10 ways to experience New Zealand’s wild side
The flightless kiwi bird is one of New Zealand’s most iconic residents. But the country has a lot more to offer in the way of wildlife.
There are thousands of sea creatures, reptiles and other impressive birds that call the islands home. Here’s a selection of some of the best places to get a taste of New Zealand’s wild side.
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1. Whale and dolphin safari, Auckland
Auckland's Waitemata Harbour is not just a playground for yachts — it’s also a maritime reserve home to 25 different sea-loving mammals.
The 4.5-hour voyage departs from the Viaduct in downtown Auckland, and while every trip is different, it’s almost guaranteed you’ll be treated to the sight of dolphins leaping through the bow wave. Whales are also a common sight.
Better yet, the enterprise is dedicated to conservation. The boat itself is a research vessel, runs on biodiesel and has developed a range of environmentally sustainable practices.
Adults NZ$155 (US$130), children NZ$105.
2. Auckland Zoo
The country’s largest zoo, just a short bus ride from central Auckland, is recognized as one of the world’s most progressive, supporting a range of national and international conservation projects.
As well as crowd-pleasers like lions, tigers and elephants in habitats that are as close to natural as a caged environment can provide, the zoo hosts a range of native fauna, including kiwis and tuataras — a reptilian “living fossil” with a photo-receptive “third eye” on its forehead.
In the summer, the popular Zoo Music fund-raiser stages concerts by groups ranging from the electronica-tinged Sola Rosa to the Auckland Philharmonic.
Zoo entrance for a family is NZ$36.
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3. Kelly Tarlton’s Underwater World, Auckland
Founded by New Zealand’s equivalent of Jacques Cousteau, this charming aquarium on Auckland’s waterfront offers a trip through the Pacific and Southern oceans via a subterranean transparent tunnel.
Visitors can also hand-feed stingrays or get up close to the marine life with different encounter sessions — including a half-day dive course that starts in the tropical waters of the main aquarium and progresses to the shark tank, where you’ll meet with broadnose sevengill, school and wobbegong (carpet) sharks.
General admission starts at NZ$17 for children, NZ$34 for adults.
4. Wilderness Lodge, Arthur’s Pass
If you’d prefer experiencing the country’s flora and fauna without roughing it, this eco-sensitive South Island alpine lodge is the way to go.
Staying in sustainable luxury accommodation — without TVs or cell phone reception — visitors are introduced to the surrounding environment through the lodge’s walking networks and an activity schedule, which ranges from kayaking to sheep shearing on a high-country merino farm.
Each activity comes with delicious home baking or packed lunches, and don’t miss dinner — featuring local produce — in the restaurant overlooking Mount Rolleston and other peaks.
Rates start at NZ$399 per person for a mountain-view room, and NZ$499 per person for a luxury alpine lodge.
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5. Whale watching, Kaikoura
The deep undersea canyons close to the shore of this small South Island township are a breeding ground for squid and whales — and the latter have become the town’s biggest draw card.
Whale watching continues year-round, the most commonly sighted being huge sperm whales, which build up their strength in the nutrient-rich waters before swimming north to mate.
Another local highlight is the iconic Nin’s Bin, a caravan serving up crayfish straight off the boats for a picnic lunch. Kaikoura Coastal Campgrounds in nearby Goose Bay offers sites with a view of the waves –- as well as visiting seals and dolphins.
Whale Watch offers trips for NZ$145 per adult, with an 80 percent refund if no whales are spotted.
6. Muriwai Gannet Colony
Next to the 60-kilometer, black sand Muriwai Beach, you’ll find a viewing platform overlooking this protected colony of sea birds nesting on a peninsula and two vertical-sided islands out at sea.
Around 1,200 pairs of gannets nest here centimeters apart, taking it in turns to protect a single egg, resulting in an entertaining, bickering cacophony of avian families.
The colony is part of Muriwai Regional Park, which includes a range of walking tracks, access to native forest, picnic areas and some of the best examples of pillow lava in the world.
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7. Shark Cage Experience, Gisborne
For anyone with a steely disposition, this outfit at the pristine coastal town of Gisborne gives visitors the opportunity to get up close and personal with mako and blue sharks in the wild.
Diving experience is not necessary, as the underwater trips are provided with a floating cage — all you need do is don a snorkel and mask and duck your head beneath the surface.
NZ$310 per person and NZ$150 per spectator.
8. Wingspan Falcon Rehab center, Rotorua
New Zealand’s only center for birds of prey cares for sick, injured and orphaned raptors, including falcons, harriers and the native morepork, a type of owl with a distinctive night call which gave rise to its name.
As well as releasing the birds back into the wild, the center raises public awareness, conducting captive breeding programs and research into their habitat.
The center is located about two hours' drive from Auckland and 10 minutes' from Rotorua in Paradise Valley Road, Ngongotaha.
The center, which includes a museum and aviaries, recommends visitors arrive at 1.30 p.m. as flight displays begin at 2 p.m. All tours are arranged by appointment.
Adults NZ$25, Children NZ$8.
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9. Tiritiri Matangi sanctuary
The subject of a huge conservation and revegetation effort in the 1980s and 1990s, the small island of Tiritiri Matangi, now managed by the Department of Conservation, is notable for the endangered birds — including the kiwi and takahe — it has managed to reintroduce, along with 76 other native species.
It lies four kilometers off the Whangaparoa Peninsula, and is accessible by a ferry run by 360 Discovery from Auckland (NZ$66) or nearby Gulf Harbour (NZ$49).
10. Kiwi-spotting, Kapiti
Kapiti Island offers your best chance to see New Zealand’s iconic flightless bird in the wild. Just off the west coast of the lower north island (the closest city is the capital, Wellington), the island adjoins the Kapiti marine reserve and is home to a large number of native birds and other wildlife.
Given the kiwi is nocturnal, the only way to see them is after dusk.
Kapiti Island Nature Tours runs an overnight, guided trip to the island that includes all permits, transport, accommodation, meals and briefings by experienced guides.
Prices start at NZ$265 per adult.