New Zealand: What to See, What to Skip

PHOTO: Stewart Island, New ZealandGetty Images/AWL Images RM
Stewart Island, New Zealand.

The search for Middle Earth has now officially made it on the bucket list of many a traveler. And there's no denying that New Zealand, whose spectacular landscapes take on veritable supporting roles in the newest Hobbit film, is aiming to leverage the movie's success to incentivize travel. Airfare and vacation package deals should become more prevalent in 2013, and when you're down there, consider the fact that the options are endless – from adventure to culture, from the spectacular to the delicious. Here's a look at some not-so-typical ways to experience all the wonder New Zealand has to offer.

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Go Flightseeing, Skip Sightseeing

New Zealand has perfected the flightseeing idea – taking to the skies in a small plane or helicopter to take in natural beauty, in all its glory, in ways you simply can't do on the ground. This is a great way to scope massive volcano craters on North Island, appreciate the sweeping grandeur of the Southern Alps or follow a pod of whales from above the sea. Some flight companies will give you a taste of both – viewing from the sky and the ground. It is one thing to observe the glaciers of Mount Cook from above, but to also land and walk on one is quintessential memory-making.

Visit the "Set," Skip the Movie

No doubt about it: New Zealand's growing appeal as a movie shoot location in the last decade has helped strengthen its tourism appeal. So why not visit in person the locales, or the natural "sets," where your favorite films were shot? Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings Trilogy is probably on your list, as is his latest offering, The Hobbit. But if you watched the recent Chronicles of Narnia films, visiting the Coromandel Peninsula or the Southern Alps where they were filmed might make you feel like a real-life extra. And a trek through the Taranaki Region, on the North Island, might make you believe you're The Last Samurai, yourself.

Learn to Cook, Skip the Restaurant

New Zealand's spectacular diversity is also evident in its food; depending on where you are, the fish, the cheese and the produce you savor can vary widely. Taking a cooking class can be a great introduction to the native cuisine of your favorite destination on this island nation. In Christchurch, for example, "She Chocolat Chocolate School" offers one- or two-day experiences for any chocoholic, and "Otahuna Lodge" introduces students to native organic produce through three-hour hands-on classes. The Auckland Fish Market in Auckland will teach you how to best prepare native shellfish, and the company Kinaki Wild Herbs in Rotorua, headed by Chef Charles Royal, uses traditional Maori techniques and ingredients (beetle larvae you find on a hike, perhaps?) to create gourmet food experiences that can last anywhere from an afternoon to one or two days.

Hike Stewart Island, Skip the City

Stewart is the third largest of the islands that make up New Zealand, after the far more popular and well-known North and South Islands. But this is a must for outdoor enthusiasts, especially hikers, and a striking alternative to any big city stay. The native Maori people call this island "Rakiura," and the three-day trek along the Rakiura Track will open up a world of wild, unspoiled beauty; you can reserve huts for overnight pit stops along the way through the Department of Conservation. Only 400 people live on Stewart, most of them in Halfmoon Bay, which makes a memorable overnight visit, too. Stewart Island is less than 20 miles off the southern shores of South Island and it's accessible by ferry.

Spot the Kiwi, Skip the Binoculars Ulva Island is a birdwatcher's paradise, with birds often visible so close, you won't care that you left your binoculars behind. Nestled off Stewart Island on what's known as Paterson Inlet, and reachable by water taxi, Ulva is home to dozens of rare birds that live a sanctuary-like, predator-free existence. Among them is the flightless Kiwi, which is synonymous with New Zealand, and watching it in its natural habitat is a real treat. When you take any of the three main paths that allow you to explore this island, you'll witness a marvelous array of rare flora, too.

Visit a National Park, Skip the Beach

The shores of New Zealand – the country features more than 9,000 miles of coastline – are stunning. But make sure you head inland, where national parks cover close to 20,000 square miles and serve to protect New Zealand's gorgeous landscapes. North Island is home to a few, including Tongariro, which is home to several active volcanoes, and Whanganui, with wild forests and river routes worth rafting. On South Island, you'll find Abel Tasman, known to many adventurers for its golden beaches and rugged cliffs. Several of these national parks are home to what are known as New Zealand's Great Walks – there are nine of them throughout the country – which offer 3-, 4- or 5-day walks complete with endlessly stunning views.

Bike New Zealand, Skip the Hike

Yes, this is a hiker's Shangri-la. But not all of us can walk for days. So consider the fact New Zealand is especially cycle-friendly. It's easy to map lengthy bike treks, thanks to well-maintained roads, as is finding a shop that'll rent you the two-wheeler that's just right for you. If you like company, keep in mind there are several tour operators that lead multi-day bike tours and take care of everything from gear to hotel stays. Biking can be a great (safer?) way to enjoy New Zealand's burgeoning wine country, too.

Gabe Saglie is Senior Editor for Travelzoo. New Zealand is one of Travelzoo's Top 5 WOW Deal Destinations for 2013. For airfare and vacation package bargains to New Zealand (and other hot spots in the South Pacific and Asia), also check out