Hopefully by now you’ve all had the chance to take a look at my latest collection of work from New Zealand. It took two trips to capture this collection of magnificent landscapes — and this is only a glimpse into all the beauty that New Zealand has to offer. From snowy mountaintops to the Milford Sound to stunning valleys to calm beaches, this diverse collection has something in it for everyone. To celebrate the release of these images, I wanted to share all of my recommendations. One thing we learned when planning our trips was that consulting guides and getting recommendations from friends who’d visited before was crucial in finding all the best spots. It’s an incredibly vast country and difficult to navigate without some careful planning in advance. Lucky for you, I’ve compiled the best of the best all in one place.
In planning our time in New Zealand, we worked with the team at Unparalleled Journeys. We weren’t able to experience the country in its entirety due to time and budget, but their team was excellent at helping us plan how to maximize our time there. The custom itinerary is based on their suggestions and your desires for what kind of experience you want to have — whether it be a relaxed wine tasting in the country, or a thrilling kayak ride through wild crystal blue rapids. Ultimately we decided on three destinations: Marlborough and Queenstown on the South Island and the Bay of Islands on the top of the North Island.
Located on the north tip of the South Island is the Marlborough region. We chose to visit Marlborough primarily for two reasons: First, we love wine and this region is the premier wine country of New Zealand, where many famous Sauvignon Blancs and Pinot Noirs are grown. The soil here, we learned, is particularly good for fruity Sauvignon Blancs with passion fruit and tropical notes. Secondly, we were told that an aerial view of the Marlborough Sound would be breathtaking — and it was indeed.
We stayed at the absolutely gorgeous and cozy The Marlborough Lodge. The hotel’s website describes it as “relaxed elegance” and I couldn’t agree with it more. Once a convent, it was converted to a lodge over various iterations, and now is filled with gorgeous and welcoming touches, including a library where you can relax and play backgammon with a glass of wine. Prior to dinner each night, we loved curling up by the inviting outdoor fireplace with a glass of wine during sunset and reliving all the adventures of the day. Dinner here nightly is an intimate experience, with some of the freshest cuisines from the region, known in particular for their salmon, and of course, delicious wine. Another great hotel option in the Marlborough region is The Peppertree. This hotel is situated among a few of the vineyards scattered throughout Marlborough and offers beautiful views of the vineyards all around. Since Marlborough is somewhat of a smaller town, there are also many boutique bed and breakfasts for you to choose from.
As I said, if you love wine tasting, this is a can’t-miss stop on any New Zealand adventure with dozens of famous local wineries. One of our favorites that we visited was Cloudy Bay Vineyards. Not only were the wines delicious, but we loved the relaxing atmosphere and the view of the rolling hills all around the estate. Another notable spot is Forsters Moutere Hills. Located at the Moutere Hills Winery, this spot has a relaxed indoor/outdoor feel and amazing views. I recommend going during lunchtime for their Long Board Lunch to enjoy an assortment of small bites and an array of desserts. If you want to get a full day of wine tasting in, I would recommend booking a wine tour through Marlborough Tour Company. Their Taste of Marlborough Wine Tour is a day-long adventure that takes you to all of the best wineries in the region.
Our helicopter experience was absolutely breathtaking. We were able to take off from the grounds of the lodge and soar high above the Marlborough Sound. We began our adventure near sunrise, and seeing the sun come up over the emerald mountains onto the water below literally took our breath away. We got to stop on an island in the middle of the sea along our way, before getting the most gorgeous views of the water and beaches of Abel Tasman National Park.
While not every location in New Zealand can be reached, one that any first-time trip must include is Queenstown. Located in the center of the South Island, the town is off the shore of the sparkling aqua waters of Lake Wakatipu. It’s essentially the adventure capital of New Zealand, and many nearby locales were shot during the filming of Lord of the Rings. The myriad of climates and terrains all within an hour of Queenstown is absolutely remarkable and you really must see it for yourself.
The ultimate goal of our visit to Queenstown was to experience some of the thrilling adventure experiences and also take an aerial flight over the world-famous Milford Sound. Though you can reach the sound by car and boat, we were told the best views are from the air, and of course, I could not resist. The reason I actually had to take two trips was just for this aerial shoot over the sound — we first visited in October, which is springtime there and the weather can be unpredictable. Unfortunately on our first trip, the weather was less than ideal, so I made a second trip down to Queenstown in January (summertime), when the region has its best weather and lucked out with one of the most incredible helicopter rides of my life.
We stayed at two different parts of the area — first in Glenorchy, a small hamlet 40 minutes north of Queenstown. Though it’s more remote, the views of the lake and surrounding mountains are private and pristine, and there are many adventure day trips that depart from here as it is where the Dart River meets Lake Wakatipu, situated right near the heart of Mount Aspiring National park. We took several adventure day trips with Dart River Adventures including a wild jet boat ride down the river (prepare to get sprayed as you do 360 degree turns at crazy high speeds with an expert driver) as well as kayaking rapids (we ALMOST fell in!). We were lucky to get a recommendation from a friend to stay at a lodge called Blanket Bay. Aside from the amazing amenities this hotel had to offer, the views were picturesque. We got to wake up each day overlooking the gorgeous Lake Wakatipu with a breathtaking mountain vista behind it. Another lodge nearby that we heard about is Matakauri, which everyone told us was a fabulous place to stay as well.
