Located approximately 900 miles east of Australia, New Zealand is an island nation comprised of two large land masses—the North Island and South Island—and nearly 600 smaller islands. Whether you’re seeking unique wildlife, world-class restaurants, pristine hiking, unmatched cultural experiences, kayaking in dolphin-filled waters, hair-raising adrenaline sports or sandy, tropical beaches, New Zealand brings it all together in one unforgettable nation.
New Zealand is historically unique in that it was one of the last major land masses to be settled by humans. Estimates put the arrival of the first Māori settlers between 1250 and 1300, and European explorers didn’t arrive until the 1642 voyage of the Dutchman Abel Tasman. The first meeting between Māori and Europeans resulted in the death of four of Tasman’s crew members and at least one injured Māori, and Europeans didn’t return until 1769, when James Cook mapped almost the entirety of the nation’s coastline.
Through the whaling and trading industries, European exploration of the area intensified, and starting in the early 19th century, Christian missionaries began converting much of the existing Māori. By the late 19th century, the Māori population was at 40 percent of its pre-European contact level, due in large part to European-introduced diseases.
On July 1, 1841, the Colony of New Zealand was officially formed from the Colony of New South Wales, and in 1907, upon request from the New Zealand parliament, New Zealand was proclaimed a dominion within the British Empire. New Zealand fought in both World War I and World War II and suffered through the Great Depression as well.
In more recent history, there’s been a resurgence of Māori culture and several movements aimed at promoting greater awareness of their traditions.
New Zealand is often the story of two groups, Māori and Pākehā (European culture within New Zealand), and cultural achievements are no exception. Within the Māori tradition, there are many beautiful examples of carvings and weavings, both of which often have religious and storytelling significance. From the early Pākehā, landscape paintings and some Māori portraiture were common.
One of the most widely recognized cultural elements of the Māori people is the haka, a posture dance that involves stamping feet, rhythmic cries and brazenly exposed tongues. The All Blacks, the New Zealand rugby union team, has performed this ritual before matches since 1905.
While there has historically been little international interest in New Zealand’s cultural exports, the film industry has seen a recent boon. New Zealand films Once Were Warriors, The Piano, Heavenly Creatures and Whale Rider all enjoyed national and international success, and the Peter Jackson–directed Lord of the Rings shot New Zealand into the mainstream spotlight.
On the music front, the Takapuna-born artist Lorde has broken into international acclaim, and the musical comedy duo Flight of the Conchords enjoys international success as well.
Good to Know
When traveling in New Zealand, keep some of the following in mind:
New Zealand’s currency is the New Zealand dollar. Only in rare circumstances can you pay with US dollars here, so always convert into the local currency. Most retailers accept major credit cards, and ATMs are plentiful. If you’re going somewhere particularly remote, just make sure to stock up on cash beforehand. When exchanging money, the worst rates will likely be at the airport and in hotels. Simply withdrawing from an ATM tends to give you the most favorable rate.
While tipping’s not mandatory in restaurants, it’s still common, especially in touristy areas. A 10 percent gratuity for particularly excellent service will always be appreciated. At hotels, it’s considered a nice gesture to tip anyone carrying your bags or cleaning your room. These tips tend to be a few dollars.
New Zealand’s generally a quite relaxed, open and friendly nation. Westerners won’t come up against too many strict social customs or taboos. There are, however, subtle differences between the coexisting European and Māori cultures. Māori, for example, are more tied to social protocols, tradition and hierarchy.
New Zealand operates on 230/240 volts. Always check your US items to see if they’re compatible with 110 and 220. If not, you’ll need a converter. New Zealand uses two- or three-pin plugs that are angled, so an adapter’s necessary as well.
Public bathrooms are clean, modern and readily available throughout New Zealand. You can expect sinks, running water and toilet paper to be provided.
Keep a special eye out for “Exeloo” toilets. These high-tech restrooms indicate with a light if the stall’s vacant, occupied or closed, they play gentle music over a speaker system, they allow you to lock the door at the push of a button, and the toilet automatically flushes when you wash your hands!
Tap water’s clean and safe to drink throughout New Zealand. If you’re heading out for multiday adventures in the wild, use the same common sense you would anywhere. Don’t drink from stagnant pools, and bring along your preferred water sterilization method—just to be safe.
Regions and Cities
The North Island
Named after the nation’s largest urban center, the Auckland region contains everything from metropolitan bars and restaurants to the islands of Hauraki Gulf, where you’re liable to see whales and dolphins.
