New Zealand (read Tom’s complete guide) is my favorite international destination (visited in 2019, 2007, 1998, 1992 and 1981). Runner-up favorites are discussed further below.
Scenery in the South Pacific paradise of New Zealand varies dramatically in short distances, perfect for touring by campervan, car, bicycle, feet, and jetboat. New Zealand is bigger than the UK, smaller than Japan, and about the size of Colorado − a perfect escape for 2 to 8 weeks. Fully 30% of New Zealand is preserved in parkland, very attractive for wilderness lovers. Exotic, yes! Three-fourths of the country’s plant species are endemic (found nowhere else). Experience exceptional diversity within short travel hops.
This English-speaking country has very friendly people with excellent law, order, and safety. Cities proudly offer excellent “i-Sites” (tourist offices) which distribute free highway maps, free pamphlets, free lodging and campground directories, and free booking service.
Rent a campervan or car and stay in comfortable motor camps with cabins as we do. Economical motor camps offer great variety & value, with kitchens & bathrooms available as private or shared.
With seasons reversed Down Under, we visitors from the Northern Hemisphere can escape winter blahs to enjoy summer fun. Jet lag is only 3 hours from western America (Pacific Standard Time, PST) to New Zealand Daylight Time (NZDT).
On New Zealand’s North Island:
- Experience active Maori culture (Tamaki Maori Village) amid a colorful landscape of hot springs and geothermal features (Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland) around Rotorua.
- Explore spectacular volcanoes (such as Tongariro, Taranaki, and White Island). We loved the Tongariro Crossing, a spectacular and very popular volcanic traverse.
- The more-populous North Island is big enough for wilderness escapes: a day hike along Panekiri Bluff samples the best of the 4-day Lake Waikaremoana Great Walk.
- Appreciate unique birds, animals, and wildlife on these ecological islands: Otorohanga Kiwi House & Native Bird Park lets you see nocturnal kiwis during the day. A fun boat tour of Waitomo Glowworm Caves reveals a fascinating insect which shines like a star.
- See the world’s second largest tree species (Kauri) in Northland Forest Park, Waipoua.
- In Auckland, visit the Auckland Museum if you are not able to see Te Papa Museum in Wellington (or vice versa); both are great. Also good are Kelly Tarlton’s Underwater World; MOTAT (Museum of Transportation and Technology) and Science Center; and the Auckland Zoo
On New Zealand’s South Island, our favorite wilderness escape abroad:
- Hike well-maintained trails through lush native beech rain forest to an abrupt, surprisingly-low-elevation timberline around 1250 meters in the Southern Alps, with permanent snowline above 2000 meters, capped with scenic glaciers. The delightful alpine zone is patrolled by the clownish kea, the world’s only alpine parrot. Admire hanging glaciers and waterfalls in a day hike along the amazing Rob Roy Valley Track.
- Preventable sandfly bites are the only negative about tramping on the wet side of the Southern Alps.
- Admire glacier-covered Mount Cook which rises abruptly like a knife to 3724 meters or 12,218 feet (updated in 2013). Although it poses a daunting challenge for climbers, you can easily see Mount Cook from roads and good hiking trails (Sealy Tarns, Hooker Valley Track, and Lake Matheson boardwalk). Mount Cook is the world’s 39th most prominent peak relative to its surrounding topography.
- Walk to Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers, which extend tongues of ice uniquely into lush temperate rainforest, down to 300 meters (980 feet) above sea level.
- Admire the wild and scenic seacoast (Punakaiki Pancake Rocks, Nydia Track, Queen Charlotte Track, and Nugget Point) and spectacular fiords / fjords (drive to Milford Sound then cruise or sea kayak).
- For a change of pace in Nelson, don’t miss the visual feast of WOW, the World of Wearable Art & Classic Cars Museum.
- At Christchurch Airport, see the fascinating International Antarctic Center exhibits, multi-media show, and sea spider aquarium.
Throughout the country, hike (tramp) along excellent trails (Tracks) and Walkways, optionally staying overnight in convenient refuges (Huts).
