The most scenic drives! Where to get the best food! The most epic hike! From the North to South Island, this is the one NZ bucket list to rule them all.
Split between two islands, it’s cliched (but absolutely true!) to say that New Zealand has the best of both worlds. On the whole, the country is famed for its huge population of sheep, fascinating Maori culture, breathtaking landscapes, and feature in the Lord of the Rings (LOTR) and Hobbiton trilogies.
Read Also: 10-day South Island Road Trip
But the age-old questions that every traveller to New Zealand asks still stand: Is North or South better? Should I visit one or both islands? What’s even on the other island?
Read Also: 5-day North Island Camper Van Adventure
After our trip to both islands in two weeks, we can safely say they’re equally special. The South is characterised by beautiful natural landscapes like mountains and fjords, while the North has fascinating geothermal activity, and a stronger Maori presence. To find out what else we uncovered, read our itineraries for the South Island and North Island!
Whether you intend to explore only one island or chiong through both, there are precious adventures aplenty that’ll keep you busy. From scenic drives and day-long hikes to delectable eats, here’s our list of the best things to do in New Zealand! Destroying rings and killing orcs not included.
Most Scenic Drive
North Island: Twin Coast Discovery Highway
The name promises great things, and it doesn’t disappoint! The Twin Coast Discovery Highway is a long 800km circular loop that explores the Northlands. It starts and ends in Auckland, and is great for travellers who want to see New Zealand’s “far north” over a span of a week.
Along the way, you can make stops at quaint coastal villages like Tutukaka, the iconic Cape Reinga (and its lighthouse), and the magnificent Bay of Islands, where you can swim with dolphins.
South Island: Twizel — Mount Cook Road
From Twizel all the way to Mount Cook, the scenery is painstakingly beautiful. The stretch features gorgeous views of the blue Lake Pukaki to Mount Cook, New Zealand’s highest mountain. Remember to make a stop at Peter’s Lookout to capture these elements!
With flat roads like this, you’ll want to pull over every five minutes to snap photos. Just be extra careful of other cars.
For more stunning scenery around the South Island, check out our 10-day itinerary!
Best Place to Skydive
North Island: Bay of Islands
There’s nothing quite like acquainting yourself with “the birthplace of New Zealand” than flying over it! Skydiving over the Bay of Islands is quite a visual spectacle — you’re freefalling over 144 islands in the bay as well as the vast ocean.
But Skydive Bay of Islands cranks it up a notch (or many notches to be accurate). Hardcore thrill-seekers can experience the highest altitude jump in New Zealand by skydiving from up to 20,000 feet — well over a minute of freefall!
Cost: From NZ$299 (~S$271)
Meeting Point: Bay of Islands Airport, 182 Wiroa Road, Kerikeri 0293, New Zealand
South Island: Queenstown
Queenstown’s reputation as the adventure capital of the world is no gimmick. NZONE Skydive takes adventure-seekers up to the skies to give them an experience of a lifetime.
The views you get skydiving over Queenstown are nothing short of sheer insanity. All around, you get unparalleled views of the Remarkables and Lake Wakatipu. There’s no better way to conquer your fear of heights than free-falling over 9,000 feet above the ground with mind-blowing scenery.
Do note that skydiving is a weather-dependent activity, so pray for clear skies!
Cost: ~S$254 (9,000ft)
Meeting Point: 35 Shotover St, Queenstown 9300, New Zealand
Most Adrenaline-Fuelled Adventure Activity
North Island: Black Water Rafting
Inside the Ruakuri Cave, a fun black water rafting adventure awaits anyone who loves a challenge.
The Black Labyrinth leads you on an incredible caving tour that includes jumping down underground waterfalls, crawling through tight, rocky spaces, and floating down a glowworm-studded cave.
It’s three hours of splashing around in 10°C waters and total darkness (save for your torchlight). But you’ll barely feel the cold with the adrenaline coursing through your body. If there’s anything to be fearful of, it’s learning how the “magical” glowworms consume their prey (spoiler alert: eaten alive).
