10 Places of surreal beauty in New Zealand

Petrina Darrah 18 July 2022

It's not for nothing that New Zealand is known as one of the most awe-inspiring places to visit. Take a look at the mythic landscapes that draw people each year

New Zealand is celebrated for the diversity of its natural environments. No two regions are the same. 

From the windswept sand dunes in the north to the pebbled desert in the heart of the North Island, and the long snow-dusted spine of the Southern Alps in the South Island, the country is a kaleidoscope of landscapes. For nature and outdoor enthusiasts, it’s a dream. 

Adventure activities abound, but admiring the bounty of natural beauty can also be done more sedately from the comfort of a glamping tent or hot tub. No matter how you choose to explore, you’ll be blown away by these surreal landscapes. 

1) Cape Reinga, Northland

White lighthouse at end of grassy path with sea in the background at Cape Reinga, New ZealandIn Māori mythology, spirits of the dead leap off the Cape Reinga on their journey to Hawaiki, their traditional homeland and afterlife

State Highway 1 runs aground at Cape Reinga—this is the last stop for travellers and, for Māori, the spirits of the dead. According to Māori tradition, the departed leap into the underworld from this point, making this the most spiritually significant place in Aotearoa.  

"According to Māori tradition, the departed leap into the underworld from this point"

From the Cape Reinga lighthouse, you can see the Tasman Sea and Pacific Ocean crashing into each other. Gusted by winds, pounded by surf, and surrounded by vast sweeps of sand, the headland of Te Rerenga Wairua—the leaping place of spirits—is a beautifully rugged wilderness. 

2) Cathedral Cove, Coromandel

View of beach and crystal blue sea through stone archway of Cathedral Cove, Coromandel in New ZealandThe cave at Cathedral Cove looks so mythical that it actually made an appearance in the 2008 film The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian

Cathedral Cove is a highlight of the beach-strewn Coromandel Peninsula.

Reached via a 45 minute walk along clifftops, the cove is sheltered by stone walls hung with pohutukawa trees. A gigantic stone arch—the cathedra—takes pride of place in the centre of the beach. 

3) Whanganui River, Whanganui

Aerial view of Whanganui National Park, with river winding through green hills and forestWhanganui River is New Zealand's longest navigable river, and was once known as the "Rhine of New Zealand" by the tourists it attracted in the early 1900s

The magic of the Whanganui River can only be experienced by paddling for three to five days in a canoe.

Anyone game enough to take on the adventure will find themselves gliding between mossy canyon walls dripping with native ferns and vines, with birds swooping overhead.

Sections of the river feel prehistoric and separate from the outside world, and that's because they are—the river is the only way in and out of the depths of Whanganui National Park. 

4) Mount Taranaki, Taranaki

Snow-topped Mount Taranaki and its reflection in the water in front, New ZealandMount Taranaki is a dormant volcano that last erupted around 1854, and is estimated to have erupted over 160 times in the last 36,000 years

Mount Taranaki stands alone on the south west coast of the North Island. Climbing the perfectly symmetrical peak is a challenging but popular day hike, which offers spectacular views down into the lush forest of Egmont National Park and all the way out to sea. 

For a lower altitude vantage point, Surf Highway 45 loops along the coast around the mountain, linking a series of black sand beaches with epic surf breaks, small surf towns and mountain views. 

5) Marlborough Sounds, Marlborough

Grove Arm of Queen Charlotte Sound Marlborough Sounds, New ZealandThe "Drowned Sounds" of Marlborough are slowly sinking into the sea, which has formed a series of river valleys

Marlborough Sounds is a collection of sea-drowned river valleys fringing the top of the South Island. The network of peninsulas, islands and quiet bays is surreally peaceful.

The Sounds have lake-calm waters and the ridges rising between the ocean inlets are coated in regenerating native bush.

Lodges and holiday homes are scattered throughout the Sounds, with some only accessible by water taxi. 

6) Abel Tasman National Park, Nelson Tasman

View of a tree and beach at Abel Tasman National ParkAbel Tasman National Park may be New Zealand's smallest national park, but it still houses one of its most famous walks

The curved golden beaches of Abel Tasman National Park might be some of the most stunning in the whole country. Scythes of sand lie between dense native bush and calm waters in vivid turquoise.

The Abel Tasman Coast Track, one of New Zealand’s Great Walks, traces the park from end to end. The park can be explored by boat, kayak, on foot or a combination of all three. 

7) Punakaiki, West Coast

 Pancake rocks at Punakaiki in New Zealand with clear blue sea and sky in background

A mixture of limestone, siltstone and erosion has created these distinctive rocks that looks like piles of pancakes at Punakaiki

Driving from Greymouth to Westport along the wild West Coast of the South Island is one of the best road trips in New Zealand.

A highlight is Punakaiki, a coastal village where unique limestone formations pile up to form the Pancake Rocks, with blowholes huffing dramatically when waves surge against them.

"Unique limestone formations pile up to form the Pancake Rocks"

The craggy limestone bluffs that loom over Punakaiki are equally impressive, interrupted only by tannin-dark rivers that snake through narrow gorges into the forests of Paparoa National Park. 

8) Lake Pukaki, Canterbury

View of Mount Pukaki with clear blue lake in front of itLake Pukaki's distinctive turquoise colour comes from the silt particles in the water

The sky-blue expanse of Lake Pukaki shimmers against the golden hues of the Mackenzie Basin. What makes this alpine lake all the more stunning is the sweeping view of Aoraki/Mount Cook.

The fin of New Zealand’s highest mountain rises at the far end of the lake, shimmering against the glacial water. The route along Lake Pukaki’s shore, towards Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park, is a fantastically scenic stretch of road. 

9) Franz Josef and Fox glaciers, West Coast

Icy landscape of Franz Josef glacier in New ZealandFranz Josef is among the fastest moving glaciers in the world, sometimes retreating and advancing at 20m a year

The twin glaciers of Fox and Franz Josef were once among the most accessible in the world, plunging from the heights of the Southern Alps down into the rainforest close to sea level on the rugged west coast.

"The glaciers are still magnificent, and serve as a stark reminder of the fragility of our natural world"

In the past decade, they have been forced into retreat by climate change. Although you can walk to multiple viewpoints to see the glaciers, the only way to experience them up close now is via a heli hike.

Despite having lost so much ground, the glaciers are still magnificent, and serve as a stark reminder of the fragility of our natural world. 

10) Milford Sound/Piopiotahi, Fiordland

Mountains fringing lake at Milford Sound in New ZealandRudyard Kipling once called Milford Sound the "eighth Wonder of the World"

Milford Sound/Piopiotahi is a deep fiord carved into the wildness of Fiordland and one of the most alluring places in New Zealand.

Piercing the sky above the indigo waters of the Sound is the towering Mitre Peak. Waterfalls tumble down the steep sides of the fjord, casting mist across the rainforested slopes.

Seals, penguins, and dolphins all call Milford Sound home.

Sailing across the dark water of Milford Sound is a highlight of any visit to the South Island. 

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