Whether you’re studying in Auckland and are looking for a magical place to escape to for a few days or taking a quick holiday up north, there are a number of short, easy trips that are must-dos while visiting Aotearoa.
Tongariro Alpine Crossing
Forget Photoshop, if you want to see all the possible shades of blue then look no further than the 19.4-kilometer (about12-mile) journey through one of New Zealand’s nine Great Walks. While climbing across the peaks of three separate active volcanoes, including Mt. Ngauruhoe – or Mt. Doom for you hobbits out there – you will pass the cloud line and have an opportunity to see miles in all directions.
In the mix of the pinnacles lie some of the most beautiful lakes that are glistening emerald and turquoise hues from the sulfur of the volcanoes. While the visible nature is overwhelming in itself, the track also maintains a substantial sacred tradition in Māori culture, earning it the status as both a natural and cultural World Heritage Site. Each of the lakes you pass are tapu – sacred – and could be dangerous so be sure not to drink. The climb has several steep areas and can be very difficult in bad weather so make sure to go during the warmer months and check the forecast. You will also need to pack a lunch and plenty of water, as there are no stops along the trail.
Considering hiking the Tongariro Crossing? Read these 8 tips for tramping in New Zealand.
Waitomo Glow Worm Caves and Hobbiton
Nothing says New Zealand like the Lord of the Rings and nothing screams the Lord of the Rings more than Hobbiton. Located just over an hour away from each other, trips to these iconic spots can easily be completed in a day or spread out for more time to explore. When visiting Waitomo, you will be greeted with opportunities to tube through underground caves illuminated solely by incandescent glow worms hanging from above. This is one of the few places in the world these worms exist!
After working up an appetite sliding through the pinhole tunnels, channel your inner hobbit and enjoy second breakfast at the Green Dragon Inn at Hobbiton, the heart of the Shire. Located on an active sheep farm, there are guided tours throughout the day that teach you just how obsessive Sir Peter Jackson was about his little friends’ community. The tour is capped off with a free ale or cider in the infamous party hall at the Inn.
Wondering if you’ve reached the city limits of Rotorua? Just take a big whiff and you’ll know right away. Rotorua is world famous for its incredible natural hot springs and thermal pools that are fueled by volcanic heat given off from the Earth. (It is also known for the sulfuric smell of rotten eggs.) Though it is a smaller town, what it lacks in size, it makes up for in entertaining outings. Many of the thermal pools throughout the area offer different temperature pools to soak in – essentially a natural hot tub – for just a minimal fee and are certainly worth it. While in Rotorua, take advantage of some of the North Island’s best adventure sports like ZORBing, skydiving and the Skyline Luge.
Sure, Wellington has the hustle and bustle of any capital city, but it wouldn’t be New Zealand without a bit of nature to separate it from the pack. Wellington is home to Zealandia, the world’s first fully-fenced urban ecosanctuary, which aims to restore the land back to the conditions it was in before any colonization. You can spend 15 minutes or multiple days walking through the jungle and finding unique wildlife. This experience is an absolute must.
Once you get your fill of nature, hop on public transit and take the bus to Weta Workshops to discover what goes on behind the scenes to make the props, costumes and special effects for your favorite movies (spoiler alert: Orks aren’t real). While in Wellington make sure to also visit the national museum, Te Papa, enjoy meals on the water and do a sunrise climb up Mt. Victoria.
One of New Zealand’s quickest growing cities, Tauranga is the place to be for water sports. Located on the coast, the city boasts beautiful beaches and plenty of great spots to find a local with a boat who can teach you how to waterski or wakeboard. Make your way to Mt. Maunganui and climb to the peak to peer out across the entire city on one side and the ocean to the other. After you work up a bit of a sweat on the easy uphill trek, get refreshed with a delicious ice cream cone at Copenhagen Cones before grabbing lunch and shopping in town.
Each of these destinations are just a few hours away from Auckland, Wellington being an exception (I made it in a 12-hour bus ride), so find some friends, rent a car and get on your way. However, don’t forget to keep your eyes open along the way – in New Zealand, the journey is often more riveting than the destination.
Connor McGlynn is a TEAN Alum and recent graduate from University of Southern California who studied abroad at AUT University in New Zealand.