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Kia ora, welcome to New Zealand! Get used to this greeting because you're going to hear it a lot during your stay. Kia ora simply means hello in greeting, or go well as a farewell. The meaning will be obvious in context.

Many people think we live in remote, watery isolation down here in New Zealand, and that we're overrun by 60 million sheep and rugby players as big as kauri trees. Well, for a start, sheep numbers have dropped. Current estimates are closer to 44 million, and while there are some big boys out there, they're not all 7 feet tall, wearing rugby boots and All Blacks jerseys.

New Zealand is no longer the sleepy little backwater it was back in the 1950s, although lingering pockets do exist, and you'll still find that, as incomprehensible as it seems, thousands of North Islanders have never been to the South Island and vice versa. That aside, a lot has been achieved here in a few short decades. We share in the rapid changes of the big, wide world and we celebrate the good things that progress has brought us. There have been downsides - like the brutal clearing of native forests and the lack of respect for a truly unique landscape - but we're wiser now, and we have 13 national parks protecting the most enviable slices of these little islands.

Although some still won't believe this, I'd like to clarify that New Zealand is not joined to the geographical hip of Australia. In fact, the 1,600km (990 miles) separating us account for some pretty significant differences. Australia, for instance, is vast; New Zealand is not. Australia has a very large red desert in its middle; New Zealand doesn't. And whereas Australia was settled by British convicts, we New Zealanders like to remind everyone that we started out as England's other pasture. The one irrefutable thing the two countries do share is a lively, generally good-spirited rivalry over just about everything, but especially sports.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.