Tucked far down in the southwestern Pacific Ocean, with sheep outnumbering people 10 to 1, New Zealand is one of the most pristine places on earth. But though this island country is far-flung (at least for some U.S. travelers) and has a population of only 4 million, it's steeped not only in diverse natural beauty, but in astoundingly sophisticated cultural attractions as well.
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Conscious that its purity both draws tourists and is threatened by their increasing numbers, New Zealand is eager to build on its older sustainability programs like Qualmark (www.qualmark.co.nz/about_us.php). An emissions trading scheme is just one of the country's newer and further-reaching green initiatives (for info on more sustainable projects, visit www.nztourismstrategy.com and www.purenz.com). That's good news for all travelers, including myself -- I definitely plan to return to New Zealand one day, and I trust that the sights pictured in this slideshow will be as unspoiled and untouched as they were on my first visit.
No trip to New Zealand's South Island is complete without a visit to 14-mile (23km)-long Milford Sound, located in Fiordland National Park (www.fiordland.org.nz) on the southwest part of the island. The Qualmark-accredited tour operator Real Journeys (tel. 64/3-249-7416; www.realjourneys.co.nz) offers a number of excursions to the sound, including hikes on the 33-mile (53.5km) Milford Track. This trail, which is moderately difficult, was called the "finest walk in the world" back in 1908 and still lives up to that reputation. Hikers amble through swaths of thick forest and grassy flats as they wind their way up to the sound from Lake Te Anau (pictured here). Here the views of the fjord are so stunning that Rudyard Kipling proclaimed them an Eighth Wonder of the World.
If you don't have four days to walk the whole Milford Track, you can do a day hike that takes about five hours; along the way, your Real Journeys guide (and trained naturalist) is sure to point out fascinating aspects of the stunning panorama and wildlife, including -- if you're lucky -- the fur seals and bottlenose dolphins that call the sound home.
If you're visiting the South Island at all, you'll undoubtedly stop in Queenstown (about 177 miles/286km from Milford). This small self-declared "adventure capital of the world" offers plenty of adrenaline attractions, including some internationally famous ski trails and jet-boating excursions like the Shotover Jet (tel. 64/3-442-8570; www.shotoverjet.com) pictured here.
Although undeniably touristy, Queenstown and its environs are literally cinematic -- the region was, after all, the backdrop for much of the Lord of the Rings films. The area is historically significant as well: just outside of town is the 19th-century gold-mining community Skippers Canyon. Here the Green-Globe-certified tour operator Nomad Safaris (tel. 64/3-442-6699; www.nomadsafaris.co.nz) can drive you in a Range Rover to a restored schoolhouse, walk you over a suspension bridge, and even help you pan for gold.
While in Queenstown, you can spoil yourself at a luxury accommodation managed by Touch of Spice (tel. 64/3-442-8672; www.touchofspice.co.nz). One of their many recommendable properties is Lordens Apartments, an ultra-modern, split-level residence with astounding views of Lake Wakatipu and the surrounding mountains.
Nicknamed "the Garden City," Christchurch is the largest urban area on the South Island, and by reputation the most English city in all of New Zealand. From its location in New Zealand's Canterbury region, to its English-inspired Botanic Gardens (tel. 64/3-941-6840; www.ccc.govt.nz/parks), to its opportunities to "punt" (an English term for rowing) on the Avon River (pictured here), there's no denying that Christchurch has an Anglo disposition. The city's more international attractions, however, include an award-winning International Antarctic Centre (tel. 64/3-353-7798; www.iceberg.co.nz), a popular shopping venue called the Arts Centre (tel. 64/3-366-0989; www.artscentre.org.nz), and the Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu (tel. 64/3-941-7300; www.christchurchartgallery.org.nz), a modern art museum that Frommer's New Zealand calls a "new and sparkling architectural icon."
Although accommodations are available in downtown Christchurch, I highly recommend the eco-friendly bed-and-breakfast Ka Whare Rehua (tel. 64/3-384-9099; www.kawharerehua.co.nz) just outside of downtown. Gracious and informed, this B&B's owners keep their own organic garden, and they dish up some of the best meals, including a unique barbecue spread, I've had at any bed-and-breakfast.
A French antidote to the Englishness of Christchurch (which is about a 1½ hour drive to the east), Akaroa is a tiny town of about 800 residents and a popular spot for adventure activities like kayaking and swimming with dolphins. It's easy to get out on Akaroa Harbor with Black Cat Group (tel. 64/3-304-7641; www.blackcat.co.nz), a Green-Globe award-winning operator that takes out jet-powered catamarans year-round to view Hector's dolphins (some of the smallest dolphins in the world) and blue penguins (the smallest penguins in the world). Swimmers don wet suits to protect them from the cold water -- it was roughly 45 ° F when I dived in. Although you aren't allowed to touch the dolphins, because doing so could harm them, you can still get up-close and personal with these playful creatures.
Back ashore in Akaroa you can walk down streets like Rue Balguerie and Rue Jolie to soak in the Francophile feel of the town. The Akaroa tourist board (www.akaroa.com) suggests various walking tours that take you to the studios of the town's local artists and historical sights. One must stop is the Giants House at Linton (tel. 64/3-304-7501; www.linton.co.nz), a magical mosaic garden created by the artist Josie Martin. Peppered with Gaudi-esque designs like the two angels pictured here, the Giants House is also a bed-and-breakfast; guests can stay in rooms decorated just as whimsically as the garden.
