s. Traveler Phaedra went to New Zealand on tour in the winter and said, “I heard time and time again, ‘in the summer this would be super crowded.’ We definitely benefited from it not being their busy season because we were able to really enjoy all the sites.” Check out more of Phaedra’s experience on tour in New Zealand.
  • Spring (September–November). Cool nights and warmer days draw outdoor-enthusiasts and nature-lovers in the spring. The weather is perfect for hikers and those who want to spot newborn lambs and calves in the emerging green fields.
  • Summer (December–February). High season in New Zealand comes with plenty of sunshine. New Zealanders also like to travel during this time, so you’ll have plenty of opportunities to experience friendly Kiwi vibes.

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WHAT TO PACK FOR NEW ZEALAND

When it comes to what to pack for New Zealand it’s best to be prepared for all kinds of weather. The weather changes quickly in New Zealand and varies widely depending on your location. That’s why the locals sometimes joke that you can experience all four seasons in one day! One of our tips for visiting New Zealand is to not pack too much, but instead pack several options of each of the essentials below.

  • Seasonal clothing. A variety of clothing is needed for New Zealand, but you can’t go wrong with some lightweight, breathable base layers. If you’re traveling to New Zealand in their winter season, bring some warm tops and a jacket.
  • A rain jacket. If you visit New Zealand outside of summer, you’ll definitely want to bring a jacket for evenings. Traveler Phaedra said, “We had every kind of weather so just be prepared for every eventuality. Definitely bring a rain jacket.” Here’s more on her travel experience in Australia and New Zealand.
  • A dressier outfit. A lot of things to do in New Zealand involve the great outdoors, but it’s good to pack a nice outfit for when you visit wineries or eat in high-end restaurants.
  • Shorts & t-shirts. If you travel to New Zealand in their summer season, you’ll definitely want some warm weather clothing. Temperatures can reach the 90s in some places.
  • Sun protection. You spend a lot of time outside when traveling to a place as naturally beautiful as New Zealand. Make sure you bring all the essential sun protection items like sunscreen, a hat, and sunglasses.
  • Bug spray. Mosquitos and sand flies aren’t a big problem in New Zealand, but bug spray is good to have on hand when you visit outdoor attractions like national parks.

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TOP THINGS TO DO IN NEW ZEALAND

New Zealand is known for its rugged terrain and sprawling landscapes. Between nature walks, kayak trips, and boat cruises, make sure you save time for glasses of wine, city exploration, and scenic drives. Here are the top picks for the best things to do in New Zealand.

  • Sail through Milford Sound in Fiordland National Park. New Zealand’s spectacular fjord region is so famous that they named an entire national park after it. One of the top things to do in New Zealand is bask in the glory of Fiordland National Park’s landscape and the renowned Milford Sound. Take in the sparkling lakes, forests, waterfalls, and the towering Mitre Peak from a boat as you cruise between the 4,000-foot cliffs of Milford Sound, with a glass of wine in hand. Staffer Lynne said, “Sailing slowly through the misty fjords and seeing hidden waterfalls around every turn was truly one of the most magical experiences of my life.” See what else Lynne loved about visiting New Zealand on tour.
  • Kayak on Lake Wakatipu. Queenstown’s impressive landscape reaches its pinnacle at Lake Wakatipu, one of New Zealand’s top attractions. Surrounded by The Remarkables, a kayak trip around the lake makes you understand just how small you are compared to mighty Mother Nature. This is a great opportunity to take some Instagram-worthy selfies on the New Zealand: Untamed Landscapes tour. Another way to experience Lake Wakatipu is via boat cruise to a cattle station where you can get an inside look at rural life in the area and witness a sheep-shearing demonstration. Our travel experts name this excursion as a “must-add on to your trip” when you have just 48 hours in Queenstown.
  • Spot a Kiwi.  Did you know kiwis are the only birds in the world that have nostrils at the end of their beaks? Learn all sorts of fun facts on tour about New Zealand’s treasured national bird at the country’s largest kiwi hatchery, Rainbow Springs Kiwi Wildlife Park. Take a guided tour and get an up-close look at the country’s famous flightless bird and see kiwi conservation in action. The Wildlife Park is one of the best places to visit in New Zealand to gain a deeper understanding of these adorably curious creatures and why locals love them.
  • Go spelunking. Cave exploration is one of the most unique things to do in New Zealand. To reach the entrance of Te Anau Glowworm Caves on the South Island, you’ll take a scenic boat ride on Te Anau Lake. Cruise through the limestone grotto, lit up with thousands of glittering glow worms, and you’ll feel like you’ve just entered another dimension. The Waitomo Caves, located on the North Island, offer another chance to see the native glowing creatures light up the incredible cavern complex.
  • Learn about Maori culture. Did you know that one in seven New Zealanders identify as Maori? While in the Rotorua region, the cultural heart and soul of New Zealand, visit the Whakarewarewa village with a local guide and learn about the lifestyle and traditions of the indigenous Maori people. Discover more about the Maori culture on the Highlights of Australia & New Zealand tour with a visit to the Auckland Museum to watch a traditional haka dance performed by a local Maori tribe. Staffer Lynne said, “Their pride in their country was contagious and warmed my heart.” Read about what else inspired Lynne to write a love letter to Zealand after she went on tour.
  • Take a scenic drive in Hokitika. Hokitika is a small beach town with relaxed vibes and gorgeous scenery. Check off two of the best things to see in New Zealand, Hokitika Gorge and Lake Kaniere, with a mini road trip. Start with the bright turquoise waters of Hokitika Gorge, travel along the Hokitika River before making a sharp left into the Southern Alps to Lake Kaniere. Although the drive is less than an hour, you can spend half a day swimming, kayaking, hiking, and taking pictures at all the scenic pull-out areas.
  • Soak up the sun in Nelson. This South Island jewel receives more hours of sun than anywhere else in New Zealand. With beautiful beaches and azure water, lounging on the sand for a few hours is definitely encouraged. Nelson is also surrounded by three national parks, so if you’re not one for laying around, there’s plenty of walking trails, natural attractions, and caves to explore. Our travel experts call it “a mecca for spelunkers” and name Nelson as one of the top reasons to visit New Zealand. 

