People in the beach at the Milford Sound, New Zealand.
Get ready to gaze heroically into the horizon from a cliff top. | primeimages/E+/Getty Images
Get ready to gaze heroically into the horizon from a cliff top. | primeimages/E+/Getty Images

We’ve Been Waiting Years for This Epic Adventurous Country to Reopen

Get ready to gaze heroically into the horizon from a cliff top.

After literal years of having to put plans on the backburner, we can all get back to plotting our escape to a country that’s undoubtedly one of the most beautiful in the world. Pack your hiking boots and LOTR quotes, because the otherworldly landscapes of New Zealand are finally reopening.

On these islands, you won’t be able to stop asking yourself how one small country with about the same surface area as Colorado can be so jaw-droppingly beautiful in so many different ways. Travel from golden beaches along turquoise waters to tranquil valleys bordered by towering, snow-capped mountains to majestic fjords where land and sea meet in the most dramatic of fashions.

Such a small parcel of land is surprisingly difficult to cover in a short period of time, though. The most popular tourist destinations are split between the country’s two largest islands—the North Island and the South Island—which you’ll have to either fly or take the roughly 3.5-hour-long ferry between. That being said, we’ll give you a proper starting point. Here’s what you need to know about visiting the newly reopened New Zealand and some of the best places to go.

View from above the Marlborough Sounds.
Two years of waiting for these bucket list views. | Mathias Ortmann/Moment/Getty Images

What you need to know about entering New Zealand now

Having closed its borders in March 2020, New Zealand has had some of the strictest travel restrictions in the world throughout the pandemic, previously following a zero-COVID strategy. A little over two years later, the country is at last welcoming back international visitors. Starting from May 1, the New Zealand border opens to visa-waiver travelers, which means passport holders of countries and territories who do not have to apply for a visa before traveling to New Zealand. This includes the US, but keep in mind that visa-waiver travelers still need to get a New Zealand Electronic Travel Authority before visiting, which is like a mini-visa you get by filling out an online form. Travelers from other countries and territories not on the visa-waiver list can visit New Zealand from October onwards.

To enter the country as a non-New Zealand citizen, you’ll need proof of vaccination unless you meet one of the other exempting criteria. That means proof of a full course (could be one dose or two depending on the vaccine) of a COVID-19 vaccine that’s on the list of 35 approved vaccines. You’ll also need a negative COVID-19 test prior to departure, so either a PCR test taken within 48 hours of boarding your flight or a rapid antigen test or LAMP test taken within 24 hours of boarding. Lastly, you’ll need to complete a New Zealand Traveller Declaration before check-in.

Once you get to New Zealand, there’s no requirement to self-isolate, but you are required to take two rapid antigen tests: one on the day you arrive and one five days later. You’ll get the pack with these tests at the airport along with instructions on how to report your results by email or phone. It’s definitely on the extra-safe side—and all worth it considering what wonders await.

View of Auckland City.
Auckland is nature meets culture. | Nazar Abbas Photography/Stone/Getty Images

Places to Visit in the North Island

Culture-hop then island-hop in Auckland

Anyone flying into New Zealand will most likely first touch down in Auckland, the country’s largest city. Here you can wander first-rate museums like the impressive Auckland War Memorial Museum, take in the views from the top of the 328-meter-high Sky Tower, and enjoy ample shopping and dining in cool neighborhoods like Ponsonby and Britomart. If you’re ready to pamper yourself, stay at the Sofitel Auckland Viaduct Harbour hotel, which serves up luxury and signature city views. For something more affordable, you’ll find no shortage of hostels catering to backpackers, among which Haka Lodge is a favorite.

But while in Auckland, you shouldn’t limit your time to the city center. There are some gorgeous islands in the Hauraki Gulf perfect for day trips just a ferry-ride away. Check out Waiheke Island, which is called “the island of wine” due to its dozens of vineyards and wineries, and Rangitoto Island, where you can walk to the summit of a dormant volcano.

