Pink in the morning, white in the afternoon, burnt orange by sunset. As you move across New Zealand, the evolving light will be the first thing you notice when you wake and the last thing you gaze at before night falls.
Authors, photographers, and artists have long espoused the virtues of the light in this South Pacific nation. After a 1976 visit, American poet Robert Creeley described it as “intense, clear, particularizing, ruthless, unlike any I’ve previously known.” But it is the Māori story of how it came to be that best conveys its magic. Mother Earth (Papatūānuku) and Father Sky (Ranginui) were once entwined; alone and harmonious in the dark. It was only when they had children that they were forced apart—and that is when the light came in. Here are five spots in New Zealand to catch it:
Dawn in Kaikōura
Fishermen on the South Island’s Kaikōura coast rise early to a pink dawn, the first to catch the clear light that sparkles as it hits the water. Travelers who time it right can find the same beauty. Stop at a seaside diner like Nin’s Bin, where the fresh crayfish is served with garlic butter at picnic tables looking out over the water. Book a boat excursion to take in the snowcapped coastal mountains. You can also marvel at the new coastline—rock ledges, thrust upward from the water after the 2016 earthquake, provide fresh turf for seal colonies—and watch dolphin pods and sperm whales breach above the Kaikōura Canyon, a 37-mile-long underwater trench rich with marine life.
Breakfast in Nelson
Celebrate the morning light on Saturdays with cups of chai and bites of warm pastry at the Nelson Market, one of dozens of local markets across the country. Sip and savor, but linger, too. Locals aren’t just selling artisan food and wares, they’re sharing their stories. The common refrain in Nelson, a town dedicated to craftsmanship, is a desire to make something better: a healthier peanut butter, a tastier muffin, a carving that captures a feeling. When the sun hits pottery thrown with care or glints off slippers hand-felted just days earlier, you feel the passion the light inspired.
Midday glory above Abel Tasman
Bask in the afternoon sun on the beaches of New Zealand’s smallest national park. When the sun is at its peak, the sand at Abel Tasman turns gold. Campers whose tents face the water get the best reward: views of the blue-green, jewel-colored waters lapping the shore. The Abel Tasman Coast Track—one of the country’s nine Great Walks—will take you across soft forest floors and past overgrown fiddlehead ferns and canopies of evergreen. As you climb higher, overlooks offer a bird’s-eye view of shimmering water. Speedboats glisten in the light, leaving white trails in their wake, while yellow and orange kayaks bob like buoys in the distance.
Walk the land in the Bay of Plenty
The steam rising from the geothermal vents across Rotorua creates filtered sunlight throughout the day. Earn an evening soak in one of the famous hot springs after picking from a number of day hikes. At nearby Ohope Beach, you can watch surfers take on the waves or brave the waters yourself. And no trip to the Bay of Plenty would be complete without an immersive Māori experience. The region’s population is about 40 percent Māori, and cultural experiences range from meal excursions to carving demonstrations. Spend a day at Te Puia, where boiling geysers put on a show and the on-site carving school offers a glimpse into the history and culture of the Māori people.
Sunset cheers in Auckland
Catch a ferry to Waiheke Island on a sunny afternoon to stroll olive groves and beaches, and gaze at the cityscape across the water as twilight comes. Can’t make it to Auckland? Wine is the centerpiece for early evening socializing in vineyards, bars, and restaurants across the country. Sip Chardonnay at Neudorf Vineyards near Nelson or Pinot Noir at Spy Valley in the Marlborough region. Wherever you raise your glass, chances are the setting sun will add a luminescent glow to your toast. Sleep well. New Zealand’s light will be waiting to welcome you again in the morning.