Peaks of Darran Mountains reflecting in Lake Marian, Fiordland national park, New Zealand

While there are a few cities in the country, what makes New Zealand special is its natural beauty. If you’re looking to lose yourself in secluded, sandy beaches, thermal springs, towering mountains or coloured lakes, New Zealand is the place to go.

Visitors will no doubt spend at least some of their trip in at least one of the major cities, and they’re definitely worth seeing. But to discover New Zealand’s spectacular beauty, you’ll have to explore a little further afield. Just keep in mind that many of these places aren't on public transport routes, so you'll need to hire a car to visit them.

A small waterfall surrounded by bush on the Rob Roy Track in Mount Aspiring National Park, New Zealand

1. Mount Aspiring National Park

Named for one of New Zealand's highest peaks, Mt Aspiring National Park is a dreamscape of towering mountains, gorges, glaciers and alpine lakes. It's a famous destination for hiking, with a variety of short walks and long hikes - some of New Zealand's most famous tracks (including the Routeburn) pass through the park.

Many of the tracks leads to some of New Zealand's loveliest spots, including Lake Sylvan and the Blue Pools. The views in the park are truly spectacular, particularly if you walk between the valleys. Easily accessible from both Wanaka and Glenorchy, visiting Mt Aspiring National Park is a must when you're in the South Island.

Blue skies and clear water at Tolaga Bay in the East Coast, New Zealand

2. Tairāwhiti, Gisborne

One of the more remote places in the country, Tairāwhiti is pivotal to Aotearoa/New Zealand's history. This is where the Māori migratory waka (canoes) Horouta and Takitimu first landed, and it's also the place where Captain James Cook first set foot in New Zealand in 1769. Steeped in Māori culture, Tairāwhiti is unspoiled and mostly undeveloped, giving some insight into what the country must have been like many years ago.

Perfect for a road trip, you'll find secluded bays, rolling countryside and very few people. There are a handful of places to stay - mostly campsites and the occasional BnB - and the sandy beaches are never too crowded.

Tasman Lake and the Southern Alps in Aoraki / Mt Cook National Park

3. Aoraki / Mount Cook National Park

Just an hour's drive from postcard famous Lake Tekapo, Aoraki / Mount Cook National Park is easily one of the most beautiful places in the country. Situated in the Southern Alps, the national park's highest peak is named for Aoraki, the son of Rakinui, the sky father from Māori mythology. There are many well-known hiking trails in the park, including a short but steep track to the remarkable Tasman lake, and the Hooker Valley Track, one of New Zealand's most popular hikes.

The scenery in Aoraki / Mount Cook National Park is incredible, with alpine streams, glaciers and rugged mountain peaks. The park is home to the Edmund Hillary Alpine Village and there are number of other activities including kayaking in the lake, helicopter rides and skiing (although the slopes are only accessible by helicopter).

Looking down at the lakes and islands from the viewpoint of Mou Waho island, New Zealand

4. Mou Waho Island

Mou Waho Island is only a 30-minute ferry ride from Wānaka but remains off the radar of most New Zealanders. This tiny island is on the outskirts of the lake and is remarkable for its own stunning lake, and remarkable views.

A lookout on a cliff at the top of the island offers sweeping views over Arethusa Pool, the island's small lake, as well as Lake Wānaka and the Southern Alps. It's one of the few places where you can see an island on a lake on an island on a lake - and the effect is extraordinary.

Reaching the viewpoint at the top of the island involves walking up a steep trail, lined with native plants. The island is uninhabited and is a great place to see rare birds.

Rock formations on a sunny day at Cathedral Cove, New Zealand

5. Coromandel

Situated on the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island, the Coromandel region is renowned for its beautiful beaches and native bush. The Coromandel is known for its stunning Cathedral Cove, with a natural rock archway and sandy beaches, and Hot Water Beach, where visitors can dig a natural hot pool in the sand.

If you have a car, base yourself in Hahei or Whangamata and explore the area from there. You can also do day trips and to Karangahake Gorge and Whenuakura Wildlife Sanctuary (Donut Island), a pristine, natural environment you can only explore from the water. If you enjoy hiking, take a couple of days to follow the Pinnacles overnight trail.

