While many visitors prefer to fly or self-drive around the country, our travel advisors love to recommend alternative methods of movement. After all, we want you to have a well-rounded experience. But when it comes to the list below, there’s no argument: these ten locations in New Zealand are best seen by boat.
When travelers tell us about their favorite NZ adventures, an overnight trip in Doubtful Sound tops the list time and again. A few operators offer overnight cruises that depart from Manapouri, on the edge of Fiordland National Park. To reach this remote sound, you will sail across Lake Manapouri, transfer to a small coach for the drive over Wilmot Pass, and then board a vessel on the other side. Overnight excursions typically include a single or twin room, dinner, and breakfast. Guests will enjoy seafaring activities such as lobster potting, wildlife spotting, fishing, kayaking – and swimming, for those brave enough to face Doubtful’s icy waters!
Bay of Islands
Meander through a chain of over 140 verdant islands off the Northland coast. Best seen by boat, these dollops of New Zealand are renowned for their beaches and the scenery below water. Our agents book with both private yachts and small group tours departing from Russell or Paihia. Trips include island stopovers, lunch onboard or anchored in a secluded cove, and your choice of water play: snorkeling, fishing, and swimming. It’s common to be joined by curious sea life, such as whales and endangered Dusky Dolphins.
Head to the bottom of New Zealand to explore Stewart Island (Rakiura in Maori), the country’s often overlooked third island. With nearly 85% of Stewart designated as a national park, visitors will revel in untouched native forest and endemic wildlife. If you’re lucky, you might even glimpse the world-famous Kiwi bird! Enjoy the small community of Oban, then relax in the amenities onboard your luxury touring vessel. Cruises around Stewart and its nearby uninhabited islands run from 6- to 8-days and typically depart from Invercargill, South Island.
Abel Tasman National Park
Named for the first European explorer to reach New Zealand’s shores, this national park in the Nelson region competes with Milford as most-often-booked by our travel agents. There are numerous options for getting in: on foot, by kayak, by canoe, by bike. But if you want the same broad views and sense of adventure Tasman felt arriving by sea, then a boat trip is the best way to get around. Tour operators can combine a scenic cruise with a drop-off/pick-up hike, a stint in a sea kayak, a beach landing, and other activities. Most trips are half- or full-day and include lunch or a snack. For those who prefer staying dry, there’s always the option to lounge on deck and just take in the gorgeous views.
Maori Carvings & Huka Falls
Taupo is New Zealand’s largest lake; but from shore, it looks more like a sea. Travelers can book assorted fishing charters that combine coastal cruising with a bit of deep water catch-and-release. Kayaks are available for rent or, for a more thrilling ride, join a jet boat trip. Jet boats are a Kiwi invention that use water propulsion to speed across the surface. Regardless of how you get there, you’ll want to visit Huka Falls and Maori rock carvings. The Ngatoroirangi Mine Bay Maori carvings depict ancestors and guardians of the local indigenous tribe and are only visible by boat.
For coastal tours departing from Kaikoura, it’s all about the sea life. You might spot giant Sperm Whales, swim with Dusky Dolphins, or count Wandering Albatross all on the same trip! Boat operators specialize in New Zealand whale and bird watching, while specific tours allow a limited number of guests to jump in the water and engage with dolphin pods. Trips run daily, last 2.5-3 hours, and provide travelers with an education on the conservation of these unique species. Guests may even enjoy a hot “cuppa and biscuit,” Kiwi-style hospitality, from the boat’s crew. Our team highly recommends booking in advance, as these trips fill up fast.
Dart River & Whanganui River
If you think one jet boat ride just isn’t enough, seek out the Dart River (South Island) and Whanganui River (North Island) for two more destinations that require a watery ride. Both rivers run through national park land. Local operators will package a jet boat ride and short guided walk through the native forest. Expect expert commentary on the park’s history and wildlife. Travelers on the Whanganui River will cruise past the Bridge to Nowhere, a mysterious crossing with no connecting roads.
Glowworms are native to just a few countries, and their twinkling habitat defies imagination. While these bioluminescent larvae can be found in the wild, an underground boat tour makes for the most dramatic visibility. Venture into 30-million-year-old Waitomo Cave on the North Island, or glide down limestone passages in the younger (12,000-year-old) Te Anau Glowworm Caves near Fiordland National Park. Small-group tours are led by guides knowledgeable in the geology, history, and biology of the glowworm ecosystems. Several tours depart daily in each location and should be booked in advance during peak season.
Travel back in time at one of New Zealand’s oldest nature preserves, where native fauna and indigenous history tell the story of life before European settlers. Kapiti Island has been protected by the NZ Government for over 100 years, and visitors will enjoy the abundant bird life, historical sites, and old growth forest. Boats depart for Kapiti daily between October and May, and we suggest combining the ferry ticket with a tour around the island.
Tasman Glacier Lake
A boat on a glacier? It might sound far-fetched, but the best way to get close to Tasman Glacier is to sail up to it. The country’s longest glacier, located in Mount Cook National Park, ends in Tasman Terminal Lake. Join a New Zealand one-of-a-kind glacial boat tour from Mt. Cook Village and spend about an hour on the lake. All guests will enjoy a 25-minute walk through the Mt. Cook National Park before boarding the vessel. Lucky guests may get close enough to touch and taste the 500-year-old ice crystals.