- Our favorite multi-day wilderness tracks with overnight huts include: Rees-Dart Track, Routeburn Track, Gillespie Pass Circuit including Siberia Hut to Crucible Lake (The Siberia Experience), Tuatapere Hump Ridge Track, Hollyford Track, Kepler Track, Milford Track, and Pouakai Track (Mount Egmont/Taranaki).
- Planes, buses, tour boats, jet boats, and water taxis efficiently assist one-way hikes or round-trip tours.
- Relax or hike on a variety wonderful beaches on South Island (such as Abel Tasman National Park and Moeraki Boulders) and North Island (Coromandel Peninsula, Ninety Mile Beach, and many more).
More natural wonders worldwide
My wife Carol and I enjoy escaping urban areas to athletically explore natural wonders. We especially love the mystery and beauty mountains. Below are some highlights from each continent we’ve visited.
The “favorite” links in this article are a subset of my complete SITE MAP: INDEX of PhotoSeek contents.
Trains and lifts make the majestic Alps the world’s easiest mountains to visit with public transportation.
- Visit spectacular Switzerland for an ideal mountain vacation in one of the world’s safest and most democratic countries. Admirably, the Swiss love nature, preserve diverse cultural traditions in four official languages, and exemplify progressive values.
- The stunning Dolomites of Italy make a perfect hiking trip combined with romantic Venice, via its convenient airport. The Dolomiti range may be the world’s most impressive concentration of knife-shaped peaks served with ski resort lifts convenient for summer hikers. You can easily day hike (staying in comfortable three-star hotels reached by rental car or bus), or trek long distances from hut to hut (sleeping in rifugio dormitories), or climb exciting via ferrata routes.
On hiking trips in 2011 and 1981, the beautiful fjords, mountains, and people of Norway touched my heart deeply. Foreign language poses no barrier for kindred spirits (plus most Norwegians speak English). Experience natural wonders, charm, culture, and history within the world’s most democratic country.
While Greece is well worth visiting (especially romantic Santorini Island and the rugged northern mountains of Zagori), the exotic Republic of Turkey offers more variety, the friendliest people, and spans 9000 years of history.
The magnificent Himalaya in Nepal impresses you with diverse human cultures living on the flanks of soaring summits. Due to the country’s relatively poor health conditions, wash hands frequently and be careful what you eat.
- The Canadian Rockies rival any mountains in the world for breathtaking natural beauty, easily reached on paved highways, great for bicycling.
- Big and brawny, the USA has an abundance of world-class natural wonders. The West is best:
- Utah has the world’s best concentration of slot canyons, natural arches, and colorful desert canyon country favored with mostly sunny weather, great in Spring and Fall. As of 2020, Utah has attracted me to visit 19 times, more than any other area in the world! Extend your visit to nearby wonders in Arizona (such as Grand Canyon of the Colorado River) in Southwest USA.
- Washington (my home base) is one of the most ecologically and scenically diverse states in the USA.
- Yellowstone (Wyoming) has the world’s best concentration of geysers and geothermal features.
- Montana‘s Glacier National Park is a hiking paradise on the wildly spectacular Rocky spine of North America.
- Hawaii offers some of the best hiking in the world, with striking natural beauty attracting me six times (as of 2017).
- Alaska hosts the rugged margins of American culture in a superlative, wild landscape.
Ecuador offers incredible variety, from the Andes Highlands to the Galapagos Islands, a wondrous adventure for children and adults. Families and wildlife lovers should put the wonderful Galapagos Islands at the top of their dream travel list. This fabulous eco-adventure attracted me thrice as a warm escape from Seattle’s wet winter and early spring (April 8-27, 2009; February 21-March 3, 1994; and January 12-26, 1986).
Argentina and Chile are beautiful and varied, making a great reverse-season escape to summer (January-March) away from the Northern Hemisphere’s winter. Buenos Aires, “the Paris of the South,” attracts we lovers of Tango music and dancing. The wild beauty of Cerro Fitz Roy and Torres del Paine brought me back for a repeat visit in 2020, which added a driving loop from Bariloche to Tronador volcano to the new Patagonia National Park. Argentina is much bigger than New Zealand, requiring more travel time between sights, from Mendoza wine region and Iguassu Falls (both not yet seen) to Patagonia.
