To say that New Zealand takes your breath away doesn’t quite say enough about how staggering its beauty is. Instead, you could say New Zealand stirs the soul. It makes your spirit soar. It fills you with a stupefying wonder for all that is divine and powerful. Well, you get our point. And you’re sure to agree that words simply cannot express the effect that this spectacular country has on everyone who visits.
It’s fair to say that, before director Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy—which was filmed amidst its scenic splendor—New Zealand wasn’t on the radar of many travelers. Now, we can’t get enough of it. So we’re happy to share with you six of our favorite places, the ones that are sure to take your breath away and even stir your soul. Here’s what they shared:
THE NORTH ISLAND: VOLCANIC SPLENDOR
A rocky plateau sits just above the city of Rotorua. An entirely different world bubbles and gurgles upon this mound: the geothermal area of Whakarewarewa. Geysers erupt, hot springs steam and mud pools boil in this otherworldly landscape.
Whakarewarewa lies within the North Island’s Taupo Volcanic Zone, and it sports some 65 geyser vents and 500 hot-spring pools. Seven of the geysers are active, with Pohutu (Maori for “explosion”) erupting up to 100 feet tall about once an hour. The most fascinating thing about several of these active spouts is that they often erupt in concert—first the Prince of Wales Feathers Geyser, then Pohutu, followed by Waikorohihi. The reason for this symphony is that they all protrude from a common fissure regulated by a highly complex system of pressure and release.
Rushing down the Waikato River in a torrent, the Huka Falls flow from Lake Taupo, the largest lake in New Zealand. The river, as it leaves the lake, is up to 300 feet from one bank to another. Then, its waters are funneled into a dramatic canyon that’s just 50 feet wide. The result is a surge of water—often 58,000 gallons per second—through a very tight space. The river first courses over smaller falls of about 25 feet, followed by a more dramatic 35-foot drop into a beautiful (and very loud!) tree-ringed basin.
Tongariro National Park
The oldest national park in New Zealand and the fourth one established in the world, Tongariro offers spectacular vistas of snow-capped peaks, dense forests, open plains, and pristine rivers. It’s important to New Zealanders because it is one of only 28 “mixed” UNESCO World Heritage Sites, protected by the United Nations organization for both their natural beauty and their cultural heritage. You won’t have to look far to understand why this unspoiled and majestic land is worth protecting. It is a medley of nature’s best, and its wide sweeping vistas made for a stunning setting for Peter Jackson’s movies.
The park was in fact declared sacred in 1887 by paramount Maori chief Te Heuheu Tukino IV. Certainly, he wanted to protect the wilderness for future generations. But he also made his declaration in order to protect the many Maori religious sites within the park. The native islanders consider three of its mountain summits—Tongariro, Ngauruhoe, and Ruapehu—as tapu, or sacred.
THE SOUTH ISLAND: DAZZLING ICE AND WATER
Franz Josef Glacier
Even the scenic road to Franz Josef Glacier is a wonder to behold. It traces the Clutha River Valley to the pretty town of Wanaka on the pristine waters of Lake Wanaka. From here, the mighty Clutha River has cut stunning glacial terraces into the landscape. Today, the Franz Josef Glacier is part of what’s left of the glacial system that carved this landscape. At 7.5 miles long, it is unique in that it has crawled toward the sea from the heights of the Southern Alps through the lush greenery of a rainforest.
The first Europeans laid eyes on this massive icefield in 1859, but it was a German explorer who named it after the Austrian emperor six years later. Of course, the Maori, New Zealand’s indigenous people, were intimately familiar with it and called it Ka Roimata o Hinehukatere, which means “the tears of Hinehukatere.” The name comes from a local legend in which Hinehukatere persuaded her lover, Wawe, to climb in these mountains with her. After an avalanche buried him alive, her countless tears flowed down the mountain and froze to form the glacier we see today.
Rudyard Kipling called Milford Sound the eighth wonder of the world. So it comes as no surprise that it has often been ranked as the world’s top travel destination. The sound is a magnificent fjord flowing in from the Tasman Sea. Pristine waters glimmer at the foot of vertical, soaring mountains that rise up to 3,900 feet on either side. One of its peaks, called The Elephant, is shaped like a pachyderm’s head. Another, The Lion, resembles a crouching jungle cat.
Two permanent waterfalls cascade down sheer cliffs to plunge into the waters of the fjord: Lady Bowen Falls and Stirling Falls. After heavy rain, however, any number of waterfalls could suddenly appear from above and drape the forested cliffs in watery curtains. Lucky for us, it rains a lot in Milford Sound. With rain falling 182 day each year on average, it is one of the wettest places on Earth.
New Zealand’s longest lake (50 miles), and the world’s third largest in area, Lake Wakatipu is overlooked by the aptly named Remarkables mountain range. From the air, it is shaped like a sharp-curved “S.” At its greatest depth (an astounding 1,020 feet), its floor lies below sea level.
The setting of Lake Wakatipu is truly spectacular, and the people of Queenstown are fortunate to be right in its midst. Our Wonders of New Zealand spends three nights in this charming city, giving you ample time to take in the alpine beauty. A cruise aboard the TSS Earnslaw takes you along the lake’s shores to admire the vistas. Keep your eyes open for Mallards, black-billed gulls, and pied shags, a type of cormorant native to the region. If the lake looks familiar, that’s because it was used as a backdrop for several scenes in The Lord of the Rings trilogy.