Travel

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

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

primeimages/E+/Getty Images
primeimages/E+/Getty Images
primeimages/E+/Getty Images

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.

Mathias Ortmann/Moment/Getty Images
Mathias Ortmann/Moment/Getty Images
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.

Nazar Abbas Photography/Stone/Getty Images
Nazar Abbas Photography/Stone/Getty Images
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.

Nazar Abbas Photography/E+/Getty Images
Nazar Abbas Photography/E+/Getty Images
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.

Benjawan Sittidech/Moment/Getty Images
Benjawan Sittidech/Moment/Getty Images
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).

Mark Meredith/Moment/Getty Images
Mark Meredith/Moment/Getty Images
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.

NurIsmailPhotography/Royalty-free/Getty Images
NurIsmailPhotography/Royalty-free/Getty Images
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.Want more Thrillist? Follow us on Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube, TikTok, and Snapchat.

Cindy Brzostowski is a contributor for Thrillist.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

Get the latest from Thrillist Australia delivered straight to your inbox, subscribe here.

Related

Our Best Stories, Delivered Daily
The best decision you'll make all day.