There is an over abundance of information on New Zealand out there, and for good reason – it’s a super popular tourism spot and people want more information before planning their trip!
But today, I promise you – this is not an itinerary nor is it a packing list.
This is an encyclopaedia of sorts, an alphabet of things that a local (me!) thinks people should know to better understand not just the tourist sites, but also the culture of this beautiful country.
So read on, for an A to Z of things you probably never realised you needed to know about beautiful Aotearoa.
Table of contents
- A is for Aotearoa
- B is for Beaches
- C is for The Coromandel
- D is for Dunedin
- E is for Earthquakes
- F is for Fox Glacier
- G is for Giant Snails
- H is for Hotdogs, Burgers, and Fish & Chips
- I is for island, the North Island, the South Island, and around 600 more!
- J is for Jacinda and the New Zealand government
- K is for Kakapos, Keas & Kiwis
- L is for our Language: Sign, Māori & New Zealand English
- M is for Matariki, the Māori New Year.
- N is for Native New Zealand Forests
- O is for Okarito, Waipoua Forest and Stewart Island – places to spot wild kiwis in Aotearoa
- P is for Pinot Noir
- Q is for Queenstown
- R is for Road Trip across New Zealand
- S is for Sheep (it’s true, we have plenty!)
- T is for Thermal reserves & Hot springs
- U is for UV rays & Sunburns
- V is for Volcanoes
- W is for Waitomo Glow Worm Caves
- X is for Xenoliths & Geology
- Y is for Yams and Kūmara
- Z is for Zealand
A is for Aotearoa
Aotearoa is the Māori name for New Zealand, and the most popular direct translation for the word means land of the long white cloud which refers to the cloud formations Polynesian navigators used to find the country to begin with.
You will find this name used frequently when referring to the country also known as New Zealand.
How to Pronounce Aotearoa? If you’re unsure how to pronounce this, watch the video below:
B is for Beaches
New Zealand is made up of many different islands, which means we are a nation with beaches just about every where you look! No matter where you are in the country, it’s never too far to drive to find a beach.
There’s a beach for just about everyone:
Rugged, rough, rain-forested beaches: Visit the West Coast of the South Island
Soft, golden sand & clear water beaches: Check out the Tasman region in the top of the South Island, the gorgeous Coromandel region, and the Bay of Islands on the east coast of the North Island.
Excellent Surfing Beaches: Get yourself to Raglan, on the east coast, south of Auckland
Magical, Wild, Prehistoric Beaches with Black Sand and Waterfalls: Visit any of the beaches in the Waitakere ranges, West of Auckland
Scenic Fjords and Mountainous Backdrops: Get thee down to the far south of the South Island.
C is for The Coromandel
Clear waters, hidden beaches, lush forests full of glowworms and waterfalls – The Coromandel is a magical region in the North Island, a few hours drive from Auckland.
When people ask me my favourite region of New Zealand, or where they should visit, The Coromandel is usually the first answer out of my mouth.
It’s difficult in a land famed for scenery and nature to explain that these are the same reasons The Coromandel is so special. But, there is something wondrous about it that’s hard to describe.
Some of the best things to see & do on the Coromandel are:
- Hot Water Beach is one of New Zealand’s most unique and famous beaches – come prepared with a shovel and dig yourself a hot pool in the sands. Sounds bizarre, but it’s pretty incredible!
- On the topic of beaches, Cathedral Cove involves a bit of a walk but is well worth it to see the iconic rock archway and beautiful beach that lies ahead.
- For the most incredible day trip to a thermal resort, try the magical Lost Spring
D is for Dunedin
Dunedin is an underrated town in the South Island of New Zealand. Primarily known by locals as a student town, Dunedin is home to the University of Otago.
It is also interesting for a bunch of other reasons
- It is a Scottish colony originally, the name Dunedin originates from Dùn Èideann, the Gaelic name for Edinburgh
- But this isn’t the only reason Dunedin calls itself the Edinburgh of the South – the city was designed based on a map of the Edinburgh old city. You can compare the two maps here if you’re curious
- Dunedin also has the world’s steepest street, New Zealand’s only castle you can visit (and even stay in), and penguin and albatross colonies for wildlife lovers.
E is for Earthquakes
Living on the Pacific Ring of Fire lends us to all kinds of geological activity, and unfortunately natural disasters too.
Most recently, my own hometown of Christchurch was taken down by a monstrous magnitude 7.2 earthquake, followed by a significant number of large and damaging aftershocks. 10 years on and the city is still rebuilding and recovering.
If you’re visiting Christchurch, the Quake City earthquake museum is the best way to get an insight into those difficult days. It’s a thoughtful and informative exhibit that anyone wanting to understand the forces that have shaped my city should visit and learn from.
