This Luminescent Cave Is A New Zealand Wonder So Spectacular It Doesn't Feel Real

Below the best of New Zealand's landscapes, on North Island, there's a network of caves where you can take a boat ride through the dark under a shimmering canopy of glowworms. The Waitomo Caves formed over millions of years, and as their name suggests, they're home to an insect larvae colony that also now numbers in the millions. In the late 1880s, a Māori chief, traveling by candlelight, pioneered with his raft what would become a foundational tourist attraction for the Waikato region.

The limestone caves derive their name from the Māori words, wai and tomo, meaning "water" and "hole." They're a beacon of New Zealand's natural beauty, shining rather literally on sightseers who aren't afraid to explore caves once considered passages to the underworld. Some cave tours depart from Auckland, which is about a two-and-a-half-hour drive away. Fans of "The Lord of the Rings" can pair the Waitomo Glowworm Caves tour with a trip to the nearby Hobbiton Movie Set.

The tour boat, sometimes led by Māori descended from the original chief, will lead you into one especially surreal cave, the Glowworm Grotto, where you'll see green stars shining all around you. Even their name shines: arachnocampa luminosa, the New Zealand glowworm. The Milky Way effect could leave you feeling transported to another world. If this were a movie, you might think you were seeing CGI, but the Glowworm Grotto is real, and it's just one of many caves of wonder in Waitomo.

The deceptively beautiful glowworms of Waitomo Caves

One thing to note about the Waitomo Glowworm Caves tour is that no pictures or videos are allowed. The Glowworm Grotto is one of those amazing travel experiences that you'll just have to live, without the light of a smartphone screen. Chalk it up to the glowworms, which only put on their light display when it's nearly pitch black.

As beautiful as they are, the "worms" are actually carnivorous maggots, which use their bioluminescence to lure in prey. Moths and other small flies, attracted to the light, get ensnared in the maggots' silky webs. Once they've snacked on enough prey, the glowworms mature and metamorphize into flies or fungus gnats. Calling them glowworms sounds more flattering, but in a sense, their name is as deceptive as their twinkling allure.

If you're feeling adventurous beyond glowworms, you can ride a zipline through the Waitomo Caves or on the 1-kilometer circuit outside them. Waitomo Caves Ziplines is just a minute down the road from the Waitomo Glowworm Caves parking lot. Go the opposite direction, and you'll hit The Legendary Black Water Rafting Co. On this tour, your guide will take pictures of you (that you can purchase) as you wade through an underground river while gazing up at more glowworms. The solar-powered Ruakuri Cave does allow photography, and it's accessible to wheelchairs and strollers via a grand spiral entrance. With Waitomo Adventures, you can don a miner's helmet and descend an abseil rope into the caves while your guide snaps pictures for free.

Side trips to Middle-earth and a Māori art school

The Waitomo Glowworm Caves are only about an hour and 15 minutes by car from the Hobbiton Movie Set Tours attraction, where you can step inside a real Hobbit Hole from "The Lord of the Rings." In a way, all the elements are there for Waitomo to be a real-life Middle-earth experience of its own. You've got the caves (fortunately, no troll), a memorable boat ride, ethereal lights in the dark, and creepy-crawly creatures webbing their prey. The predatory glowworms even feel like something out of a Peter Jackson movie, where giant worms have been known to eat people alive, like Andy Serkis meeting his demise in "King Kong." (Any "Kong" fans down under can take a trip to this odd island dubbed Skull Rock in Australia.)

Luckily, you don't have to leave North Island or even drive yourself around there to have a movie-inspired adventure. Viator and Discover Waitomo both offer tours combining a trip to the Waitomo Glowworm Caves with Hobbiton and/or the nearby geysers of Te Puia in Rotorua. Te Puia is where the New Zealand Māori Arts and Crafts Institute helps preserve indigenous culture. In the Te Rā Guided Experience, you can watch artists from the schools of weaving, wood carving, and stone and bone carving at work. The experience includes a look at endangered birds in the Kiwi Conservation Centre and an encounter with Pōhutu Geyser, the largest active geyser in the Southern Hemisphere.