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BEST FREE TIME ACTIVITIES IN NEW ZEALAND

There are so many things to do in New Zealand, but you will have some down time to explore on your own. If you’d rather hang in the cities, there’s plenty to keep you occupied. If getting out in nature is more your thing, there’s definitely no shortage of that in New Zealand. Regardless of your travel style, our list of what to do in New Zealand in your free time has something for everything.

  • Tour Hobbiton.  If you’re a film-buff, Hobbiton is one of the best places to visit in New Zealand. Featured in The Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Hobbit trilogy, Hobbiton is the movie set used to film the charming shire scenes (think small hobbit homes tucked directly into the hillside). Its location on a family sheep farm showcases classic New Zealand countryside and the organized tour allows you to explore Middle-earth highlights like Green Dragon Inn, Bag End, and the Party Tree.
  • Hike in Tongariro National Park. Tongariro Alpine Crossing, heralded as one of the top ten best day hikes in the world, is 12 miles of snow-capped peaks, lakes, moorlands, and dramatic views. If you prefer something less strenuous, Tongariro National Park also offers plenty of walking tracks that show off the region’s forests and water features. Taranaki Falls trail, Ridge Track, or Mounds Walk are short walks with delightful viewpoints inside Tongariro National Park. Staffer Brittany said, “Active volcanoes, rugged mountains, and thermal lakes make this UNESCO-listed park a must-visit.” See what else Brittany recommends as the top things to do in New Zealand.
  • Go wine tasting. Central Otago crafts some of New Zealand’s best wine, which means a wine tasting is in order! The world’s southernmost wine region produces a smooth Pinot Noir along with Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. On our tours to New Zealand, learn all about the different wines produced in the Otago region before you enjoy a perfectly paired meal. Staffer Brittany named Otago wine tasting as one of the top things to do in New Zealand. The added bonus? She said, “The drive there is stunning!” Can’t get enough of New Zealand wine? Another one of the best places to visit in New Zealand for wine enthusiasts is the Marlborough region, famed for its full-bodied Sauvignon Blanc.
  • Take a helicopter ride over Franz Josef Glacier. The drive through the Southern Alps to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Franz Josef Glacier is a top New Zealand attraction all on its own. Once you reach Franz Josef village, the fun really starts with a three-mile round-trip hike for up-close views of the glacier. However, nothing beats the thrill of a helicopter ride and the aerial views over the 7.5 mile long ice field. Land on the Franz Josef Glacier and explore its peak by foot. It’s a New Zealand tour experience you’ll never forget.
  • Ride in a cable car up Bob’s Peak. Cruise up the Skyline Gondola, the steepest cable car in the southern hemisphere that lifts you 450 meters above Queenstown. From the top, gaze out on the city and Lake Wakatipu set against the striking backdrop of The Remarkables. If you’re looking for a little more adventure, you can test your nerves against the Skyline Luge, a gravity-fueled go-cart course. Our staffer Lynne said, “The ride down was elating and I felt like a kid again. The smile on my face was genuine. I had to stop myself from literally running back to the entrance to ride again.” Read about the other adrenaline-pumping activities Lynne experienced in her love letter to New Zealand. Catch the incredible sunset over Queenstown from the top of Bob’s Peak. For more tips, check out what else you can do in Queenstown in 48 hours.

