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New Zealand is a magical land full of breathtaking nature, wild adventure and rich culture. Located about 1,200 miles east of Australia, New Zealand was first settled by Polynesians around 1300 A.D., who were followed by the first European arrival in 1642—though it would take nearly two centuries for permanent British settlement to begin in 1840.
Today, a cultural mix of just under five million "Kiwis" call New Zealand home, most of whom live on the country's two main islands, named (easily enough) the North Island and the South Island. All told, the 600 or so islands of New Zealand comprise about 268,000 square kilometers (103,500 square miles), making the country slightly larger than the United Kingdom, but slightly smaller than Italy. The country has an excellent reputation in terms of LGBTQ+ rights and inclusion, and is generally considered a bit more progressive than its big sister to the west, Australia.
New Zealand's combination of beauty, friendliness and its booming arts and culinary scenes put it high on the bucket lists of many LGBTQ+ travelers. Movie lovers know that New Zealand's otherworldly landscapes made it the perfect backdrop for the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, filmed at more than 150 locations around the country. Despite the easygoing Kiwi pace, lovers of outdoor adventure will find endless possibilities in New Zealand, including sky diving, bungee jumping, and more uniquely local options like black water rafting—floating through subterranean caves by the eerie light of glow worms. Wine tourism is also a popular draw to New Zealand, a land that's especially renowned for its excellent sauvignon blanc.
New Zealand's climate is mostly temperate, making any time of year a good time to go. Since it's in the Southern Hemisphere, summer runs basically from December to February, while fall is March to May, winter is June to August, and spring is September to November. Generally the farther north you are in the country, the warmer it will be. Only the southernmost parts of the South Island get very cold in winter, but then winter sporting options abound.
The gateway to New Zealand for the vast majority of its visitors, Auckland is also the largest city in Polynesia, with an urban population of just over a million and a half people. Not surprisingly, Auckland also has the largest LGBTQ+ scene in the country, with much of it centered downtown on hip and arty Karangahape Road (just K Road to locals) and Ponsonby Road. Auckland Pride, held every February, is the country's largest. Auckland is sometimes called the "City of Sails" thanks to the large number of sailboats always on view in its gorgeous harbor—making good use of the country's warmest and sunniest urban climate.
Move over, Chicago—the world's true Windy City is Wellington, thanks to its position on the strait separating the North and South Islands. The capital of New Zealand, adorable Wellington is also its second largest city—and despite what Aucklanders may tell you, it's considered the country's cultural capital as well, with a remarkable array of museums, galleries and theatres for a city of its relatively small size (about 420,000 people). There's no gayborhood per se, but you'll find the most mixed venues along Courtenay Place and Cuba Street in the hip Te Aro district at the city center.
Located on the east coast of the South Island, New Zealand's third largest city of Christchurch is known as the "Garden City" thanks to its numerous parks and green spaces. It's also regarded as the country's most English of cities, with many Gothic Revival and Edwardian buildings—though many of these, like the city's prized cathedral, were badly damaged in a 2011 earthquake. As rebuilding continues, the city is experiencing a dramatic and very creative rebirth. Its LGBTQ+ scene is small, but it’s the largest on South Island.
Set on the shores of the South Island's Lake Wakatipu and backdropped by the dramatic Southern Alps, beautiful Queenstown is New Zealand's adventure capital, as well as the jumping off point for exploring the region's highly regarded wineries and vineyards. Speaking of jumping off, just 20 minutes away is the Kawarau Gorge Suspension Bridge, the birthplace of commercial bungee jumping, and still one of the most popular spots for it in the world. WinterPride Queenstown, the biggest LGBTQ+ alpine party in the Southern Hemisphere, happens every late August to early September.
Just a 40-minute ferry ride from downtown Auckland, upscale Waiheke (pronounced why-heck-ee) is a paradisiacal enclave of vineyards, olive groves, beaches and funky art galleries, a remnant of the island's bohemian past. Some 30 wineries are based on Waiheke, giving it its "Island of Wine" nickname. For those not content to chill, zip lining and kayaking are popular Waiheke pursuits too.
