North Island and South Island

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When people learn I’m from New Zealand, I often hear that it’s at the top of their bucket list — or, if they’ve been, that it’s their favorite country in the world.  I may be biased, but I am not surprised. The stunning natural beauty, thriving culinary scene, and unique outdoor activities would charm even the most seasoned traveler.


Everywhere you look, there’s a picture-perfect backdrop filled with greenery and crystal-clear waters. And although it has a lot of untouched land, it boasts the same highlights you would find in any major global city, with art galleries, shopping districts, nightlife, and luxury hotels. Plus, it’s politically stable and very safe, which are increasingly appealing traits.


Geographically, the country is divided into two islands with distinct characteristics: the North Island is full of beaches and is home to the main cities, and the South Island is an alpine wonderland, defined by majestic mountain landscapes, rugged coasts, and world-class ski slopes.

There has been a lot of development over the past few years, and travelers have more places to eat, stay, and play than ever before.  Below, see Travel + Leisure’s essential guide to making the most of this magical South Pacific destination, according to a local.


Angelina Pilarinos/Travel + Leisure




North Island


The North Island is lined with beautiful beaches and islands surrounding the narrow coasts. It’s also where the capital, Wellington, is located, along with the country’s largest and most cosmopolitan city, Auckland, which is an essential destination on any New Zealand itinerary (and the gateway for most international flights). As Annie Dundas, head of the visitor economy for Auckland Unlimited notes, Auckland is “an urban oasis — the perfect fusion of a busy, modern city that looks out to mesmerizing landscapes and islands — all within easy reach and laden with wineries and leisurely places for long lunches.” It is worth spending at least four days in Auckland, but the North Island has many unique areas to explore, and below, we’ve charted the key destinations to prioritize.



Auckland

Things to Do


Waiheke Island


Waiheke Island is a popular day trip for locals and is accessible by boat, ferry, or helicopter from downtown Auckland. It’s filled with boutique wineries, restaurants, and beautiful beaches, and is especially popular in the summer months, when music festivals and jazz concerts are hosted in sprawling vineyards. There’s also a contemporary art sculpture trail, Sculpture on the Gulf, hosted each summer, enticing many Aucklanders across the harbor for a cultured day out. Pop over for the day, tour the wineries, get a scoop of ice cream at Island Gelato Company, and wander around the artisan boutiques. If you’d like to spend the night, there are high-end rentals available on Waiheke Unlimited and Vrbo, or for a hotel, go for Delamore Lodge.



Visit the Auckland Museum and the Auckland Art Gallery


For a close-up view of New Zealand’s culture and history, visit the stately Auckland Museum, where you’ll find a collection of national artifacts along with a rotation of exhibitions. It’s set at the top of the city’s main park and is within walking distance of Auckland CBD, where the Auckland Art Gallery is located. Here you’ll find some of the country’s most valuable artworks along with various international collections. Both are worthwhile attractions that can be ticked off in half a day.



Explore Commercial Bay and Britomart


Downtown Auckland has been transformed over the past decade and has become the city’s most vibrant shopping and dining hub. It’s bustling from day to night and is especially packed on Friday nights for after-work drinks and dinner. You can find some of the city’s best restaurants and cocktail bars within a small vicinity, and it’s a fashion mecca, with storefronts from major brands and local fashion designers (be sure to check out Karen Walker, Kate Sylvester, and Zambesi).


Courtesy of Park Hyatt Auckland



Hotels


Park Hyatt Auckland


Since opening in 2020, the Park Hyatt has become the crème de la crème of the Auckland hotel scene. It has a prime location, excellent views, amenities, restaurants, and spacious rooms with freestanding bathtubs and terraces overlooking the Viaduct Harbor — ideal for room service with some atmosphere. It’s within walking distance of the best bars, restaurants, and shops, but it feels like a serene enclave where you can manage to get a good night’s sleep, despite being right by the action.


