It’s no wonder that New Zealanders are outdoor types. Blessed with an extraordinary abundance of soaring peaks and rolling hills, pristine lakes and tranquil rivers, it’s natural that our Kiwi cousins want to spend their time biking, hiking, canoeing and otherwise savouring the fresh air. If you feel like joining them, here’s our pick of the country’s best outdoor experiences.
Reset your life at Aro Ha Wellness Retreat, Glenorchy, South Island
It’s a promise you’ve always made to yourself before you head off on holiday. You’ll use this time, you resolve optimistically, to get back to a healthier way of living. You’ll eat well, start the day with yoga, head out on a hike every day… you know the drill. And you know how it usually ends, too: you fall right back into your everyday patterns by day three. Not at Aro Hā, you don’t.
This wellness retreat, perched in the heart of the Southern Alps not far from Queenstown, is designed to make a reset easy. “All you have to do is turn up,” promises Aro Hā’s Paula Ryan. “We’ll take care of the rest.” Guests can choose between a six- and eight-day stay, with a daily program that includes twice-daily yoga sessions – energy building in the morning; restorative in the evening – as well as a daily hike through the spectacular surrounds. There’s plenty of nutritious food – all plant-based – to dig into and other activities range from fitness options, such as Pilates and barre sessions, to classes in cooking, gardening and meditation. Oh, and did we mention the daily massages?
“We understand that people lead incredibly busy lives and they really need to unplug,” Paula says. “We’ll plan things out with you before you arrive. If you love cooking, for instance, we’ll make sure you can enjoy all the cooking activities. Once you’re here, there’s nothing more to think about.” The retreat is sure to unwind you inside and out. The daily hike doesn’t just get you moving; as you soak up the picture-perfect peaks and valleys around you, you breathe deeper and your mind gets to roam as freely as your body. If that amount of activity sounds daunting, rest assured that the Aro Hā team will help you find the sweet spot between effort and achievement – with a maximum of 20 people at any one time, you’re guaranteed plenty of personal attention.
“We do encourage our guests to challenge themselves, but everything is optional,” Paula says. “If you wake up one morning and decide you need a rest, for instance, then that’s what you do.” During one of your quiet days, you may decide to treat yourself to a sauna, which comes complete with a panoramic view, or just soak up the serenity in one of the estate’s many sun-drenched corners.
Find out more: From NZ$5575 (AUD$5170) for a six-day, all-inclusive retreat experience; aro-ha.com
Recharge on the Whanganui River, North Island
The first thing you notice is the colour: a dozen different shades of green. It’s there not just in the trees that soar above you, but also reflected in the water beside your canoe. The second thing you observe is the tranquillity. As you paddle along, the stillness is broken only by the calls of birds and the swish of the oar. Few things calm your soul as fully as a canoe trip down the Whanganui River, which flows through the heart of New Zealand’s North Island.
The Māori revere the Whanganui as an ‘awa tupua’, a river of sacred power, which they believe originally fell as a teardrop from the eye of the Sky Father. To the ancient tribes who lived atop the cliffs that line its banks, the Whanganui was a highway, a food basket, a pharmacy. Today, it offers one of the nation’s most serene outdoor experiences. A journey along the Whanganui is a wilderness adventure in the true sense of the word.
There’s no wi-fi, no luxury lodges; it’s just you and the river. Accommodation is in simple tents or huts; sign up for a guided tour with the Unique Whanganui River Experience and you’ll also get to absorb plenty of Māori lore and legends along the way. There’s even an overnight stay at a marae, or meeting house, with a traditional welcome and a hāngi – a meal cooked in an underground oven – for dinner. Equally memorable is the day you take a short hike (or longer and more exciting bike trail) to the Bridge to Nowhere. Pressed on all sides by trees, this lonely bridge has an unusual backstory. After the First World War, returning soldiers were given land parcels along the river and encouraged to clear the land and create fertile farms. The experiment ended in disaster and the families that had moved here with high hopes eventually fled the area in disappointment. The forest has since reclaimed the land they cleared, swallowing up all traces of their homes. Only this bridge has resisted the formidable power of nature.