Arch-shaped rock at Cathedral Cove in the Waikato Region.
Bragging rights included. | Nazar Abbas Photography/E+/Getty Images

Hang low on beaches or high on peaks at Coromandel Peninsula

Just east of Auckland is the Coromandel Peninsula, and there you can really kick your outdoor explorations into gear among stunning, sandy beaches and densely forested mountains. For the former, make your way to Cathedral Cove to see the shot that’s all over Instagram: a view from inside an arched cavern looking out to white sand and a steep rock formation jutting up from the blue waves. Nearby is Hot Water Beach, where you can dig a hole into the sand until naturally heated mineral water flows up, creating your own personal hot pool.

After hanging down by the water, move up to the mountains on the Pinnacles Walk or Kauaeranga Kauri Trail, which is considered one of the country’s most popular overnight walks. Technically, you could do the 12-kilometer trail all in one day, but a solid reason to spread the hike over two is so you can catch the sunrise from the jagged peak.

View of Queenstown and Lake Wakatipu at sunset.
Big adventures await in Queenstown. | Benjawan Sittidech/Moment/Getty Images

Places to Visit in the South Island

Get your adrenaline pumping in Queenstown

Avid thrill-seekers must make a pilgrimage to Queenstown, which boasts the title of “adventure capital of the world.” This bustling hub next to Lake Wakatipu is full of tourists, and for good reason. From here you can go bungee jumping, skydiving, paragliding, whitewater rafting, river surfing (yes, surfing! on river rapids!), jet boating, canyoning, and more. Of course, hiking options abound, and if you only have time for one trail, make it the Queenstown Hill Loop, which brings you to a gorgeous view over the mountains, lake, and river.

After all of that exertion and excitement, there’s no better way to relax than a visit to the Onsen Hot Pools, where you can soak in a private, cedar hot tub looking out to the canyon. For refueling, many people will point you to Ferburger, a burger joint that seems to always have a line stretching out its door. Other delicious options include Botswana Butchery (hello, duck fat potatoes) and Pedro’s House of Lamb (come hungry to eat every last bite of the tender, slow-roasted lamb shoulder).

Dramatic rocks form the entrance to Milford Sound, Fiordland.
I think I see Legolas up there. | Mark Meredith/Moment/Getty Images

Dazzle yourself with watery cliffs in Fiordland

You want dramatic landscapes? You’ll get dramatic landscapes in the Fiordland, a glacial-carved region located in the southwest. Here, countless waterfalls pour down steep, green cliffs that dramatically shoot up from serene, reflective waters. It’s a landscape that seems too beautiful to be real, especially when the local bottlenose dolphins make their appearance.

Explore the Fiordland by foot along one of New Zealand’s most famous, multi-day hikes: the Milford Track (often listed as one of the best hikes in the world), the Kepler Track, or the Routeburn Track. Another way to immerse yourself in the natural beauty of this area is to take a cruise in Milford Sound, which Rudyard Kipling called the eighth wonder of the world, or Doubtful Sound, which is the deepest of the country’s fiords.

A road leading to Mount Cook Village, with Mount Cook in the background.
You don’t have to climb Aoraki to appreciate it. | NurIsmailPhotography/Royalty-free/Getty Images

Look down on mountains and lakes near Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park

With the Southern Alps stretching the length of the South Island, there are lots of destinations for mountain lovers to explore, but one that can’t be missed is Aoraki/Mount Cook—New Zealand’s tallest, rising to over 12,000 feet. Only experienced climbers should attempt to summit its peak, but don’t worry because there are many other trails in the Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park for, you know, the rest of us. The Hooker Valley Track is one the most traversed, balancing a relatively easy trail that crosses some swing bridges with incredible views of a glacier lake backdropped by mountains.

Close to Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park, you’ll find two other must-see lakes: Lake Tekapo and Lake Pukaki. At the former, you can appreciate the shockingly bright turquoise color of the water during the day, and at night, you can let yourself be dazzled by the sea of stars above you from Mount John Observatory (the area is part of an International Dark Sky Reserve). Pro-tip for enjoying Lake Pukaki: Pick up some fresh salmon sashimi at Mount Cook Alpine Salmon, post up on a picnic table outside, and soak up that incredible view of yet another awe-inspiring view.

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Cindy Brzostowski is a contributor for Thrillist.