The swing bridge over Hokitika Gorge

6. Hokitika Gorge

Aqua waters wind their way through thick native bush in the Hokitika Gorge, one of Hokitika's best attractions. Pick your path to admire the water - the popular photo spot is only a couple of minutes' walk from the car park. Further along the track, you can head down to the river and make your way over the white rocks to see the unusual water up close - just be warned, this isn't a suitable place to swim.

Otherwise, the full loop is an easy 2km walk through the bush and over a swing bridge with wonderful views of the gorge. The loop takes around an hour to complete and is suitable for children. Visit at midday to see the water at its bluest, however the track is quieter earlier in the morning or late afternoon.

Lake Wakatipu view from Queenstown

7. Queenstown

On the shores of Lake Wakatipu, Queenstown is a favourite with visitors. The sweeping views of mountains and lakes are visible throughout the region – visit in winter to see the landscape framed with snowy mountain peaks. Queenstown is a great base for exploring the Central Otago region, including some of the other towns on this list

As New Zealand’s adventure capital, Queenstown is also the perfect place to get a taste of adrenalin - from bungy jumping and ziplines to paragliding and jetboating, you’ll find a wide range of adventure sports to try. There are three good ski fields easily accessible from Queenstown if you’re visiting in winter, and nearby Gibbston Valley has some of the best wineries in the country (and a couple of good breweries). In the summer months, there are excellent hiking, cycling and water sports on the lake.

The sunset reflected in the water and black sand at Muriwai Beach, Auckland

8. Muriwai Beach, Auckland

Auckland's West Coast beaches are known for their black sand and are astoundingly pretty. While you can visit as a day trip from Auckland, try to go in the late afternoon, when it's a bit cooler and you can watch the sunset. Piha, Te Henga (Bethells Beach) and Karekare beaches are all stunning, but my personal favourite is Muriwai.

The beach itself is reasonably close to the car park and the dark sand stretches far into the distance. There's a lovely playground for children near the entrance and a gannet colony up the cliff. Along with surfing, it's a popular spot for horse-riding, dog walking and, of course, photography. And at sunset you can see the sky reflected in the water and on the sand, and the effect is magical.

A wharf at Lake Dunstan

9. Lake Dunstan

Situated in the town of Cromwell, between Wanaka and Queenstown, Lake Dunstan is a man-made lake with a startlingly reflective surface. The lake was made by dammed the Clyde River, and the old main street of Cromwell was flooded as a result. The main street was home to a number of historic buildings dating back to the gold rush of the 1860s, and many of these were saved or rebuilt on higher ground. The area is now the historical precinct of Cromwell and is well worth visiting.

There are a number of spots around the lake which are suitable for swimming, boating and fishing, or simply picnicking for the day. For the more adventurous, the Lake Dunstan Trail links the townships of Cromwell and Clyde offering cyclists (and walkers) a challenging and beautiful 55km ride.

Nugget Point Lighthouse on the edge of the cliff in the Catlins, New Zealand

10. Catlins, Dunedin

The enchanting Catlins are home to captivating landscapes covered in forested hills, impressive waterfalls and wild seas. At the southeastern edge of the South Island, this wild region is often missed by both travellers and locals. Spend your time here exploring the Catlins Forest Park, visiting the 20m-high Purakaunui Falls and discovering the petrified remains of a forest at Curio Bay.

One of the highlights of the Catlins is the lighthouse at Nugget Point. Along with the picturesque lighthouse, you can also see a range of wildlife including sea lions, penguins and dolphins playing in the sea. The area is also known for its native birds - follow the Catlins River Wisp Loop Walk to see them in the beech forest.

The ocean views from Pakia Hill

11. Pakia Hill, Hokianga

Located north of Auckland on the west coast of the (appropriately named) Northland region, Hokianga is well outside most traveller's itineraries. Just outside of the small town of Omapere, you'll find the Pakia Hill lookout point, just a short walk from the road. It's wild and incredibly beautiful, with rugged ocean views and thick bush half-obscuring the track.

It can get very windy up here - some trees are bent and leaning from the force of the wind - so remember to bring a jacket if you come up here in winter. Even though it can be cold, it's well worth spending some time here. Pakia Hill is one of those places where you feel like you're standing on the edge of the world, far away from everyday life.

