Beautiful New Zealand is an anomaly in the world of travel destinations. Few places on earth can claim such an ideal tourism infrastructure -- great roads, friendly locals and natural beauty -- without the tourists. Sure, more than 2 million visitors do come to New Zealand each year (compared to more than 20 million a year to Hong Kong, for example), but that's hardly enough to cause traffic jams, crowded hiking trails or cranky hoteliers and tour guides.
"New Zealand is still attractive because of its innocence, locals are still happy to see tourists," says David Watson, owner of Marlborough Sounds Adventure Co, an outfit that offers kayaking, trekking and bicycle excursions in the Queen Charlotte Sound region.
Fortunately, New Zealand is just too far way to attract enough people to ruin it. Roughly the size of Japan with just a tiny fraction of its population, the two main islands of New Zealand, the North and South Island, are just above the South Pole. It's a 10-hour flight from Singapore to Auckland; it's 24 hours from London. It's this very isolation that safeguards the country's most appealing attribute: Nature.
With a third of it protected in national parks and reserves, New Zealand's landscape runs the gamut from rolling farmland to rainforest, brooding fjords, snow-capped mountains and vast tracts of glaciers and vineyards. Sure, there are cities -- Auckland and Wellington, for example -- but overall, New Zealand feels like a last-frontier; a place for adventure and exploration.
Particularly Perfect by Cruiseship.
Touring by car, train, foot and bicycle are all great ways to see New Zealand, but traveling around the country by cruise ship holds its own special appeal. The major ports are close together so ships can offer nearly a stop a day while circumnavigating the islands. Better yet, this part of the world hasn't been overrun by cruise ships yet, so yours will likely be the only one in town.
Most cruise itineraries are about two weeks long and sail between Auckland and Sydney from about November through April, offering calls at four to six New Zealand ports, and typically just two in Australia given the greater distances to cover there.
Ships cruising to New Zealand and Australia this fall and winter (the southern hemisphere's spring and summer) include Holland America's 1,266-passenger Statendam (www.hollandamerica.com); Celebrity Cruises' 1,896-passenger Mercury (www.celebrity.com);Princess Cruises' 2,670-passenger Sapphire Princess and 1,950-passenger Sun Princess (www.princess.com); Regent Seven Seas' 700-passenger Mariner (www.rssc.com); Royal Caribbean's 2,000-passenger Rhapsody of the Seas (www.royalcaribbean.com); and Silversea Cruises' 296-passenger Silver Whisper (www.silversea.com).
Kiwi Cruise Tips
- Be prepared for fluctuating temperatures (between about 45 to 75 F degrees), wind and rain. Pack layers and rain gear.
- The Tasman Sea, between New Zealand and Australia, is known to be one of the roughest in the world. Expect some swells and rocky seas during the two-day crossing.
- In the southern part of the south island, where the super-scenic Dusky, Doubtful and Milford Sounds reside, winds can gust to 50 or 60 knots. Though included on most itineraries as a cruising day (passengers don't disembark), there's always a risk the captain will cancel a trip into the sounds because of weather conditions.
- When it comes to wildlife, it's down there, but not necessarily easy to spot. Sheep are everywhere, but penguins are illusive (and some endangered), albatross only show up when it's windy (it helps them fly), and kiwi birds are nocturnal as are many of Australia's stars -- wallabies, wombats and Tasmanian Devils.
A Sea of Worthwhile Ports
A good place to tour solo, consider renting a car (a Budget car rental office is 5 minutes by taxi from the docks) for the scenic hour's drive past sheep farms and rolling hills to Rotorua. The town is the home of zorbing (www.zorb.co.nz), one of many pointless (but fun) Kiwi inventions. This one entails rolling down a grassy hill inside a giant plastic ball just for the fun of it. Nearby, take a cable car up the side of Mt Ngongotaha for panoramic views of Rotorua Lake, before heading back down on a luge, a zippy 3-wheel cart (www.skylineskyrides.co.nz). Next door is the Kiwi Encounter hatchery (www.kiwiencounter.co.nz) and the Rainbow Springs nature park (www.rainbowsprings.co.nz), where you can see kiwi, rainbow trout and iguana-like tuataras.
From Napier, a pretty towns that claims the world's largest concentration of art deco buildings, most ships offer a Hawkes Bay Wineries tour that's quite palette pleasing. To throw some exercise into the mix, arrange a10-km bike tour with On Yer Bike Winery Tours (www.onyerbikehb.co.nz) and peddle through picturesque farmland to the Ngatarawa and Trinity Hill wineries before finishing off with an al fresco lunch and more tasting at the Te Awa winery.
Ship tours often include a pub crawl and a tour to several Lord of the Rings movie locations, though Wellington is also a good place to go it alone. On my last trip, we opted to hop in a taxi for the 10-minute drive to the Te Papa national museum (www.tepapa.govt.nz), an exceptional tribute to New Zealand's native Maori culture. Nearby, we hopped in the cable car for the steep, but short climb to the Botanic Gardens (including a beautiful rose section) at the top of Mount Victoria.
Excellent excursions include a trip to three wineries in the Marlborough region and a wine tasting and garden tour. For something more active, we decided on the Queen Charlotte Sound Kayaking. Though not cheap (try $200 a person), it is a chance to soak up the gorgeous mountain scenery and raw New Zealand elements -- be prepared for wind and rain.
Popular ship tours from this very English town include the Tranz Alpine Express train ride across the island and back, a great opportunity to see New Zealand's beautiful hinterland, from its sheep farms to the snow-capped Southern Alps. Considering Christchurch's historic role as a gateway for Antarctica expeditions, including Ernest Shackleton's in 1907, an interesting option some lines offer is a tour of the International Antarctic Center, which includes a ride on a real Hagglund, the all-terrain amphibian vehicle used on expeditions.
A university town with a strong Scottish heritage, great sightseeing options include a tour of the Cadbury chocolate factory in town (www.cadburyworld.co.nz) and a visit to Penguin Place (www.penguinplace.co.nz), a unique family-run refuge for Yellow Eyed penguins set up on farm land that stretches dramatically to the ocean. A drive along the High Cliff Road is a must for stunning views of rolling sheep pastures framed by the sea. Add on a one-hour cruise aboard a classic little motor vessel called the Monarch (www.wildlife.co.nz) to try and spot Albatross (if it's windy enough) and in the least, see the beautiful cliffs of Taiaroa Head up close.
Located on the northern coast of Tasmania, Australia, the area's red earth and craggily trees cast a prehistoric feel to the place. Most everything of note is about an hour's drive away, including Cradle Mountain National Park, a World Heritage site, where you can hike trails and possibly encounter a wombat or wallaby if you're lucky. The ships' tours are typically 8 to 9 hours; for something more customized, hook up with local tour operator (Thylacine Expeditions at www.thylacineexpeditions.com.au), and visit a Tasmanian devil refuge to see and touch the critters up close. Then, at the park, have lunch and visit the spa at the Cradle Mountain Lodge (the spa's treatment rooms have floor-to-ceiling windows facing the mountains!).
A tram line runs within yards of the docks and whisks passengers right into the heart of the city within minutes. Known for its gardens and parks and named one of the world's most livable cities, Melbourne is a great place to stroll. In town, hop on the historic City Circle Tram for a free narrated one-hour loop of central Melbourne. To venture out of the city, ship excursions include the "In the Wild! Kangaroos and Koalas" tour to see the animals in the wild.
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