7. Hike and Kayak The Abel Tasman Coastal Track
Ask a New Zealander where his or her favorite place is to enjoy nature and you'll receive a variety of answers, but Abel Tasman National Park is an oft-repeated locale. Its beauty inspires rapt devotion from outdoorsy Kiwis. One glance at its limestone cliffs towering over golden sand beaches forming curves outlined in turquoise seas and it's easy to understand why locals and visitors fall in love with this spectacular tropic-summoning coastline.
The 51-km Abel Tasman Coastal Track is another immensely popular New Zealand Great Walk, but we suggest exploring it from two different vantage points with a trip comprised of both walking and kayaking. There are endless variations to create an itinerary that works for you, just make sure you have a travel partner or link up with a buddy as kayak companies won't rent multi-day kayaks to solo travelers for safety reasons. Many travelers start from Marahau and kayak north, either having the kayak company meet them part-way and walking the rest or kayaking all the way to Totaranui and walking back.
For travelers with time constraints, Golden Bay is a gorgeous place to base yourself for a couple of days. The northern section of the track from Totaranui looping north past Separation Point and Whariwharangi Hut back to Totaranui is arguably the most beautiful part and easily the least-trekked. Many trekkers don't venture north of Totaranui.
8. Visit Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers by Foot
Anyone with a few hundred dollars burning a hole in their pocket can hop on a helicopter ride over a glacier in New Zealand. But why not approach it from a gentler angle, and save the already receding glaciers from yet another helicopter landing on their surfaces?
The 8.7-km Te Ara a Waiau Walkway/Cycleway leads through lush rainforest foliage to the Franz Josef and takes about two hours by foot or one hour by bike round-trip. Very similar in both distance and scenery is the Te Weheka track from Fox Glacier Village to Fox Glacier.
Both glaciers are beautiful to observe and photograph but the slightly less visited Fox Glacier will appeal to those seeking to escape the crowds. Splurge on a soak in the Enviro Gold Award-winning Glacier Hot Pools at Glacier Base, Franz Josef, a pretty blissful way to unwind submerged in steaming water surrounded by verdant rainforest. Tourism's impact is starting to show at these locations; please have respect for this lovely area of the world and keep it pristine.
9. Kayak With Hector's Dolphins in Akaroa
Our collective team has been blessed with the opportunity to interact with some pretty incredible wildlife in some pretty spectacular locations throughout our travels, so when we tell you this was one of the best things we have ever done, please take these words without a single grain of salt. This was one of the best things we have ever done.
Imagine a calm, secluded bay filled with glassy waters ranging the color spectrum from azure to cobalt. The morning's silence is soothing to the soul. As you gaze at the surrounding vistas of undulating green hillsides and bays defining shades of blue in new contexts, a small grey curve breaks the water's surface. Almost at touching distance from your kayak, another curve, another light splash. All at once, your kayak is surrounded by tiny, graceful Hector's dolphins, seemingly vying for your attention with their playful antics.
Slip into a snorkel and mask and hop in the water—these wondrous creatures are social by nature and they just may surround you on all sides as they did on our recent visit. Feel free to bask in their presence but please refrain from touching or otherwise interfering with the dolphins directly. Just being amongst them will fill your heart with joy, trust us. Mafi (originally from Switzerland) rents kayaks from Onuku Farms through her company Mafi's Kayak Tours. They operate trips 5km from Akaroa in the midst of the prettiest part of the gasp-inducing Banks Peninsula scenery. The company holds a Marine Mammal Permit from the Department of Conservation and follows a high standard of ethics to maintain the unspoilt wilderness and ensure the protection of the thriving wildlife therein.
10. Spot Wildlife and Get Lost in the Mist on the Otago Peninsula
Driving in from Scottish-settled (and named) Dunedin with a heavy mist enshrouding a blue, grey, and kelly-green dreamscape dotted with fluffy white sheep on the hillsides and black swans smokily silhouetted on the rippling silver harbor, one could be forgiven for humming an Irish lullaby.
Otago's pounding surf, endless greenery, and bucolic ambiance wouldn't be out of place on the west coast of Ireland or Scotland but the proliferation of wildlife, edge-of-the-world-conjuring sense of escapism, and fiercely independent environmentally conscious locals are surely New Zealand's own.
Walk the Okia Trail (accessible by Riddell Road via Dick Road) past the Pyramids to an empty stretch of surf-pounded coastline backed by tall seacliffs layered in burnt umber, golden, black and grey shaped by the ocean's fury. Meet some of the charismatic local seal population (from a respectful distance) from the observation platform overlooking the colony at Sandfly Bay then watch giant pterodactyl-like Royal albatross dip and soar over the thundering surf by the Taiaroa Head lighthouse, a short walk from the bay.
11. Finding Serenity on Lake Ohau
Lakes Wanaka, Wakatipu, Pukaki, and Tekapo all earn high marks for dramatic scenery and otherworldly shades of blue contrasting with their various mountain backdrops. However, the busloads of tourists unloading regularly at each of these locations can put a damper on the peaceful atmosphere most of us associate with alpine-lake-meets-snow-capped-mountain vistas.
Lake Ohau, just outside of Twizel and south of the Mount Cook National Park, is a magical place to escape the masses, connect with the enticing pulse of nature's proclivity, and discover a shade of blue that Crayola and Apple have yet to emulate. The Greta Trail covers 16 winding kilometers, first ascending to the summit of Ben Ohau (Ruatani) then meandering down past several crossings of bubbling Greta Stream to eventually pop you out lakefront back on Glen Lyon Road. Viewed from above, the clouds create a drifting phantasma on the lake, like mythical creatures that hover just beneath the water's surface. If you run into a single other human on this track that's a crowded day
12. Chase Waterfalls and Windswept Hidden Coves in the Catlins
If you've made it to the Catlins at all on the southernmost coast of New Zealand's South Island, congratulations, you are amongst good company. Many package tourists and backpackers don't even make it to this region as it is not well-serviced by public transport and has more striking swathes of undeveloped rugged coastline than tourism infrastructure. But, those who do venture a little further afield to this special environment are rewarded richly for their efforts.
Waterfalls like the multi-tiered Purakaunui Falls are a short hike off the main road and wild, untouched beaches are the norm here rather than the exception. Make stops at Papatowai for its lush rainforest walks like to lovely McLean Falls and Curio Bay for unbridled views and maybe a glimpse at a pod of passing dolphins or sperm whales. This is off-the-beaten-track at its best.
Julia Reynolds is a travel writer, adventure enthusiast, and serial nomad living (mostly) in the Hawaiian islands. She is currently on a one-year trip around the world, avoiding air travel when possible and traveling slowly over land and sea. Some of her best travel experiences to date have been kayaking the Napali Coast of Kaua'i, diving the isolated atolls of Belize, and rock climbing in the Krabi region of Thailand. Her worst travel experiences have been getting robbed in Guatemala, breaking her back in Thailand, and breaking multiple bones in a mountain bike accident in Alaska. She still loves the places where the worst experiences occurred.