The Hotel Britomart


As the name suggests, this chic hotel is located right in the heart of Britomart, surrounded by some of Auckland’s best shopping and dining. Rooms are sleek and modern yet very small, so are suitable for solo travelers and couples. If you’re seeking something more spacious, the suites are some of the finest in the city (with price tags to match). And the restaurant, Kingi, is also excellent. 


Sofitel Auckland Viaduct Harbor


Located between the Viaduct and Wynyard Quarter, the Sofitel has long been a go-to for celebrities and diplomats visiting New Zealand. It boasts the high standards that you would expect from the French hotel brand, with a fine-dining restaurant, elegant interiors, and an impressive spa and wellness center. 


Restaurants

Bivacco


For a fun atmosphere and Italian-inspired fare, head to Bivacco in the Viaduct. The menu has sharable classics like pizza, antipasto, pasta, and oysters, and on any given day, you’ll find yourself surrounded by well-heeled locals socializing over bottles of rosé and cocktails. 


Soul


Soul is a restaurant that has stood the test of time, and for over 20 years, it has been a go-to venue for some of the city’s most stylish soirees. Like Bivacco, it’s also a lively spot in the heart of the Viaduct, where people go for the food as well as the scene. After dinner, there’s a dance floor that attracts a mature crowd, and on the menus you’ll find fresh seafood and bistro classics alongside an extensive wine and Champagne list.


Prego


While it’s not the newest or the sceniest place, Prego has been a solid option along Ponsonby Road for years and is just as popular with families as it is for birthday celebrations and dinners preceding big nights out at the bars along the strip. Go for the pizza or the chicken saltimbocca — everything on the menu is great as are the cocktails. Always a reliable destination for a good atmosphere and delicious food.



Wellington

Things to Do


Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa


Known locally as Te Papa, the country’s largest museum is an essential on any Wellington itinerary. It contains over 800,000 artworks and objects, and it has a rotation of exhibitions including dinosaur skeletons and ancient artifacts that you would expect to find at the American Museum of Natural History. It’s an interesting experience for children and adults alike.


Ride the Wellington Cable Car


For panoramic views of the city, jump on the historic Wellington Cable Car, which boards in the heart of the Lambton Quay shopping district and travels up the hillside of Kelburn. Here you will find a scenic lookout, botanic gardens, and the Cable Car Museum. 


Wander Hannahs Laneway 


Also known as Leeds Street, Hannah’s Laneway is a foodie’s paradise, lined with street food vendors, contemporary art, and cool cafes. You can pick up a variety of distinctly “Kiwi” specialties, from black forest toast to pies and creamy hot chocolates. Just be sure to skip breakfast so you have room to sample everything.


Hotels

QT Wellington


This centrally located hotel could be equated to the likes of The Standard and Edition Hotels, with quirky, ultramodern design and a lively food and beverage scene.  It’s right across from the Te Papa Museum in the center of town and is popular with both business and leisure travelers. There are 65 hotel rooms with either city or harbor views, and it also has 98 apartments. 


Wharekauhau Country Estate


Although it’s a 90-minute drive from Wellington, this luxury lodge is a popular stop on any Wellington itinerary. It’s set on a 5,000-acre estate overlooking the coast and has welcomed the royal family and many international diplomats visiting the capital. Everything is designed so that you don’t need to leave: food is included and sourced from the farm, it has a spa and fitness center, and a variety of outdoor activities from ATV quad biking to tennis. 


Restaurants

Rita


You will need to book a month in advance to secure a table at this intimate prix-fixe restaurant. The menu is seasonal and it changes every day, so there’s always something new. A typical night might feature lamb manti, panfried snapper, and crisp meringue — delicious renditions of local New Zealand cuisine.


Loretta


Located on the nightlife-centric Cuba Street, Loretta is a place to enjoy crowd-pleasing classics in a fun environment.  It’s renowned for its sourdough pizzas and vanilla cheesecakes and is a great place to go with friends before a night out or for brunch on a Sunday. 


Ortega Fish Shack


This nautical-themed restaurant has some of the best seafood around, from Yellowtail Kingfish ceviche to smoked Moki rillettes and green lipped mussels. It’s a charming and eclectic place that perfectly represents the hip, creative vibe of Wellington. 