Tour Timings: Every 30 minutes from 7AM – 4PM
How to get there: From Waitomo i-SITE Visitor Info Centre, drive for two minutes to the Long Black Cafe (departure point).
South Island: Nevis Swing
Proudly calling itself the “World’s Most Famous Swing”, the Nevis Swing is basically your childhood playground ride gone wild. It sends you flying on a 300m arc through a valley at super-high speeds — so fast, your brain might not register it.
What’s thrilling about this (and what I loved most!) is that you’re offered a variety of ways to ride one of the world’s biggest swings — tandem, forwards, backwards, or even upside down (don’t worry — they’re all safe)!
Operating Hours: Every 40 minutes from 8AM – 4PM
How to get there: From Queenstown i-SITE Visitor Info Centre, cross the street to Station Building. Check-in at the AJ Hackett Bungy front desk. The staff will advise when the shuttle bus departs for the swing.
*Pro-tip: Experience a triple threat by booking an AJ Hackett Thrillogy Combo! You get massive savings of ~S$190 for either three Bungy jumps (Kawarau, the Ledge, and Nevis) or all three Nevis experiences.
Most Epic Experience
North Island: Hike Across an Active Volcano
Just off the coast in the Bay of Plenty, White Island is New Zealand’s most active conical volcano.
Visiting the island is only possible through guided tours. For an explosive adventure, head on a Landing and Walking Tour. This tour includes a helicopter ride that ferries you to the volcano. There, you’ll get to explore active volcanic vents, abandoned mining ruins, and an active crater lake.
Mount Tarawera & White Island Marine Volcano Helicopter Experience
Cost: From ~S$167.60
Tour Schedule: 8:30AM – 7PM (Oct – Mar), 8:30AM – 5PM (Apr – Sep)
Meeting Point: Memorial Drive, Rotorua City Lakefront, Rotorua 3010, New Zealand
South Island: Hike Across a Glacier
We had the coolest time of our lives visiting the Fox Glacier on a guided tour. The glacier is only accessible via helicopter, so you’ll be in for a short, scenic ride that flies you onto the ice. Thereafter, you’ll strap on crampons and explore the glacier with your knowledgeable guide.
It’s hard to say what you’ll experience on the tour — the ice shifts every day, so every time is different! For us, we got to walk on ice, crawl through natural tunnels, and squeeze through narrow crevices. It’s an alpine experience that’s pretty tough to beat!
Most Iconic Hike
North Island: Tongariro Alpine Crossing
A lot of hiking trails in New Zealand vie for the title of the “best hike”, but the Tongariro Alpine Crossing often takes the cake in the North Island. It’s a strenuous hike, and requires appropriate hiking gear (especially in winter).
The hike passes a series of terrains from calm grasslands, down to thermal pools, and up to rocky volcanoes (one of which is the infamous Mount Doom). It’s a fantastic hike, especially if you enjoy dynamic landscapes and difficult walks that offer high rewards.
Hike Time: 6 – 8 hours one-way (19.4km)
Parking: 4hr time limit at both Mangatepopo and Ketetahi carparks. Hikers will need to arrange for transportation (shuttle bus) at either the start or end of their hike.
South Island: Roys Peak
One of the best day hikes in New Zealand’s South Island, Roys Peak is also arguably the most photogenic. It’s a challenging six-hour return hike, with a steep incline on a well-formed path.
The path steadily winds past private meadows and grasslands. At the summit, you’ll have panoramic views of Wanaka and Glendhu Bay on a clear day. On a cloudy day, though, you might find yourself standing above a blanket of clouds.
Hike Time: 4 – 6 hours round trip (16km)
Parking: Ample free parking available at the carpark off Mount Aspiring Road.
Annual Closure: 1 Oct – 10 Nov
Best Place to Eat (Like, Ever)
North Island: Hangi at the Mitai Maori Village
When in the North, don’t pass up the opportunity to learn more about Maori culture, and (of course) savour their food (or kai, in Maori)!