12. Glenorchy

Framed by mountain ranges and native forest, the scenery in Glenorchy is awe-inspiring. The small town sits on the shores of Lake Wakatipu and the surrounding areas featured heavily in the Lord of the Rings films. Drive for 20 minutes' past Glenorchy and you'll find Paradise, known for its breathtaking scenery.

Glenorchy is about 45-minutes' drive from Queenstown and the route hugs the lake, making for a particularly beautiful drive. The town itself is tiny, however it's home to a variety of outdoor activities including jet boating, kayaking, horse trekking and hiking. There is also an entrance to Mt Aspiring National Park nearby.

The Church of the Good Shepherd at Lake Tekapo, New Zealand

13. Lake Tekapo and Mackenzie Country

If you want to immerse yourself in Instagram-worthy scenery, take a trip to Mackenzie Country, just a couple of hours’ drive from Christchurch. Despite its proximity to a major city, Makenzie Country feels remote, often with open space as far as the eye can see. Home to some of country’s loveliest scenery, the region is home to Lake Tekapo and the Church of the Good Shepherd, one of New Zealand’s most recognizable tourist spots. Visit between November and January to see the countryside (and lake) lined with purple lupins.

The small town of Twizel makes a convenient base to explore the region. From there, you can easily access the lakes and Aoraki Mount Cook National Park, which has a range of walks from short trails to full-day hikes. Venture outside on a clear night to marvel at the stars as the region is a Dark Sky Reserve with minimal light pollution – while it can be very cold, the sky is especially clear in winter. A few days in Mackenzie Country also makes a great stopover on a road trip from Christchurch and Queenstown.

The wharf at French Pass

14. Marlborough Sounds

Stretching up from the top of the South Island, the fingers of the Marlborough Sounds seem almost impenetrable by land. These thin strips of land are known for their sheltered inlets, clear waters and sandy coves. Best explored by boat, you can kayak between them or walk the famous Queen Charlotte Track, a 70km multi-day hike along Tōtaranui (Queen Charlotte Sound).

The views from the track (and everywhere else in the Sounds) are truly remarkable. If walking, there are a number of lodges where you can stay. You can also take a mail boat cruise to explore the Sounds if you don't have access to a boat. Or, if you're short on time, take a drive to French Pass to see the wonderful views from the land.

View of the beach and town from Mount Maunganui

15. Mount Maunganui

A pretty, coastal town, Mt Maunganui has the best of all worlds – long, white beaches, good cafes and restaurants and a city just a short drive away. Mount Maunganui makes a great base for exploring the wider Tauranga region while spending time on the beach.

It’s also the perfect place to enjoy a vibrant, quirky town centre with good eating options, great coffee and a mix of boutiques and artsy shops. Walk to the top of the Mount for panoramic views of the coast.

Kayaking through the forest in Abel Tasman National Park

16. Abel Tasman National Park

Home to one of New Zealand’s Great Walks, the Abel Tasman National Park is a wonderful option either for a day trip from Nelson or for a longer stay. The national park immerses you in an unspoiled natural environment with native bush, small, clear bays and white, sandy beaches. It’s the perfect place for kayaking through clear water (there’s also a nearby seal colony), meandering through bush trails, swimming in tiny coves or simply relaxing on a secluded beach.

The park’s claim to fame is the Abel Tasman Coast Track, a 60km (37-mile) walk through the bush with incredible views of the beach. It usually takes 3-5 days to complete the full walk; although, it is possible to do a section of the walk in a day. No cars are allowed in the national park, so visitors need to either walk to their preferred destination or take a water taxi.

An aerial view of the Bay of Islands

17. Bay of Islands

About three hours north of Auckland, the beautiful Bay of Islands is the place to go for a relaxed, laid-back vibe and beautiful coastal scenery. For the most spectacular views, you’ll need to head out on the water - there are over 140 sub-tropical islands in the bay with hidden beaches and blue waters.

If you prefer to stay on shore, other options, spend your time relaxing on the sandy beaches and exploring the towns of colonial towns of Kerikeri and Russell. In nearby Paihia, you can also learn about New Zealand history at the Treaty Grounds where the historic Treaty of Waitangi was signed. For the best perspective of the bay, take a scenic flight for an amazing aerial view of the islets.