After our stay in Glenorchy, we moved on to stay in the heart of Queenstown at Eichardt’s Private Hotel. The room was right on the lake in the heart of town and offered easy, accessible walking to the cute downtown area to explore the shops and see the restaurants. The Hotel St. Moritz also came highly recommended to us when we were booking our trip. This hotel is stylish and charming all at the same time and offers an ideal location close to the heart of Queenstown.
While we very much enjoyed staying outside of town in peaceful Glenorchy, staying in town was a wonderful change of pace. This is the culinary heart of the South Island and features many amazing restaurants. At a lot of lodges, you eat wonderful meals at the lodge most nights, but in town it was lovely to get to go out and experience many different cuisines. The eclectic Botswana Butchery was not to be missed. I was hesitant at first but it was a lovely experience of contemporary New Zealand cuisine. Nearby, an equally delicious spot not to miss is Madam Woo, featuring a totally different Malaysian-infused menu. On a more casual side of the spectrum, you can’t miss the world-famous Fergburger. The trick with Ferburger is there’s always a line. We got the tip to call and order ahead, pick it up, and take it aboard Perky's Floating Bar. Perky’s is on a barge anchored in the harbor, has a great selection of wines, and is BYOF (bring your own food). We sat on the top deck in the sunshine and had a relaxed, amazing meal. If you’re in the mood for fresh seafood, be sure to visit Fishbone in Queenstown. Don’t let the menu intimidate you though because everything is amazing. The restaurant at the historic Cardrona Hotel, located a little bit outside of Queenstown, is the perfect spot for when you want a casual atmosphere and comfort food. The hotel has remained mostly unchanged since its inception and the rustic atmosphere alone makes it a must-see in and of itself.
In town, there’s no less of a selection of adventures. We decided to take up canyoning through Canyon Explorers. Canyoning is an outdoor adventure that combines the elements of abseiling (repelling), zip-lining, jumping, swimming, and hiking. We went on a rainy day which actually ended up being perfect — the river was full, we were the only ones on the tour, and we got completely wet anyway so the rain was no bother! It’s quite something to stand on top of a waterfall in a river and being told to jump down into a gushing pool of water below. It was an absolutely thrilling day and I highly recommend it.
Finally, on my second trip to Queenstown, was the helicopter ride over Milford Sound. From icy mountain tops, to the skyscraper-sized waterfalls of glacial water cascading down into evergreen forests, I have never seen anything like this in my life before. Though it took many days of patiently waiting, and two trips over the Pacific Ocean to capture them, these are some of the most spectacular images I have taken to date. After over two hours of flight time, you know I had a very large glass of sparkling champagne waiting for me. Regardless of whether you go by land, sea, or air, if you can visit Milford Sound it is a natural wonder not to be missed.
Jeff and I wanted to explore some part of the North Island during our trip, and it was difficult to figure out where, but Unparalleled Journeys was so helpful in guiding us. Though we’d never heard of it before this trip, the Bay of Islands region was an unexpected treasure. The main city in the area is Kerikeri. The Bay of Islands is on the northern end of the island and you can quickly detect a strong Polynesian influence.
We were extremely fortunate to be able to stay at The Lodge at Kauri Cliffs. This was our last stop of our trip and a truly intimate experience that felt removed from the world. It was an excellent way to decompress after the hustle and bustle of Queenstown. The Lodge is famous for their outdoor activities including their world-famous golf course (Obama played here - there’s a picture of him from that day hanging at the hotel) and a majestic private pink beach. Upon arrival, we were greeted with a private picnic lunch the hotel set up for us, and we got to relax in a hammock over the pink sand (colored by the coral offshore) while enjoying a glass of Pink Pelorus Cloudy Bay sparkling wine.
After a cozy evening at the lodge, we woke the next morning and set out on a hike with a local guide that gave us a history of his Maori heritage and how they first arrived in New Zealand centuries ago, originating from other Polynesian islands in the pacific. He told us the long history of how James Cook arrived to New Zealand, followed by English settlers, and how the Maori and the settlers lived together. It was a fascinating experience to say the least and a history we had known nothing about prior. I would strongly encourage anyone visiting the lodge to experience this cultural hike. The tour ends at an on-property Kauri tree. The tree is hundreds of years old and is one of the most famous, but endangered, indigenous trees to New Zealand.
Before we ended our trip, on our last day, you know I could not help myself but get an aerial tour of this gorgeous area. We swept over the many islands scattered along the shore (hence the Bay of Islands name), circled the famous Cape Reinga lighthouse, and passed over a team of wild horses along Ninety Mile beach, switching from the east to the west side of the island. Though it was a last-minute planned helicopter flight added to our trip, I could not be more thrilled to add these gorgeous photos to our New Zealand collection.
Before you embark on planning your trip, I thought I’d share some of the tips we found helpful along the way and some fun facts. First, when planning your travels, make sure your passport will be valid for at least 6 months after you return. If it isn’t you most likely won’t get let through. Tipping at restaurants is not expected; however it’s highly appreciated when you feel the service was deserving. In general New Zealand is a very safe place to visit and since it isn’t super touristy you don’t have to worry too much. When planning what to pack, keep in mind that the seasons are opposite of the seasons in the Northern Hemisphere. For example, when it’s Summer in the US, it’s Winter in New Zealand. Did you know that there are 33.9 million sheep in New Zealand?! Crazy, I know! Another fun fact to know is that the Kiwi is not the fruit! It’s actually a flightless native bird the size of a large chicken and lays the largest egg of any bird.
So there you have it. I hope this guide gives you some insight into the variety of activities you can expect, and also a view of some of the most beautiful natural landscapes on the planet.