The North Island
Auckland -- Far too often overlooked as little more than a landing port, Auckland has first-rate attractions, quality accommodations, and diverse leisure opportunities. It is without doubt the most cosmopolitan of the cities, and its balmy climate has a special appeal. Waitemata Harbour and Hauraki Gulf offer some of the world's finest sailing, boating, and fishing, and in the aftermath of the 2002-03 America's Cup yachting challenge, many quality hotels, bars, and restaurants are thriving. Cultural offerings abound in museums, galleries, and performing arts centers; and shopping is the most diverse in the country. There are more than 1,000 restaurants and a wild nightlife scene, and if you're into a beach lifestyle, there are numerous choices within easy reach. You may think it's just another big city, but Auckland has a Polynesian backbone that makes it truly unique. If you're touring only the North Island, Auckland is a perfect base.
Northland & Coromandel -- Both are within easy reach of Auckland and can be tackled as a day trip if you're short on time. However, each warrants at least a couple of days' exploration; if you have to choose between the two, I'd definitely swing up to the far north.
Northland is served by a far better infrastructure in terms of transportation, hotels, and restaurants, and its beach attractions (on the east coast) are too numerous to itemize. That said, you'll find far more tourists here, too, at least in the Bay of Islands area. Head north, though, and a whole world of unpopulated beaches awaits. Fishing, diving, boating, and camping are all big draws. The area's rich Maori culture is also an excellent introduction to New Zealand's history.
The Coromandel Peninsula is a slightly more rugged version of Northland, to the south of Auckland. It has a craggier coastline, a more remote landscape, and sections with very poor roads. Accommodations are middling to say the least (with a few exceptions). Still, there's color and character here, and it's long been a favorite with New Zealand campers and beach bunnies -- especially the eastern side of the peninsula, where you'll find some top surf beaches.
Waikato & Bay of Plenty -- I spent my childhood in the Waikato region, but I find little to recommend for the visitor. Hamilton is trying its hardest, and it would be fair to say that it suffers from being in Auckland's shadow. The Waitomo Caves have traditionally been the area's biggest attraction, and although their natural splendor is undeniable, I find Waitomo a rather depressing place - a strange hive of tourist buses, darting in and out of otherwise undisturbed farmland.
The Bay of Plenty, on the other hand, has come of age. Tauranga and Mount Maunganui have always been hot spots. Again, the emphasis is on a beach lifestyle - boating, fishing, surfing, sunbathing, and golf are the main attractions - and some stunning accommodations are available. If you've been to Australia's Gold Coast, you'll sense a hint of that style here.
Rotorua, Taupo & Tongariro National Park -- Rotorua is on almost every visitor's hit list. Some would say that makes the area objectionably touristy. I don't agree. Rotorua has spent millions refining its attractions and accommodations, of which there are many, and it offers a unique geographic and Maori cultural slice of New Zealand life. In terms of adventure tourism, it is biting at the heels of Queenstown.
Taupo and Tongariro National Park, in combination with Rotorua, make the whole central region an unbeatable value in terms of volcanic landscape and adventure variety. And the area is plenty big enough to avoid being bothered by others. (It's away from key attractions.) Come here for volcanic and Maori attractions, the world's best trout fishing, mountaineering, skiing (water and snow), mountain biking, and tramping.
Gisborne & Hawke's Bay -- This is one of the most underrated areas of the country. East Cape and Gisborne offer a rare insight into Maori culture, free of tourist hype. The area has amazing beaches and world-class surfing conditions, and, in combination with Hawke's Bay, is probably the country's most important wine-producing region. In terms of accommodations, Gisborne is definitely lacking, and its laid-back rural approach doesn't always find favor with visitors. Hawke's Bay, on the other hand, has the best range of boutique B&Bs and cottages in the country. Napier's Art Deco charms are legendary and definitely worthy of inspection.
