New Zealand is an exotic destination that seems to be high on every traveler’s list. The vast natural wonder of the country has a mythical quality that will ignite your imagination. Perhaps this is why New Zealand was used as a filming location for some of the most captivating fantasy movies of our time, including the Lord of the Rings movies, the Narnia trilogy and more recently, James Cameron’s long-anticipated sequel Avatar: The Way of Water.
New Zealand is made up of two major land masses and their surrounding islands. The two larger masses are the North Island and the South Island. New Zealand’s capital city, Wellington, and its most populated city, Auckland, each reside on the North Island. Between them, you'll find mesmerizing forests, waterfalls, beaches, caves and volcanoes.
If you are a fan of Mother Earth, New Zealand’s North Island will bring you to your knees.
Traveling in New Zealand requires a deep respect for nature and a resolve to do right by the land. Tourists who visit the country are encouraged to take the Tiaki Promise, New Zealand’s way of welcoming responsible travelers and promoting sustainability.
While traveling in New Zealand I will…
- Care for land, sea and nature. Treading lightly and leaving no trace.
- Travel safely, showing care and consideration for all.
- Respect culture, traveling with an open heart and mind.
Along with any fantastic view comes the wildlife that calls it home. The Kiwi bird, a native species from which New Zealand locals get their name, is a flightless (i.e.defenseless) bird. Kiwi numbers are rapidly declining due to deforestation and predation. New Zealand’s North Island has no native mammalian predators, but stoats, weasels and ferrets were introduced to the country in the late eighteen hundreds. Intended to take out farm pests such as rabbits, these invasive predators did their job and then some. Today, they still pose a major threat to native species across the country.
With this in mind, it should come as no surprise that traveling to New Zealand will require passing through strict customs. Here is your reminder that customs, while we can perceive them as an annoying travel logistic, are often what protects and preserves our destination. Think of customs as your opportunity to practice respect for the land and compassion toward the people who protect it.
This mindset is the perfect way to enter the magical country of New Zealand. If you approach your adventure with curiosity and respect, chances are good you'll be embraced by the locals. They take pride in showing their country to those who have proven worthy of witnessing its wonder.
There is another native New Zealand species we are dying to tell you about, but we’ll have to introduce the unmissable first. Ready to hear our one recommendation for visiting New Zealand’s North Island?
The Sherpani Unmissable recommendation for visiting New Zealand (North Island): Discover Waitomo’s Cave Tours!
Two and a half hours south of Auckland sits Waitomo, New Zealand. Home to a network of caves with endless possibilities, Discover Waitomo offers unforgettable adventures in three caves: the Aranui Cave, the Ruakuri Cave, and the Waitomo Glowworm Caves.
We love Discover Waitomo because they truly have a cave experience for everyone, from the adrenaline junkie to the nature photographer to the differently-abled explorer.
Let’s take a closer look at some of their unique experiences.
The Aranui Cave offers a calm, dry one-hour walking tour into a captivating cave that is rich with history. Inside, you’ll find ancient stalactites, narrow passages, huge echoing chambers, and fascinating limestone formations that will capture your curiosity. As you explore, you’ll be guided by one of Discover Waitomo’s expert guides, some of whom are direct descendants of the explorers who first discovered the caves. The Aranui Cave is a dry cave, so there isn’t a water source for wildlife, but that’s not to say it should be missed; the Aranui Cave has been fascinating and delighting its visitors since its discovery in 1910.
Pro Tip: Can never remember the difference between stalactites and stalagmites? Stalagmites - with an “M” - grow from the ground, like Mountains.
Next up is the Ruakuri Cave, another option for exploring with Discover Waitomo. Impressively, the Ruakuri Cave offers the only wheelchair-accessible cave experience in the Southern Hemisphere. The cave is also powered by renewable energy, as is its visitor’s center. The Ruakuri Cave features a man-made spiral entrance you can walk (or roll!) down, then embark on an hour and a half tour with your guide.
This unforgettable experience introduces you to one of New Zealand’s most otherworldly inhabitants: the glowworm.
The first thing to know about the glowworm is that it’s not actually a worm but a bioluminescent beetle. These innovative creatures live on the cave ceiling, dotting the dark stone with a universe of brilliant blue stars (like the kind you had on your ceiling growing up - but alive!). The creatures are predatory insects, they produce a long and sticky string that hangs down into the cave. As prey is attracted to the light of the glowworms, it becomes entangled in the threads, similar to a bug caught in a spider’s web.
If you're keen on capturing this magic, the Ruakuri Cave also offers a photography tour! Bring your camera into this bioluminescent world, then bring home photos from your trip to “Pandora.”
This leaves the Waitomo Glowworm Caves, and trust us, the fun is just beginning. Discover Waitomo offers three experiences in the Waitomo Glowworm Caves, and some of them will put your guts to the test.
For those of us who don’t need full-throttle thrills, Discover Waitomo offers a forty-five-minute boat ride into the “Glowworm Grotto,” a giant cavern with mesmerizing views of our new favorite insect. Float into the heart of the cave and gaze in wonder at the glowing lights above you. Think “It’s A Small World” ride at Disneyland, but underground, all-natural and in the opposite hemisphere.
Discover Waitomo also offers “black water rafting” tours for brave-hearted explorers! The two experiences are called the Black Labyrinth and the Black Abyss.
The Black Labyrinth is a three-hour in-depth exploration of the Waitomo Glowworm Caves. Your expert guide will get you geared up and prepped for what’s to come, then you’ll enter the cave on a waterway. You’ll spend parts of the tour wading, climbing, and jumping off subterranean waterfalls! You’ll also spend some time lazily floating in your inner tube, gazing upward at the glowworm-dotted caverns. The Black Labyrinth is the best of both worlds!
Looking for even more? Calling all adrenaline junkies, the Black Abyss is for you.
This five-hour black water rafting tour includes it all, and it starts out with a bang. After some above-ground practice, you will solo rappel over a hundred feet into the depths of the Ruakuri Cave. Once underground, a zip line awaits to woosh you through the darkness of this new underground world, landing you in the Waitomo Glowworm Caves. Then it’s time to take a deep breath and plunge into the cold waters (don’t worry, you’re in a wetsuit). Inner tubes are provided at this point for you to float below the glowworms and witness their incredible luminescence. You’ll wade and explore the caves on foot for a while, then hike out of the cave network by scrambling up waterfalls. It is thrilling from start to finish and will put the most adventurous traveler to the test.
Important note: The guides at Discover Waitomo are cave experts and incredible teachers, there is no prior cave experience required for this tour. They will teach you everything!
Discover Waitomo has a cave adventure for every kind of traveler. They abide by the Tiaki Promise of New Zealand and offer tourists an authentic way to connect with the natural world. Your time spent in the caves of Waitomo will be unforgettable, made in part by the nature-caring people who reside above ground there.
The magic of New Zealand will enchant you every day you spend in the country, then long after you’ve left. The underground universe of the Waitomo caves is an experience that will stay with you forever. If the time is nearing for you to cross New Zealand off your bucket list, we highly encourage you to book the trip (like, yesterday).
Ready to go?
Do you have a favorite travel story from New Zealand? Did you experience the magical caves of Waitomo? What about the black sand beaches? The active volcanoes?
We think that spending time in New Zealand’s natural world is just about as good as it gets.
The above post is part of an ongoing segment of the Sherpani Travel Blog. We want to give travelers a singular, tangible recommendation for destinations; something we deem truly unmissable. These recommendations are carefully chosen from the personal travels of the Sherpani team.
**Photos courtesy of Discover Waitomo