For the whole shebang, spend an evening at the Mitai Maori Village in Rotorua. Along with cultural performances, the evening tour includes a traditional hāngi feast. Explained by our guide, kai is cooked in an “earth oven” — an underground pit filled with heated river rocks.
Once done, kai is served buffet-style. Must-tries include tender hei hei (Maori for chicken), lamb, kumara (sweet potatoes), and regular potatoes. Above all, save room for dessert! The pavlova (supposedly New Zealand’s national dessert) and the chocolate cake are delightfully decadent.
Showtimes: 5:30PM (Apr – Sep), 6:30PM (Oct – Mar)
How to get there: A complimentary shuttle bus picks you up from your Rotorua accommodation. Alternatively, self-drive to the village (arrive 20 minutes before showtime) — from Rotorua i-SITE Visitor Information Centre, drive 13 minutes to Lake Rd, then onto SH 5.
To learn more about New Zealand’s cultural landscape, read our five-day North Island itinerary here!
South Island: Fergburger at Queenstown
Probably the best burgers in Queenstown (and the whole New Zealand!). Till this day, we literally still dream about it.
The gourmet burgers at Fergburger come to you freshly made, and in generous portions that are perfect for sharing.
We had a greasy good time with a double beef & cheese Fergburger (NZ$16.40, ~S$14.70). No skimping on ingredients here — this monstrous masterpiece comes with two juicy patties, crunchy veggies, and an obscene amount of cheese. Trust us: you’ll walk away very happy.
Cost: From NZ$11.50
Opening Hours: 8AM – 5AM
How to get there: From Queenstown i-SITE Visitor Information Centre, walk 110m past Apex Car Rentals and Shotover Canyon Swing to Fergburger.
Most Awesome Value-for-Money Buy
North Island: Freeman & Grey’s $5 Pizzas
You can’t go wrong with pizza, and the folks at Freeman & Grey know this. The casual bar serves crispy NZ$5 pizzas daily from 12PM – 2PM, and 5PM – 7:30PM. Considering that pizzas there are about twice the price outside those hours, it’s a good bargain. Try their most popular flavour — the Mirtillo e Brie (chicken, cranberry sauce, brie and mozzarella).
Opening Hours: 12PM – 11PM, closes 3AM on Fridays and Saturdays
How to get there: From Britomart Transport Centre, exit the station and walk 4 minutes to Customs St West/Queen St bus stop. Take bus 105 for 7 stops to 90 Ponsonby Rd. Freeman & Grey’s is opposite the road.
South Island: Mount Cook Alpine Salmon Sashimi
Anyone who adores salmon sashimi should prime their wallets. Mount Cook Alpine Salmon is a small shop that sells freshwater king salmon that was raised in New Zealand’s Southern Alps.
While there are smoked salmon and whole fillets, the sweetest buy was the sashimi. A 500g box of these thick, fatty salmon costs NZ$38 (~S$34.10), and we were lucky enough to score a one-for-one deal. That’s 1kg of fish. An overkill in hindsight, but YOLO!
Opening Hours: 8:30AM – 5:30PM
How to get there: Drive along Tekapo-Twizel Rd to Lake Pukaki Information Centre. The shop is beside the centre.
Most Unique Accommodation
North Island: The Lighthouse (Wellington)
It’s not every day that you can visit a lighthouse, but New Zealand ups the ante by letting you stay in one. Located at the Southern edge of Wellington, the lighthouse is a rustic Airbnb overlooking Island Bay.
It’s uncertain whether this used to be a working lighthouse, or is a home designed like a lighthouse. Yet, it’s charming all the same. Being right by the coast, you can enjoy sounds of crashing waves along with splendid views of the sunrise and sunset. 🌅
South Island: PurePod (Christchurch)
Glamping just got even sexier! Just a few hours from Christchurch, the PurePods are lovely glass eco-cabins that offer exclusive privacy in stunning natural landscapes.
