Tiana Templeman tracks down 15 of New Zealand's most incredible natural experiences to tick off this summer
New Zealand is renowned for its natural beauty and, with the country closed to overseas tourists, there's never been a better time to enjoy it. Get out in your own backyard and see some of the most beautiful parts of the country without the crowds with these experiences which celebrate the rugged mountains, atmospheric fiords, rolling hills, native animals, and remote wilderness areas that have earned New Zealand worldwide acclaim.
Sledge down the Kaituna River
Bring your swimwear, towel and a sense of adventure and zoom through the towering gorges of the Kaituna River on a riverboard. You need to be at least 15 years old, physically fit and a confident swimmer to do this Rotorua tour. Apart from that, simply jump in and go with the flow. There are panoramic views of Kaituna Falls to enjoy along the way but don't worry, you won't have to plummet down them on your sledge. Don't forget to look up and enjoy the scenery as you travel along the river and bounce over small rapids along the way.
Soar through the forest like a tipsy kererū
Ready for an eco-tour with a difference? Kererū are known for eating fermented berries from native plants which make the huge pigeons experience the sensation of being drunk. This makes them "drop" out of trees before flying tipsily down to the forest floor, a feeling Queenstown's Ziptrek Ecotours' Kererū Tour mimics with its 21m-high jump from a platform deep in the forest. In between scaring yourself silly on ziplines and the tour's big drop, guides share a kererū conservation story that explains how this tipsy bird – which was New Zealand's 2018 Bird of the Year – is set to save the planet.
Stroll along the Blue Pools Track
Widely regarded as one of New Zealand's best short walks, you'll find the Blue Pools Track along Haast Pass, between Wānaka and the West Coast. The walk begins with an easy stroll along open flats with spectacular mountain views before you pass through a beech forest and arrive at a swing bridge over the Makarora River. Keep going to the second swing bridge as this offers the best view of the Blue Pools. Walk to the end of the bridge for great views up the river gorge. You won't need to turn up the colour saturation on Instagram when you post photos from this short but sweet walk. Mother Nature has already dialled up the blue for maximum effect.
Explore the Wānaka wilderness
You don't need to be superfit or an experienced camper to enjoy this three-day Wānaka Wilderness Explorer alpine heli-hiking tour. Each tour is designed especially for you and you'll stay in one of two private Geo Domes tucked away in the remote McKerrow Ranges. After a scenic helicopter flight over the Southern Alps, you'll spend two days enjoying guided backcountry hiking adventures tailored to suit your interests, fitness level and the local weather conditions. After a tasty dinner cooked by your guide, there's time for stargazing before you drift off to sleep. This bespoke hiking adventure comes with a private guide and offers untouched natural beauty and serene solitude.
See the Milford Track on a day walk
If you want to experience the Milford Track there is no need to tackle the whole walk. This day tour showcases the best of Milford Sound in just one day. After a coach transfer from Te Anau to Milford Sound it's a short boat ride to Sandfly Point followed by an easy 11km round trip walk along the Arthur River to Giant Gate waterfall. After a return boat ride to Milford, there's time for a Milford Sound scenic cruise before the bus trip back to Te Anau.
Surround yourself with glow-worms
Walk, wheel or travel by boat into a cave at Waitomo and view thousands of Arachnocampa Luminosa glow-worms, which can be seen only in New Zealand. This incredible sight is a major drawcard for international tourists but locals currently have the glow-worms' sparkling bottoms all to themselves. Tours include legends and stories that bring this place to life. Some guides are direct descendants of Tane Tinorau, the chief of Kawhia, who originally explored the cave.
Swim with wild dolphins
Summer is the perfect time to leap into the "refreshing" waters of Akaroa Harbour and swim with Hector's dolphins, the world's smallest and rarest dolphin species. After donning a wetsuit and receiving a briefing, you'll cruise around Akaroa harbour until someone spots dolphins. If the pod exhibits playful behaviour, swimmers are permitted to jump in the water. If the dolphins look like they're losing interest, you'll have to get back in the boat so keep them entertained by making noises underwater or spinning around on the spot. The wildlife calls the shots and it's the humans who have to perform on this nature tour.