There's something about New Zealand that makes one want to push life to its limits -- perhaps that's why bungee jumping and zorbing are just two of the adrenaline sports that were invented in the country. Even though the South Island usually gets top billing for its adventure options, the North Island offers plenty of ways to get your heart racing, including sky diving over Lake Taupo (pictured here). To arrange your own race through the sky, visit www.taupotandemskydiving.com.
Not up for plummeting from a plane? Wellington, the country's capital, situated at the southern tip of the North Island, offers mellower adventures. To name just one, the Karori Sanctuary (tel. 64/4-920-9200; www.sanctuary.org.nz) is a vast and beautiful wetland reserve for native New Zealand wildlife. Just minutes away from the skyscrapers of downtown, the sanctuary offers day and night tours, and lucky visitors may sight rare animals like kiwis (the national bird) and tuatara (an ancient and spiky reptile).
Ohtel (tel. 64/4-803-0600; www.ohtel.com) is an eco-friendly boutique property with excellent views of Wellington's harbor. It's within walking distance of many of this cosmopolitan city's attractions, including the national museum of New Zealand Te Papa (tel. 64/4-381-7000; www.tepapa.govt.nz), and nearby are bars and restaurants like the Matterhorn (tel. 64/4-384-3359; www.matterhorn.co.nz).
The Maori Community
Much more than dinner-theater kitsch, Te Po at Te Puia (tel. 64/7-348-9047; www.tepuia.com) in the town of Rotorua on the North Island is an excellent if touristy introduction to New Zealand's Maori culture. Visitors learn about the Maori people both through a hangi meal (comprising root vegetables like kumara, or sweet potato, and an assortment of meats cooked in a traditional earth oven), and through performances like the haka, a dance in which warriors bulge out their eyes and stick out their tongues to intimidate opponents. (The haka is now used to great effect by New Zealand's national rugby team.) The Te Po warrior pictured here is participating in a ritual welcome outside his tribe's sacred meeting house, or marae.
For an even closer look at New Zealand's Maori community, visit Rotorua's Whakarewarewa Thermal Village (tel. 64/7-349-3463; www.whakarewarewa.com), a living Maori community that, like Te Puia, offers fantastic views of the famous Pohutu Geyser.
Renowned as a thermal hotspot, Rotorua (as Frommer's New Zealand puts it) "sits on the edge of one of the most awesome and concentrated volcanic areas in the world." Unique forces of nature are very much on display in this region, from bubbling mud pools to spouting geysers to hot water beaches. Pohutu Geyser, pictured here, erupts up to 25 times a day and usually reaches heights of 53 to 66 ft. (16 to 20m). But that's just one of hundreds of geysers in the area -- you can see many more at Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland (tel. 64/7-366-6333; www.waiotapu.co.nz).
Although close to most of Rotorua's major attractions, Peppers on the Point (tel. 64/3-360-1063; www.peppers.co.nz/on-the-point/) feels like a world apart and above. Graced with exquisite views of Lake Rotorua, this roughly 5-acre (2 hectare) luxury property rents out individual suites and a private four-bedroom villa.
Just a 35-minute ferryboat ride away from North Island's Auckland lies a slice of island paradise bursting with attractions. Waiheke Island has stellar hiking trails for outdoor enthusiasts, art tours for culture junkies, and wine and food tastings for just about everyone. Because the island is rather large (12-miles/19km-long), it's best to let an operator like Ananda Tours (tel. 64/9-372-7530; www.ananda.co.nz) drive you around, particularly if you're hitting the vineyards.
During my visit to Waiheke, I tasted some amazing wines, as well as local olive oil and honey, at Jurassic Ridge and Kennedy Point (visit www.waihekewine.co.nz for info on both). I also chatted with the charming artist Gabriella Lewenz at her Church Bay Studio Gallery (www.artstay.com), and took in sweeping views from pretty much every vantage point. But my favorite stop on the Ananda tour was Te Whau (tel. 64/9-372-7191; www.tewhau.co.nz), the first vineyard in New Zealand to employ sustainable viticulture practices. The vineyard's owner is pictured here holding a glass of his award-winning 2007 Point wine.
Most tourists don't stay long in Auckland, the largest city in the country, opting instead for greener sights. I'm thrilled to have capped off my visit to New Zealand there, however, because the city in many ways encapsulates the spirit of the country's other attractions and towns. Like Wellington, Auckland is set along a beautiful waterfront (pictured here); like Christchurch, Auckland has first-class museums and shops; and like Queenstown, Auckland offers a number of adventure options -- including what I can personally say is a truly terrifying SkyWalk (tel. 64/9-368-1835; www.skywalk.co.nz) on downtown's 1,076 ft. (328m) Sky Tower.
In an awfully competitive city, the luxury boutique hotel Mollies (tel. 64/9-376-3489; www.mollies.co.nz) stands out as one of Auckland's best. The property is a renovated Victorian-era home with modern amenities but also a classical kind of sophistication. Evenings at Mollies frequently feature informal chamber music performances -- during my stay, I was lucky to hear a celebrated tenor sing Verdi. It was the perfect ending for a trip that hit operatic highs.
Getting There & Around From North America, Air New Zealand (www.airnewzealand.com) flies to Auckland, where you can connect to airports in Queenstown, Christchurch, Wellington, and other towns.