virtuoso global June 2019 New Zealand: Four Seasons, Four Dream-Trip Itineraries

New Zealand: Four Seasons, Four Dream-Trip Itineraries

Come to New Zealand for the legendary snow sports, but stay for the culture, wildlife, cuisine, and more.
Come to New Zealand for the legendary snow sports, but stay for the culture, wildlife, cuisine, and more.
Photo by Julian Apse
Here’s how to conquer the country any time of year – from adrenaline-fueled outdoor winter sports to local seafood festivals in spring. 

When New Zealand filmmaker Peter Jackson cast Middle-earth for his Lord of the Rings trilogy, he looked to his own backyard, with its ancient trees, rolling green hills, and imposing mountains. But the island country’s success as a movie set pales next to its allure as a travel destination. For adventure, landscape, and lifestyle, New Zealand ticks all the boxes – any time of the year.

“New Zealand offers some of the world’s best hotels, paired with unpretentious service, locally and ethically sourced food, world-class wine, and insane landscapes,” says Virtuoso travel advisor Alexandra Erdman. “Add adrenaline-filled activities, leisurely outings, and fantastic infrastructure – it’s a home run destination.”

Like Middle-earth, New Zealand might seem like a tough-to-get-to destination, but it’s closer than you think, with nonstop flights and same-day connections available from Los Angeles, San Francisco, Honolulu, Vancouver, and Houston. (Pro tip: The nonstop Air New Zealand overnight flight from Chicago jets travelers from the Windy City to Auckland in 15 hours flat.)

Once on the ground, let the fun and fascination begin, no matter the season.

Before You Go: What to Know (No Matter the Time of Year) 

Here’s the geography lowdown: New Zealand consists of two main islands (the North Island and the South Island) and dozens of towns. Getting around is easy, whether by plane, boat, train, car, or van. (Pop culture fans, take note: Before she became the Duchess of Sussex, Meghan Markle explored the South Island in a camper van.) Travelers will find myriad accommodation styles throughout the country, from eco-camping and glamping to boutique hotels and elegant lodges such as Otahuna Lodge, Huka Lodge, and The Farm at Cape Kidnappers. Looking for a highlight? Experience the high-country ambience of Minaret Station Alpine Lodge, set in a glacial valley accessible via helicopter only. (At the lodge’s Mountain Kitchen, try the Te Mana lamb, a regional alpine breed that rivals Wagyu beef in marbling.)

In the summer, The Farm at Cape Kidnappers’ conservation team leads small group tours focused on the endangered flightless kiwi, New Zealand’s national bird.
In the summer, The Farm at Cape Kidnappers’ conservation team leads small group tours focused on the endangered flightless kiwi, New Zealand’s national bird.
Photo by Cape Kidnappers
Visitors to New Zealand can make the Tiaki Promise, an initiative that promotes cultural respect and preservation of nature. Tiaki means “to care for people and place” in Maori. Traditional Maori beliefs hold that if you look after the land, the land will look after you. This give-back ideology connects all Kiwis. Virtuoso travel advisor Kathy Bernstein remarks on the “kinder, gentler airport experience,” and adds, “It’s one country for all ages, ideal for multigeneration, memory-making trips.”

Winter: Ski Resorts, Hot Springs, and Heli-Hiking

When to Travel: June through August

What to Do: New Zealand’s snow sports are legendary: The South Island has five ski resorts in the vicinity of Queenstown alone. Mount Cook, in the heart of New Zealand’s South Island, offers boutique runs, with stargazing, hot springs, and scenic flights on the side. On the east side of the island, visitors can mix Christchurch’s city comforts with Mount Hutt’s skiing and snowboarding. Still not satisfied? Mount Ruapehu on the North Island has a skiable volcano, where you can try out halfpipes on old lava flows.

Travel to New Zealand in the winter months means fewer crowds away from the ski slopes, and more space to enjoy the roads and their popular pit stops. You’ll also avoid lines at hot springs and crowds at Milford Sound, two big perks. This is the place to push outside your comfort zone. “Driving the four-wheel-drive Polaris Rangers at Helena Bay was a blast, as was learning to fly-fish at Huka Lodge,” says Virtuoso travel advisor Gena Stoll. “Helicopters became my vehicle of choice – especially over Milford Sound.”

You’ll need a trusty set of crampons for ice hiking the surreal Fox Glacier.
You’ll need a trusty set of crampons for ice hiking the surreal Fox Glacier.
Hiking is another unexpected activity that comes into its own during winter. In the west region of the South Island, Franz Josef Glacier and Fox Glacier top must-do lists for heli-hiking and ice climbing. Or, channel your inner Sir Edmund Hillary with dogsled or snowmobile tours, snow and ice driving experiences, and snow tubing at ski hot spots around the country.

Don’t Miss: Wildlife enthusiasts head to the eastern shores of the South Island to spot humpback, blue, or southern right whales migrating near the coastal town of Kaikoura. (If you miss this natural phenomenon, look instead for male sperm whales: They frequent this area year-round, attracted to rare sea currents and rich marine food.)

Craving culture? Book it to the Wellington Jazz Festival in the nation’s capital, located on the southern end of the North Island, in early June for its high-caliber headliners, such as Herbie Hancock. Later that month, the Queenstown Winter Festival throws a ten-day party packed with fireworks, music, and comedy acts.