Not only is the Bay of Islands one of New Zealand's most popular summertime destinations, it's also a place of tremendous historical significance in the country, as the site of both early Māori migrations and the first permanent British settlement. Located nearly at the top of the North Island, the waters off the bay's 144 islands offer boundless opportunities for sailing, yachting, scuba diving, fishing and kayaking. Land-based local must-sees include the last of the massive and ancient kauri trees at Waipoua Forest; and Waitangi, the site of the important 1840 treaty of the same name, and today a thriving educational center for Māori culture.
Once just a quiet country town about two hours south of Auckland, Matamata was thrust onto the global stage with the 2001 release of the movie The Lord of the Rings, in which its quaint beauty served as the setting for Middle Earth. Today the town heartily embraces its big screen/small people connection, especially with its popular and elaborate Hobbiton Movie Set tour, complete with 44 hobbit holes.
Once called the "eighth wonder of the world" by Rudyard Kipling, Milford Sound is an explosion of natural beauty, a glacier-carved fiord framed by dramatic mountains with cascading waterfalls that are often kissed by rainbows through their mists. See the complete glory on a leisurely cruise, or by your own steam on a kayak tour—then head beneath the surface to the fascinating Milford Sound Underwater Observatory.
The geothermal wonders at Rotorua have been sacred to the Māori for centuries, and today they're still a popular destination for travelers who come not just for the steaming geysers, thermal mud pools and soothing spas, but also for the Māori cultural experiences at sites like Whakarewarewa, Tamaki and Te Puia.
A mixture of Māori heritage, British infusion and Kiwi ingenuity, New Zealand's cuisine makes ample use of local ingredients, especially the bounty of seafood that comes from having 15,000 kilometers (9,300 miles) of natural coastline. Crayfish, Bluff oysters, mussels, scallops, monkfish, salmon and kina (a local sea urchin delicacy) are just a few popular New Zealand menu items from the sea. Hangi is another beloved Kiwi treat, using the traditional Māori method of slow cooking in an underground oven, and usually incorporating chicken, pork or mutton (or combinations thereof) and a variety of vegetables. Kiwi burgers are omnipresent in New Zealand, and while many variations exist, what unites them all is the inclusion of a fried egg and beetroot along with the burger patty and bun. For dessert, the resounding Kiwi favorites are hokey pokey ice cream (made with caramelized honeycomb) and pavlova, a meringue-based cake covered in fresh fruit.
New Zealand is consistently ranked among the most welcoming countries in the world for LGBTQ+ travelers. New Zealand tied for 10th on the 2020 Spartacus Gay Travel Index, which monitors the safety of LGBTQ+ people in every country. When she was elected mayor of the town of Carteton in 1995, Georgina Beyer became the world's first transgender mayor, then a few years later in 1999 became the world's first transgender member of parliament. New Zealand has had marriage equality since 2013. LGBTQ+ travelers should face no overt discrimination in New Zealand's big cities, but it's always best to remember that prejudice can happen anywhere, and that attitudes in smaller towns and the countryside may be less progressive.
Auckland and Wellington both have strong LGBTQ+ scenes, though understandably not as large as in bigger cities like Sydney and Melbourne. Auckland Pride in February is the country's largest, followed both in size and on the calendar by Wellington Pride in late February to early March. The smaller Christchurch Pride happens in March. The country's biggest wintertime LGBTQ+ event is WinterPride Queenstown, which bills itself as the most popular Winter Pride festival in the Southern Hemisphere. While New Zealand no longer has a dedicated annual showcase of LGBTQ+ movies, the New Zealand International Film Festival (which happens from late July to early August) always includes a very strong LGBTQ+ section.
Dan Allen is a longtime LGBTQ+ travel journalist and author, and longtime lover of all things New Zealand. Based in Los Angeles, he's a regular contributor to NBC Out, Passport, Edge Media Network and the Los Angeles Blade, as well as numerous mainstream travel outlets like TravelZoo and American Way.
Image credit: @thebackpackingblondie
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