Tackle the Old Ghost Road
Follow the original 1870s trails used by early gold prospectors on a self-guided walk along the Old Ghost Road. You'll traverse remote valleys and alpine plateaus and follow mighty river gorges as you hike this historic miners' route. This walk is best for experienced hikers as you'll need to carry a full pack but accommodation is provided in well-equipped private huts. The region's heritage and rugged beauty makes this walk well worth the effort. The route can also be tackled by mountain bike.
Say hello to Farewell Spit
New Zealand is home to one the world's longest and most ecologically significant sandspits and the best time to visit it is in summer. At this time of year, more than 50,000 migratory birds fly all the way from Alaska and Russia to feed here after their long journey. Sand dunes shaped and covered with undulating ripples created by the wind run down the centre of the spit. Climb to the top of one and you'll enjoy 360-degree views of Abel Tasman National Park, the rugged mountains of Golden Bay, Cook Strait, the rolling ocean and the spit. There's also a historic steel lighthouse and Fossil Point, with its perfectly formed fossilised seashells and layers of natural history, to explore.
Kayak with the seals
Listen to the native birdsong, spot little blue penguins and watch seals frolicking around your kayak as you explore the Astrolabe coastline. You don't need to be an expert paddler to enjoy this half-day tour as a water taxi takes you to the southern end of the Abel Tasman where the tour begins. From here, you can start exploring the area by kayak with your guide. After paddling out to Adele and Fisherman Islands, there's time to hang out with the playful seals before the tour arrives back in Marahau in the late afternoon.
Go bird spotting at Zealandia
See up to 40 species of birds including playful kākā parrots, endangered hihi honeyeaters and bright green kākāriki at Zealandia, a 225ha eco-sanctuary just outside Wellington. There are walking trails to suit all ages and fitness levels. Don't miss the free tours lead by passionate volunteers', who are experts at spotting hard-to-find birds. Zealandia is also home to more than 100 kiwi but as the birds are nocturnal it's unlikely you'll see them during the day. Your best chance of spotting one is to join a Zealandia By Night Tour, which also includes the chance to see morepork, wētā, glow-worms, tuatara and more.
Hike the Northern Volcano Circuit
Experienced trampers will enjoy this eight-day self-drive Northern Volcano Circuit hiking tour, which combines three guided walks with car hire and accommodation. Start your trip in New Plymouth before tackling Mt Taranaki, a 12km hike with spectacular views, then strap on those boots for a private guided trek along the Tongariro Crossing, one of New Zealand's best and most challenging day walks. Rotorua is the perfect spot to soak any aching muscles before you hit the trails in the Waimangu Volcanic Valley and return your hire car to Auckland the following day.
Go wild on Stewart Island
More than 85 per cent of Stewart Island has been declared a national park, plus it's the world's southern-most Dark Sky Sanctuary. Day or night, you can indulge your love of nature and the great outdoors on New Zealand's third largest island. Explore the many walking tracks, spot seabirds and penguins on a boat trip, swim at peaceful Bathing Beach or bring a telescope and gaze at the heavens above. This nature-lovers paradise offers something to suit every budget, age and ability.
Explore Unesco World Heritage-Listed Subantarctic Islands
Set sail for New Zealand's Subantarctic Islands on a seven-night round-trip wilderness expedition from Invercargill which explores the rugged and remote Enderby, Campbell, Snares, and Auckland Islands. You'll visit windswept rātā forests and albatross colonies, wade through fields of megaherbs and spend Christmas Day hanging out with sea lions and their pups at Enderby Island's Sandy Bay on this nature-packed cruise.
For more New Zealand travel ideas and inspiration, go to newzealand.com