Spring: Waterfalls and Road Trips

When to Travel: September through November

What to Do: This time of year, the days are crisp and sunny. On the North Island, gardens bloom with bluebells and fans of the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies can experience bucolic life in “the Shire” at the Hobbiton Movie Set. The rising temperatures also give cause to marvel at the country’s large collection of gorgeous waterfalls, from Bridal Veil Falls in the Waikato area of the North Island to Bowen Falls, a 528-foot rush of roaring water, on the South Island.

In spring, the Hobbiton Movie Set blooms with life – and maybe a few hobbits.
In spring, the Hobbiton Movie Set blooms with life – and maybe a few hobbits.
Photo by Ian Brodie
Later in the season, around November, car and camper van rates are low, and hiking and cycling tracks are dry and uncrowded. Translation: Now is the time for a road trip. Start in Auckland, head for the underground caving adventures and glowworm sightings at Waitomo Caves, and discover the geothermal laboratory of bubbling mud pools and spouting geysers, as well as Maori culture and history, at the town of Rotorua on the North Island.

To stretch your legs, lace up for one New Zealand’s ten Great Walks, a network of walking paths throughout the country that showcase dramatic landscapes and serene stretches of wildlife. The newest addition opens this December as the tenth Great Walk: The 34-mile Paparoa Track, on the South Island, is designed for both mountain bikers and hikers.

Don’t Miss: Wellington, New Zealand’s hilly, colorful capital, is home to fine museums and galleries, street art, vintage clothing, irresistible mementos, and the signature flat white coffee. Film and TV aficionados should take a tour of Weta Workshop, a special-effects studio famous for its work on dozens of films, including Avatar and Lord of the Rings. Farther north, in the Hawke’s Bay region, art deco lovers will enjoy exploring the town of Napier, which was extensively rebuilt in this distinctive architectural style after an earthquake in 1931.

Summer: Bays, Beaches, and Gnarly Surf Breaks

When to Travel: December through February

In New Zealand, you’re never far from the sea, and during summer this means beach picnics, kayaking, snorkeling, sailing, and swimming. Learn to ride a board or polish your skills at world-respected North Island surf destinations such as the Taranaki coastline, the Mount Maunganui beaches, or the black-sand Raglan surf spot, home to the world’s longest left-hand break.

The wild Great Barrier Island, northeast of Auckland, is the largest of the Hauraki Gulf islands, with imposing cliffs, white surf beaches, sheltered harbors, and sandy bays – ideal for both action and relaxation.

Don’t Miss: Down on the South Island’s Banks Peninsula, stroll the streets of quaint coastal Akaroa, a town that began as a French-British settlement nested in the crater of an ancient volcano. The downtown buzzes with historic architecture, art, and cafés, but this is a prime base for watching nearby wildlife, too. Akaroa waters host the rare Hector dolphin, one of the world’s smallest dolphins and endemic to New Zealand. The nearby Pohatu Marine Reserve is home to the miniature white-flippered and rare yellow-eyed penguins.

Keep your eyes peeled for the rare Hector dolphin’s distinct rounded dorsal fin.
Keep your eyes peeled for the rare Hector dolphin’s distinct rounded dorsal fin.
Photo by Graeme Murray

Autumn: Wine Harvest, Golf, and Creatures of the Sea

When to Travel: March through May

During the fall, taste the best food and wine New Zealand offers. The country’s diverse wine-growing regions stretch more than 1,000 miles, from the subtropical Northland region down to chilly Central Otago, where some of the world’s southernmost grapevines, largely pinot noir, flourish. (You might even bump into actor Sam Neill, who moonlights as Two Paddocks’ owner and winemaker.) Marlborough, the country’s signature region, produces flinty, characteristic sauvignon blanc, while Hawke’s Bay, the second-largest wine region, with more than 70 wineries, turns out world-respected cabernet sauvignon, merlot, syrah, and other reds. Harvest season takes place now, so get to the wineries before the grape picking begins.

Rippon Vineyard in Central Otago glows with late-day autumn sunlight.
Rippon Vineyard in Central Otago glows with late-day autumn sunlight.
Photo by David Wall
It’s also a great time for seafood. In March, taste green-lipped mussels as big as your hand at the Havelock Mussel and Seafood Festival. Rare Bluff oysters, found only on the southern tip of the South Island off the port town of Bluff, take center stage at the annual Bluff Oyster and Food Festival in May. In this quirky seaside setting, listen to live music and cheer on oyster-shucking competitors out in the brisk ocean air – or simply enjoy feasting on fresh abalone, scallops, blue cod, and many, many oysters. Seafaring enthusiasts will enjoy the Bluff Maritime Museum, which is filled with fascinating whaling artifacts, relics from early European settlements, and chilling shipwreck tales.

Don’t Miss: The month of March attracts both recreational and competitive golfers. The BMW ISPS Handa New Zealand Golf Open is played at two of the country’s finest links, the Hills and Millbrook Resort courses on the South Island. To escape some of the crowds, head to 18-hole Cape Kidnappers Golf Course, a series of cliff-side fairways designed by legendary golf architect Tom Doak as part of The Farm at Cape Kidnappers lodge.

“The sunsets at Cape Kidnappers were among the most beautiful I’ve ever seen, as was the colony of gannets there,” Stoll says. “Every place we went in New Zealand seemed more beautiful than the last.”

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