When visiting New Zealand, it’s a great idea to brush up on earthquake safety so you feel comfortable knowing what to do in case you get caught in one. This is a great earthquake safety resource.
F is for Fox Glacier
Love Glaciers? New Zealand is a great place to visit some magnificent ones. The Fox Glacier is one of the most accessible glaciers in the world, so you don’t need special mountaineering equipment or a heli-trip to see it (although those are possible, too)
Instead, it’s an easy walk from the Fox Glacier village nearby.
G is for Giant Snails
Yep, I said it. Giant Snails. I’ll give you a moment to process that before we move on.
Here in New Zealand we don’t have many creatures that are dangerous, or poisonous, or venomous. Instead, we have the magnificent Powelliphanta, or giant snail.
Found only in New Zealand, the Powelliphanta is a large, carnivorous snail that at its largest grows up to 9cm / 90g (so certainly not large enough to harm a human!)
If you want to learn more about these incredible invertebrates, the New Zealand Department of Conservation Page on Powelliphanta is a great starting point.
H is for Hotdogs, Burgers, and Fish & Chips
Arriving into New Zealand, you may find yourself bewildered by some of our culinary terminology.
Fries, Chips, Crisps – all of these are called chips to us. I hear it gets confusing sometimes, but I promise it’s all about context.
Hotdogs + Corn Dogs = both hotdogs here (sometimes we we will call the variety in a bun an American hotdog for good measure) and what Americans call a corndog, is generally the kind of hotdog you’d find at a fish and chip shop.
Which brings me to my next point: Fish and Chips. A Kiwi staple, and you can get them in any neighbourhood, country wide. Watties Tomato Sauce is a must-have accompaniment (yep, we call ketchup sauce here)
And finally, any self respecting NZ burger comes with a slice of beetroot & a fried egg inside. It’s not weird, it’s delicious.
I is for island, the North Island, the South Island, and around 600 more!
New Zealand is not just a two or three island nation, despite what you may have been told! Actually, Aotearoa is made up of over 600 different islands!
Most of them are not inhabited (by humans, anyhow!)
And some of them are used as wildlife refuges for our native birdlife that need a little predator-free support.
While it’s true we have three primary islands: The North Island (Te Ika-a-Māui) , The South Island (Te Waipounamu), and Stewart Island (Rakiura); we do also have a number of other human inhabited islands:
The Other Islands of Aotearoa
- Waiheke Island, just off the coast of Auckland City is a vibrant hub of vineyards , gorgeous beaches and a population over 9000 people.
- Great Barrier Island (Aotea) is a little further afield, but still populated with around 850 permanent residents, liveable & beautiful to visit.
- The Chatham Islands (Rēkohu meaning Misty Sun in Moriori, or Wharekauri in Māori) are not one island, but an archipelago with a resident population of over 600 people, an airport, and their own timezone.
- The Marlborough Sounds are made up of a number of islands, including two inhabited ones: D’Urville Island (Rangitoto ki te Tonga) and Arapaoa Island.
- Matakana Island in the Bay of Plenty is home to thousands of acres of farm, orchards, and native forests as well as around 225 people
- Raoul Island in the Kermadec Island group is historically highly volcanic, and difficult to reach, yet still is home for to a government meteorological and radio station as well as a hostel for Department of Conservation (DOC) officers and volunteers who come to the island.
- Kawau Island is not far from Auckland in the Hauraki Gulf, and although pretty small, is home to around 81 people.
- Motiti Island (Mōtītī) is Northeast of Tauranga in the Bay of Plenty, and is made up of around 18 homes and an abundance of Avocado plantations.
J is for Jacinda and the New Zealand government
At the time of writing this, New Zealand is being led by a Labour government and the Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern – New Zealand’s youngest female Prime Minister being elected as Prime Minister at age 37, and also our first prime minister to be pregnant in office.. Most of us are pretty proud of her around here!
New Zealand is also pretty good with women’s rights & issues:
- Jacinda is the third female to lead our country. We have also had two previous female prime ministers: Helen Clark + Jenny Shipley, with Jenny Shipley leading NZ back in 1997
- New Zealand became the first nation in the world in which all women had the right to vote in parliamentary elections
- Back in 1999 Georgina Beyer became the first transgender woman elected to parliament
K is for Kakapos, Keas & Kiwis
What Aotearoa lacks in large, land mammals it more than makes up in unique birdlife. The kakapo, kea and kiwi are three exceptions of native New Zealand birds found only here in Aoteroa
The Kiwi is what we are most famous for, but did you know we have 5 different types of Kiwi still alive today? They are in varying levels of endangers, and most New Zealanders may have only ever seen a Kiwi in a wildlife sanctuary as they are rare, shy, and difficult to spot in the wild.
