New Zealanders are well known for their love of the outdoors and adventure.
This country is essentially one big natural playground. I got to experience it for the first time while cruising as a guest on the new Le Laperouse luxury expedition ship to learn about the collaboration between cruise line Ponant and active travel company Backroads.
These brands have hooked up to offer active travelers great adventure cruise experiences, and New Zealand is the perfect place to see by cruise ship, especially on an itinerary that lets you get outside for hiking, kayaking and biking while stopping in ports on the nation’s North Island and South Island. This is how we experienced our multi-sport adventure with Backroads while sailing on the comfy 184-passenger Le Laperouse.
No matter how you plan to enjoy your New Zealand cruise – by being especially active or simply savoring the relaxing vibe on your ship and beautiful natural scenery — these are the ports you can expect to visit on a cruise to New Zealand.
Easily the largest city in the country, Auckland is home to 1.6 million of the country’s nearly 5 million residents. The city is located in the northern part of the North Island and offers a mix of urban activities and natural adventures.
What to do: A quick ferry ride (40 minutes) from the city terminal right next to the cruise berth gives you a scenic trip to Waiheke Island. Our Backroads group enjoyed a costal hike on this island known for plentiful vineyards. Visitors can spend the day exploring the beaches, bays and dozens of wineries on Waiheke.
Back in Auckland, cruisers will enjoy a number of excursion options. Take a tour of the Sky Tower that is the signature structure in the city skyline. You can go up to the top for 360-degree views and even try the thrilling SkyWalk or bungee jump from more than 1,000 feet up.
If you have a full day ahead of or after your cruise, you could do a tour out to Hobbiton, a film set used extensively in filming the “Lord of the Rings” movie trilogy. (Note: You can find LOTR sites throughout the country.)
A hop-on, hop-off bus tour is a great way to see a lot of Auckland’s top attractions. Other highlights include Mission Bay, Mount Eden, the Auckland War Memorial Museum and Auckland Art Gallery.
This serene town sits along the Bay of Plenty. The harbor offers easy access to a hike to the summit of nearby dormant volcano Mount Maunganui or the pretty Mount Beach.
What to do: The port of Tauranga is also a launching spot for adventures like biking and kayaking at McLaren Falls Park (which we did with Backroads) or exploring popular destinations like the Waimarino Adventure Park or the village of Rotorua, where you have access to its famed geothermal springs and other outdoors activities. You can also find a selection of small art galleries, museums and shopping opportunities in and around Tauranga.
This city sits on the east coast of the North Island and on the southern end of Hawke’s Bay in the heart of the prime wine region of New Zealand. The cruise ship terminal sits just steps away from a pretty waterfront park with an easily accessible bike/walking.
What to do: Take a trip to Cape Kidnappers Gannet Reserve to see the protected nesting sites of the Saddle and Black Reef gannet colonies. These fascinating nesting birds belong to the booby family and have been hanging out at Cape Kidnappers since the 1870s.
Other top things to do while visiting Napier: Take a coastal bike ride; book a wine tour to sample as many as the famed Hawke’s Bay varieties as possible; visit MTG Hawke’s Bay (a museum and art gallery right next to port); check out the National Aquarium of New Zealand.
New Zealand’s capital city is situated at the southern tip of the North Island, right on the Cook Strait. This location makes for consistently windy conditions. Your ship location in Wellington Harbour places you within walking distance of numerous activities in this charming city.
What to do: The marina offers wide paths that trace the waterway. Along here, you will find numerous restaurants, bars and cafes. Within an easy walk is the fascinating Museum of New Zealand Te Papa, which has amazing exhibits that highlight the history and culture of the country.
Try a Wellington Lord of the Rings tour that shows you several familiar filming sites within the city as well as production facilities that brought to life the epic odyssey that brought new attention to the beauty of New Zealand. Wellington also offers a large range of craft breweries to enjoy.
Heading to the South Island, Picton sits on the northern tip, just across the Cook Strait from Wellington. Your ship anchors in the beautiful bay just off the small waterfront village, and you tender ashore from the Queen Charlotte inlet.
What to do: Your best bet is a day cruise around Marlborough Sound area to view the rolling greens hills that embrace the stunning waterways. Or head ashore for a winery tour to taste some of the award-winning varieties from the area.
Active travelers will love the chance to take a water taxi over to the trailheads for Queen Charlotte Track to hike a lovely route along a forested path that is filled with birds and views of the fjords below. This is how we spent our day on our Backroads excursion. There is a four-mile and eight-mile option available, from Mistletoe Bay and Davies Bay, respectively, that each end at Anakiwa, where you can take a water taxi back to Picton to enjoy a little shopping or meal.
You’re in Fjordland National Park now, and this fjord is one of the most stunning sites in New Zealand.
What to do: This is a day of cruising on your ship, exploring the fjord and its waterfalls, sheer cliff sides, rocky valleys and wildlife. If you arrive during or immediately after heavy rains, you’ll notice dozens of “non-permanent” waterfalls that have emerged, and the permanent falls will be even more impressive.
Wildlife includes dolphins, seal colonies, ducks and penguins.
This is a UNESCO World Heritage site in the Fjordlands, and you’re in for another day of cruising and sightseeing on your ship. The sound features several large islands and will rage with hundreds of waterfalls during rainy season, which makes it one of the most stunning attractions in New Zealand.
What to do: Our captain on Ponant’s Le Laperouse found a pod of Dusky dolphins in the fjord and was able to follow them for about an hour as the playful creatures put on a show for us. We also spotted a colony of seals lazing about on the rocks.
John Roberts is a freelance writer and operator of InTheLoopTravel.com. He writes about cruising and active travel, highlighting how people can connect with the world and other cultures through rewarding travel experiences.