The Ultimate Backpacking Guide to New Zealand : Top 12 Places to Visit
Waitomo Caves, North Island – The Lost World
Venturing into the heart of the North Island, backpackers are often enchanted by the allure of Waitomo Caves, particularly the spellbinding expanse known as The Lost World. Spanning over a century of exploration, these caves have been a pinnacle of wonder, not just for their intricate limestone formations but also for their shimmering spectacle – the glowworms. Imagine navigating through a subterranean landscape, and witnessing a sea of blue-green luminescence overhead, akin to a starlit sky. These glowworms, unique to New Zealand, hang from the cave ceilings, casting a phosphorescent glow that paints the caves in ethereal hues. Beyond the glowworms, stalactites and stalagmites abound, each telling tales of geological epochs. Adventure seekers can even indulge in black water rafting, a unique experience that blends the thrill of rafting with the awe of cave exploration. This harmony of adventure, beauty, and natural wonder is what marks Waitomo Caves as an indispensable stop for anyone backpacking across New Zealand.
Queenstown, South Island – The Adventure Capital of the World
Nestled on the shores of Lake Wakatipu and surrounded by the magnificent Southern Alps, Queenstown is more than just a picturesque town; it’s an adrenaline junkie’s paradise. Often heralded as the “Adventure Capital of the World”, it birthed commercial bungee jumping at the iconic Kawarau Bridge. But the thrills don’t stop there. From jet boating through narrow canyons to paragliding off mountain peaks, Queenstown satiates the cravings of the most adventurous souls. Winter brings a different allure, with nearby ski fields offering powdery slopes for skiing and snowboarding. Yet, for those seeking tranquility, the town doesn’t disappoint. The serene lake and mountain vistas, boutique shops, and world-class vineyards provide a gentle reprieve from the adrenaline rush. Whether you’re soaring through the skies, diving off a platform, or merely sipping wine by the lake, Queenstown promises an unforgettable experience for every traveler backpacking in New Zealand.
Rotorua, North Island – Wai-O-Tapu
The ethereal landscapes of Wai-O-Tapu are often described as a painter’s palette come to life. Nestled in the geothermal heartland of Rotorua, this wonderland unfurls a tapestry of vibrant colors, thanks to its geothermal activities. From the iconic Champagne Pool with its effervescent bubbles and orange-hued edges to the neon green Devil’s Bath, Wai-O-Tapu is a vivid demonstration of nature’s artistry. But it’s not just the colors that enthrall; the park is punctuated by spurting geysers, notably the Lady Knox Geyser, which offers a daily eruption display. The constant scent of sulfur, while potent, is a vivid reminder of the Earth’s underlying forces, churning just beneath our feet. Those backpacking through New Zealand and seeking a union of natural wonder and scientific curiosity will find Wai-O-Tapu a must-visit. The park’s trails, leading through diverse geothermal features, are a testament to the volatile beauty of our planet.
Dunedin, South Island – Larnach Castle
Perched high on the Otago Peninsula, Larnach Castle is New Zealand’s only castle, and its history is as compelling as its architecture. Built between 1871 and 1887 by entrepreneur William Larnach for his beloved wife, this monument is not just stone and mortar, but a testament to love, ambition, and tragedy. As backpackers explore its intricately decorated rooms, they’re transported back to a bygone era, an age of opulence where Victorian splendor was the norm. The castle’s tale is also tinged with sadness, with stories of Larnach’s own tragic end within its walls. However, it’s not just the interior that captivates. The surrounding gardens, recognized as a Garden of International Significance, are a blossoming wonder, sculpted meticulously to offer serenity and beauty in every corner. From themed gardens like the ‘Alice Lawn’ with its Wonderland statues to the panoramic vistas from the castle’s tower, every moment here is a blend of history, nature, and architectural grandeur. For those backpacking across the South Island, a stroll through Larnach Castle offers a unique European touch amidst New Zealand’s landscapes.
Franz Josef & Fox Glaciers, West Coast – The Twin Glacial Marvels
In the heart of the West Coast rainforest, two icy rivers flow, defying the green lushness around them. These are the Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers, two of the most accessible glaciers in the world. These dynamic glaciers offer a surreal experience, where one can walk or heli-hike on the ice, navigating blue-hued crevices and ice caves. The glaciers are constantly moving, reshaping the landscapes and creating new vistas to explore. For those seeking an aerial perspective, helicopter tours provide panoramic views, often with a bonus of landing atop the glaciers. These frozen marvels, juxtaposed against rainforests and close to the Tasman Sea, stand as a testament to New Zealand’s diverse and dramatic landscapes, making them a must-visit for every backpacker.
Wanaka, South Island – Puzzling World
Nestled amidst the serene beauty of Lake Wanaka and snow-capped peaks, Puzzling World offers a detour into the realm of illusion and wonder. A cornerstone for those pondering where to visit backpacking in New Zealand, this attraction promises to boggle the mind. Its famous Leaning Tower, seemingly defying gravity, is just the beginning. Inside, illusion rooms like the Ames Room and the Hall of Following Faces challenge one’s perceptions, offering a playful twist on reality. Yet, perhaps the most iconic experience is the Great Maze – a labyrinthine challenge that has tested the wits of travelers for decades. While the puzzles and illusions enthrall, the backdrop of Wanaka’s natural beauty ensures that even moments of pondering outside are accompanied by breathtaking views. In a land renowned for its landscapes, Puzzling World adds a whimsical layer, proving that New Zealand is a place where nature’s splendors and man-made wonders coalesce seamlessly.
