The 11 Best Places to Kayak in New Zealand

Abel Tasman National Park, New Zealand
Abel Tasman National Park, New Zealand | © vriesde / Flickr
Photo of Thalita Alves
17 May 2018

A country that’s practically surrounded by the sea and an abundance of lakes will naturally provide plenty of great kayaking opportunities. In fact, it’s fair to say that wherever you end up in New Zealand, there’s going to be a paddling expedition right on cue. Satisfy your urge with this selection of the best.

Abel Tasman National Park

Surrounded by forests and sheltered beaches, Abel Tasman National Park is the place to find the perfect balance between the land and the ocean. There are various kayak rental companies and paddle-based tour operators in the area, as the activity is quite popular among the national park’s visitors. Split Apple Rock, with its resident fur seals is a highlight for many; lagoons, islands and golden sand beaches and bays are some of the other scenic gems you’ll get to see from up close.

Abel Tasman National Park, New Zealand | © vriesde / Flickr

Marlborough Sounds

Set right at the top of the South Island, the Marlborough Sounds enjoys many hours of sunshine as well as being adorned by the turquoise seas. The region is quite well-known for its viticulture, hiking and cycling – but kayaking is another famous highlight you won’t want to miss. If you’ve got an affinity for all things Tolkien-esque, make sure to take your paddling expedition to the Pelorus River – that’s where the barrel scene in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug was filmed.

Kayak and dolphins in Marlborough Sounds, New Zealand | © Ulysse Bellier / Flickr

Milford Sound

Many venture to Milford Sound to do a day cruise, but its inky waters are also a prime spot for kayaking. There are guided day and nighttime tours you can partake right on the fjord, which will allow you to take a closer glimpse at all those breathtaking mountains, waterfalls and resident wildlife the area is so renowned for. Kayak hire is also available from tour operators – but keep in mind that many will offer this service only to experienced paddlers.

Kayaking in Milford Sound | © Abir Anwar / Flickr

Lake Taupo

As New Zealand’s largest lake by surface, Lake Taupo is a mecca for all things watersports related. Whether you choose to hire a kayak or embark on a tour, the sightseeing options are practically endless: the local Maori rock carvings in particular tend to catch people’s eye. Volcanic hot pools, gushing waterfalls and turbulent river rapids are some other natural wonders you’ll spot during your endeavours. Lake Taupo is also quite a popular place for trout fishing, if that’s your thing: as with kayaking, it doesn’t take long to find a local chartered fishing tour company making its rounds.

Kayak trip on Lake Taupo, New Zealand | © tara hunt / Flickr

Lake McLaren

If you’re spending some time in the Bay of Plenty region, a dusky kayak trip around Lake McLaren is an absolute must. The lake, which is just outside the city of Tauranga, is a good place to view the native glow worms as the night looms: Waimarino Adventure Park offers guided tours that will get you paddling right under these luminous creatures. If you prefer to take matters into your own hands, the lake is part of a forested park which has its own campsite and lots of great picnic facilities.

Lake McLaren, New Zealand | © russellstreet / Flickr

Cathedral Cove

Cathedral Cove is arguably the most famous attraction in the Coromandel Peninsula. There are two ways to experience its magical surroundings: by taking a long amble across the pristine coastlines, or by hopping on a kayak to bask at various rock formations, the surrounding marine reserve and the famous arched cave that gives the beach its name. If you’re lucky you might even be able to spot a few fish and dolphins going about their day.

Sea kayak at Cathedral Cove, Coromandel, New Zealand | © Takver / Flickr

Rangitoto Island

Rangitoto Island is Auckland’s youngest volcano – and practically a local landmark given its size and visibility. A good way to view it from up close is to embark on a kayaking tour from the Waitemata Harbour, across the Hauraki Gulf and into Rangitoto Wharf. You might sight some Little blue penguins, Cook’s petrels and other marine wildlife along the way. Guided day tours will also include a trek around the volcanic summit; sunset paddle tours are another option you could try out.

Rangitoto Island is just a two-hour kayak from Auckland city | © Department of Conservation / Flickr

Whanganui River

As New Zealand’s third longest river, Whanganui is a great go-to for North Island travellers wanting to spend multiple days doing freshwater kayaking. One of its most iconic routes, which can be done on your own or with a local guide, is the five-day 145-kilometre (90.1-mile) river journey from Taumaranui to Pipiriki. For something slightly shorter, the three-day Whakaroro to Pipiriki is a good alternative. Throughout the trip you’ll be immersed in native forestry, major historic sights and interesting local gems. If you need a quick breather, the Bridge to Nowhere is one of the most iconic stopovers for both kayakers and inland trekkers.

A canoeist in Whanganui National Park | © Department of Conservation / Flickr

The Bay of Islands

With so many breathtaking beaches, islands and marine reserves at its disposal, it’s a no-brainer that the Bay of Islands serves visiting kayakers quite well. The picturesque towns of Russell and Paihia are the prime locations for kayak hires and guided tours – those embarking on the latter can expect to be on the water for three to five hours per trip. Scenic highlights include the Waitangi River, Haruru Falls, Motorua and Urupukapuka Islands.

Paihia, New Zealand | © Kiwi Flickr / Flickr

The Avon River

Tourists will know Christchurch’s Avon River for its English-style punting tours; locals, on the other hand, are wont to spend the sunny days kayaking, paddleboating or canoeing along its clear, shallow waterways. Antigua Boatsheds, which is also where the River Punting tours depart from, is in charge of boat rentals – they’re based right at the heart of the city near Hagley Park and have bike hiring services too. You can rent a kayak from them up until an hour before they close, so there’s plenty of time to get exploring.

Boats and kayaks on Christchurch's Avon River | © tjabeljan / Flickr


Kaikoura is one of the best places for wildlife encounters in New Zealand. Add a bit of kayaking into the mix, and you’ve got all the right ingredients for an outdoorsy day trip: sea, sun, nature and lots of fur seals, dolphins and seabirds to keep things interesting. Daytime and sunset tours are very easy to find, and will provide you with natural opportunities to view the resident marine critters from up close.

Kaikoura seascape | © Bernard Spragg / Flickr

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