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Top Spots: The best places to see on your New Zealand vacation

Looking for the best places to visit on a New Zealand vacation this US winter (NZ summer)? Read on. Here are some of the most popular vacation locations in the country, known for their dramatic scenery and diverse attractions.

Swim with dolphins in the Bay of Islands

Bay of Islands

Commonly known as the ‘winterless north’ New Zealand’s Bay of Islands is made up of over 140 subtropical atolls. Renowned for its untouched beaches, abundant marine life and idyllic climate, this tropical paradise ticks all the boxes.

Spend some time sunbathing on one of many remote beaches and swim with some of the locals on an ocean safari (we recommend the Fullers Dolphin Eco Experience). If you prefer the sights of the deep, strap on a tank and explore one of two real live shipwrecks — Greenpeace flagship the Rainbow Warrior or HMNZS Canterbury. Sunk by french saboteurs in 1985, the Rainbow Warrior marks a poignant chapter in New Zealand history and is a must see for anyone wanting a unique experience.

Wander through the streets of Russell, the first European settlement and whaling port founded in 1843. Have a drink at the first licensed hotel In NZ The Duke of Marlborough, or wander up Flagstaff Hill to view the iconic flagpole - ordered chopped down three times by Maori Chief Hone Heke. Take a short drive to neighboring town, Waitangi, and learn about its historic Treaty — a contract signed in 1840 between the local Maori and European settlers dictating the terms by which New Zealand would become a British colony.

Finish your time in the Bay of Islands with a trip to Cape Reinga, the very top of the North Island. See the spectacular 90 Mile Beach, New Zealand's only ‘sand highway,’ by bus tour, as rental car companies don't allow you to drive along the beach. We recommend at least three days here to make the most of everything on offer.

Owharoa Falls in the Karangahake Gorge, The Coromandel Peninsula

Coromandel Peninsula

The Coromandel Peninsula on the North Island of New Zealand stretches 85 kilometers and separates the Hauraki Gulf from the Bay of Plenty. Home to some of the most dramatic scenery in the North Island, it is renowned for its white sandy beaches, sub-tropical rain forests and dramatic volcanic cliffs. The area is made up of several remote holiday towns, with three main population centers - Thames, the Coromandel township (spawned by the 1860’s gold-rush) and Whitianga.

Although offering a multitude of attractions both exhilarating and sedentary, there are a few key must-dos in the area that should be on any holiday bucket list. The first (in no particular order) is the Driving Creek Railway. Originally built to transport clay pottery, the small historic car takes you through native Kauri forests and impressive engineering features. If you're more the active railway type, hire a bike and spend some time on the Hauraki Rail Trail, A 2-3 day journey through the Karangahake Gorge, listed as one of the ‘14 Wonders of New Zealand’. Not that keen on a bike? Walk The Pinnacles, an 8-hour round trip through Kauri dams, tramlines, and abandoned logging pursuits. A steep jagged summit rewards you with commanding views of the entire Peninsula.

If a little rest and relaxation is required, head to Hot Water Beach and dig yourself a natural spa in the sand — which quickly fills with steaming water from underground. While you're there, drive ten minutes to Hahei beach, and walk, boat or kayak to Cathedral Cove a huge beachfront cave formed by cliffs of volcanic ash. And for those into history, a stop at Mercury Bay where Captain Cook anchored to track its planetary namesake. The museum opposite the bay is a must-see if you're interested in this kind of thing. To make the most of your time here, we recommend at least 3 nights. However, If you’re really gunning for it, it can be done in two.

Champagne Pools, the Wai-O-Tapu Geothermal Area

Rotorua

Peppered with natural hot springs, boiling mud pools and steaming geysers, Rotorua sits within one of the worlds most active volcanic regions. But geothermal landmarks aside, this city of sulphur has a rich indigenous history.