Tongariro Alpine Crossing, North Island – The Land of Mordor
Spanning a 19.4-kilometer trail across the Tongariro National Park, the Tongariro Alpine Crossing is not just a hike; it’s a journey through Middle-earth. Famously serving as the backdrop for Mordor in the “Lord of the Rings” films, the landscape is nothing short of otherworldly. Traversing diverse terrains, from volcanic craters and emerald lakes to alpine meadows and hot springs, the hike offers a visual feast at every turn. The grandeur of Mt. Ngauruhoe, often recognized as Mount Doom, looms large, adding a touch of cinematic magic to the experience. Considered one of the best day hikes in the world, the Tongariro Alpine Crossing is more than just a physical challenge; it’s an immersion into a land where myth, magic, and nature entwine seamlessly.
Napier, North Island – Art Deco Capital
If time travel was possible, then Napier would be the portal to the 1930s. After a devastating earthquake in 1931, Napier was rebuilt in the prevailing style of the time: Art Deco. Today, it stands as the world’s Art Deco capital, with its streets lined with buildings that boast geometric designs, ziggurat motifs, and ornate details. For those pondering where to visit while backpacking in New Zealand and with an appreciation for architecture and history, Napier is a revelation. Walking tours dive deep into the stories behind the buildings, and every February, the town catapults to the past with its Art Deco Festival, complete with vintage cars, flapper dresses, and jazz music. Beyond the architecture, Napier is also renowned for its wineries, offering some of the best Chardonnays in the region. With its blend of cultural history, architectural wonder, and vinicultural delights, Napier is a destination that appeals to both the eye and the palate.
Hokitika, South Island – The Wild West Coast & Hokitika Gorge
Hokitika, a charming town on the West Coast of the South Island, offers a coastline experience that’s raw, untamed, and breathtakingly beautiful. It’s a haven for artists, drawn by the vivid sunsets and the wildness of the Tasman Sea. The annual Wildfoods Festival is a celebration of unique and, at times, bizarre delicacies, from seagull eggs to huhu grubs. But just a short drive from the town lies one of New Zealand’s hidden gems: the Hokitika Gorge. The waters here are a striking turquoise, a stark contrast to the lush greenery of the native forests surrounding it. A well-maintained walkway leads visitors to a swing bridge, offering panoramic views of this natural marvel. Those with an adventurous spirit can venture further, exploring the deeper reaches of the gorge. As a package, Hokitika offers the quintessential West Coast experience: wild shores, lush forests, tantalizing food, and hidden wonders.
Stewart Island/Rakiura – The Land Beneath the Stars
Stewart Island, or Rakiura as it’s known in Māori, is often referred to as New Zealand’s third island, lying south of the South Island. It’s a haven for nature enthusiasts. Over 80% of its land area is a national park, teeming with native birdlife, including the elusive kiwi, which can often be seen in the wild here. By day, the pristine beaches, dense rainforests, and serene inlets offer hikes ranging from short walks to multi-day adventures. By night, however, Stewart Island reveals its celestial beauty. It’s one of the few places in the world where one can witness the Southern Lights or Aurora Australis. This dazzling display of colors dancing across the night sky is a mesmerizing sight that captivates both the heart and soul. For backpackers contemplating where to visit in New Zealand, Stewart Island presents a realm where the wonders of the day give way to the magic of the night.
Coromandel Peninsula, North Island – Hot Water Beach
The Coromandel Peninsula is renowned for its natural beauty, with its rugged terrain, lush forests, and stunning beaches. Among its many attractions, Hot Water Beach stands out as a unique phenomenon. For two hours each side of low tide, visitors flock to a specific stretch of the beach, shovels in hand, to dig their very own spa pool in the sand. Thanks to underground hot springs, the water that seeps up is naturally heated, creating a surreal experience where the ocean waves crash just meters away from these personal hot tubs. It’s a communal experience, with families, friends, and strangers often merging their dugout pools, sharing laughter and stories. While the hot water is the main allure, the beach itself is stunning, making it a perfect spot to relax, soak, and witness the sunset. For backpackers, this is a must-visit spot, encapsulating the unexpected wonders that New Zealand continually offers.
Oamaru, South Island – Steampunk HQ & Blue Penguin Colony
Oamaru is a town where history meets fantasy. The beautifully preserved Victorian precinct stands testament to its rich heritage, with its limestone buildings housing galleries, shops, and cafes. Yet, amidst this historical setting is Steampunk HQ, an art collaboration that transports visitors to a retro-futuristic universe. Filled with sculptures, interactive installations, and imaginative artwork, it’s a realm where the past and speculative future merge in a whimsical dance. But as the sun sets, another of Oamaru’s wonders comes to life. The town is home to the world’s smallest penguins, the Blue Penguins. Every evening, visitors can witness the “penguin parade” as these adorable birds return to their nests after a day at sea. This juxtaposition of historical architecture, steampunk fantasy, and natural wonder makes Oamaru a destination that intrigues, surprises, and delights at every corner.