Auckland: A beautiful city of metropolitan and cultural significance, Auckland is a can’t-miss stop for anyone hitting the North Island. Take in the Sky Tower and stunning harbor, as well as the multicultural atmosphere. (Beware, though. Auckland has been ranked one of the world’s most expensive cities.)
Bay of Plenty Region
Situated within the Taupo Volcanic Zone, this region’s best known for its extensive geothermal activity, but it’s also a site of historical and cultural significance to the Māori people.
Rotorua: Whether you’re interested in the geothermal activity, trout fishing or Maori culture, Rotorua will keep you spellbound. Don’t miss its array of hot pools and geysers.
Hawke’s Bay Region
Nestled along the eastern coast of the North Island, many come for the scenery but stay for the wine. Hawke’s Bay is known internationally as the home to many award-winning reds and whites.
Napier: Devastated in a 1931 earthquake, this resilient city rebuilt in its now-famous Art Deco architectural style. People flock here year-round for wine festivals and celebrations of their Art Deco history and heritage.
Black-sand beaches, revered surfing, natural harbors and pervasive livestock make this North Island region quintessentially Kiwi.
Hamilton: A bustling city populated with a large contingent of students, Hamilton’s bars and restaurants rival even those of Auckland.
The southern tip of the North Island, Wellington Region offers views of the turbulent Cook Strait and is composed of rough, hilly, stunning terrain.
Wellington: The capital city and the proud bearer of its nickname, the Windy City, Wellington’s also known as the nation’s cultural heart, housing the National Archives, National Library and more. (Don’t forget to take the iconic cable car to the top of the city for breathtaking views.)
The South Island
Covering much of the eastern shore of the South Island, the Canterbury Region offers unparalleled views of the Southern Alps, pristine rivers and a burgeoning wine industry.
Christchurch: With deep agricultural roots, Christchurch is a populous, urban area that houses an impressive cathedral, stunning botanical gardens and views of the Southern Alps. Several earthquakes rocked the city from 2010 to 2012, causing devastation and a rebuilding effort that continues today.
Kaikoura: Idyllic Kaikoura is a can’t-miss destination. From the imposing mountain ranges to the sperm whales, dolphins and fur seals, Kaikoura offers a true Kiwi experience.
Home to all of New Zealand’s commercial hops, the Nelson Region has become the nation’s craft brewing capital. Ringed by mountains, filled with caves and situated near the golden sands of Abel Tasman National Park, the Nelson Region has a lot to offer.
Nelson: Situated on the eastern shores of Tasman Bay, Nelson’s not only the oldest city in the South Island, but it’s also home to a vibrant art and festival scene. It’s a popular destination for ecotourism and is particularly popular among spelunkers.
High alpine mountains and pervasive glacial-carved valleys give way to grasslands and drylands in this diverse region known for its wine production and Triassic fossils.
Dunedin: Whether you’re looking to spy the world’s only mainland royal albatross colony, watch for penguins or tour the beautifully ostentatious Larnach Castle, you can do it all in Dunedin.
Queenstown: The adventure capital of New Zealand, this metropolitan resort town on the shores of Lake Wakatipu offers up good eats, great bars and more than a few opportunities to ski, snowboard, whitewater raft, bungee jump, paraglide, skydive and more.
Worth a Visit
Abel Tasman National Park
Kayak along the pristine golden sand beaches of this national park, and it’s easy to see why it’s one of the most popular destinations on the South Island.
Franz Josef Glacier
While unguided forays onto this glacier are possible, most tourists opt for the helicopter ride past the unstable terminal face and the guided walking tour. Located in Westland National Park, Franz Josef Glacier, along with Fox Glacier, are some of the nation’s most popular tourists destinations.
Hobbiton Movie Set
What New Zealand travel plans would be complete without a stroll through the Shire? Hug the Party Tree and visit Bilbo’s Bag End home on a guided tour through this privately held farm in Waikato.
Situated within Fiordland National Park, this particular fiord is arguably the most popular tourist destination in New Zealand. Not convinced? Author Rudyard Kipling was so impressed he dubbed it the eighth Wonder of the World. (While you’re in the national park, don’t forget to check out Dusky Sound and its abundance of dolphins as well.)
Tongariro National Park
Home to the world-renowned Tongariro Alpine Crossing, this national park also has on offer three active volcanoes and two skiing fields.
Explore this network of caves by boat as you marvel at impressive stalactites and stalagmites and then enter darkness to experience the bioluminescent wonder of glowworms.