Matakana

Things to Do


Sculptureum


Sculptureum is a lovely and cultured place to spend an afternoon, with six art galleries, three sculpture gardens, a vineyard, and a restaurant appropriately named Rothko. Whether you’re staying in the area or doing a day trip up from Auckland, it’s an essential for contemporary art lovers and is especially great to visit in the summer months.


Matakana Village Farmers Market


Every weekend, Matakana Village comes alive with rustic markets featuring a variety of artisan food stands and fresh local produce. You’ll find delicious local cheese, honey, baked goods, chocolate, and award-winning flat whites.  It’s set up right next to the boutiques in the charming village, where you’ll find everything from quaint homeware stores to shoe shops, and there’s also a cinema and a restaurant within the main village complex.


Omaha Beach


The Rodney District has some of the most stunning beaches on the North Island, and one of the most popular among them is Omaha — a white sand beach that attracts swimmers, surfers, and families setting up for the day. It’s only a 10-minute drive from Matakana Village, and it has ample parking, a café, a boutique with swim essentials, and a playground. For bigger waves, surfers head to Tawharanui Beach, which is also located within the Matakana region. 


Hotels


Takatu Lodge


This gorgeous boutique lodge is located on a serene hilltop overlooking the Hauraki Gulf. It has only four suites with luxurious furnishings, underfloor heating, and views overlooking the gardens and the vineyards. Meals are provided in the dining spaces and tailored to guests’ preferences. Also, picnics are on offer for those wanting to set up at the nearby beaches for the day. 


Courtesy of Brick Bay



Restaurants

Brick Bay


Brick Bay is a similar concept to Sculptureum, with a restaurant, wine tastings, and a contemporary sculpture trail positioned around a pond and throughout a native bush. It’s been around for a long time and is very popular with both locals and Aucklanders, so it’s worth booking in advance, even if it’s just to sample their wine varietals over a cheese platter after the lunchtime rush. 



Bay of Islands

Things to Do

Cruise the Islands


The Bay of Islands has 144 subtropical islands, and there are many ways to explore them, be it by chartering a yacht, going on a scheduled group boat tour, hiring a kayak, or embarking of a snorkeling expedition. You can see an abundance of enchanting sea life, too, including dolphins, penguins, and whales. 


Visit the Waitangi Treaty grounds


The Waitangi Treaty Grounds is New Zealand’s most important historic site, where the country’s founding document was signed back in 1840. Today, it contains two museums with interactive displays, guided tours to learn about the country’s history, and traditional Maori cultural performances that are staged in the meeting house. 


Hotels

Kauri Cliffs


Kauri Cliffs was recently added to the Rosewood portfolio, which is testament to its high standards. It’s one of New Zealand’s most iconic luxury lodges, with a golf course that is ranked 37th on Golf Digest’s Top 100 Greatest Golf Courses in the World, an excellent restaurant, and a fabulous spa nestled into a tranquil forest full of native birdlife. 


Eagle’s Nest


Positioned on a private 75-acre peninsula overlooking the Bay of Islands, Eagle’s Nest is one of New Zealand’s most luxurious boutique retreats. It is an intimate enclave, with only five villas that are beautifully designed. One thing to note is that there is no restaurant, however breakfast provisions are provided and there are on-call chefs available for private dining. 


Restaurants

Duke of Marlborough


The Duke of Marlborough is New Zealand’s first pub, and since opening in 1827 (before the Treaty of Waitangi was signed nearby), it has undergone various reincarnations. Visit today and you’ll find a refined version of a classic pub, with décor that feels fresh while honoring its history. Menus feature locally sourced, seasonal fare with popular items like paua risotto, clam fritters, pork belly, and of course, a solid burger.  