Taranaki & Wanganui -- Let's put it this way - if you want the best of small-town, provincial New Zealand, this is it. I'm most drawn to Taranaki. New Plymouth is surprisingly vibrant in its own right, and you can't help but feel that, stuck out here on its own western limb, it couldn't care less about the rest of the country. Mount Taranaki and the sea are big attractions for trampers and surfers, and the region's gardens are stunning. Tom Cruise seemed to like the area when he was filming The Last Samurai. Wanganui has a major asset in its river, but it needs to spruce up accommodations.
Wellington -- The capital has come alive in almost every aspect. The Museum of New Zealand-Te Papa Tongarewa is, of course, a major attraction and has been built with style and flair. Once you have explored it, you will understand more clearly much of what you have seen, or are about to see, throughout the country. Wellington is also home to several national cultural companies, so you'll find a rich performing arts program. In addition, its restaurant, nightlife, and shopping opportunities are many and varied.
And don't overlook the vineyard and craft delights of the Wairarapa, where you'll find the biggest selection of stunning rural cottages in New Zealand.
The South Island
Nelson & Marlborough -- The best year-round climate in New Zealand can be found here. Characterized by three stunning national parks and gorgeous beaches, Nelson is often talked about with a mix of derision and envy for its alternative, slightly hippie/artsy communities, but this is a top region to visit if you're into arts and crafts and outdoor pursuits. And for oenophiles, there's a growing pocket of wineries that, in combination with the Marlborough wine region, make it a must-see destination. Both areas have some superb B&Bs, homestays, and backpacker accommodations.
Christchurch & Canterbury -- After Auckland, Christchurch is the second major destination for overseas tourists. Quite apart from the fact that it's the primary starting point for South Island exploration, Christchurch is loved for its fine Victorian-Gothic architecture, its hints of old England, and although it is more than a little bruised after recent earthquakes, there is still plenty to see and do here. It has several ski fields within a 2-hour drive, good surfing beaches, and over 40 wineries. Day trips to Hanmer, Kaikoura, Akaroa, South Canterbury, and Methven are all popular, but each of them warrants a longer stay.
West Coast & The Glaciers -- The top of the West Coast, from Westport north to Karamea, and the south, from Haast to the glaciers, are quite remarkable. It's just a pity about the middle bit. Apart from greenstone shopping and the crazy Hokitika Wildfoods Festival, I can never find much to recommend in the central part of the West Coast. But I will concede that it has played a vigorous and important role in shaping New Zealand's history and economy, and you certainly won't find anything quite like it elsewhere.
Queenstown & Environs -- For sheer physical impact, this southwestern portion of New Zealand is utterly unbeatable. It's easy to understand why everyone flocks here at least once. Don't be put off by this nonsense about Queenstown being "too touristy." It's a recognized international tourist resort, for goodness sake, so of course there will be lots of tourists! It has a long-standing reputation for being a work-hard, play-hard, party-hard sort of a place, and as far as I'm concerned, the more the merrier.
Milford Sound is another matter entirely. It is simply stunning, but the excessive number of buses (over 50 a day) is quite disgusting and should be reduced to make it a better experience for everyone. It is a remote wilderness area, but it's hard to sense that with 3,000 other people standing around looking at the same mountain peak!
Wanaka has a much more low-key personality than Queenstown. It makes a beautiful stopover between Queenstown and the West Coast. You'll find some stunning lodges and B&Bs here.
Dunedin, Southland & Stewart Island -- Invercargill and Southland are sleepy, slow, incredibly friendly, and very, very green, but not that well prepared for the visitor. Dunedin is simply gorgeous, very Gothic, and in winter, very grim. But as a summer destination, it's lovely and has lots to offer the wildlife lover. Get out onto Otago Peninsula and be prepared to have your breath taken away. It also has some handsome B&B and lodge-style accommodations in the most amazing old houses.
Farther south, the Catlins Coast and Stewart Island are remarkably unspoiled by anything - especially tourism. I'm almost loath to mention either for fear of instigating a mass influx of visitors, but good old Kiwi pride gets in the way, and I can't help boasting about these two truly magical destinations.