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WHAT TO EAT & DRINK IN NEW ZEALAND

From the freshest seafood, to world-famous meats, to Russian dancer-inspired desserts (strange, but true!), the spectrum widely varies when it comes to New Zealand cuisine. Work up an appetite every day you’re on tour so you can dig into these classic dishes.

  • Lamb. One of New Zealand’s biggest exports is lamb meat, so naturally it’s a popular food throughout the country. New Zealand lambs are grass-fed, an aspect that contributes to its unique taste. Lamb is often roasted with rosemary and served with vegetables in higher-end restaurants or pubs.
  • Green-lipped mussels. They don’t call these mussels “green-lipped” for nothing. The seafood boasts an eye-catching bright-green color to go along with their impressive size and delicious taste. The native New Zealand shellfish is usually sauteed or steamed. Green-lipped mussels pair perfectly with a glass of Sauvignon Blanc.
  • Fergburger. This is not an ordinary hamburger. The legendary Fergburger is known for its size (huge) and quality New Zealand beef. In Queenstown, locals and visitors alike lineup for burgers—proof that backs customers' claims that it’s the world’s best burger. Our staffer Brittany snagged a bite while on tour in New Zealand and said “There’s always a line, but the flavorful food made with fresh ingredients is truly worth the wait.” Brittany loved her Fergburger so much, she named it a top thing to do in New Zealand.
  • Hāngi. More than a food, hangi is a cultural experience in the form of a feast. This traditional Maori meal uses a man-made underground oven to slow cook meat and vegetables (like chicken, beef, potatoes, carrots, and corn). The process is a long one, and the meal is typically served only on special occasions. Visit a Maori village and join in on a hangi feast while you learn about their ancient customs and watch traditional dances and chants.
  • Pavlova. Save room for dessert! There’s an ongoing debate on whether Pavlova, named after the Russian ballet dancer Anna Pavlova, was created in Australia or New Zealand. She toured both countries at the height of her fame and New Zealand claims they made the dessert in honor of her visit. Regardless of its origins, it’s a true treat made from meringue and topped with fruit and cream.
  • L & P. Lemon & Paeroa (L&P for short) is a popular lemon soda that takes its name from the town it was invented in (Paeroa, on the North Island). Best compared to Sprite, the sweet, citrusy soda is a favorite in New Zealand. Grab it at any convenient store, grocery store, or fast food restaurant.
  • Wine. New Zealand produces some of the best wines in the world. The Marlborough region is famous for its top-notch Sauvignon Blanc, a must-try when you travel to New Zealand. The Otago region, the southernmost wine producing region in the world, is known for its Pinot Noir with fruity and herby notes. Don’t overlook their Chardonnay and Pinot Gris either! Whatever you choose, it’s hard to go wrong with New Zealand wine.

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THE BEST SOUVENIRS TO BUY IN NEW ZEALAND

New Zealand is famous for so many different things, it’s hard to know which souvenir will best encapsulate your trip. Whether it was the modern culture, native traditions, or the stunning nature that spoke to you, these are the most meaningful treasures you can bring home from your visit to New Zealand.

  • Pounamu necklace. Also known as jade or greenstone, pounamu is a significant part of Maori culture and a great way to remember the traditional experiences you had on tour. Legend has it that it’s bad luck to buy a pounamu necklace for yourself, so if you’re superstitious, buy it as a gift! Cuba Street in Wellington is known for its number of quality jewelers if you’re looking to bring home this authentic Maori keepsake.
  • All Blacks jersey. If you’re a sports fan, an All Blacks jersey is a classic New Zealand souvenir.  As the country’s national sport, rugby is second to none. The All Blacks give Kiwis plenty to cheer about with their stand-out performances, including three world cup titles.
  • Kete bag. The Maori people hand weave these handy tote bags from flax leaves. The weaving process, called raranga, was originally used to make fishing nets, ropes, and baskets. Kete bags are lightweight and durable and make a great cultural souvenir.
  • Paua shell. Paua is the Maori word for sea snail (also known as Abalone), a shellfish harvested for its delicate inner flesh as well as its colorful outer shell. Paua grow in the clean, shallow waters off New Zealand’s coast and harvesters must free dive to collect them (it’s illegal to use scuba diving equipment). The shells are cleaned and polished to reveal a pearly blue-green hue and used to make jewelry, small dishes, boxes, and ashtrays.

Did you visit New Zealand on tour? Share your best New Zealand travel tips on our Facebook page!


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About the author | The Go Ahead Tours Team
We’re a team of passionate travel experts, dedicated to helping people explore the world. From inspiring stories to tips for an amazing trip, the topics we cover are all about getting you out there and making discoveries.

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