Things to See and to Do
New Zealand is one of the top hiking destinations in the world, with an incredible network of scenic trails perfect for day hikes or multi-day hut to hut adventures. Check out our guide to HIKING IN NEW ZEALAND.
Things To See And Do - Full Article Coming Soon!
When to Visit
There's good reason to come to New Zealand any time of year! But that being said, certain seasons certainly have their advantages.
Read our full When to Visit New Zealand article for all the info.
How to Get to New Zealand
As a US citizen, you don’t need a visa before entering the country, and you can stay for up to three months. You can apply for up to nine months over an 18-month period, but this is only granted in special circumstances.
If you’re flying into New Zealand, there are several international airports to choose from. This includes Auckland Airport, Christchurch International Airport and Wellington International Airport. Many smaller domestic airports make the rest of the country accessible by plane.
Due to the nature of New Zealand’s ecosystem, the country has highly strict biosecurity laws. To avoid the introduction of foreign animal or plant diseases, your luggage will be x-rayed and put past highly trained sniffer dogs upon arrival. Don’t be surprised if muddy tents or hiking boots are taken away to be cleaned and then returned.
Backroads Pro Tip
When in doubt, err on the side of caution, and declare any potentially problematic item (especially food). Failure to do so can result in pricy fines or even jail time.
Getting Around - Transportation
Buses, by far, are the cheapest and most prolific form of public transport available in New Zealand. Intercity and Naked Bus are the two main providers. Backpackers often gravitate to the hop-on, hop-off buses, which are not actually public buses but allow you to have more flexibility in your itinerary. Trains are not common in New Zealand, though a few companies and lines do exist.
To bounce between the North and South Islands, ferries are the most common mode of transport. InterIslander and Bluebridge are two of the major ferry providers. Ferries can also get you from the main islands to any number of smaller offshore islands, including Stewart Island, which is off the southern tip of the South Island.
Especially if you’re looking to get to more remote parts of the country, renting a car is a popular and practical option. Just remember, you must drive on the left side of the road, and all posted speed limits will be in kilometers. An international driving permit’s not often required if you have a valid license from your home country.
Food and Drink
Food in New Zealand incorporates many influences, from the Māori culture to various European, Polynesian and Asian settlers. While you can dine on just about anything you want in these modern, diverse cities, quintessential New Zealand fare includes lamb, oysters, salmon, sweet potato and kiwi pavlova (an unofficial national dish).
Hungry (or thirsty) for more? Here are some additional Backroads Food & Drink insights:
English is the official language of New Zealand, so Westerners don’t need to worry about battling a language barrier here. All official signs will be written and all interactions will be conducted in English.
For travelers interested in the Māori culture, approximately 3.7 percent of the population speaks the language. While you certainly don’t need Māori to get around, some town names are derived directly from the Eastern Polynesian language. To pronounce them correctly, make sure you know these Māori letter combinations:
- ng: pronounced as it sounds in “singer”
- wh: originally pronounced like the “wh” in “whisper” but has since evolved in many dialects to sound like “f”
The macron (a bar that appears above a vowel) indicates the letter should be lengthened when pronounced.
Want to try your hand at a few significant Māori phrases?
- Aotearoa: New Zealand (literally “long white cloud”)
- Aroha: Love
- Hui: Gathering, Meeting
- Iwi: Tribe
- Kia ora: Hello (informal)
- Mana: Prestige, Reputation
- Tēnā koe: Hello (formal)
- Waka: Canoe
- Whānau: Family
New Zealand’s generally a very safe place for travelers, but as any travel guide will advise, take common-sense precautions to guard against petty theft.
If you need emergency assistance, dial 111. All these calls are free.
As in many countries dominated by natural beauty and driven by outdoor adventures, the environment itself poses the most common safety concerns. Weather changes often in New Zealand and can be severe. Terrain can also be quite challenging. Always check the recommended fitness level with a Department of Conservation (DOC) site before starting any outdoor adventure.
Again, common sense should guide your actions. Always tell someone where you’re going before heading out for challenging day hikes or multi-day adventures, and make sure to pack enough food and gear to account for variable weather and other unexpected events.
What is Backroads
Established in 1979, Backroads is a pioneer in active, immersive and off-the-beaten-path travel. Now operating adventure tours in over 50 countries, our passion for discovery and our desire to experience the world in original ways continue to inspire our pursuit of new adventures. We hope this guide will be enlightening to you as you plan your next great New Zealand adventure!