Find out more: Unique Whanganui River Experience offers three-, four- and five-day guided trips, starting from NZ$690 (AUD$640) per adult; uniquewhanganuiriver.co.nz
Freshen up at the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, Tongariro National Park
You might think that there’s a limit on how far your feet can take you in one day, but that’s not always true. Tackle the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, for instance, and although you’re hiking just 20 kilometres, you’ll find yourself stepping into an entirely different world. This remarkable North Island day trip takes you high above the treeline, past the sacred peaks of Mount Ngauruhoe and Mount Tongariro into a landscape shaped by powerful volcanic forces.
Along the way, you’ll pass by vents, where steam still shoots from the ground, and mineral-rich lakes that glow in eye-catching shades of emerald and brilliant blue. It’s a landscape so alien, it feels almost like another planet – no wonder director Peter Jackson chose this area to double as Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings films.
You need to come prepared, though. At this altitude – almost 1900 metres above sea level at the highest point – it can be cool even in summer. Weather can move in fast and the terrain can be tricky, so signing up with an experienced operator is advised. You’ll need to kit yourself out properly: that includes hiking boots, layers of warm, weatherproof clothing, plenty of water, and toilet paper. (There are toilet facilities along the route, spaced at about 90-minute intervals, however it’s strictly BYO paper.)
Some sections of the trail are challenging, including the Devil’s Staircase, which rises 300 metres over two kilometres, but the views are well worth it. There are plenty of other outdoor activities to enjoy in the area, too, from the Great Lake Trails beloved by mountain bikers to the superb trout fishing in Lake Taupo. The town of Taupo has lots of accommodation to choose from, including the welcoming Chateau Tongariro Hotel.
Find out more: Adrift NZ offers a guided walk along the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, from NZ$175 (AUD$162) per person; adriftnz.co.nz
Spin your wheels on the Otago Central Rail Trail, South Island
Be warned: riding the Otago Central Rail Trail may be the start of an addiction, even if you’re a biking beginner. “It’s the combination of food and wine, history and flat, well-graded trail that makes this one so popular,” says Phil Wyndham of Adventure South NZ. “From avid riders to recreational cyclists, so many guests finish this trip and say: ‘That was great – what else have you got?’” This South Island trail follows the route of the disused Otago Central Railway for 150 kilometres, winding its way through a chain of valleys, dotted with tiny towns that sprang up during the gold rush of the 1860s.
Adventure South NZ’s most popular tour is a five-day trip starting in Queenstown, which involves cycling about 40 kilometres a day.
“That’s far enough to feel you’ve done something challenging without wearing yourself out – although the support vehicle is always available if you need it,” Phil says.
The Otago Central Rail Trail isn’t just about racking up the miles, however. The off-bike experiences are as entertaining as the on-bike ones.
“This region is known for its food and wine, and there’s always a really interesting town to explore nearby,” Phil says.
After each day’s ride, participants can chill out in cosy country pubs or explore pretty places, such as the Art Deco gem of Ranfurly or St Bathans, where the gold rush architecture includes a wooden post office and a haunted hotel. Expect to stay in inviting family-run accommodation and enjoy heaps of fine food and the odd glass of the acclaimed local pinot noir. Along the trail, you get to explore some fascinating industrial relics, including abandoned communities, where the old railway waiting room is all that’s left.
One of the more memorable stretches is the Poolburn Gorge, where your passage takes in two bridges and two tunnels more than 200 metres in length. It took 300 workers three years to complete the work. Adventure South NZ’s trips usually include about 10 guests and are popular with women and solo travellers, but Phil says he’s also seeing a new trend.
“We’re getting lots of private groups of four friends travelling together,” he shares. “It’s often people who reconnected virtually during lockdown, through WhatsApp groups, perhaps. It’s great to see them getting back together in real life.”
Find out more: Adventure South NZ’s five-day Queenstown Otago Central Rail Trail starts at NZ$1895 (AUD$1759); adventuresouth.co.nz