By LISA KLEIN
New Zealand is a travel destination that truly packs a punch: breathtaking landscapes and vistas, vine-filled wine country, cities for lovers of the urban, a powerful native culture and welcoming people.
From mountain ranges to crystalline lakes, spa treatments, farm-to-table dining and visits to traditional villages, the island nation offers a trip filled with a bit of everything.
“Whether you’re an adventure seeker or a relaxation aficionado, a visit to New Zealand vows to be a once-in-a-lifetime affair,” said Eden Dawson, business operations, Aroha Luxury New Zealand Tours.
“The blend of stunning landscapes, luxurious accommodations and welcoming locals allows for an ultimate destination for a dream vacation.”
With the seasons
While New Zealand appears smallish on a map, at 1,000 miles long and over 100,000 square miles total, it is larger and more spread out than most realize. With two main – North and South – and about 600 small islands, there is a lot to explore.
“People often underestimate the size of the country,” said Jean-Michel Jefferson, founder, Ahipara Travel. “It takes more than a few days to see.”
With a couple of weeks, visitors can hit much of what the Oceania nation has to offer – and it packs in the sights.
The summer months – January through March – are the most popular time to visit for warmer weather, water sports and beaches.
The spring and fall shoulder seasons are quieter times with blooming flowers and wine harvests, respectively. And winter, while chilly, offers snow-capped mountain peaks and skiing galore.
No matter the season, New Zealand’s diverse landscapes are the main draw for visitors.
“New Zealand’s beauty is spread throughout the country, from the crystal-clear waters and white sand beaches of Northland to the permanently snowcapped Southern Alps running down the center of the South Island and beyond to the untamed and unexplored rainforests of the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Fiordland National Park at the bottom of the South Island,” said Sarah Farag, director, Southern Crossings tours.
The Southern Alps mountain range extends down much of the larger South Island, with pristine rivers flowing through snowy peaks, the tallest of which, Mount Cook, reaches over 12,000 feet.
Ancient temperate rainforest hugs the island’s west coast, flowing spectacularly into Fiordland National Park in the far southwest, where towering waterfalls tumble into the fiords.
The country even has sandy beaches, clear water and hidden coves to explore on the North Island in locations such as the Coromandel Peninsula.
Even more unique sights on the North Island include caves filled with glowing worms in Waitomo and the Rotorua, an area filled with geothermal activity and erupting geysers.
“New Zealand’s landscapes are truly one-of-a-kind and have a certain otherworldly quality that must be seen to be believed,” Ms. Dawson said.
Those landscapes are also home to unique wildlife found nowhere else.
“New Zealand’s isolation from the world and its complete lack of any land-dwelling mammals have meant that its wildlife has evolved to be quite unlike anywhere else on Earth,” Ms. Farag said.
“There’s the weta, an insect that’s heavier than a sparrow and is subject of many-a-Kiwi kid’s nightmare, to the lizard-like tuatara, a spiny living fossil that’s lived for 250 million years,” she said. “But it’s the birdlife that New Zealand is most known for.”
A slightly less adventurous way to enjoy New Zealand’s natural beauty is with a glass of wine in-hand.
With several grape-growing regions that stretch along the center and east coasts of both main islands, a wine tour or tasting is never far away.
The most popular is Marlborough, known for its Sauvignon Blanc, but there is also Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah in Hawke’s Bay and Pinot Noir in Central Otago, the southernmost wine-growing region in the world.
“Many vineyards in New Zealand take pride in their sustainable and organic farming practices, which also extend to their food offerings,” Ms. Dawson said.
“At some vineyards, guests can enjoy a private tour of the estate, where you’ll learn about the history and methodology of winemaking,” she said. “Guests will then be treated to a gourmet meal crafted with fresh, regional ingredients sourced from the vineyard or nearby farms.”
Mr. Jefferson recommends trying the wide variety of New Zealand wine while enjoying a meal at one of the country’s many “superb restaurants.”
And for a break from the grapes, there are also plenty of distilleries and breweries to sip something different.
While most visit New Zealand to escape to the countryside, its cities have culture to discover around every corner.
Auckland, the country’s largest city, on the North Island, is not short on views, which can be taken in from a yacht in the harbor or from higher up in the famed Sky Tower. The city is also filled with restaurants from fine dining to local cafés.
Visitors can learn about New Zealand’s history and heritage at the Te Papa Tongarewa museum or check out props and costumes from the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies that filmed there at the Weta Workshop, both in the North Island’s Wellington.
A stroll along the river in Christchurch, on the South Island, will pass by local markets, restaurants, breweries and live music.
New Zealand’s culture extends far beyond its cities to the native Maori, and spending time with the warm, vibrant people is a must for visitors to truly understand New Zealand.
“I have to defer to a Maori proverb,” Mr. Jefferson said about the country. “What are the three most important things in the world? The people, the people, the people.”
Travelers have many opportunities to immerse themselves in the culture’s traditions, whether staying overnight in a marae (meeting house), participating in a powhiri (welcome ceremony) or watching a haka (ceremonial dance) performance.
“We specialize in Maori cultural activities, and like to arrange those in special landscapes – by 2,000-year-old sacred trees on private Maori land or learning to trap for eels in mountain ranges,” Mr. Jefferson said.
The Rotorua area on the North Island is home to several Maori villages such as Whakarewarewa.
“Visitors can experience a living Māori village and learn about traditional practices such as weaving, carving and cooking in a hangi (underground oven),” Ms. Dawson said.
THE FRIENDLINESS and hospitality of all “Kiwis” can be felt across New Zealand, where a warm welcome and a wide array of activities await.
“It’s New Zealand’s diversity that makes it so special, from its eye-popping scenery, its unique Maori and Polynesian culture, its excellent food and wine and its world-class luxury lodges and villas,” Ms. Farag said. “New Zealand will absolutely wow everyone.”