The snow fields of New Zealand are a winter wonderland for any ski or snowboard lover. Thousands of tourists flock to the mountains on both islands from June to October to enjoy the daytime thrills of the heavy snowfall and the pumping nightlife of the nearby resort villages.
The varied landscape of the slopes offers conditions for beginners, advanced and everything in between. Stunning scenery from volcanic rock peaks to crystal lakes and alpine greenery will dazzle you as you rush down the mountainside or take it easy on gentler slopes.
For the daredevils, why not consider a heliski trip to the high Alps for untouched powder basins and thrilling steep runs.
On the North Island, the ski parks of Whakapapa and Turoa are located on volcanic Mount Ruapehu and one lift pass gives access to both parks. Visitors can rent their equipment and enjoy quality beginners classes and designated areas with carpet lifts, an abundance of groomed trails for more advanced skiers, childcare facilities and lift-accessible glacier skiing.
The South Island is spoilt for choice with many top-quality resorts and ski parks to choose from. Some of the best locations include –
• Queenstown – set on stunning Lake Wakatipu, this cosmopolitan resort city is surrounded by stunning mountain peaks and some New Zealand’s best slopes. Heliski operators regularly lift more advanced skiers to the highest peaks for pristine runs and stunning views.
• Methven – the town itself rarely experiences snow, allowing for an array of outdoor activities in the clean alpine air. Mount Hutt, in the heart of the beautiful Canterbury region, offers a long ski season and deep snow drifts. A stone’s throw from Methven is the beautiful city of Canterbury, well worth a visit for its classic old-world charm.
• Wanaka – this lakeside town is a good base to visit the ski resorts of Snow Park NZ, Snow Farm, Treble Cone and Cardrona Alpine Resort, all with world-class facilities.
No matter what your ability level is, it’s important to be mindful your own safety as well as the safety of other skiers and snowboarders at all times. Remember to follow resort rules, use properly adjusted ski equipment and warm waterproof clothing. Beginners should seek instruction on their first few visits and all participants should use slopes that match their ability level.
With nearly 10,000km of coastline, it’s easy to see why New Zealand is a Mecca for sun and surf worshippers. A day at the beach is a cheap way to relax, unwind and enjoy activities such as swimming, surfing and body boarding. During the day it is advised that you wear plenty of sunscreen, a hat and sunglasses as New Zealand has one of the highest levels of UV radiation in the world and it is very easy to get sunburnt. It is also advised not to swim alone or beyond your capabilities, and follow the instructions of lifeguards if they give any.
Many popular beaches are on the North Island as the weather is much warmer than the South Island. Some beaches considered among the best include –
• Waiheke Island's Onetangi Bay - accessible from Auckland by boat, this island bay has a beautiful beach with warm turquoise waters and white sand.
• Mount Maunganui's Ocean Beach – a Mecca for sun-worshippers, with ideal surfing and body-boarding conditions.
• Hot Water Beach, South of Mercury Bay – Dig a large hole in the sand and sit in it one hour either side of low tide, as the remaining water heats up for your own natural private spa. The warm water is due to the natural volcanic warmth generated from under the earth’s surface.
• Raglan – A popular surfing area with dramatic black sand beaches and excellent wave conditions.
Fishing is another favourite pastime throughout New Zealand, with both the sea and fresh waterways teeming with a variety of fish species. Fishing charters frequently operate from coastal towns, with bait and equipment provided. Try your luck with the ocean species of blue cod, tuna, john dory, salmon and snapper to name a few, at fishing locations such as Marlborough Sounds, Fiordland, Bay of Islands and Whakatane.
Many streams, lakes and rivers on both the North and South Islands have ample opportunities for freshwater fishing. Anglers can visit the rivers such as the Rakaia, Waimakariri, Hurunui and Waiau for species such as freshwater salmon, trout and whitebait.
For those who want to enjoy the rich maritime environment from a closer perspective, why not try scuba diving, snorkeling and skin diving, all popular activities around the New Zealand coast. The clear sub-tropical waters of the north make for particularly good conditions. Some of the most highly rated sites include –
• Poor Knights Marine Reserve off Whangarei, warmed by the waters of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.
• Auckland's Hauraki Gulf, which contains many interesting shipwrecks.
• The Bay of Islands Maritime and Historic Park.
• The Sugarloaf Islands Marine Park, off Back Beach in New Plymouth.
• The Marlborough Sounds, for the world’s largest and easily accessible shipwreck - the Russian Mikhail Lermontov.
Some of these parks are protected, while others offer opportunities for spear fishing. If you do intend to partake in any of these underwater sports be sure you have had adequate training, supervision and proper equipment.
Whale watchers shouldn’t miss Kaikoura on the South Island, where the deep waters are a perfect environment for sperm whales and dolphins all year long, humpback whales in June and July and orca (killer whales) from December to March. Boat tours run regularly and come within close proximity to these beautiful creatures.
Many recreational water sports are popular across New Zealand all year long. During spring the melting snow on the mountain fills up the downhill rivers and streams, creating perfect conditions for white-water rafting through the rapids. Jet-boating down strong river currents and jet skiing on lakes and in protected bays are also fun and speedy ways to enjoy the water.
For a slower pace, blue water rafting on calm rivers, black water rafting in caves and canoeing and kayaking on lakes are relaxing ways to take in the surrounding scenic beauty. Make sure your operator is a member of the New Zealand River Guides' Association for assurance of safety standards.
Ocean breezes allow for the exhilaration of windsurfing and yachting which are at their most enjoyable during the summer months. Many of the major coastal cities in New Zealand have yacht basins, with several charter companies running cruises on a daily basis. The sight of colourful sails and smooth yachts dotted across the water is a spectacular sight to behold.