Kakapos are a large, green, flightless parrot that is even more endangered and rare than the kiwi. In the mid nineties, we got down to as few as 50 kakapos known to be alive. Significant conservation efforts have gone into protecting the species, and thanks to homing them on predator free small islands managed by the department of conservation we are beginning to see more of these thriving.
Keas are ubiquitous, easy to find, and most definitely have the ability to fly – so these cheeky green parrots don’t share so much in common with the kakapo or the kiwi! But they are one of my favourite birds and are famous for hanging out in alpine passes and ski field parking lots and using their strong, pointy beaks to tear apart the cars of unsuspecting visitors.
L is for our Language: Sign, Māori & New Zealand English
I’ve been asked (more than once) what language we speak here in New Zealand. The simplest answer would be English. This is the language that you will find spoken right across the country, with street signs and books and television shows primarily shown in.
However, New Zealand actually has 3 official languages :
- New Zealand English
- Te Reo (Māori Language)
- New Zealand Sign Language
All three have special legal status in the country, and this means that People have the right to speak Te Reo Māori or New Zealand Sign Language in any legal proceedings. Which I think is pretty great.
M is for Matariki, the Māori New Year.
In Māori culture, the new year is celebrated in accordance with the stars. Matariki is a star cluster appearing through the mid winter months, in the early morning sky. When Matriki rises in the Northeast of the sky (this happens in the month of Pipiri, June-July in Aotearoa) the Māori lunar calendar begins.
During Matariki, events take place across the country. People will gather to remember & honour their ancestors, play music, sing, tell stories and share food together.
For more information on Matariki, including the current year’s dates, the best stargazing spots in NZ, guides to Matariki events and information on each of the Matariki stars, check out this guide from 100% pure New Zealand
N is for Native New Zealand Forests
We are pretty proud of our forests and our trees, and for good reason – around 38% of the land in Aotearoa is covered in forest, with 8 million hectares of this forest being native forest.
Like birds, New Zealand has a lot of different native plant species that are considered unique, or special to us, and our native forests are generally one of two types:
- Beech forests, which are made up of five different species of southern beech tree
- Podocarp tree forests, which include kahikatea, miro, tōtara, mataī, and rimu trees
It’s thanks to our native trees & ferns that wandering around New Zealand has that distinct Lord of the Rings, or Fairyland-esque feel to it.
O is for Okarito, Waipoua Forest and Stewart Island – places to spot wild kiwis in Aotearoa
It’s true – spotting a kiwi bird is pretty rare! But it’s certainly not impossible. If you know where to look, there are a small selection of guided tours that will help you spot a wild NZ kiwi for real and become one of the lucky ones who gets to see the national symbol of Aotearoa.
- Okarito – nestled away in the wild rainforests of the South Island’s West Coast, Okarito is a small town not too far from Franz Joseph. Okarito Kiwi Tours take small tours deep into kiwi territory to (if you’re lucky) spot wild kiwis, or at least hear their calls at night.
- Waipoua Forest – up the other end of the country, in Northland at the top of the North Island is the forest sanctuary of Waipoua forest. Full of giant, ancient kauri trees you can also sometimes spot kiwis in this sub-tropical rainforest.
- Stewart Island – For a really good chance of spotting a wild Kiwi, Steward Island is the place to go. The Wild Kiwi Encounter takes you on a cruise across Paterson Inlet to Little Glory Cove, where you can visit a secluded beach and spot kiwis.
P is for Pinot Noir
Here in New Zealand we produce some stunningly good wines. The most famous is undoubtedly Pinot Noir from Central Otago.
If you’re a fan of wine, then exploring our different wine regions is a great way to explore Aotearoa! You can see a guide to the wine regions of New Zealand at the New Zealand Wine site
I also recommend trying a wine tour! Whether you want to tour a small wine growing island (Waiheke) or cycle around central Otago on the wine trail, there are so many excellent and interesting wine tours in New Zealand. Check out Culture Trip’s Best Wine Tours in New Zealand for inspiration
Q is for Queenstown
Arguable one of New Zealand’s most well known cities, Queenstown is the capital of adventure tourism, skiing + snowboarding, and the infamous FergBurger.
Surrounded by some of the country’s most spectacular scenery, lakes, mountains, vineyards and adventure sports, it’s well worth a trip if you’re visiting New Zealand.
Thanks to the country lockdown in 2020, I was able to visit Queenstown with out all the tourists (which never happens!) and discovered for myself how truly beautiful this city is.
R is for Road Trip across New Zealand
There is no better way to explore Aotearoa than by road trip. Here in New Zealand we have excellent roads, lots of beautiful places to stop, and a great road trip culture.