Pristine Antarctica is remote, very cold, yet alluring − best seen in combination with a trip to Patagonia (southern Chile or Argentina), where you board a ship from the port of Ushuaia, on the Island of Tierra del Fuego, Argentina. 10 days is the shortest cruise to the scenic Antarctic Peninsula; we cruised for 12 days. Find a ship with the fewest passengers (90-130) to increase your land excursion time. Don’t forget a prescription medicine patch to prevent motion sickness across the rough Drake Passage (5 days round trip on treacherous seas). If affordable, extend your voyage (22 days) to spectacular South Georgia Island to see vast colonies of Emperor Penguins.
Big countries such as Australia require many extra transit days via ground transportation to reach the highlights. Save time by coordinating multiple internal flights with rental cars and practical campervan rentals. Carol and I escaped Seattle’s winter for 7.5 weeks exploring some great forest parks in southern Australian summer, January 26-March 18, 2004. We most enjoyed Australia’s exotic animals and plants. We returned in 2023 to see a total solar eclipse and explore northern regions including Cairns, Kimberley, Darwin, and Kakadu plus Indonesia (Komodo dragons and Kelimutu).
In a nutshell, New Zealand has been our favorite country to visit outside of the USA. Five visits to New Zealand satisfied my curiosity.
After our most recent visit to New Zealand in 2019, I was most excited about returning to hikes in the European Alps. After a solo trip in 2023 to Bavaria, Tyrol, and the Dolomites filled some missing corners — my seventh extensive adventure in the Alps — I felt comfortably sated.
My inner drive for travel still yearns to see what’s over the far horizon and around the next corner. In February 2024, I’ll visit Africa for the first time, climbing Mounts Meru and Kenya and enjoying safari adventures in Tanzania and Kenya.
When we’re not flying abroad, North America inspires many RV trips, especially in the West. In November 2023, we’ll sell the 4.5-year-old RV and switch to renting one as needed — to save on maintenance, storage, time, and money. Many fun rentable camping vehicles exist in Seattle and worldwide. Yearly tax, licensing and insurance on our owned recreational vehicle could pay for 11 days of an equivalent RV rental. In fact, an owned RV needs to be used about 10+ weeks per year to break even costwise.
International travel opens our outlook on a diverse world of wonders and human commonalities. I find that most people worldwide enjoy hosting guests and employing the Golden Rule, the ethic of reciprocity — to treat others as oneself wants to be treated.
More New Zealand images
Tramper Carol hikes on sandy Mutton Cove Beach, along the Abel Tasman Coastal Track, Abel Tasman National Park, South Island, New Zealand. Book huts using the Great Walk reservation system. (© Tom Dempsey / Photoseek.com)
Recommended Guidebooks from Amazon.com
Search for latest “New Zealand travel” books at Amazon.com.
We optimize our valuable travel time with good guides:
- Lonely Planet New Zealand 20 (Travel Guide) Paperback – Folded Map, April 20, 2021: carry this essential guide on the trip.
- Lonely Planet Hiking & Tramping in New Zealand (Travel Guide) – 2018. Carry along this good backpacking and hut-walking planner.
- New Zealand, National Geographic Adventure Map, 3500 – Folded Map, January 1, 2019
Beautiful, glossy books for planning trips, making handsome souvenirs (heavier than above):
- Lonely Planet Discover New Zealand (Travel Guide) Paperback – 2018: LP’s “Discover” series is on handsome, heavy glossy paper, a good souvenir, helpful for trip planning.
- DK Eyewitness Travel Guide New Zealand Paperback – 2018: is another attractive, well-researched guide series on heavy photo paper.
- Lonely Planet’s Ultimate Travel List 2 2: The Best Places on the Planet …Ranked Hardcover – Illustrated, 2020
- Explore Europe on Foot: Your Complete Guide to Planning a Cultural Hiking Adventure by Cassandra Overby – Paperback – 2018: highly recommended by Tom for both inspiration and practical details for planning your next walking adventure
Regarding smartphones — with great power comes great responsibility (as says the Greek “Sword of Damocles” anecdote, and more recently, Marvel Comics’ Spider-Man). Sadly, monetized social media has often enabled extreme memes to shout-down both civility and reality itself. To my relief, Canadian psychologist Steven Pinker restores our faith in the triumph of public good in his important books: