Without a doubt, New Zealand is the most immaculate country I have ever been to. When I think of New Zealand, I think of rolling green hills, snow-capped mountains, ice-blue glacial lakes, neon colored geothermal pools, cascading waterfalls, distinctive wildlife and an overall sense of bliss. There are so many wonderful things to see and do in this country, it’s difficult to know where to begin. Here’s my list of the top 8 coolest places in New Zealand that are very easy to visit as a solo traveler!
South Island Destinations:
1. Lake Tekapo
Lake Tekapo is a glacial-fed lake with clear, ice-blue water, a smooth stone bottom and gentle banks which eventually slope upward into picturesque snow-capped mountains. A simple stone church, The Church of the Good Shepherd built in 1935, serves as a symbol of “quiet strength” and rests on the edge of the lake with an eternal view of some of the most picturesque landscape I’ve ever seen. In the spring and summer (September-February), Lupin Flowers bloom by the thousands, only adding to the idyllic quality of this place. Apparently, the best time to see Lupin flowers in bloom at Lake Tekapo is from December-January.
Beware: I have read that it can get very crowded here during this time, so if you’re looking for that perfect photograph, get there early and be patient.
This is Where the Best Stargazing in the World Happens
Lake Tekapo and the surrounding area falls within The Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve, which is the largest dark sky reserve in the world. That means that this is where some of the best stargazing on the planet happens. My first night here, I stepped outside to take a look up at the night sky and was utterly astounded by what I saw. From horizon to horizon on all sides, every inch of sky was covered in stars. It was so clear that I could clearly define the edges of the milky way galaxy, the star clusters within and the dark gaseous nebulae between them. I wish I had the words to convey how unequivocally amazing this sight was, but this is something you just have to see for yourself! If you’re interested in learning more about the night sky, a local company, Earth and Sky offers a variety of stargazing tours, including one focused on Astrophotography at The Church of the Good Shepherd.
2. Mount Cook
The Hooker Valley Track is a scenic trail that leads you through wide valleys of rolling hills, across swinging bridges and over rushing mountain rivers towards a glacial lake at the foot of Mount Cook, with views of the Tasman glacier in the distance. You most certainly do not have to be a hiker to experience this walk as it is not overly strenuous. In fact, I would recommend it to just about anyone looking to spend some time in New Zealand’s stunning outdoor wonderland. I also wouldn’t be wary about completing this walk alone, because it is a very popular track with lots of other hikers.
Queenstown is largely considered the adventure capital of the world. From snowboarding to waterskiing to bungee jumping, Queenstown has an activity to suit any activity level and desired thrill. While most of these activities are pretty touristy, they are fun and exciting in ways that you don’t get to experience every day! When in Queenstown, I say let your guard down and try something that scares you a little bit, you might surprise yourself.
Even if you’re not much of an adventure seeker, Queenstown is a gorgeous city with so much to offer. It’s a great place to simply relax and take in the scenery. For example, The Onsen Hot Pools offer private hot spas situated high on top of a cliff that overlook an absolutely breathtaking river and canyon below. There are also a number of wine tours you can embark on that allow you to experience both the gorgeous environment, and fine food and wine.
4. Milford Sound
Milford Sound, located inside Fiordland National Park on New Zealand’s southwestern coast, looks like it belongs in a Jurassic Park movie. Steep, jagged cliffs thousands of feet tall, enormous waterfalls, dark emerald waters and typically moody skies give Milford Sound an almost prehistoric quality. In this place, it’s easy to imagine what the world must have looked like before humans traversed the earth. Interestingly, Milford Sound is actually not a sound, but a fiord (or fjord). The difference between the two is that a sound is formed by a river, and a fiord is formed by a glacier. The best way to experience this tranquil inlet hidden amongst thriving rainforest is by taking one of the many day cruises offered.
You should know: Milford Sounds is not exactly easy to get to. The road up there is very winding and somewhat mountainous. However, it sounds much more menacing than it is. To me, getting to Milford Sound was half the fun because the scenery along this road is absolutely breathtaking. As long as you drive a comfortable speed, check the weather conditions beforehand and pay attention to the posted signs, this road is not scary. However, if you aren’t comfortable with the idea of driving yourself, there are a number of tour companies that offer transport to Milford Sound from the nearby towns of both Ta Anau and Queenstown.
As Te Anau is much closer to Milford Sound than Queensland, my advice would be to stay in Te Anau and take a day trip to Milford Sound. The drive is approximately 2 hours each way, so your best bet would be to book a fiord cruise around late morning so that you give yourself enough time to drive there, enjoy your cruise, and come back before it gets dark.
Alternatively, I have heard wonderful things about Doubtful Sound which is even more remote, less touristy and more serene than it’s more famous cousin, Milford Sound. If you’re interested in a more immersive nature experience, visiting Doubtful Sound might be something you should consider!
