Top 10 Adventures in New Zealand

These adventures will take you by sea, land, and sky to discover the best that nature has to offer.

New Zealand is an extraordinary playground. Not only does it have every landscape you can think of crammed into an area the size of California (but with about 34 million fewer people), it also offers a dizzying array of activities, most of which can be easily accessed by a city (or even luxury) base. Here are 10 quintessential New Zealand adventures, with something for every level of derring-do and ability.

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Hikers enjoy the view from Mount Crichton, which stretches above the clouds. Heli-adventures are a great way to get in a few adventures in one day.

Cruise Fiordland National Park

Fiordland National Park, the largest in New Zealand, is a primal place, ethereal and brooding, with fangs of rock rising out of narrow fiords. Part of the Te Wahipounamu World Heritage site, the park has wildlife ranging from New Zealand fur seals to Fiordland crested penguins. Travel to what feels like the edge of the Earth on day, overnight, and multiday cruises through Milford Sound or Doubtful Sound.

Spot Wildlife on the South Island’s East Coast

The South Island’s east coast teems with marine life, which means there’s plenty to see. Go whale watching for gargantuan sperm whales off the coast of Kaikoura (one of the few places they can be seen year-round); experience swimming with tiny Hector’s dolphins (unique to New Zealand) in Akaroa; or get up close with yellow-eyed penguins on a walking tour in Dunedin.

Go Jet Boating

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A jet boat moves through the Shotover River outside of Queenstown, New Zealand.

Kiwis invented jet boats to navigate the shallow, braided rivers that flow throughout the South Island, but it turned out these easily maneuverable boats are also heaps of fun. Hop on one to explore powerful Huka Falls on the North Island or canyon-clad Shotover River and glacier-fed Dart River on the South Island.

Bike Part of the Otago Central Rail Trail

This former railway line is a 95-mile trail winding through the rustic central Otago countryside, past old goldfields and tucked-away hamlets like Clyde and Middlemarch. The mostly flat cycle trail can be ridden in sections or with all-inclusive tour groups. Cycle rentals are available.

Go Heli-Fishing or Heli-Hiking

Mount Creighton

A 10-minute flight can whisk you from a bustling town like Queenstown or Taupo to breathtaking backcountry, a mountain wilderness you’ll have all to yourself. Hike, fish, or simply enjoy the grand solitude before hopping back on the helicopter to return to a comfy bed and world-class glass of wine.

Heli-Hike a Glacier

Strap on crampons for a guided half-day hike on one of the world’s most accessible glaciers. Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers are unique: Steep and fast-moving, they’re near the Tasman Sea, surrounded by lush green hillsides. It’s a view (and an experience) not to be missed—as is the thrill of the helicopter rides in and out.

Kayak in Abel Tasman National Park

New Zealand’s smallest national park (87 square miles) can be hiked or seen by boat, but kayaking is the best way to explore its 30 miles of golden sand beaches, sculpted rock formations, and quiet lagoons. Guided tours of several hours to several days are available.

Go Heli-Biking on the South Island

Peak to pub! Fly up to 6,000 feet before riding back down, taking in 360-degree vistas on trails ranging from steep and narrow to open and smooth. Finish up back in Queenstown, with easy access to a hot shower and a cold beer.

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Mountain bikers cruise down Queenstown Bike Park after the Skyline Gondola takes them and their bikes up to the top.

Overnight in a Backcountry Hut

Most people don’t know that New Zealand has a network of more than 950 backcountry huts scattered throughout the country. Managed by the Department of Conservation, the huts range from popular and well-maintained 20-bunk hideaways to two-bunk rustic cots. If you want to see the best of New Zealand’s backcountry, this is the way to do it.

Take a Guided Trek or Mountaineering Skills Course

With all this wilderness on hand, New Zealand has more than its fair share of guides and guiding companies. Experienced big mountain guiding companies like Adventure Consultants offer a wide range of expeditions, backcountry skiing adventures, and mountain skills courses throughout New Zealand.

Carrie Miller is a New Zealand-based writer, traveler, and storyteller for National Geographic Traveler magazine and other publications. Follow her on Facebook and Instagram.

Krista Rossow is a contributing photographer to National Geographic Travel. You can follow her on instagram @kristarossow.