Panoramic view over Lake Wanaka from Roy's Peak

18. Wanaka

A small town with artisan shops, good coffee and delicious food, Wanaka is renowned for both its panoramic lake and mountain views, and its relaxed, laidback atmosphere. About an hour's drive from Queenstown, Wanaka is a quieter, yet still touristy, base for exploring the Central Otago region. Views of the lake and mountains are visible from the town and it's just a short walk to the Instagram-famous Wanaka tree.

Visit in winter for skiing, snowboarding and views of the snow-capped Southern Alps. Or go in summer to walk up Roy's Peak with its sweeping views of Lake Wanaka. The wonderful Mount Aspiring National Park (mentioned above) is also just a short drive from the town.

A steaming, orange-lined volcanic pool (Champagne Pool) in Rotorua, New Zealand

19. Rotorua

While perhaps not traditionally beautiful, the heart of New Zealand’s thermal activity is the place to go for bubbling mud pools, geysers and steaming rivers. Rotorua's landscape is otherworldly and it’s well worth visiting to experience the volcanic nature of the land firsthand. The nearby Whakarewarewa Forest also has some great walking and hiking trails to explore.

As well as relaxing in a thermal mud bath, soaking in hot pools and exploring geothermal attractions, Rotorua allows visitors to gain some insight into Māori culture. Visit a traditional Māori villages to discover local traditions, foods and ways of seeing the world.

Peaks of Darran Mountains reflecting in Lake Marian, Fiordland national park, New Zealand

20. Fiordland National Park

On the edge of the South Island, Fiordland National Park is home to epic landscapes, including one of New Zealand’s most famous attractions, the majestic Milford Sound. There, visitors can see waterfalls, magnificent views along the fiord and marine wildlife.

The nearby Doubtful Sound is also spectacular but less accessible – travellers need to visit with a guide and by boat. There are also several walks in the national park past snow-capped mountains and ice-forged fiords, with views of lakes, valleys and waterfalls.

The beautiful, isolated Whatipu Beach

21. Whatipu Peninsula

For a truly isolated experience of New Zealand just an hour's drive from Auckland, visit Whatipu Peninsula at the at the very edge of the Waitakere Ranges. A rugged and remote place, the beach seldom has more than a handful of visitors and it can be hard to believe you’re so close to a major city. It’s an odd, mesmerising place, which many locals have never seen, and visiting feels like you've discovering it for the first time.

Visiting the Whatipu Peninsula makes a great day trip from Auckland. You can drive along the peninsula to the beach, but to get the most of your time there, consider walking from Huia to Whatipu. The route takes you through the forest with stunning coastal views before emerging above Whatipu Beach, a crescent of black sand with contrasting with the blue Pacific Ocean.

The upper section of the Fox Glacier at sunset.

22. Westland Tai Poutini National Park

Home to the Fox and Franz Josef glaciers, this national park is known for its huge stretches of ice. The surrounding mountain peaks tower over rainforests that reach all the way to the edge of the Tasman Sea. Along with mirror-like likes, the national park is also features landscapes of contrasting tussock grasses, wild coastal views, rivers and wetlands.

You'll have to venture out into the park to see the magnificent scenery for yourself. Lakes Matheson and Mapourika offer kayaking and swimming in the summer, while walking through the forest and wetlands allow the chance to see rare, native birds up close. Of course, the highlight is marvelling at the Fox and Franz Josef glaciers and imagine how much larger they were just a few years ago.

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Roxanne de Bruyn

Author - Roxanne de Bruyn

Roxanne is the founder and editor of Faraway Worlds. She is a freelance writer and guidebook author and has written for several travel publications, including Lonely Planet, TripAdvisor and The Culture Trip. With a background in communications, she has studied ancient history, comparative religion and international development, and has a particular interest in sustainable tourism.

Originally from South Africa, Roxanne has travelled widely and loves learning the stories of the places she visits. She enjoys cooking, dance and yoga, and usually travels with her husband and young son. She is based in New Zealand.

Last Updated 3 April 2024

Lake Wakatipu view from Queenstown

New Zealand

Famous for its natural beauty, New Zealand is a wonderful destination for travellers with a bit of an adventurous streak. A safe and accessible country, you'll find a huge range of activities to keep you busy, particularly if you enjoy the outdoors.