North Island Destinations:
5. Waitomo Glow Worm Caves
My absolute favorite experience on the North Island happened deep beneath the sleepy town of Waitomo where I embarked on a guided tour of an intricate system of limestone caves. These caves are filled with stalactite and stalagmite formations ranging in size from a few millimeters tall to floor-to-ceiling columns of mineral deposits formed over thousands of years by steadily dripping water. Some areas of the cave opened up into vast arenas which were like nature’s version of an acoustically perfected amphitheater. As we ventured deeper into the cave we came to an underground river, a small boat, and total darkness.
This was what I came to New Zealand’s North Island for!
A local Maori guide, who clearly knew this cave like the back of her hand, guided the boat using nothing but a system of overhead ropes. As my eyes adjusted to the blackness, I became overwhelmed by the sight of thousands of tiny blue lights covering the ceilings of the cave like the stars of the milky way galaxy. In reverent silence, we drifted below this miniature cosmos of “glow worms”. These seemingly simple creatures emit light using bioluminescence in a fantastical display of what I truly believe to be one of nature’s most mesmerizing displays of innate beauty. Though these tiny lights were nothing more than mosquito larvae, they transformed this cave into a mystical, magical world of its own. I was so enthralled with the wonder of this place, I was moved to tears. It felt like standing inside the most beautiful cathedral you’ve seen in your life. All I can say is nature is powerful in more ways than we know.
Note: Upon doing a bit of research, I have learned that you can see glow worms in the town of Te Anau on the South Island as well!
Imagine the lush green hills for miles around dotted with wildflowers and herds of sleepy, grazing sheep … add a few secret doorways and you’ve found Hobbiton.
The majority of The Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies were filmed in New Zealand. Peter Jackson, director of both of these series of films, decided that New Zealand was the best backdrop he could find for a story that needed to take place somewhere out-of-this-world. Jackson was diligent in his search for the perfect landscape for each and every scene. While on a quest for what one might consider the most idyllic landscape in the world, he came across a 1,250 square-foot sheep farm owned by a local family, and that was where Hobbiton was built.
Hobbiton was to serve as the set for “The Shire”, a safe-haven for a peaceful and simple life for the Hobbits who lived there. This sanctuary was characterized by quiet ponds, modest gardens, olden oaks, winding pathways, cobblestone bridges, meandering streams, a local pub and of course, “Hobbit holes”. In the movies and books, Hobbit holes were homes built within the rolling greens hills of The Shire that could be accessed through whimsical, colorful circular doors.
This fictional land was literally brought to life thanks to the vision and painstaking attention to detail of Peter Jackson and his massive film crew (which included the New Zealand army). With the exception of the hobbit holes, whose doors don’t actually lead anywhere, and one massive oak tree made of wire and hand-painted artificial leaves, everything on this set is real. The trees, the ponds, the pub, the sheep; even the plants in the gardens are all real. Hobbiton is still tended to today thanks to the booming niche tourism industry that has sprung up as a result.
Even for those who aren’t Lord of the Rings or Hobbit fans, visiting Hobbiton is a chance to delve into what feels like another world and immerse yourself in the quintessential meandering landscape of the New Zealand countryside.
7. Hot Water Beach
While staying on the Coromandel Peninsula near Auckland, I heard rumors about a beach where hot water wells up from beneath the sand, which essentially means that you can dig your own personal hot spring on the shore of the Pacific Ocean.
If you have any desire to experience the famed Hot Water Beach, there are a few things you should know:
There is only a thin section of beach that rests on top of the underground river which feeds this beach. This means that finding a spot to dig can get very competitive. Apparently, during the summer, Hot Water Beach sees hundreds of visitors every day. A surprising number of people were there during my visit during the winter which turned out to be a delightful time to visit as the hot water was a nice contrast to the crisp cool air! No matter what time of year you visit, this is a one-of-a-kind experience that should not be missed!
The excitement of digging in the sand an discovering hot water is very rewarding, but it takes a bit of trial and error to find the perfect spot. In some places the water comes out of the ground way too hot, and some places are lukewarm at best. Finding the ideal temperature to suit you will take a bit of digging, but it’s worth it!
Hot Water Beach can only be accessed within 2 hours of low tide, so if this is something you’d like to do, make sure you check to see when low tide will occur.
Hot Water Beach is not far from the coastal walk leading to Cathedral Cove, an iconic, secluded beach characterized by a massive cathedral-like tunnel carved by the powerful wind and water brought on by the ocean.
While some of the most interesting geothermal phenomenon in the world can be found all over New Zealand, there is one small town that is known for it. Rotorua is home to an entire geothermal wonderland including mineral-rich hot springs, ferocious geysers, and restorative mud baths. Beyond all the geothermal activity, Rotorua houses spectacular scenery and boasts a lively Maori cultural scene.
There is certainly no shortage of activity. You can unwind and relax at Rotorua’s Polynesian Spa, take a dip in the mud at Hell’s Gate Mud Spa, wander amongst the towering Redwood trees at Redwoods Treewalk, witness rapid glacial rivers, or visit Te Puia to enjoy a spectacle of natural geothermal wonder and get a taste of Maori culture and hospitality.
I didn’t give myself nearly enough time in Rotorua, and only got to experience a handful of these things. I recommend taking your time in this city to experience a variety of activities.
