New Zealand is filled with so much natural beauty that it would be difficult for anyone to choose only ten favourite experiences. Even with only two weeks in this astounding country, I had to leave out some truly great moments and places. How could anyone forget listening to music at the otherwise deserted public washing-machine-turned-disco with the guy who was too drunk to communicate comprehensibly? Or watching baby fur seals learn to swim a few feet away from you? New Zealand offers some truly unique experiences that will make you never want to go home.
1. Visiting penguins
Penguin viewing was the entire incentive for this trip. Despite visiting New Zealand during one of the worst times for viewing during the penguin’s breeding cycle, I was not disappointed. Although I only saw one little blue penguin the night I stayed in Oamaru, I was very lucky to see about a dozen of the rare yellow-eyed penguins at Katiki Point Lighthouse near Moeraki. Also at Katiki Point, while you’re waiting for the penguins to come home for the day, you can get your fill of seals swimming and resting below the rocky cliffs.
2. Watching glowworms light up the night
The glowworm caves in Waitomo are a well known tourist attraction. Unfortunately, the entrance fee of $50 NZD doesn’t fit with most budget travellers’ pocket books. There are areas in New Zealand where you can see glowworms for free, but I was always too tired by the end of the day to venture into a dark cave that may or may not have leeches lurking in its waters. With some regret and sadness, I accepted that my number two bucket list goal would not be achieved. After completely forgetting about glowworms, a stranger approached me and out of the blue asked if I had seen glowworms yet. I promised to keep his identity and the location a secret, but I can say that a select few and I had an amazing night hike through waterfalls and over slippery logs before arriving at a moss-covered glen. The blue light emitted by these tiny larvae gave me a new understanding of the word beauty.
3. Soaking in a hot waterfall
Soaking in a natural hot spring had been high on my to-do list for at least a decade, but I had never even imagined there was such a thing as a hot waterfall. Kerosene Creek is so relaxing and enchanting that it will make you want to cancel all your other plans for the day so that you can soak in the hot river until the sun goes down. If you still haven’t got your fill, there’s no reason to leave when it gets dark. Bring some candles with you to light the main pool and sip on some local wine for ultimate relaxation.
4. Hiking Abel Tasman
The Abel Tasman Coast Track was my first multi-day, solo hike and even though my feet were covered in painful blisters and I ran out of food, it was an otherwise perfect hike. Rising at dawn each day, the trail was practically empty. Gorgeous beaches with turquoise waters were around every corner and I did my best to swim in all of them.
5. Eating gluten-free fish & chips
Yes, fish & chips is on the list of top experiences. It is nearly impossible to find gluten-free fish & chips in Canada (or even the US), so when I discovered that both Auckland and Christchurch have affordable, gluten-free chip shops, I was ecstatic. Not only do these shops have gluten-free fish & chips, they serve a variety of battered and deep-fried seafood. To top it all off, for dessert you can order a deliciously greasy pineapple fritter.
6. Checking out the cute town of Oamaru
Before I left for New Zealand, my mother called and made me promise to not get into cars with strangers. By the time I got to Oamaru, I was physically and mentally exhausted. I hadn’t had a real meal in days and my feet were so sore I could hardly get around. So when a nice looking, older man approached me in the park to comment on my hula hoop and invite me on a tour of the town followed by a home-cooked dinner at his place, I ignored my promise to my mom and jumped in his car. At this point in the trip, I was willing to risk my personal safety for a hot meal. I got lucky – The food was delicious, the company was great, and I saw so much more of Oamaru than I would have otherwise.
Note: While hitchhiking used to be quite common in New Zealand, it is not seen as much anymore. Obviously, getting into a car with a stranger always carries some risk and, as a rule, I do not advocate it. In my case, this stranger was vetted by the hostel owner at Swaggers Backpackers.
7. Getting warm at Hot Water Beach
Yes, Hot Water Beach is crowded with tourists, but sometimes when you’re travelling solo, you need to be around people and to be re-inspired by their excitement. While I had no intention of going to Hot Water Beach, it was on the way to Cathedral Cove. So my friend, who was kind enough to chauffeur me around the north island, and I made a pit stop. Whatever else it may be, Hot Water Beach had the magical combination of soaking in a hot spring and swimming in the ocean. Though there may be several other secret hot spring locations in New Zealand, Hot Water Beach is simply fun. Find yourself a piece of real estate at low tide where the temperature of the water bubbling up isn’t too hot or too cold, dig a hole, and relax in your handmade hot tub right next to the crashing waves of the ocean.
8. Stumbling into a random winery
Sometimes Google Maps is wrong. Sometimes it shows you a road that is, in reality, a farm. Sometimes you still find your way to the cidery you wanted to visit only to find out the place has been closed for months. But you don’t give up, you improvise. You see a sign for a winery at the end of a long road and think to yourself, ‘This must be fate guiding me.’
This was how I stumbled into the Kerr Farm Winery. There was not a single other person around at this out-of-the-way farmhouse. Just as my friend and I were about to leave, a man stepped out of the house and invited us in for a wine tasting. It was a strange and surreal experience sitting in his dining room with no other customers while he poured different wines. But the wine was very good and the whole thing made for an experience interesting enough to make it onto my list of top ten experiences.
9. Hiking to Kitekite waterfall
While not a physically challenging hike, the Kitekite Track is everything you would expect from the Waitakere region. Enormous silver tree ferns and puriri trees line the path as you pass babbling brooks. At the end of the 1.8km track, the Kitekite Falls drop gracefully into a small pool.
10. Watching the sunset at Piha Beach
There is no shortage of beautiful beaches in New Zealand and Piha beach is among the most spectacular. Even if you aren’t familiar with the movie The Piano, it is easy to see why Piha Beach was chosen as one of the locations. The cliffs wrap softly around the black sand beach giving the whole place a majestic and romantic atmosphere. Climb up Lion Rock for an overhead view of the beach to really take it all in.
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