With New Zealand’s outdoor-oriented lifestyle it is fitting that air activities are extremely popular. Though not always suited to the faint-hearted, plenty of ability levels are nevertheless catered for, ranging from beginners to daredevil pros.
Hot air ballooning is a favourite way to take in the vast New Zealand horizon from the more relaxing end of the activity scale. A sunrise flight finished with champagne or a romantic picnic is an unforgettable experience, and with operators on both the North and South Island you will find plenty of opportunities to head sky-high. Take off from locations such as Auckland, Hawke’s Bay, Wairarapa or Waikato and enjoy the beauty of the snow-capped mountains, plains and lush patchwork of forests below.
For a similar adventure, scenic flights in a small plane or helicopter have the benefit of being able to reach more rugged areas of the country. The world is literally your oyster in these aircraft, which often combine scenic flights with ground exploration. Have a birds-eye-view of the remote glaciers of the Southern Alps, or the volcanic geography surrounding Auckland, followed by a hike in a tourist-free wilderness.
Gliding is an exhilarating experience that is the next best thing to feeling you are actually flying like a bird. New Zealand has both classic two-seater gliding (also known as a sail-plane) and hang-gliding available, with gliding clubs and schools offering pilot classes and joy rides for both varieties.
Hang-gliding can be enjoyed in many areas such as Auckland, Christchurch, Nelson, Hawke’s Bay, and Queenstown. It can also be performed in tandem (for two people) with both tow-launching and the more advanced hill technique available. Another thrilling gliding option is paragliding, a combination of hang-gliding and parachuting. This too can be performed in tandem at almost any age with the benefit of guidance from an experienced pilot.
Extreme daredevils won’t be able to resist the thrill of a famous New Zealand skydive. A 200-kilometer downward drop offers a 360-degree view with a definite edge over an airplane window.
You can take a tandem leap with a qualified instructor with about a minute of adrenalin-pumping freefalling, followed by a calm float safely to the ground. Skydive Lake Wanaka is New Zealand’s leading skydiving organization, however there are many North and South Island operators to choose from.
The cragged cliffs and volcanic mountain peaks of New Zealand make it one of the top locations in the world for mountaineering and rock climbing. These activities have been enjoyed in New Zealand since the early 20th Century, all originating from mountaineering and eventually progressing to more difficult and steep ascents.
It is worth noting that the changeable weather and rough conditions make these sports best enjoyed with a well-equipped climbing party, particularly for rock climbing which in New Zealand is more suited to experienced individuals.
Experienced rock climbers should take advantage of the challenging assortment of climbs at the following locations –
- Nelson and Westland
Be sure to use proper equipment when rock climbing, and only attempt difficulty levels that you feel confident in tackling. There are many New Zealand rock climbing clubs and societies that are worth contacting for advice and guidance.
A guided trek is another way to reach the summits of some of New Zealand’s highest peaks. There are many operators to choose from, the reputable ones providing equipment, trekking advice and knowledge of the system of climbing bases along the tracks. Popular mountain ascents include –
- Aoraki Mount Cook – New Zealand’s tallest mountain, standing at 3754 metres and surrounded by the Southern Alps mountain range. The Ball Pass Alpine Crossing is a demanding 3-day trek that covers some of the best features of the area, including a glacier crossing, snow fields and untouched wilderness.
- Lake Tekapo – set in the foothills of the Southern Alps, this gentler area is still above the forest line with open views of the Mackenzie Basin.
- Tongariro National Park – the Tongariro Alpine Crossing is rated as one of the best treks in the world, though be prepared for changeable weather and steep conditions during this 10-day adventure.
Hiking is another option for those who want to enjoy the beauty of the outdoors without the safety risks associated with some of these other activities. The entire country is virtually packed with beautiful places to hike. The many National Parks in New Zealand are always good places to get started, for instance Te Urewera, Egmont, Whanganui and Tongariro National Parks to name just a few.
Be sure to stick to the marked pathways and include fresh water, food and a first aid kit in your backpack. Hiking in winter is advised to be approached with caution, as snow and ice in alpine areas often freeze and block off certain pathways that are accessible during the warmer months.
- Forrest Graperide (March) – A road cycling event, with a route that winds through 110 kilometres of stunning postcard-perfect scenery.
- Buller Fest (February) – New Zealand’s premier white-water rafting festival, attracting hundreds of visitors each year. The rafting events cater for all levels from beginners to experts.
- NZCT Women’s Cycle Tour of New Zealand (February) – A women’s cycle event through the countryside, with three-phases at 130km, 124km and 125km long.
- Trust House Men’s Cycle Classic Tour (January) – A five-day men’s cycling tour around Wellington and surrounds.
- Challenge Wanaka (January) – A grueling triathlon as part of the global TEAMChallenge Series with a swimming, cycling and running leg. Challenge Wanaka includes several other events including a fun run and children’s events.
- World Heli Challenge (August/September) – prestigious international heli-ski and heli-boarding event featuring some of the world’s top snow sport atheletes.
- NZ Ethnic Soccer Festival (September) – Hamilton-based soccer tournament also featuring food, arts and crafts stalls.
- Good Vibes Boogie (August) – New Zealand’s largest ski-diving event, with 9-days of thrilling jumps and fun events.
- Adidas Auckland Marathon (November) – A running event with either a quarter, half or full marathon leg. Each year around 12,000 participants take part in this fun run, which finishes at Victoria Park with live entertainment and music.
- The Gallagher Great Race (September) – An upstream rowing regatta through the centre of Hamilton on the Waikato River.
- Waikato Draught Tough Guy & Gal Challenge Auckland (July) – a 12km or 6km obstacle course resulting in muddy and memorable hilarity.