Taylor McIntyre/Travel + Leisure




South Island


The South Island is renowned for its spectacular natural scenery from the golden beaches of the Abel Tasman to the fiords and mountains in the Southern Alps. The vibe is generally more casual, and it’s where many of the country’s best adventure activities can be experienced. In Wanaka and Queenstown, you’ll find pristine ski slopes, dramatic mountain landscapes, and an array of sprawling wineries. It’s also home to many of New Zealand’s Great Walks and multi-day hikes. There are many beautiful places to explore, and as Sarah Handley, Tourism New Zealand’s general manager for the Americas and Europe notes, “New Zealand’s connection to the U.S. has never been stronger, and Americans can now fly non-stop to Christchurch, in the South Island, with United’s direct service from SFO [starting Dec. 8].”


Flight Tip

Americans can now fly non-stop to Christchurch, on New Zealand’s South Island, with United Airlines’ direct service from San Francisco (SFO) starting Dec. 8.




Queenstown

Things to Do

Over the Top Helicopter Tour


For a true bucket list experience, take a helicopter ride and tour through the Southern Alps and the Milford Sound.  It’s the most magical way to see everything, and experience areas that are usually inaccessible, like the secluded Madagascar Beach and snow-capped, sky-high peaks. The “eurocopters” are state of the art, with maximum visibility from any vantage point.  They can be booked privately or as part of scheduled group tours. 


JensenChua/.



TSS Earnslaw Cruise


Renowned as “the Lady of the Lake,” the Earnslaw is a 110-year-old steamboat that tours Lake Wakatipu from Queenstown down to Glenorchy. It’s one of the best ways to observe the natural grandeur of the Remarkables and Cecil Peak and is a particularly popular activity for families. The cruise itself take 90 minutes, but there are various experiences that can be added on arrival at Walter Peak High Country Farm, including horse treks, cycling, or barbecues. 


Arrowtown


Arrowtown is a historic gold-mining town that looks like a village out of a fairy tale. Everything has been lovingly preserved and it is lined with quaint artisan boutiques, galleries, cafes, and restaurants. It’s only a 20-minute drive from Queenstown, and on the way, you could stop at Millbrook Resort for a round of golf or a spa session (just outside of the main village). Be sure to stop at The Remarkable Sweet Shop for the crème brulee fudge.  


Hotels

Eichardt’s Private Hotel


Eichardt’s an iconic Queenstown establishment and one of the most beloved boutique hotels in the country. It has an exceptional cocktail bar, restaurant, and a spa, along with a $20,000-per-night penthouse located above the Louis Vuitton boutique next door. The location could not be better, positioned right on the shores of Lake Wakatipu in the center of the action. Inside the rooms, the interiors are ultra-luxurious and suited to the alpine theme of the town — think crackling fireplaces, marble bathrooms with underfloor heating, and plush beds with fur throws. 


Matakauri Lodge


Matakauri Lodge is another property that was recently added to Rosewood’s portfolio (along with Kauri Cliffs and Cape Kidnappers in the Hawkes Bay) and is a key destination on New Zealand’s luxury circuit, hosting the British royal family and many celebrities over the years. The intimate lakeside retreat has only 13 spacious accommodations and it boasts stunning views of the Remarkables and Lake Wakatipu. Cocktail hour is a social affair, and the food and wine offerings are world class.


The Carlin


The Carlin is new, but it’s already garnered international acclaim, winning Best New Hotel at the Boutique Hotel Awards in 2022. It’s a place that would have “Palace” distinction if it were in France, with ultra-luxe amenities that surpass the typical five-star standard. Guests have access to private jets and Michelin-star dining, and it is home to the largest penthouse in the Southern Hemisphere.


Restaurants

Amisfield


Located just a 15-minute drive from the city center, Amisfield is the most popular winery and restaurant in the region and is an essential daytime excursion for any Queenstown itinerary. Wine tastings are available, and there are excellent Pinot Noirs produced on site. But to make the most of it, do an al fresco lunch in the beautifully manicured courtyard and take in the views of the postcard-worthy mountains.