Home to several prominent Maori tribes, Rotorua is the perfect place to immerse yourself in our local culture. Spend at evening at Mitai Maori Village for a hangi dinner and Maori performance. Book in for some relaxation at the Polynesian Spa and choose between a mud wrap, coconut oil massage or private mineral pool soak - or perhaps get them all! Land in a helicopter on White Island, New Zealand's most active volcano and traverse the crater for a once-in-a-lifetime hike.

Those in need of an adrenalin rush should spend time at Agroventures Adventure Park static skydiving, bungy jumping, and ‘swooping’ on the giant swing. For a calmer day out, head up the Skyline Gondola for awe-inspiring views of the lake. While you're there, grab a night luge pass for an extra thrill. A fifty minute drive to nearby Matamata will land you directly in ‘Middle Earth’ Hobbiton, and is must see for even the most half-hearted Lord Of The Rings fans. For the die-hard however, spend the night at one of the many nearby farm stays to maximize your time in movie-land.

Round off your Rotorua stay at the Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland and see the multicolored hot springs, geysers and boiling, mud pools. To see the best of both Maori and volcanic attractions book in at least two nights here.

Takaka Hill

Nelson and the Abel Tasman region

With a mild climate, spectacular coastal scenery and access to several marine playgrounds, Nelson is the main town of Tasman, one of the fastest growing regions in New Zealand and a popular vacation destination. Located at the top of the South Island, bordering Marlborough, Nelson is known for its pristine beaches, limestone hills, untouched forests and the Abel Tasman National park. It is also home to ‘Harwoods Hole’ — the deepest vertical shaft in the southern hemisphere — well worth the visit if you have time.

Although an abundance of activities on offer both for the sedentary and those seeking a little adrenaline, there are a few key attractions in the area that should be included in any holiday. The first is the Abel Tasman Coastal Track. One of New Zealand’s Great Walks, this spectacular scenic journey stretches 60 kilometers through beach-side forest, glittering bays and crystal clear waters. Dotted with lodges and campsites along the way, you can choose to hike the track in its entirety, or just venture out for the day.

No trip to Nelson would be complete without a trip Golden Bay. Heading over Takaka hill known as ‘Marble Mountain’ there are several geological wonders well worth the visit. Stop at the Ngarua Caves and (if you haven't already) Harwoods Hole. Also not to be missed is the Te Waikoropupu Springs on the the other side of the hill. The springs are sacred to the local indigenous Maori and feature information panels along the way.

Whether you're pressed for time or have several days to fill, the Nelson Tasman region will deliver on all accounts. In an ideal world we recommend you spend at least two days here to really experience what this spectacular place has to offer.

TSS Earnslaw, Queenstown

Queenstown

Although celebrated as New Zealand's ‘adventure capital’ Queenstown offers far more than a fast paced action-packed holiday. Settled on the shores of Lake Wakatipu beneath a soaring panorama of the Remarkables Mountain Range, this alpine town is surrounded by a plethora of historic, gastronomic and scenic wonders.

Follow a trail of vines through Gibbston Valley as you sample the region’s best wine. We recommend stopping at the Chard Farm cellar door, visiting the architecturally award winning Peregrine vineyard or taking a cellar cave tour at Gibbston Valley Winery. Cruise to Walter Peak station for dinner on board 100 year old steamship, the TSS Earnslaw. While you're there, a farm tour is a must do for those not familiar with rural living.

Take some time to wander the waterfront, and grab lunch at one of the many amazing cafes and restaurants on offer. Try Vudu’s Pantry and larder or for a holiday treat go to Michelin star chef Josh Emett's Rata. Check out nearby historic Arrowtown and enhance your experience with a four wheel drive trip to Macetown — a disused gold mining settlement built in the 1800’s.Take a leisurely lakeside stroll or ride the gondola for breathtaking views.

Venture further afield into the Fiordland National Park or head over the Crown Range to Wanaka. Drive through Lord Of The Rings country or, for the real fanatic, jump aboard one of many dedicated LOTR tours.

Really want the adrenaline rush Queenstown is known for, take your pick from the Shotover Jet, Nevis Bungy, Canyon Swing, Zipline, Luge or White Water Rafting.