It’s no gimmick. Everything from floor to roof is made from heavy-duty glass, allowing you to see the plants beneath your feet and the Milky Way above. In many ways, staying in a PurePod gets you and your partner off the grid for a much-needed recharge. 😌
Address: Various locations
Best Place to Relax and Unwind
North Island: Kerosene Creek
Despite the dubious name, Kerosene Creek is a well-known geothermal pool near Rotorua that’s both beautiful and free! It’s shrouded in a natural bush setting away from the main road, making it a great place for a quick dip and sightseeing.
Note that it’s a natural, outdoor pool, so there are risks. Take safety precautions by keeping your head above the water, locking your vehicle, and taking your valuables with you.
How to get there: From Rotorua, drive on SH5 towards Waiotapu for ~27km. After passing Lake Ngahewa on your right, turn left onto Old Waiotapu Rd. Continue on the gravel road for 2.2km until you come across a gate. Follow a track from the carpark that leads to the creek.
South Island: Franz Josef Glacier Hot Pools
We hope you like things hot! At the Franz Josef Glacier Hot Pools, there are three public hot pools you can dip into. Temperatures range from 36°C to a steamy 40°C, which is perfect for relaxing your sore muscles. There’s no time limit in the main pools, so catch a break and let all your worries melt away!
Private pools are also available for a more secluded experience. You get your own bathroom, towels, and area to store your belongings. There’s a 45-minute limit, but you can continue soaking in the public pools afterward.
Opening Hours: 11AM – 9PM (Last entry 7PM)
Address: 63 Cron Street, Franz Josef Glacier, New Zealand
Most Instagrammable Photo Spot
North Island: Cathedral Cove
Cathedral Cove is a famous spot for both photographers and beach bums. Located at the scenic Coromandel Peninsula, a coastal walk leads to a natural arch, where a pristine shoreline and iconic rock formations lie in the distance. The stunning scenery was also featured in The Chronicles of Narnia.
The cove can be accessed on foot or by sea via a boat/kayak. The walk is fairly easy, and passes by a couple of bays where you can swim and snorkel in.
Hike Time: 1.5hrs round trip (~2.5km)
How to get there: Carpark is permanently closed at the start of the trail. Park at one of the nearby houses for a fee, or at Hahei town. From the latter, take a shuttle (NZ$5 for a return ticket) or walk 1.5km to the start point.
South Island: Lake Marian
You’ll have to work for these views, but the views are well worth it! Hidden away near the amazing Milford Sound is Lake Marian, a lake in the middle of a valley that reflects its surrounding mountains.
Do monitor the weather if you intend to go on this hike. If it’s rainy, there may be fog that will conceal the mountain. Start your hike early so that you have ample time to wait for the fog to clear.
Hike Time: 3hrs round trip
How to get there: From Te Anau, look out for the Marian Corner turnoff on the right to get on the Hollyford Track. From Milford Sound, the sign is a lot more obvious.
Best Hidden Gem to Explore
North Island: Putaruru Blue Springs
The Putaruru Blue Springs is like an HDTV. The clear waters reveal the bottom of the spring with natural vegetation in almost virtual-like clarity.
Being filtered for about 100 years, the water is so clean that it supplies about 60% of New Zealand’s bottled water. The site is steadily gaining popularity, but definitely warrants a visit. You can either do a short 15-minute walk, or complete a full three-hour journey on the Te Waihou Walkway.
How to get there: From Putaruru, drive for five minutes via SH28 to the Whites Rd carpark for the Te Waihou Walkway. For the shorter trail, drive for 11 minutes to Leslie Road carpark.
South Island: Cave Stream
Recommended by a local who works nearby, the Cave Stream Scenic Reserve allows enthusiastic explorers to venture into an underground cave — totally free!
Inside the pitch-black cave, the path is 594m long with many small waterfalls and rock formations. The water level is usually knee to waist-deep and can be extremely cold in the winter, so be adequately prepared if you plan on going in. Otherwise, standing at the mouth of the cave is just as amazing!
How to get there: From Kura Tawhiti/Castle Hill Conservation Area, drive 7 minutes towards Craigieburn Forest Park on SH 7. The entrance to Cave Stream is a sharp right along a bend.