Botswana Butchery


This lively lakefront bistro is one to book in advance, particularly if you’re visiting on a weekend. It has a charming atmosphere and some of the best representations of hearty New Zealand cuisine sourced from the surrounding farms and waters. It also has an excellent wine list with varietals from vineyards in the area.


Fergburger


You will need to time your visit to Fergburger well, as the lines can often exceed an hour in the evenings, but it has the best burgers in Queenstown (and anywhere, really) and is worth factoring in. There is a long menu of options to suit everyone including vegetarian options, beef, lamb, pork, fish, chicken, and also breakfast burgers. The same operators also opened Fergbaker next door where you can pick up a classic meat pie — both delicious options, especially on a cold and snowy day.



Glenorchy

Blanket Bay


Glenorchy is very remote, and what to do, where to stay, and where to dine all fall under the same category if you want to do it well. The place to go? Blanket Bay, where apocalypse-weary billionaires are known to escape. It is one of the country’s finest luxury lodges and is the best way to experience all the area has to offer, with an excellent restaurant, bar, spa and wellness center, and a variety of outdoor activities from horse riding to heliskiing and jet boating. Accommodations are split between rooms in the main house and luxuriously decorated standalone villas.



Christchurch

Things to Do

Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve


Located in the Mt. Cook National Park, the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve has some of the clearest and darkest skies for star-spotting. It was the first Dark Sky Reserve to be established in New Zealand, and is a magical way to experience the country’s untouched natural beauty by night. 


Explore the City’s Art Galleries


Christchurch has a thriving art scene and many galleries in the central city that are worth checking out. The main ones to prioritize are the Centre of Contemporary Art (CoCa), Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu, and the Christchurch Art Centre. 


Hotels

The Mayfair


Since opening in 2022, The Mayfair has been a welcome addition to the city’s luxury hotel scene. It’s a boutique hotel with minimal, contemporary décor, and sophisticated dining options from high tea to an all-day café and cocktail bar and bistro. The central location makes it popular for both leisure and business travelers. 


The Observatory Hotel


The Observatory is a chic, design-forward boutique hotel that also opened in Christchurch in 2022.  It has rich interiors that give the sense of eternal night, with vivid colors and ambient lighting. Rooms are very photogenic, and there are multiple dining options from the Drawing Room to all-day eatery Bunsen, and more casual options within the broader complex, from food trucks to sushi and dumplings.


Restaurants

Inati


Inati is a stylish fine dining establishment helmed by the former head chef of Gordon Ramsay’s The Warrington. If there’s one place to book in advance in Christchurch, this is it. The menu is filled with sharing plates and is divided into earth, land, and sea categories. Guests can park up at elegant stools overlooking the open kitchen and observe their food being artfully crafted. 



Best Times to Visit New Zealand


If you want to experience the great outdoors (which is the primary drawcard), the best time to visit is over the summer, between December and the beginning of April. During this period, temperatures are balmy and you’re more likely to encounter solid blocks of sunshine. It’s also when the cities come alive, with many music festivals and cultural events, and is the best time to explore the beaches, wineries, and stunning walking tracks. That said, New Zealand is a great place to visit year-round, and it is also a world-renowned ski destination with ski resorts throughout the North and South Island. If you’re looking to ski, the months to consider would be between June and October, when the fields are open. 


Fiona Goodall/.




How to Get There

The best way to get to New Zealand is to fly into Auckland Airport, which is the country’s primary gateway. Air New Zealand has multiple routes available, including a direct flight from New York City, which takes 17 hours but is surprisingly manageable, given it flies overnight (and the airline is renowned for its excellent cuisine and high standard overall). United Airlines is launching a direct flight from San Francisco’s SFO in December, and Qantas also has a route from New York to Auckland. 



Transportation

Once you arrive at the airport, there are taxis and rideshare services available, including Uber, but given everything is quite spread out, it is definitely worth renting a car. That will allow you to easily explore all of the different areas (some of which don’t have regular public transport options available). Driving is also a great way to visit some of the more remote beaches and destinations off the beaten path. If you’re planning on staying in the city centers, there are buses available, trains (albeit with limited routes), and ferries. 

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