Unlike Australia or the United States, our country is a much more manageable size and you can see it all in less time!
Just don’t forget that we drive on the left here
Not sure where to go? Try one of these itineraries:
- 12 of the Best Road Trips in New Zealand
- An Epic New Zealand Road Trip – Itinerary, Tips, and Planning
- Here’s New Zealand’s most epic drive
S is for Sheep (it’s true, we have plenty!)
You’ve probably heard the rumours – more sheep than people. Well, that is true – but it’s not as true as it used to be.
As of 2019, Sheep outnumber people 5 to 1 which is still certainly more sheep than people, but nothing compared to the 1980’s where we had as many as 22 sheep for each one person!
But driving around New Zealand you will definitely see plenty of sheep, and lots of great wool products too.
I’m a big fan of NZ superfine merino, and love using Icebreaker clothes for my travels as the merino is cool in the summer, warm in the winter, doesn’t hold odour, doesn’t wrinkle, and is all round an excellent fabric for travelwear.
T is for Thermal reserves & Hot springs
Personally, I’m a touch obsessed with Maruia Springs, found in the gorgeous Maruia Valley a few hours outside of Christchurch, it’s one of my favourites.
I can’t get enough of time spent relaxing in the outdoor onsen styled rock pools, soaking up the minerals and listening to the birds in the forest and the river streaming by.
But New Zealand has a multitude of different natural hot pools, for all different styles, budgets, and occasions. Some of the best (other than Maruia, of course) include:
- Hanmer Springs in Canterbury
- The Lost Spring in the Coromandel
- The Wairaki Terraces just outside of Taupo
- Polynesian Spa in Rotorua
- Tekapo Springs in the Mackenzie District
U is for UV rays & Sunburns
Even though the summer temperatures don’t get as high as other parts of the world, our UV strength is super high, and just how quickly people sunburn here catches many a visitor off guard.
To put it into perspective, our UV rating in the summer is frequently around 12, but it can exceed 13 in the far North which is considered extreme. As an approximate guide, a UV Index of corresponds to a burn time of around the same amount of minutes – so you will burn in around 12 minutes on a typical Kiwi summer day!
It’s important to wear a good sunscreen, and reapply it frequently (and after any time in the water) as well as sunglasses and a good hat if you’re out and about here in the summer months.
V is for Volcanoes
New Zealand is exceptionally volcanic, and you can see a list of the different volcanoes here. Just in the Auckland volcanic field alone there are over 50 volcanoes, which dot around the landscape of the city, mostly dormant and providing grassy hills for picnics and jogging.
There are also a number of active volcanoes in the country, currently the most notorious is the Whakaari / White Island due to a recent eruption killing 21 and injuring a further 26 visitors to the volcanic island
All of the volcanic activity makes New Zealand a great spot for researching, and recently Scientists here have invented a new volcano warning system that looks really promising for preventing future disaster.
W is for Waitomo Glow Worm Caves
Beloved by all tourists are the Waitomo glow worm caves . If you’re looking for a magical, otherworldly experience this one tops the list.
You can take a guided walk through the Ruakuri and Aranui Caves, a magical boat ride on the cave canals of the Waitomo Glow Worm cave, or float through the magical starlit grotto on an innertube (known as blackwater rafting) through the black labyrinth – these caves are massive, wondrous, and truly spectacular.
X is for Xenoliths & Geology
Thanks to the significantly volcanic history of Aotearoa, laced with earthquakes and geothermal activity, it is a great place to explore for geology buffs out there.
There are a number of great museums in the country to discover more:
- The Crystal Mine Museum in Auckland houses New Zealand’s largest selection of rare crystals and minerals
- The University of Otago Geology Museum is open to the public and contains the largest scientifically important collections of rocks, minerals and fossils in the South Island
- The Vanished World Centre in Otago provides a hands-on approach to learning about the geology of the Waitaki district.
Y is for Yams and Kūmara
We need to talk about yams. What you call yams, are not what we call yams.
Confused yet? Good. Let me add another layer to this – what you call yams, we call kūmara and they come in all shades of purples, blues, oranges and blacks.
What we call yams are actually thumb sized & shaped, and are also known as South American Oca. They are very delicious and I highly recommend trying them roasted for the best New Zealand yam experience.
Z is for Zealand
The name New Zealand comes from the Dutch ‘Nieuw Zeeland’, this is the name that was given to us by a Dutch mapmaker – why Dutch? That’s a great question.
As it turns out, The first European to arrive on New Zealand shores was an explorer by the name of Abel Tasman. He was Dutch, and thus how the Europeans labelled the country as New Zealand on their maps.
If you were wondering, the original Zealand, or Zeeland it is the westernmost (and the least populous) province of the Netherlands.