Best Urban Panoramic Views
North Island: Auckland SkyWalk
The Auckland Sky Tower is New Zealand’s tallest building, and offers amazing views of the City of Sails. While you can admire them from behind glass panels at the observation deck, why not do it out in the open?
Take a walk below the clouds on the SkyWalk, which stands at a jittering 192m above ground. Secured by harnesses, you can bet you’d get even better 360° views of Auckland — especially when you’re leaning out over the edge!
Operating Hours: Every 30 minutes from 10AM – 4:30PM
How to get there: From Britomart Transport Centre, walk 10 minutes to the Auckland Sky Tower. Then, take the escalators downstairs and follow the signs to the SkyWalk counter.
South Island: Skyline Queenstown
It’s no doubt that Queenstown is a beaut. But the most picturesque views can be captured at Skyline Queenstown. To get there, hop on an easygoing gondola ride up to the Skyline complex, perched on Bob’s Peak. You’ll get unobstructed, panoramic views of Queenstown, Lake Wakatipu, and the surrounding mountain ranges.
We recommend reaching the complex before golden hour to chope the best spots! It’s a treat to watch Queenstown illuminate in the fading light.
As a bonus, you can also complement your sightseeing with some speedy action! On the Skyline luge, there are two windy tracks to choose from, both of which offer massive exhilaration and spectacular views.
Cost: From ~S$35.15
Opening Hours: 9AM – 9PM (gondola); 10AM – 5PM (luge, varies in seasons)
How to get there: From Fergburger, turn right onto Brecon St at the roundabout. Follow the road until you reach the Skyline gondola base. The walk takes about 7 minutes.
Best LOTR Film Location
North Island: Hobbiton Movie Set
Fantasy becomes reality once you step into the rolling green pastures of the Shire! After the LOTR and Hobbiton trilogies wrapped, the film set was converted into a permanent attraction. Through guided walking tours, mortals can explore this idyllic part of middle-earth.
Don’t worry if your knowledge of LOTR/Hobbiton is practically zero. You don’t need them to enjoy yourself. During the tour, your friendly guide will dish out loads of interesting fun facts and trivia about the film set, filming techniques, and actors.
South Island: Twizel
LOTR geeks may know that Twizel was portrayed as Gondor in the films. To fully experience the magic, hop on a OneRing tour to visit the location where the epic Battle of the Pelennor Fields was filmed for the Return of the King.
Unfortunately, the site isn’t publicly accessible since it’s private property — but the tour will make it worth your while!
Besides learning behind-the-scenes info, participants get to stroll through the huge grassland where good and evil fought, and also wield (fake) arms to recreate iconic scenes from the movie.
Cost: NZ$89 (two-hour tour)
Tour Timings: 10AM or 2:30PM
Unforgettable Experiences in New Zealand
A friend once told me: “New Zealand is one of those places that you’d want to go for a long time to make it worthwhile.” It’s true — one week isn’t enough to appreciate New Zealand’s vastly diverse landscapes and heart-racing activities.
During our two weeks in New Zealand, we spent less than S$2,500 without breaking the bank or scrimping on epic adventures. We booked through Klook, and got to enjoy discounts for some of our activities.
For example, we saved over ~S$40 when we booked the Fox Glacier Heli Hike on Klook compared to the official site. Purchasing an NZONE Skydive jump from Klook was also ~S$35 cheaper (Psst, all these savings can get you a few more good burgers from Ferg!).
Besides savings, the booking process is also quick and fuss-free. We received our confirmation of activities either instantly or within a couple of days, and didn’t have to worry about long queues or sold-out tours. This saved us a lot of hassle, considering New Zealand is very popular with travellers both on and off-peak!
“North or South Island” debate aside, we’ve found that both have similar and unique elements that are winners on their own. While some prefer the South for its mountainous beauty, I quite like the North for the Maori culture and warmer weather.
One thing’s for sure, though: New Zealand will definitely make you feel like returning to the country over, and over again.
Do you agree with our list? Which New Zealand Island do you prefer? Let us know in the comments below!
This post was brought to you by Klook.