Tips for solo travelers visiting New Zealand:
1. Rent a car
Renting a car in New Zealand is relatively cheap, and both islands are fairly small and easy to get around. If you have your own car, you’ll have a sense of independence. You won’t always be relying on tour busses to get you places and you’ll have the comfort in knowing that you can go wherever you want whenever you want. Furthermore, some of the most beautiful scenery I encountered on my trip to New Zealand was en-route from place to place. Having the freedom to go at my own pace and stop when I wanted was something I really loved about this trip. Just keep in mind:
Traveling from point A to point B in New Zealand may involve driving through a whole lot of nothing. Whenever possible, keep the gas tank above half full. There are stretches of road where you will see nothing but hills and sheep for miles around.
You drive on the left-hand side in New Zealand. While this might seem terrifying to some, you will adjust much quicker than you think. If I can do it, you can do it.
Pick up a physical copy of a road map or pre-download specific maps on Google Maps that you can use offline. (Click here to read my list of 6 other useful apps you can use without wifi)
2. Know Your Limits
This concept can apply to a myriad of situations that may arise while traveling solo. For instance, know how far you are comfortable driving before you get in the car. Know how many drinks you can consume without placing yourself in a vulnerable position. Know your skills when it comes to any kind of physical activity, and do not attempt to do anything alone unless you are 100% confident in your abilities. When it comes to nature walking and hiking, do your research. Know exactly how long the walk will take you, and what you will need.
3. Don’t go anywhere too remote
While some of the places listed here may seem off the beaten path, they are still very popular travel destinations. Even the “remote” road leading to Milford Sound will be populated by other cars traveling to and from this popular spot. Rest assured that you should not find yourself entirely alone in any of these destinations.
4. Consider staying in an Airbnb
Astrid Solo Travel Advisor is normally a big proponent of staying in affordable luxury hotels. Staying in a nice hotel is advantageous for a number of reasons. First of all, it is an added safety measure because nice hotels typically have high security standards and take all safety precautions. Furthermore, your accommodations while traveling, especially alone, should feel like your home away from home. If you don’t feel safe and comfortable while traveling solo, you aren’t going to enjoy your trip.
That being said, I must say that I had the chance to stay in some of the finest and most unique accommodations in New Zealand through Airbnb. On my first night in New Zealand, I stayed in a charming cottage on a family farm just outside of Lake Tekapo. It was especially cold that night, but I was delighted to find that my host had started a lovely fire inside that made this cozy cabin, decorated in a French Cottage Style, feel extra homey. The bed was equipped with fine linens and electric blankets. The bathroom featured a heated towel rack, and the kitchen was stocked with complimentary tea and coffee. When I woke up in the morning, I pealed back the curtains hiding the French doors which led to my private deck and was greeted by a sunrise over the mountains in the backyard. It was glorious.
I felt comfortable using Airbnb in New Zealand mainly because New Zealanders have a strong reputation as being some of the nicest, most welcoming people in the world. Plus, I was very choosy with my hosts; I only stayed with “Superhosts” and read many reviews before booking my stay. I stayed in Airbnbs where I had the whole place to myself as well as a few where I just had my own room, but was able to meet and socialize with my host. Each offer a different experience, and it’s up to you what kind of travel experience you’d like to have!
As an added note: Airbnb Experiences are a great way to find things to do in cities around the world that are different and unique!
5. Put down the camera
When I visited New Zealand, there were so many things I wanted to photograph because it was all so unbelievably beautiful, but I wish I would have taken more time to just be. Absolutely, take photos if you want to; it’s hard to resist. But don’t forget to take a moment to put down the camera and soak in your environment in its entirety. Challenge your senses. How does the scenery change as the light changes? What is the temperature like? How do the trees move when the wind blows? Listen to the sound of the river, the birds, people laughing, cars passing … Notice how you feel and take that feeling with you, because that is something you can always hold on to.
The best word I can think of to describe New Zealand is pristine
My trip to New Zealand left me thinking, “Wow, this world is truly magnificent.” I don’t know how New Zealand got so lucky, but some of the most beautiful nature I have ever seen can be found on these 2 tiny islands. This list is only a handful of the wonderful places to see here, but truthfully, no matter where you go or what you do, New Zealand is an absolute delight. The people are incredibly kind, the scenery is divine, and the laid-back atmosphere will leave you feeling refreshed. If you’re craving a breath of fresh air, put New Zealand on the top of your bucket list!
Enjoy this video below of the Waitomo glow worms which, truth be told, inspired me to go to New Zealand in the first place and see for myself all the incredible things this country has to offer.
If you’ve been to this wonderful country and you have any other places you’d like to share, please let us know in the comments below! Follow us on social media and listen to the Solo Travel Talk Podcast for more affordable luxury solo travel tips, tricks, stories and advice. Click on the links below!
Author: Madeline Freret
Madeline joined the Astrid Solo Travel Advisor team as a Content and Digital Marketing Manager in 2018. She believes that traveling is an essential aspect of life that allows you to see yourself, other people, places and things in a new light. She is passionate about trying new things, having a curious mind and seeking joy wherever she goes. To read more about her and each one of our Solo Travel Advisors, head over to the About page!