If you’ve seen The Lord of the Rings films, then you already know New Zealand is a place of stunning beauty and mystery. About as far away from Oklahoma as you can get, Aotearoa – Maori for the Land of the Long White Cloud – is the perfect place to feel like you’re in a completely new world.
New Zealand is split between two large islands deep in the Southern Hemisphere and southeast of Australia. South Island showcases some of the most spectacular scenery on the planet, and North Island is a treasure trove of the indigenous Maori culture. Both islands offer a wide range of outdoor activities – from jet boats and hiking to bungee jumping and skiing – and, if you time it right, sheep shearing.
For those wanting to leave one of the big cities and get into the wilderness, camper-van rentals are popular. The country is dotted with specialty campsites allowing complete freedom to choose your own adventure. Most also have quaint cottages or guest rooms you can reserve for a night if you rent a normal car.
In the extreme southwest is Milford Sound, a glacial fjord claiming the title of New Zealand’s top tourist attraction. It takes a bit of effort to get there, but the views from your chosen activity (you can kayak between the mountains, hike the forested peaks or visit a one-of-a-kind underwater observatory) make it worth going off the beaten path.
Other South Island highlights include Aoraki/Mount Cook, New Zealand’s highest peak, and Mount John Observatory, home of the world’s largest International Dark Sky Reserve. A night of pristine stargazing includes a glimpse of the Southern Cross, a constellation unseen in the Oklahoma sky. You should also visit Christchurch, a bustling art city complete with a “Cardboard Cathedral” and the likely starting point of your South Island journey.
You can easily fly between the two islands, but you could spice up your trip by taking a ferry, which would put you in the heart of New Zealand – the capital city of Wellington, the port town linking north and south. Spend a day exploring Te Papa, a world-class museum with permanent exhibits featuring the Maori (and soon to host a traveling exhibit of China’s Terracotta Army). Take a 10-minute trip outside the city to find Zealandia, a park focused on returning the land to its pre-human state. And book a night tour for a chance to see one of New Zealand’s legendary kiwis in the wild.
As you make your way north, visit the Waitomo Caves for some black-water rafting lit by thousands of glowworms. Then plan a few days in Rotorua to experience geothermal wonders, like bubbling mud pools and thermal baths at Kerosene Creek, before you book a river-rafting tour over the highest commercially rafted waterfall in the world. Here in the cultural heart of the island, you can visit one of several traditional Maori villages to participate in activities and an island feast.
Finally, swing over to the Waikato countryside to see where The Lord of the Rings trilogy was filmed, then make your way back to Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city, where the nightlife is vibrant and the Hauraki Gulf coast gives you a final taste of breathtaking scenery before you order one last flat white coffee and catch a flight back to reality.